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Sunday - June 27, 2010

From: Walker, MI
Region: Midwest
Topic: Managing Roadsides
Title: Winter snow and road salt in Michigan
Answered by: Anne Bossart


I have been asked to select plants for an area in zone5/6 that suffers from snow load and street salt during winters. The area is about 15x18 and has a deciduous tree in the center. Grass, which did not do well there, has been removed with roundup type chemical. I have some salt tolerant perennials and shrubs in mind, but think the weight of snow from the streets will be a factor. Would natives do well? Also, considering design and aesthetics the landscapers use reddish mulch around the tree.


You are describing a situation that has become a real challenge for people in the north since we have decided that roads must be bare in the wintertime plus you have put Mr. Smarty Plants on the horns of a dilemma.

That is because the mission of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is to promote "the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes." In that definition "native" means plants that evolved in the ecoregion where they are present.

There are plenty of plants that are native to Michigan that can take winter's snow and there are plenty of plants that are native to the US coastal regions that are salt tolerant (although probably not native to Michigan).   That being said, you are doing the right thing, selecting salt tolerant plants.  Life is tough for a plant sleeping under a load of snow, salt and grit and then trying to flourish in the soil conditions that develop after the snow melts and the grit is not raked away.  You have seen that even grass has difficulty.

Perennials will do better than shrubs in those conditions as they have no woody structure to be damaged by the snow being pushed onto them and deciduous shrubs with flexible twigs will do better than those with brittle branches. Broadleaved evergreens will be goners the first season!

As usual, there is no direct answer to your question, "will native plants do well?" The answer I can offer is "it depends on which native plants you select".  They are generally tougher than cultivated varieties of exotic plants.  But there are some exotic species that are much, much tougher than our natives that are wreaking havoc on every ecosystem in North America.  So I do encourage you to choose northern region native plants that are salt tolerant, just be judicious with your choices.

And I have a question for you ... How can the words "design and aesthetics" and "reddish mulch" be used in the same sentence?  In Mr. Smarty Plants' humble opinion, the person who decided that orange mulch is more attractive than brown, grey or any other ground colored mulch should be "tarred and feathered"!!


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