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Planting Edmonds: Gardening tips for growing healthy orcas

Transient orca whales hunting off Edmonds’ Marina Beach in July 2016. (File photo by Janine Harles)

Planting Edmonds is a monthly column written by members of Edmonds Floretum Garden Club.

So, you want to grow orcas in your garden? Who doesn’t! I grew my first orca this year and I want to share my experience so you too can experience the joys of a beautiful orca garden.

I still remember the excitement when my frozen orca egg arrived in the mail last Spring ( I carefully planted it according to the enclosed instructions: Moist soil with lots of organic matter in partial sun. I cared for it attentively and watched with awe at the astonishing growth rate.

By June I began weaning my baby orca from milk and feeding it salmon. By July, it was eating about 10 salmon per day (talk about fish fertilizer!). One of the unexpected benefits of growing an orca in your garden is the decrease in animal pests in the yard. Image the poor rabbit wandering into my backyard for some tasty lettuce and finding a ravenous carnivore guarding the garden!

A rabbit in the garden.

By early October my orca was ready to “harvest.” I carefully dug it up, tied it to the top of my Subaru and drove it to Marina Beach Park, and with heavy heart released it into Puget Sound. It didn’t even turn around to say goodbye as it swam away to its new home (sniff)….

Okay, I didn’t really grow an orca in my garden this year, but I did start doing things in my garden that help grow healthy orcas in Puget Sound.

Orcas are very visible inhabitants of Puget Sound and a well-known symbol of the health of the ecosystem they inhabit. Orcas eat salmon, which spawn in our streams, and the streams are full of other aquatic organisms nourished from the surrounding land. It’s all connected in ways we are only beginning to understand and appreciate. Damage to any part of this ecosystem can have far-reaching consequences, including harming our beloved orcas.

Most of us humans are relatively recent additions to the Puget Sound area. We showed up in a big way and started adapting it to our wants and needs. We made big changes. We decreased the forests and native plants and replaced them with roads, parking lots, buildings, and crops. We started adding chemicals to the environment that it had never seen before, many with unforeseen negative consequences.

It’s too late to go back to the good old pristine Puget Sound ecosystem days – that ship has sailed. What we cam do is make our impact here as least disruptive as possible. How? Fundamentally, we can protect what remains of the original native ecosystem and make our human footprint on it as light as possible.

We can do our part as Edmonds gardeners. Here are some basic principles we can follow: 1) Only add to our gardens what is necessary; 2) of those inputs we deem we really need, pick the ones that are the most compatible with a healthy ecosystem; and 3) garden in a way that keeps the chemicals we add to our garden from entering the streams, lakes, and Puget Sound. Following these general guidelines will help our Puget Sound watershed ecosystem and ultimately, the orcas that share it with us.

First, add only what is necessary to your garden/yard. The excess inputs (pesticides, fertilizer, water, etc.) end up in our waterways. Many of us grew up with the ideal of an immaculate garden or lawn – weed-free grass and flower beds with no pest damage showing. Lowering our standards a bit can decrease the need to add “stuff” to our gardens. We can tolerate a few weeds and a few brown leaves.

In large-scale agriculture, weeds, disease and pests are tolerated until they reach an economic threshold. Perhaps we can apply that to gardening as an aesthetic threshold by foregoing treatment unless something causes an unacceptable loss of beauty or bounty.

This applies to our lawns as well. If we keep our lawns as small as necessary, water only as needed and forego pesticides if there aren’t any significant pests, then we limit our impact on the environment to only what is necessary. See

What we plant in our gardens can lower the inputs needed to maintain our aesthetic threshold.  Western Washington native plants and those that are adapted to our soil and climate do not need as much input as plants you are gallantly trying to grow in a place they would rather not be. The less “load” we add to our ecosystem, the less we need to worry about polluting Puget Sound.

You want to have a beautiful garden. I get it. I do, too. Unless you live in the middle of an undisturbed forest, you are likely going to need to add inputs to your garden to keep it looking good.

Amending soil with compost improves soil structure and encourages organism growth.

