Originally printed in the News Herald by L Scott Jackson, Florida Sea Grant
UF/IFAS Extension Bay County
When is too much salt an issue in our yards and landscapes?
Hurricanes can create some confounding and unusual circumstances for homeowners and landscape professionals. After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, I worked with a homeowner’s association in Niceville where saltwater from the bay had flooded their community’s large irrigation pond. The irrigation system was shared for home landscapes and a prized golf course.
Residents had been through a similar situation during Hurricane Opal. They understood continued use of contaminated irrigation water could cause additional damage to turfgrass, ornamental beds, and trees. The pond was drained and re-filled with clean water.
It doesn’t take a hurricane for salt to become a landscape issue. Salt can also become an issue over an extended time period. Salt accumulation, even in small amounts, from irrigation water can cause soil problems for sensitive plants. Common salt problems arise from conditions such as saltwater intrusion into wells, the use of reclaimed water, and saltspray conditions near bays and the Gulf.
Many of us are familiar with the term and concept of saltwater intrusion. Intrusion occurs as freshwater resources are consumed and saltwater enters the well aquifer sources. Saltwater can enter well water from the side (horizontal) or from the bottom (vertical). Wells can function for decades without issue. Periods of drought or an increase in the number of wells accessing limited water resources can create increased incidents of saltwater intrusion. Like other salty soil problems, homeowners or property managers typically see plants that are underperforming, looking wilted, stunted, or discolored. Learn more about saltwater intrusion at http://bit.ly/saltintrusion.
Increasingly, Florida municipalities are providing reclaimed water at low cost to residents helping meet the need of our state’s growing population. Reclaimed water is produced after multiple stages of treatment to address pathogens and suspended solids. Other than drinking or use on raw vegetables, it is clean water good for a variety uses both at home and for commercial applications such as golf courses or in manufacturing. Learn more at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss544.
Although reclaimed water is cleaned appropriately for alternate use, it may have higher salt content than domestic water or other surface water irrigation sources. This salt can remain in the soil after roots have taken in water. Symptoms of these issues can range from salt crust at the surface in extreme circumstances to plants look dry or wilted even after watering. This is explained in further detail at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss545.
Another common coastal issue is salt spray. Marine water can be carried in the wind to inland areas during periods of high surf conditions, impacting shoreline plants. Plants exposed to salt spray will appear excessively dry with yellow or brown leaves. Salt tolerant plants will recover quicker from these temporary conditions compared to sensitive species. Coastal landscapes near the bay or Gulf should be constructed and designed with salt spray and salt tolerance in mind.
Tools You Can Use to Help:
Our Extension office has several tools to help diagnose and combat salty soil problems. Soil and irrigation water testing are two good places to start. The UF/IFAS soil testing lab uses a couple of tests including Electrical Conductivity (EC) to identify salt problems in soil and water. EC test results paired with analysis of Sodium and Chloride can help homeowners pinpoint problems and find solutions. Learn more about water testing at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ss440.
If salty conditions are identified or suspected, homeowners can temporarily use domestic water to do a targeted rinse with known sources of freshwater such as water supplied by a municipality or utility company.
Should plants need to be replaced or you are renovating your coastal landscape, our “Florida Yards and Neighborhoods” website and printed resources can help make decisions in plant selection based on environmental conditions including salt tolerance. These resources help homeowners facing issues from salt spray, saltwater intrusion, and reclaimed water. The plant selection tool and other helpful information for landscape design to create a “Florida Friendly Yard” can be accessed at http://floridayards.org/.
For more information and assistance, contact UF/IFAS Extension Bay County at 850-784-6105 or Bay@ifas.ufl.edu
An Equal Opportunity Institution. UF/IFAS Extension, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Nick T. Place, Dean for UF/IFAS Extension. Single copies of UF/IFAS Extension publications (excluding 4-H and youth publications) are available free to Florida residents from county UF/IFAS Extension offices.