TIDAL LIFE | A few sunny February days and island minds turn to mulch

Garden planning season is upon us. Fruit trees are on sale at nurseries, seed packets are showing up in local stores, daffodil tips are poking though the soil and it’s nearly time to plant peas.

My own gardening life is fraught with manic swings — I worry that my haphazard pruning does more harm than good one minute then, the next second I’m cheering that my hellebores are ready to bloom.

But that’s just what’s happening on the surface. There’s more to this garden planning stuff than meets the eye.

Each year as I get caught up in the excitement of growing things I have to force myself to think about deeper subjects than the top 18 inches. All of us gardeners, waterfront ones especially, need to keep the underlying structure of the island in mind.

County officials recently updated policies for protection of wetlands and watersheds, setting rules for how close to these sensitive areas certain activities — even agriculture — can take place. I went to the watershed meetings thinking my property was part of the watershed, given that the edge of it happens to be right up against water. Plus I’d seen with my own eyes that water was shed from various parts of it.

Perhaps I was naive, but I was surprised to learn that saltwater waterfront is not included in the definition of watershed unless a marsh, creek or river runs through it.

While the Shoreline Management Act does regulate certain activities within 200 feet of the shore, it’s mostly concerned with construction. According to the Department of Ecology Web site: “In general, individual property owners are not subject to permit requirements for stormwater control and discharge.” They are also not subject to scrutiny as to what garden products or techniques they use.

This means that unlike wetland owners, we on the saltwater are free to merrily till and clear and plant right over the edge of the bluff. We can use all the bug sprays, petrochemical fertilizers and weed killers we want — or can afford. We can over-water abundantly, then gather the runoff and funnel it onto the beach. No one will stop us. And then we are free to reap the rewards of our folly as we watch our bluff crumble.

Puget Sound bluffs and banks are notoriously mobile. Every winter, despite our best efforts, or because of our worst ones, our shores erode. This is partly a natural and necessary process. The bluffs are actually supposed to feed the beaches, adding sand for clams to live in and stones for kids to skip. But we often unwittingly hasten erosion while we’re busy building and gardening.

There’s a wealth of information available to any waterfront property owner interested in maintaining a healthy site as well as fertile soil. Master Gardeners and Shore Stewards provide bluff stability and groundwater protection guidance on their informative and user-friendly Web sites. Plus they sometimes do house calls, giving basic advice on best practices. The Department of Ecology and Natural Resources are treasure troves of technical explanations for those who want to dig into the subject.

From local slope stability expert Elliott Menashe, here’s a nutshell guide for property owners who don’t want to go unprepared into the breach. Menashe has seen it all and lived to write this witty warning:

Recipe for Disaster

(edited slightly)

Buy property without considering the risks.

Build on a lot too small for a safe setback

Ignore watershed characteristics

Clear and grade extensively

Alter existing drainage patterns

Install cheap drainage

Dump debris over the edge

Cut or top trees on the slope

Use herbicides to kill brush

Bring in fill material when the ground is wet

Site the house and septic system close to the edge

Neglect to leave a buffer of native vegetation

Plant English ivy on the slope and hydroseed grass

Pave extensively

Neglect drain lines

Cut trails into slopes

Ignore signs of erosion

Believe it won’t happen to you.

Questions or comments? Tidallife@whidbey.com.