Seeds for Salmon: How Gardening Can Improve Salmon Habitat
Whether you have a small urban lot, a sprawling suburban yard, or a few planters on a balcony, your greenspace affects Pacific salmon.
It may not be obvious, but your greenspace is connected to the health of neighboring creeks, streams, and rivers, and all the species living there. While different salmon runs need slightly different conditions, they all need cool, clean water. No matter the size of your greenspace, you can make salmon-friendly choices that also save you time and money. Creating a salmon-friendly garden will also help salmon habitat be more resilient in the face of climate change.
The Connection Between Your Greenspace and Salmon
Throughout their incredible life cycle, salmon travel hundreds, and even thousands, of miles. Along the way, they face many natural pressures including predators, waterfalls, and rapids. They also encounter mounting human-caused challenges such as water pollution, degraded habitat, and water scarcity. But what does this have to do with your greenspace? Let’s take a look at a few examples below.
Pesticides and Herbicides
Pesticides and herbicides can make their way into waterways through run off. When these pollutants reach creeks, streams, and rivers, they can impair reproduction, stunt growth, and even kill fish. Learn more about how toxic runoff affects Pacific salmon and steelhead. Unlike their non-native counterparts, native plants require little or no pesticides and herbicides.
When too many nutrients from fertilizers run off into local creeks, streams, and rivers, they can cause algal blooms and low-oxygen (hypoxic) waters. This process is known as eutrophication. When oxygen levels become too low, fish and other aquatic organisms will die. Native plants need little to no fertilizers to thrive in their native ecosystem.
Turbidity and Erosion
Salmon need clean gravel beds to lay their eggs. When there is too much sediment (like sand and fine soil) in the water, it can suffocate salmon eggs. This is known as high turbidity. High turbidity can make it harder for young salmon to find their prey. In extreme cases it can clog their gills. But how do our gardens contribute to turbidity? When soil is left bare, wind and water can erode it and carry it into nearby waterways. Areas dominated by invasive plants have shallow root structures that do not grip the soil to the earth well. During severe rains and floods, these areas are more likely to erode, sending sediment into the rivers with the storm runoff. Native plants can develop deep roots that help hold soil in place.
All salmon need cool, clean water. Across the West Coast, Pacific salmon are increasingly affected by drought due to climate change. Since native plants are adapted to local conditions, they typically need less water than non-native plants.
Envisioning a Salmon-Friendly Greenspace
With a few tweaks to your gardening and landscaping routines, you can make a real difference for water quality and our iconic Pacific salmon. In the long run, you’ll also save time on maintenance and money on chemical additives. The first stop on our salmon–friendly gardening journey is learning how to build healthy soil.
Step 1: Build Healthy Soil
The most important start for any project is its foundation. So, what holds everything together in a garden?
Healthy soil is the foundation of healthy, productive gardens and landscapes. Billions of organisms in the soil create structures that circulate air, water, and nutrients into plant roots. The structures created by soils are so intricate that they can allow plant roots to exchange nutrients, creating an underground communication system throughout your garden. These organisms thrive on organic matter such as dead leaves, mulch, and compost. Healthy soil reduces erosion, maximizes water infiltration, and improves nutrient cycling. When we build healthy soil, we need to water and fertilize less frequently, reducing our impact on local waterways.
What does healthy soil look like?
Soils that are deep brown and black are typically richer in nutrients. Healthy soil typically has lots of plant roots and decaying matter, which helps it trap and hold water. This means that the amendments you put on your garden can infiltrate the ground and your plants, rather than running off.
What does unhealthy soil look like?
Unhealthy soil does not have the moisture and nutrients it needs to thrive. It is often a khaki brown color that is dry, crumby, and dust-like. When you pick it up, it might be difficult to break apart, crumble quickly, or blow away in a light breeze. Since unhealthy soil cannot retain water, the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides we apply easily run off into our waterways.
How can I build and maintain healthy soil?
Learn what your soil needs
A soil test will tell you what nutrients your soil needs. Contact your local conservation district, agricultural extension, or garden supply center for a soil test kit.
Amend your soil
Learn about the soil your plants require and amend it with compost as needed. Compost helps sandy soils hold nutrients and water, loosens clay soils, and feeds beneficial soil organisms. Because native plants uptake water and nutrients efficiently, they may not need any soil amendments. Your local Native Plant Society, Master Gardener Program, or native plant nursery can help answer questions about amendments.
Mulch stabilizes soil temperature, prevents weeds, feeds the soil, and helps to conserve water. Add 1-3 inches of mulch as needed. Keep it about an inch away from stems and trunks.
Want to take a deeper dive into soil health? Then visit Green Scaping from the EPA.
Step 2: Choose Native Plants
Now that you’ve built healthy soil, it’s time to select the right plants for your site. Whenever possible, opt for native plants.
