Question: We have had several calls to our Helpline regarding salt damage after Hurricane Sandy. Below are a few questions that hopefully you will find helpful.
Answer: Our first question came from a gentleman who lives near the shore and is concerned about his vegetable garden. "This spring I planted several asparagus plants and I am very concerned that the flooding from the storm will kill them."
Most plants are sensitive to salt exposure but the amount of damage that occurs is dependent on the amount and duration of exposure. Time of year is also a factor with salt damage being more severe during periods of hot dry weather. When high levels of salt remain in the soil it becomes difficult for water to pass through the roots membranes into the root. If salt levels are very high the roots may become dehydrated due to salt being drawn out of the roots. This is known as salt burn.
Symptoms of salt damage from flooding become apparent more slowly than damage from salt spray. Salt in soils causes problems in seed germination and plant growth. Symptoms include stunted growth in the leaves, stems, roots, and fruit. To reduce the amount of salt in the soil a thorough irrigation after exposure is recommended. Flush the salt through the soil by applying two inches of water over a two- to three-hour period, stopping when runoff occurs. Repeat three days later if salt levels are still high. As to your asparagus, it is one of the most salt tolerant of vegetable plants and should be fine.
Many homeowners were also concerned about their lawns. If flooding has left debris or a layer of mud on your lawn it should be immediately removed then washed with fresh water to force as much material of the surface. The area should then be thoroughly irrigated. Many turf managers additionally apply gypsum to the turf. Gypsum, calcium sulfate, can be used to amass the sodium and replace it with calcium. It should be applied in increments of 50 pounds of No. 8 sieve gypsum per 1,000 square feet. The gypsum should be incorporated directly into the soil and then irrigated at least one inch after application.
When planning a garden the best strategies to reduce salt damage in our area are to select plants with high salt tolerance, maintain soil fertility to help reduce stress on your plants and improve your soil structure by adding organic matter. Healthy plants will always be more tolerant to salt damage.
Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: