Beet This: Morton Arboretum’s Clever Snow Removal Ingredient

Turns out, beets are a surprisingly effective anti-icing agent (Alice Henneman/Flickr)
Turns out, beets are a surprisingly effective addition to de-icing efforts (Alice Henneman/Flickr)

by Kelley Regan, Morton Arboretum

When P.J. Smith works with his staff to clear snow from the 16 miles of roads and nine miles of trails at the Morton Arboretum, he needs to do it quickly and in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. As construction supervisor in charge of snow removal at the arboretum, he clears the roads with a product containing an unusual ingredient—beet juice.

When mixed with rock salt, this natural ingredient clears the arboretum’s roads and trails faster than salt alone. And because there’s less salt in the product, it’s less harmful to the environment and the Morton’s more than 190,000 plants.

Why Treat With Beet?

Rock salt, or sodium chloride, can also dry out landscape plants, which causes damage that may not be visible until spring or even years later. The risk is greatest for plants along drives and walkways. To minimize damage, the arboretum looked to National Seed in Lisle, which provides the beet juice for the mixture, called Ice Bite. The Morton is one of the first locations in the area to utilize this new treatment, which is prepared on-site.

Nobody said it'd be pretty...but this mix gets the job done! (Morton Arb)
Nobody said it’d be pretty…but this mix gets the job done. (Morton Arb)

Beet juice is an effective alternative to salt alone because it lowers the freezing point of water to as low as -20 degrees. Salt only prevents water from freezing at temperatures of 5 degrees or higher. Salt also bounces from the roads; adding beet juice lowers the bounce rate from 30 percent to 5 percent, reducing the amount of salt used on the roads. With the new product, the Morton is using nine times less salt, saving nearly $14,000 in material costs.

“Rock salt doesn’t just damage your car—it causes damage to soil, plants, and trees, and even our water supply,” Smith said. “As an institution, we’re committed to making our world a greener place, so we feel good about using a product that minimizes our salt usage.”

In 2008, Smith created snow removal guidelines after learning of the dangers that winter salt can cause to the environment. Both he and Donna Smith, a horticulturist at the Morton, have worked to minimize the arboretum’s reliance on the harmful ice-fighting material.

Beet juice mixture application in action! (Morton Arboretum)
Beet juice mixture application in action! (Morton Arboretum)

The Morton Arboretum has greatly invested in this alternative and has added a fleet of snow-fighting equipment including sprayers, power brooms, plows, boom sprayers, and blowers that are all customized to work with Ice Bite.

“We do spend a good amount of time mechanically removing snow but the substance helps to make the task easier,” Smith said. “We are always looking at new and better ways to improve our program.”