What are native plants?
Simply put, native plants are the ones naturally found in a region, ecosystem, or habitat. Over thousands of years they have adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of that region. Native plants occur in groups or communities. That means they have evolved together with other plants. As a result, a community of native plants provides habitat for a variety of native wildlife species.
So, what are non-native and invasive plants?
Non-native plants are introduced to an ecosystem from another place. Not all non-native species become problems in new locations.
Invasives are a type of non-native plant that do harm to their new location. Invasives can quickly become dominant by displacing many different native species. They may outcompete native species by growing rapidly and because they have no natural checks to control their growth. Others release chemical compounds from their roots into the soil, suppressing or even killing neighboring plants. This process is called allelopathy.
If you need to remove invasive species from your site, visit the National Invasive Species Information Center for tips on how to do so responsibly.
Why are native plants important?
Native plants provide the foundation for healthy ecosystems. When they are properly located, they require less water, fertilizer, and maintenance than non-native plants. Native plants develop deep roots that help soil store and infiltrate water. Healthy roots help build organic matter, creating soil higher in nutrients; they also promote nutrient exchange that in turn supports diverse soil microbes.
The fruits and berries of native plants are critical to the survival of native wildlife. Native plants provide much-needed food and shelter for native insects—some of which salmon eat during their early life cycle stages.
Native trees and forests are vital in the fight against climate change and restoring salmon habitat. Streams and rivers with adequate vegetation provide salmon with much needed shade and protection from predators.
When you opt for native plants, you are beautifying your space in a way that supports your local ecosystem while ultimately saving time and money. Learn more by visiting Why Garden with Native Wildflowers? from the Forest Service or Garden for Wildlife from the National Wildlife Federation.
Learning about native plants also provides a meaningful way to learn about and celebrate your local biogeography and ethnobotany. Biogeography is the geographical distribution, both past and present, of plants, animals and other organisms. Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of native plants.
For example, salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) is intimately tied to the health of rivers and tributaries in the Pacific Northwest. Their blossoms are a welcome sign of spring, and their berries are among the first to ripen. Their sprouts are eaten in spring, berries are collected in late spring and early summer, and leaves are dried for tea in spring and summer. Some Indigenous communities from the Pacific Northwest teach that salmonberry is an environmental indicator for salmon runs.
Another example is Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), a flowering hedge-like plant. Every part of the Nootka rose is used by Native peoples. After the plant flowers in late spring, small rose hips are produced. A traditional dish for ceremonial purposes in the Pacific Northwest includes mixing the outer flesh of the rose hips with fresh salmon eggs. Rosehips are rich in vitamin C, and are still used today to make syrups, tea, and jam.
Learn more about ethnobotany
- Many of the USDA’s Plant Guides describe historical and modern uses of native plants. Select your state or region from the left-hand menu to view local native plant options.
- Southern California Ethnobotany shares common plants in Southern California along with their traditional uses.
- Native American Uses of California Plants highlights common native species in California and their uses.
- Tend, Gather & Grow Curriculum is a place-based curriculum about Pacific Northwest plants, local landscapes, and the rich cultural traditions that surround them.
- From Salmonberry to Sagebrush Exploring Oregon’s Native Plants is an ecoregional curriculum for highschoolers.
- A Selection of Pacific Northwest Native Plants Traditional and Modern Harvest and Use highlights a small sampling of the many plants and animals that are eaten, used in medicines, and employed for many other utilitarian purposes by Coast Salish peoples.
How do I find the right native plants for my greenspace?
The key to landscaping with any plant, including natives, is choosing the right plant for the right place. Native plants have evolved to very specific local conditions. What is native in one part of your state might not be native in your city. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center database can help you find native plants that are best suited for your specific soil, water, and light conditions.
While all this information might feel overwhelming, there are many organizations dedicated to helping gardeners landscape with native plants. Reach out to your local Native Plant Society, Master Gardener Program, or native plant nursery for guidance and support.
Step 3: Water Wisely
All salmon need cool, clean water to survive. Across the West Coast, Pacific salmon are increasingly affected by drought due to climate change. When we use water wisely, we do our part to help salmon and other aquatic species. Building healthy soil and planting native species are two great ways to conserve water in your greenspace. To take your water conservation efforts to the next level:
It is always better to water deeply and less often. Frequent watering with small amounts of water creates shallow-rooted, thirsty plants. After native plants are established, typically 2-3 years, they only need to be watered during drought and/or extreme heat.
Water at the Base
Water at the base of the plant instead of overhead. If feasible, install soaker hoses and drip irrigation. The slow application of water prevents wasteful runoff and evaporation caused by overhead sprinklers. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation also allows water to penetrate the root zone more deeply.