Second, make good choices on what you add. Choose inputs that are compatible with a healthy ecosystem. In general, the more our inputs mimic our native forest ecosystem the better. For example, compost is more like what is in our forest ecosystem than synthetic fertilizers. Amending our soil with compost improves soil structure and encourages organism growth which breaks down pollutants. Not only that, but compost also helps grow healthier plants which is what we gardeners are going for anyway, right?

It gets tricky to select pesticides that are the least harmful to our Puget Sound watershed ecosystem. A case in point is copper. Copper is a readily available, commonly used garden chemical for use in controlling fungal diseases and is approved for organic food production. It is a natural component of our undisturbed ecosystem. Sounds like a good choice, right?

It’s not so simple. Copper is one the Chemicals of Concern (COC) tracked and studied in the Puget Sound watershed and one of the most far-reaching potential priority toxicants in the Puget Sound region. This is largely owing to its ability to alter the sensory capability and behavior of a wide variety of aquatic organisms including our beloved salmon.

We are adding much more copper to our aquatic environment than was there before we moved into this ecosystem. Urban lawn and garden use may be the largest man-caused source of copper in our ecosystem. Copper is relatively safe for humans and for the plants we apply it to, but there are environmental consequences we may not have considered. How do we make the best choice? Be informed and thoughtful. Rely on experts. Here’s a helpful website:

If you are only adding to your garden what is necessary and are making thoughtful choices about your impact on our ecosystem, then you are well on your way to growing healthy orcas.

Applying the last principle will get us a big green star: Prevent chemicals from our gardens/yards/homes from getting into storm drains. What goes into storm drains goes mostly untreated into Puget Sound. Surface runoff from rain picks up chemicals from our yards, patios, roofs, and driveways and carries them to storm drains.

Surface runoff is the main mechanism by which pollutants get into streams, lakes and Puget Sound. Effectively managing surface runoff will prevent the chemicals you’ve added to your garden/yard from getting into our aquatic ecosystem. It will also prevent other harmful chemicals from your property from getting there too — some we are just beginning to understand as harmful.

Recently, a chemical called 6PPD-quinone, derived from a common automobile tire component 6PPD, has been shown to induce acute toxicity in Coho salmon at low levels in water. It is an example of something we have added to the ecosystem because it is good for us – safer tires – but detrimental to the ecosystem we have moved into. Preventing surface runoff will keep all the chemicals we know are harmful, as well as those we don’t yet know about, out of our ecosystem.

In general, to prevent surface water from running off, slow it down, spread it out and trap it in water-permeable depressions. Cover bare soil, especially slopes, with vegetation to help soak up surface water. If possible, use water-permeable materials for patios and driveways. Direct gutter downspouts and driveway runoff into rain barrels or stable vegetated areas to keep petroleum products, tire rubber derivatives (like 6PPD-quinone), and a litany of other potentially harmful chemicals out of our waterways.

Rain gardens like this one are dessigned to accept surface runoff and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.

Rain gardens serve this purpose well. They are designed with specific soils and plants to accept surface runoff and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.  See

Our lawns, especially unhealthy lawns, are not particularly efficient at soaking up surface runoff because of the relatively smooth, uniform texture. If you don’t need all that grass, replace some of it with well-considered plants like natives which do a better job of preventing surface runoff.

As I plan next year’s orca garden, I think about how my garden affects the ecosystem I live in. Thoughtful stewardship of our gardens will help our stressed Puget Sound watershed ecosystem. By adding only necessary and thoughtful chemicals to our gardens and keeping those chemicals out of storm drains, we will help grow healthy orcas. Let’s do our part to orca-strate the recovery of a healthy Puget Sound ecosystem!

More information:

— By Joel Ream

Joel Ream has been a member of Floretum since 2019. He grew up in Spokane and earned a Bachelor’s of Science in botany at the University of Washington and a Master’s in botany at Michigan State University. Joel spent 37 years as a plant biologist at Monsanto, using plant physiology, biochemistry and analytics to increase the efficiency of crop production. He also worked on new weed control technologies, regulatory studies to support the safety of new products, greenhouse and field evaluation of new crop varieties, increasing the nutritional value of animal feed and developing methods to measure grain composition. Joel retired to Edmonds in 2018.

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