Saline Soils

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Soluble Salts

The term soluble salts refers to the salts (ions) dissolved in the soil’s water.  It is another soil factor limiting crop growth in some areas of Colorado. 

Influence of High Salt on Plant Growth

High salt levels can reduce water uptake by plants, restrict root growth, cause marginal burning of the foliage, inhibit flowering, limit seed germination, and reduce fruit and vegetable yields.  Irregular bare spots in gardens and uneven crop growth suggest salinity problems.  Crop yields may be reduced as much as 25% without any damage being apparent.  Salt injury generally is more severe during periods of hot dry weather, when water use is high. [Figure 1]

salt burn on bean leaf

Figure 1. Salt burn on bean leaf from high salts in compost


Sensitivity to soluble salts differs among plant species/cultivars and also with their state of growth.  Seed germination and seedling growth are more sensitive to salt stress than mature plants.  [Table 1]

Table 1. 
Relative Salt Tolerance of Cultivated Plants
Non-Tolerant
0-2 dS/m
Slightly Tolerant
2-4 dS/m
Moderately Tolerant
4-8 dS/m
Tolerant
8-16 dS/m

begonia
carrot
cotoneaster
green bean
onion
peas
radish
raspberry
red pine
rose
strawberry
sugar maple
Viburnum
white pine

Apple
Cabbage
celery
cucumber
grape
forsythia
Kentucky bluegrass
lettuce
linden
Norway maple
pepper
potato
red fescue
red maple
snapdragon
sweet corn

beet
black locust
boxwood
broccoli
chrysanthemum
creeping bentgrass
geranium
marigold
muskmelon
perennial ryegrass
red oak
spinach
squash
tomato
white ash
white oak
zinnia

arborvitae
asparagus
juniper
Russian olive
Swiss chard
Note: dS/m is the unit used to measure salt content. It measures the electrical conductivity of the soil. dS/M = mmhos/cm


Factors Contributing to Salt Problems

Drainage

A common sign of salt problems is the accumulation of salts at the soil surface due to limited percolation in compacted and/or clayey soils.  Soluble salts move with the soil water.  Deep percolation of water down through the soil profile moves salt out of the rooting zone.  Surface evaporation concentrates the salts at the soil surface.  Salt deposits may or may not be seen as a white crust on the soil surface.  As you drive around Colorado, it is common to see these soils with the white salt accumulation in low spots of fields and natural areas.

In some areas, salt naturally accumulates due to limited rainfall to leach the salt out.  Salt levels drop when the soil undergoes irrigation.  In other areas, salts may build-up when poor soil drainage prevents precipitation and irrigation water from leaching the salt down through the soil profile.  Here, corrective measures are limited to improvements in soil drainage.

Soil Amendments

Manure, biosolids, and compost made with manure or biosolids may be high in salt.  When using manure or compost made with manure, routinely monitor salt levels. 

Excessive or Unnecessary Fertilizer Applications

Unwarranted application of fertilizers (such as phosphate or potash) increases the salt level.  On soils marginally high in salts, potash fertilizers should be avoided unless a potassium deficiency is identified by soil tests.

Placing fertilizer and salty soil amendments too close to seeds or plant roots creates a salt burn of the tender roots.  Germination failure or seedling injury can result.

De-Icing Products

The use of de-icing products (all are various types of salts) on streets and sidewalks frequently results in high salt levels in adjacent soils.  Along roads, salt injury has become a major concern.  Highway salts may reach plants in two ways: movement to soil and uptake by plant roots, or movement onto plant stems and foliage through the air as vehicle “splash-back”.  Salts deposited on both soil and foliage have high potential to cause plant injury.  Highway salts in road-melt runoff is another concern for plants and the wider environment.

Pet Urine

Damage by pet urine is also a salt problem.  Water moves by osmotic pressure from the roots to the high salt concentration in the soil, dehydrating and killing roots.

Measuring Soil Salt Levels

Bean plants are rather salt sensitive and can be used to help assess salt problems.  In a garden, if beans are doing well, soluble salts are not a problem.  If the beans are doing poorly, consider salts as a possibility.  Beans, tomatoes and other easily germinated seeds can be used in a “pot test” on a windowsill to live assay the salt content of a soil.  Assess plants’ performance in light of the information in Table 1.

