Don't use fertilizer as de-icer

Garden Q&A

  • River birch
River birch
December 19, 2013|By Ellen Nibali, For The Baltimore Sun

Since I can't use fertilizer as a de-icer now that Maryland has a new lawn fertilizer law, what should I use instead that won't damage my plants? I'm on a fixed income.

We've never recommended fertilizer as de-icer. Commercial de-icers can cause some problems, though. See our de-icer chart at to compare them. Sand and kitty litter are possible substitutes. Also, if you have only a small area to keep clear of ice, you can drape heavy plastic or another waterproof material over the area and lift it after the ice event.

I'm glad my dogwood's pretty red berries provide food for birds and squirrels — but every berry is eaten already! I've seen another small trees with bright red berries which last all winter. Know what these trees are?

The red berries of both Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) persist on the trees through the winter. Their pretty spring bloom and good foliage make them a year-round attraction. Hawthorns can have problems with cedar hawthorn rust infecting leaves and fruits, however. 'Winter King' is an excellent variety of green hawthorn with vivid red berries and better resistance to rust disease.

I put out birdseed when it got bitter cold and don't see a single bird! I'm getting worried.

They probably haven't found your feeder yet. It's a good idea to start feeding birds a few weeks before you expect bitter weather, so they have time to locate and routinely visit your site. They find feeders primarily by sight. To help them find yours, scatter some seed on a surface nearby where it will show up clearly. Having a water source will also attract their attention.

When I was cleaning I found a pile of beetle carcasses between the windows? Are they protein or can I put them in the compost pile?

Insect exoskeletons contribute calcium carbonate and other minerals to your compost pile and make a fine addition. The proteins to avoid in compost piles are dairy products and meat (bones, too) primarily because they attract wildlife. Eggshells are good, egg protein is not.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question to the website at

Plant of the week

River birch

Betula nigra 'Heritage'

Yearning for winter interest in your bare garden? The craggy trunk of river birch 'Heritage' can spice up your garden with exfoliating bark in shades of salmon pink, cinnamon, and white. At 40-70 feet tall, this medium-sized tree fits most landscapes. The glossy green leaves create dappled shade in summer and clear yellow foliage in fall. It resists the borers which kill New England white or paper birch. Native to Maryland stream banks and moist locations, river birch can handle drier sites but not high pH soils. Purchase a multi-trunked plant to best show off the fabulous bark.

—Ellen Nibali

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