Winter turf care -- 2-4-14

(This week’s picture is of a male cardinal, trying to do what everything else is doing and dealing with the snow. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

It might seem odd to write about turf grass when most of it is covered with snow, but I’ve gotten a few questions about winter lawn care, so discuss it I will.

Q. Is it okay to drive on my lawn when the ground is frozen? I need to load up some fallen branches, but I don’t want to damage the turf -- Myrtle J., Smithsburg.

A. I drive my truck across the lawn when I have to do something similar, but I’ve learned that when there’s frost on the ground, I need to let the sun dry it off before I take the truck across it.

Why? For that answer, I turned to a bulletin issued by Charles White, director of the southern region of the U.S. Golf Association’s Green Section. From the tone of his writing, I get the feeling he’s advised more than a few golf pros at clubs and courses where the golfers want to play as soon as they can when winter’s over.

` But, said White, “Everyone knows frost must clear off the grass before play can begin, but few people know why. Frost on the grass blades tells us that the water inside the leaves is frozen. Remember that water is the primary component of plant tissue.”

When that water inside the leaves is frozen, walking or driving on it will cause the ice crystals inside to puncture cell walls, killing plant tissue. If there’s only a light frost, White said, little damage is done to the crowns, or growing points of the grass plants. If the frost is heavy, traffic might kill the entire plant.

If you’re not sure, try to cut the branches into smaller pieces that you can drag off the turf. If you’re planning to use a chain saw or other power equipment, please observe all safety procedures and make sure you have a buddy on hand, in case something happens.

Q. This season we’ve had so much snow that a lot of road salt has been thrown into my yard and I’ve used a lot myself to keep my walks from becoming treacherously slippery. Is the damage already done, or can I help the plants and grass already affected? Buddy M., Smithsburg.

A. I found the answer to this one from a couple of sources. The first was Tim Johnson, is director of horticulture for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe ( His first advice, to shovel more carefully and thoroughly, comes a bit late for most of us. I have found, however, when shoveling the driveway, if I expose and inch of the turf on each side, what melts doesn’t run back onto the pavement and freeze.

Johnson noted that there are a number of different types of snow melt. They include:

-- Sodium chloride, known as rock salt, can damage plants and turf.

-- Calcium chloride, which will work down to 20 below zero, is better for plants, but corrosive to concrete and metals, Johnson said.

-- Potassium chloride is less damaging than calcium chloride, but is only effective down to 15 degrees

-- Calcium magnesium acetate (CMA) is the best of all for plants, but only works down to 20 degrees.

To account for these different properties, Johnson says that some manufacturers mix them. Read the label carefully before you buy and the directions before you apply it. And just a hint (which I could have used myself way back when) even though lots of snow might be irritating, angrily applying too much snow melt won’t get Mother Nature to let up.

Johnson’s common-sense advice is to split the different and mix some sand with your snow-melt pellets. It will add some traction and won’t harm the lawn or plants.

And, finally, do NOT use fertilizer for snow-melting purposes. It’s a bad idea, not to mention illegal.

Closer to home, I consulted the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center, which also advised applying snow-melt products carefully, to minimize the amount that goes onto your lawn and/or shrubs. On the site -- search for “Landscape Problem Solver” -- are pictures of evergreen shrubs that have been affected by too much salt, especially salt applied to roads that gets thrown into beds along the pavement.

To help plants affected, the extension agents recommend that in the spring, “soaking the affected area with one-inch applications of water three to four times in the spring can often treat plant damage. Gypsum may be added to the soil to reduce high sodium levels caused by excessive amounts of rock salt. Soil replacement may be an option for small planting beds.”

My own advice: If you’re thinking about replanting, take note of how far the plows throw snow into your yard, then site the new bed beyond that point.


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