The amount of salt in a soil can be quantified only by a soil test.  A soil test for soluble salts can be useful when investigating the cause of poor plant growth, determining the suitability of a new planting site, or monitoring the quality of fill soil or soil amendments for use on a landscape area.

Soil tests for soluble salts are based on electrical conductivity.  Pure water is a very poor conductor of electric current, whereas water containing dissolved salts conducts current approximately in proportion to the amount of salt present.  Thus, measurement of the electrical conductivity, ECe, of a soil extract gives an indication of the total soluble salt concentration in the soil.  The ECe is measured in decisiemens per meter (dS/m) or millimhos per centimeter (mmhos/cm).  1 dS/m = 1 mmhos/cm.  [Table 2]

Table 2.
Soluble Salt Test Values For Relative Sensitivity Levels of Plants
Electrical Conductivity*
Salinity Level
Effect on Plant Growth
0 to 2 dS/m
non-saline
none
2.1 to 4 dS/m
very slight salinity
sensitive plants re inhibited
4.1 to 8 dS/m
moderate salinity
many plants are inhibited
8.1 to 16 dS/m
strong salinity
most cultivated plants are inhibited
over 16t dS/m
very strong salinity
few plants are tolerant
*Saturated paste extract


Managing Salty Soils

Leaching Salts

Leaching is the only practical way of removing excess salts.  This is effective only to the extent that water moves down through the soil profile and beneath the root zone (drainage must be good).  The amount of salts removed depends on the quantity and quality of water leached through the soil profile during a single irrigation period.  Water should be low in salts (high quality) and must not run off the surface.  It should be applied slowly so amounts do not exceed the ability of the soil to take in water (infiltration rate). 

The following amounts of water applied in a single, continuous irrigation will dissolve and decrease soil salts by these fractional amounts:

  • 6 inches of water will leach about ½ the salt
  • 12 inches of water will leach about 4/5 of the salt.
  • 24 inches of water will leach about 9/10 of the salt.

Salty soils are not reclaimable when the soil’s clay content, compaction, or hardpan prevents leaching.

Adding Soil Amendments

Because manure, biosolids, and compost made from manure or biosolids may be high in salts, do not add more than 1 inch per season without a soil test to evaluate salt levels.  An amendment with up to 10 dS/m total salts is acceptable if mixed through the upper six to eight inches of a low-salt soil (less than 1 dS/m).  Amendments with a salt content greater than 10 dS/m are questionable.  Avoid these soil amendments in soils that are already high in salts (above 3 dS/m) when growing the salt sensitive plants.

Note: Because soil amendments are not regulated in Colorado, do not assume that products sold in bags or by bulk are necessarily low in salt content and good for the garden’s soil.  Many commercially available sources of manure, biosolids, and compost made with manure or biosolids have excessively high levels of salt.

On marginally salty soils, concentrate on gradually improving the soil organic content and activity of soil microorganisms and earthworms.  Do not exceed recommended rates per application as large quantities of organic matter can hold salts next to plant roots and cause injury.  Organic amendments applied over time improve soil tilth, which then will improve the potential for effective leaching as well as plant growth

Other Management Techniques

Plants grown on salty soils are less tolerant of dry soil conditions.  Plants will require more frequent irrigation, with reduced amounts of water.

Within pedestrian and vehicle safety limits, avoid the use of de-icing salts.  Consider the use of sand or other abrasive materials for use on slick sidewalks and pavement.  Where de-icing salts are routinely used, expect to find salt problems in adjacent soils and drainage swales where the snow melt runs.  Because soil salt levels from de-icing salts easily rise above the tolerance of even the most salt-tolerant plants, a rock mulch area without plants may be a better landscape design solution in salt use areas. 

For additional details on soil salt issues, refer to the following CSU Extension fact sheets #7.227, Growing Turf on Salt-Affected Sites.


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Authors: David Whiting (CSU Extension) with Carl Wilson (CSU Extension, retired), and Jean Reeder, Ph.D. (USDA-ARS, retired). Artwork by David Whiting.

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  • Copyright. 2009. Colorado Master Gardener Program, Colorado State University Extension. All Rights Reserved. CMG GardenNotes may be reproduced without change or additions, for nonprofit educational use.

Revised December 2009

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