Water in the Morning
Morning is the best time to water, especially during hot weather. Watering before 10:00 AM can reduce evaporation and gives water time to penetrate the soil before the heat of the day.
Select the Right Plant for the Right Place
Always select the appropriate plant for the site. For example, plants requiring partial shade will be more stressed and require more water when planted in full sun.
For more tips, visit WaterSense from the EPA.
Step 4: Use Natural Pest, Weed, and Disease Control Methods
When we use pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, some of it runs off into our waterways or infiltrates our groundwater. Once these pollutants are in the water, they can harm salmon and other aquatic species. When fertilizers run off into waterways, they can cause an overgrowth of algae and aquatic weeds. If algae takes over, it can block sunlight from reaching the waterway and deplete oxygen in the water, harming, and even killing, aquatic wildlife.
These products can also harm or kill pollinators. Pollinators include birds, bats, bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects that move pollen from flower to flower. Many types of plants, including fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers, depend on pollinators. We need a robust pollinator population for healthy greenspaces. Learn how to protect pollinators from pesticides by visiting the EPA’s Pollinator Protection website.
A greenspace with healthy soil and well-sited native plants will need little or no pesticides and herbicides. Whenever possible, weed by hand or with gardening tools. If you must reach for a control method, look for organic options or those labeled with the EPA’s Safer Choice label. Always remember to follow the directions closely and use the minimum amount necessary.
Shrink Your Lawn
Take a few minutes to think about how much of your lawn you actually use. Identifying the areas that are actively used, such as play areas for children or pets, can help you determine what you want from your backyard. Consider replacing unused lawn space with a rain garden or native plants. In doing so, you’ll cut down time spent mowing and reduce pollutants running into local waterways.
Build a Rain Garden
Rain gardens are becoming more popular for many great reasons. They help reduce water pollution, prevent flooding, recharge groundwater, beautify greespaces, and enhance wildlife habitat. Rain gardens act as filters by allowing runoff to soak slowly into the ground. The base soil acts as a sponge that absorbs and slowly releases the water, while filtering out particulates. This rain garden ecosystem also provides a rich habitat for microorganisms that help remove runoff pollutants and the creatures that feed upon them. The EPA provides an extensive database of green infrastructure practices, including rain garden designs.
To help make these changes easier on your wallet, many local water districts and governments offer subsidies for shrinking your lawn, installing rain gardens, and reducing water consumption. Below are a few examples.
- Bay Area Water
- Cal Water
- LA Water District
- Orange County
- Palm Springs
- San Diego County
- San Gabriel Valley Water
- San Mateo County
- Santa Monica
- Southern California
- South San Francisco Bay
Whether your greenspace is several feet or several miles from the nearest waterway, you can help improve water quality and the health of our iconic Pacific salmon. While changing your gardening routine might feel daunting, we hope the resources provided on this page will support you throughout your salmon-friendly gardening journey.
We’d love to see your garden transformations! Share your photos with us using the hashtags #SeedsforSalmon and #CitizenOfYourWatershed.
Allelopathy—When plants release chemical compounds from their roots into the soil, suppressing or even killing neighboring plants.
Biogeography—The geographical distribution, both past and present, of plants, animals and other organisms.
Climate change—Long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. These shifts may be natural, such as through variations in the solar cycle. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. The consequences of climate change include, intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms, and declining biodiversity.
Drought—A period of unusually persistent dry weather that lasts long enough to cause serious problems such as crop damage and/or water supply shortages. Drought conditions across the United States can impact energy, agriculture, transportation, water utilities, ecosystems and other sectors, and serve as a catalyst for wildfires.
Erosion—The wearing away of the land surface naturally by wind or water. It is often intensified by human's land-clearing practices.
Ethnobotany—The study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of native plants.
Invasive plants—A type of non-native plant that harms their new location. Invasives can quickly become dominant by displacing many different native species. They may outcompete native species by growing rapidly. Others release chemical compounds from their roots into the soil, suppressing or even killing neighboring plants.
Microorganisms—A living thing that is so small it must be viewed with a microscope.
Native plants—Plants that are naturally found in a region, ecosystem, or habitat. Over thousands of years they have adapted to the geography, hydrology, and climate of that region. Native plants occur in groups or communities. That means they have evolved together with other plants. As a result, a community of native plants provides habitat for a variety of native wildlife species.
Non-native plants—Plants that are introduced to an ecosystem from another place. Not all non-native species become problems in new locations.
Runoff—Rain, water, or other liquid that runs off land into streams and rivers.
Soil—Soil is commonly called earth or dirt. It is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gasses, liquids, and organisms that together support life. Soils perform vital functions to sustain plant and animal life, regulate water flow, filter and buffer pollutants, cycle nutrients, and provide physical stability and sort.
Well-sited—A plant that is growing in ideal conditions (e.g., preferred soil, water, and sun conditions).