Green Scene: Safety concerns about snow and ice apply to plants, too

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, February 20, 2010; E06

Why is it not surprising that questions this month have been related to the weather? Top concerns included broken plants and snow and ice safety. Readers have also been asking about an invasive alien pest that could overtake the native box elder bug among pests that seek the warmth of your home.

Q: What would you advise homeowners about snow on trees and shrubs? Should we try to brush it off the lower branches? -- Anne M.

A: Fresh snow has a powdery texture. If you can easily sweep it from trees and shrubs with a broom or by hand without damaging the branches, do it. But hardened snow and ice on plants should be allowed to melt. That reduces the chances of damaging the plant.

Q: The snowstorm split a limb in half on a dogwood tree at least 30 years old. It is still partially attached to the tree. Can holes be drilled in the limb in order to attach it with bolts to the tree, or should the limb be removed? -- Shirley J.

A: Unless the limb is threatening a structure, wait to do corrective pruning until the snow and ice melt. Corrective pruning can be completed after you inspect the damage. Snapped tree limbs and shrubs are an unfortunate byproduct of storms of the magnitude we have experienced this winter, and once they break to the point you describe, they should be cleanly pruned from the tree.

Cut the limb just above its branch collar. The branch collar is the widened area at the base of a limb that heals the cut you will have to make to remove the limb. But without seeing the tree, an absolute diagnosis isn't possible.

If the limb is not snapped, you should call a consulting arborist for an assessment. You can find one through the American Society of Consulting Arborists at This is an expert with at least five years' experience and a degree in an arboriculture-related field or corresponding continuing education credits. A registered consulting arborist has also completed the Consulting Academy and a strict review process.

These professionals don't necessarily perform the work but have many years of experience, are formally trained and will know the best approach. Contact a company that does tree work. Many have a certified arborist on staff qualified to advise you and perform the necessary work. Find a certified arborist through the Tree Care Industry Association at

Q: How many pounds per 100 square feet are needed or recommended when using calcium chloride as an ice-melting material? -- Sam W.

A: Spread no more than one pound of calcium chloride per 100 square feet on paving. Allow a few hours to let it dissolve into solution before deciding whether to add more. This way you won't add more than necessary. A common misconception is that salt is used for traction. It is an ice-melting material. Contractors' sand, wood chips or small stone chips (quarter-inch) are good traction agents to complement salt. To keep from tracking salt and traction agents indoors, change shoes and wipe pets' paws at the door.

Q: People should be cautioned to steer clear of using clumping kitty litter on icy paths. It creates a mess of glop. Is there a specific type of litter you recommend? -- Sharon A.

A: I received many questions about whether clumping kitty litter is to be used as a traction material. The clumping type is a controversial, clay-based substance (sodium bentonite). It will have a slimy texture when it gets wet and be of no value as a traction agent, and it can be dangerous to your pet's health. Check with your veterinarian.

Non-clumping biodegradable kitty litter is the only type to use as a traction agent on ice. Biodegradable litters are made from various plant resources, including pine wood pellets, recycled newspaper, sawdust, barley and dried orange peel. Two natural litters I know are Feline Pine and World's Best. If you aren't sure whether your litter is the clumping type, try one of the traction agents such as sawdust, fine-textured bark mulch, quarter-inch crushed gravel, contractors' sand or cinders.

Q: I had an infestation of stinkbugs in my home. I was told that a spray applied in the spring to shrubs around my house would prevent them next year. Is this true? What type of spray should be used? -- Judith H.

A: According to the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center, stink bugs can be prevented from entering a home by sealing cracks with caulk, using weather stripping around doors and windows, removing window air conditioners and closing all possible entry points. Inside, use a shop vacuum to clean up the bugs, and place the vacuumed material in an outdoor trash receptacle. It should be noted that if many of them are squashed or sucked into a vacuum cleaner, their odor could be quite strong. There are no chemical recommendations available for home use. For heavy infestations outdoors, contact a pest control professional.

Q: Our fireplace does not have a damper. Can you recommend the best way to install the proper type of glass doors? -- Jana B.

A: Good-quality glass doors covering your fireplace are an efficient place to begin. The most important consideration is safety. Get tempered glass that will handle heat, and be sure a screen is supplied. Screens are heat deflectors and a crucial part of avoiding burns. According to a recent article on, without a screen, glass doors can reach 200 degrees Fahrenheit in six minutes and cause second- and third-degree burns.

Proper installation is another consideration. Call several contractors who install glass fireplace doors to find a knowledgeable person to anchor the doors in masonry. Ascertain whether the installer can put in an iron damper. Most important, don't forget to open the damper before lighting fires, and ensure that it has cooled before closing it.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.

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