Plant with a Purpose: Help Protect Salmon Habitat with Your Garden

Salmon are marathon swimmers, transitioning from freshwater streams to the ocean, and back again. To reach their destinations they often face—and miraculously overcome!—staggering obstacles. They climb fish ladders to push past dams. They navigate through narrow culverts under roadways. They dodge predators flying above and swimming alongside them while they contend with pollution and habitat loss.

If you have a green thumb, you might be surprised to discover that you can give salmon a boost, whether you are by the coast or further inland. Following the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife playbook, here are a few examples of salmon-friendly gardening practices. 

We all need clean water

Gardening for salmon means we need to rethink fertilizers and pesticides, along with other backyard chemicals. More often than not, what we put in our soil and spray on our patios and driveways often runs off and ends up in our waterways and can be harmful to all aquatic life. Young salmon are especially vulnerable. 

Chinook salmon fry. Credit: Natalie Fobes.

If you’ve been reaching for the “weed and feed,” think again. Prevent unwanted plants from taking root by planting densely, mulching and hand-pulling weeds (especially non-natives which don’t support wildlife). Reduce the size of your lawn in favor of native plants and allow a diversity of plants to grow in what lawn you do have. 

Use compost to fertilize, which enriches the life in the soil rather than kills it and won’t pollute the local waterways that salmon rely on. Don’t rake away all your fallen leaves; instead, use them as a mulch that will naturally fertilize too as they break down. Densely-planted gardens filled with native plants rarely have pest problems because they support pest predators. 

Hand-pick pests if you do find any. Avoid pesticides–both insecticides and herbicides. This helps keep contaminants out of the water. It’s important to remember the vast majority of bugs are beneficial. Some insects are even an important source of food for juvenile salmon.  

Rain gardens reign in the runoff

Runoff is a major source of water pollution. The downpour from rooftops and the runoff from parking lots and streets collect, then empty, toxins and pollution  directly into waterways. Another way to keep waterways salmon-friendly is to prevent this rainwater from rushing into the storm drains and your local stream by creating rain gardens.

Rain gardens are designed to help collect rainwater from downspouts and impervious surfaces and allow it to percolate into the ground rather than flooding the storm drains where it can carry pollution to the local streams and cause erosion. The alchemy of soil, plants and their roots, and other natural materials such as wood chips and logs in a rain garden filter out pollutants and direct runoff water back into the soil where it naturally feeds the watershed. Salmon, as with other wildlife species, rely on clean healthy water to survive and rain gardens are a natural solution to pollution.

Students tending to their community garden. Credit: SYH Sisters Middle School.

A little comfort and room to roam

Salmon need shade and shelter—and space. They need cool water to survive, so if you live adjacent to a stream, river or lake, allow trees and other native vegetation to grow along the banks to shade the water, which also helps prevent erosion and filters pollutants out of runoff. By the beach, there are salt-tolerant trees and shrubs that work well to preserve and enhance conditions that benefit salmon. Even if you don’t live next to a body of water, get involved protecting shorelines near streams and rivers in your community. We can also rethink our footprint and give salmon some room. Structures like docks and bulkheads degrade habitat and can also contribute to erosion.

Go native!

Native plants are the way to go in a wildlife-friendly garden. They are naturally adapted to the climate, weather, soil types and rainfall levels so don’t need extra watering, fertilizer or pesticides. Planting them connects your garden into the bigger ecosystem. Better still, natives are attractive and attract insects that salmon love to eat and thrive on. Native plants settle in quickly, absorb the rain, hold the soil and prevent run-off. No matter where you live, there’s a broad plant palette to work from, be it trees, flowering shrubs, perennials or groundcovers. Use the Garden for Wildlife Native Plant Finder to discover the best native plants to add to your garden and backyard. 

Remember, each region has its own native plant palette with specific requirements. Consult local resources, including native plant societies, Master Gardeners, university extension services and programs, and professional landscape designers.

Chinook salmon. Credit: Natalie Fobes.