Weekly Gardening Tips: Winter tips to be safe


By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

Although it has been a pretty mild week, eventually the snow and cold weather will return. Please be very, very careful when shoveling snow!

An hour spent shoveling heavy snow is more strenuous than running full speed on a treadmill. Every winter, many seemingly healthy people have fatal heart attacks while shoveling snow. Your heart attack risk even lasts for about an hour after you come inside. Breathing cold air diverts blood away from your internal organs to your skin and this can trigger a heart attack.

You may feel just fine while doing this chore, but quit before you get even a little tired or begin to sweat, and try to avoid shoveling when it is really cold or windy. Seniors are particularly at risk, as are people with other health issues, or COVID. 

Last week I neglected to mention that there are some de-icing products that are advertised as being “pet friendly.” There are actually no products that are 100% safe for your pets, either from ingestion or skin contact, but some are less corrosive and damaging to paws than others. If your dog will tolerate them, doggie boots are the best protection for your dog’s feet from rock salt and the elements.  

Before you spend the big bucks to buy any of these products, make sure they are not just re-packaged common items. If the ingredients are mostly sodium chloride (rock salt) or calcium chloride, you can buy them much cheaper than special blends. Some of these other pet-friendly products will contain propylene glycol, which is a type of antifreeze, as is ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is highly toxic to dogs, however, and propylene glycol is not. Both are sweet tasting and some dogs will readily consume either of them. Be very careful handling any car antifreeze if you have pets!

Neither is particularly good at melting ice or snow, however. They lower the freezing point of water, but they don’t melt ice very well in very cold weather, compared to calcium chloride. At 30 degrees, one pound of rock salt will melt 46.3 pounds of ice, but at 0 degrees, the same pound of salt will melt just 3.7 pounds of ice.

Salty brines, containing either rock salt or calcium chloride, are often used as pre-treatment when snow is expected. Beet juice is sometimes added to these brines to make them more effective at lower temperatures.

Another ingredient you may see listed is urea. Urea is a concentrated nitrogen fertilizer containing about 46% nitrogen and it does melt ice and snow. It is also relatively non-toxic to animals.

Actually, any chemical garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 or 5-10-5, will melt snow in a pinch.  The downside of using urea is that if applied anywhere near grass, such as along a walkway, the grass adjacent to the walk will grow like crazy for several years afterwards! It may need to be mowed two or three times as often as grass that is further away.

I made that mistake years ago when I used some garden urea on my driveway to melt ice. I am not fond of lawn mowing in general, so I was not happy to have to mow these places so often. I thought it was only a temporary reaction to the urea, but the grass grew like mad for the next two whole seasons!

Now that the grass has gone dormant and most of the snow has melted, this is a good time to fertilize large trees on your lawn, or in your backyard. Only apply fertilizer if the tree has been declining or appears to have stopped growing.

Measure the circumference of the tree at about 4 foot high and apply one pound of 10-10-10 or the equivalent per inch of circumference. If you are using something like urea, which is 46% nitrogen, you will only need to apply about 1/4 pound per inch of circumference. If you are using 5-10-10, apply two pounds per inch of circumference. An organic fertilizer, such as dried blood, which is about 12-0-0 would use about one pound as well.

The best way to apply it is to poke holes in the turf with something like a crowbar. The holes should be 6 inches deep to get the fertilizer beneath the root zone of the grass. Measure the amount of fertilizer you need in a pail and start poking holes about 6a feet from the trunk, in a circle around the tree. Fill each hole with the fertilizer. After making the first circle, repeat the process a couple of feet further away and continue making circles of holes extending beyond the dripline until you have used the entire amount. 

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