Notes from inside the backyard habitat certification process
My wife Kim and I enrolled in the Backyard Habitat Certification Program (BHCP) in 2015, just a few months after we bought our first home in North Portland. Aside from some encroaching ivy, holly, and English laurel, our backyard was an empty patch of dirt—and we had no idea what to do with it. Nearly three years later, we’re the proud owners of a certified backyard habitat. Along the way, we planted dozens of plants and trees, shoveled obscene amounts of mulch, and gained a deeper appreciation for the natural world around us. These are some of the biggest takeaways from our path to certification.
Note: The Backyard Habitat Certification Program is a collaborative effort of the Audubon Society of Portland and Columbia Land Trust.
1. You don’t have to choose
At the onset of the process, we had doubts about whether it even made sense to enroll in the program. We worried that if we committed to planting native plants, we won’t be able a grow vegetable garden, or leave any room for our dog to run around. Fortunately, during our initial site assessment, our technician helped us realize that creating a backyard habitat was not an all-or-nothing endeavor. Not every inch of the yard needs to be planted with native plants, or plants at all for that matter. There’s an emphasis on removing aggressive weeds, but the program accommodates non-native, ornamental, and food-producing plants.
2. Work with what you’ve got
The real beauty of the BHCP is that it can be applied to all types of yards. It’s not prescriptive. In our backyard, for instance, a massive, 50-foot black walnut tree looms over almost everything. It’s a great tree for hosting habitat, including songbirds, flickers, squirrels, raccoons, and barred owls, but it also happens to be toxic. Black walnut roots, leaves, and nuts secrete the allelopathic chemical juglone. Luckily, our backyard technician sent us a handy PDF of Willamette Valley native plants that are juglone tolerant, along with plants that are especially sensitive. She used this information to make great recommendations for our yard. Most participants will probably discover hidden elements of their existing environment, be it plant characteristics, soil types, or access to moisture and sunlight. As with all things in nature, it helps to be flexible and adaptive.
3. Slow and steady, but it’s not a race
When we first enrolled, Kim and I didn’t know it would take us nearly three years to get certified, or if we would opt to get certified at all. All we really wanted was advice and a roadmap for how to start creating habitat. Each spring, we attended a native plant sale for BHCP participants and we planted new native species in waves. With each year we learned which plants thrived, which species died, and purchased more of what worked the following spring. Taking your time allows for more observation and responsiveness. I’m certain it saved us valuable time and energy.
4. Get to know your neighbors twice over
As I wrote when I first enrolled in the program, there’s something magical that’s unlocked when you take the time to notice species of plants and wildlife. On morning walks with the dog, I started recognizing the same plants I’d planted in local parks and in neighbor’s yards. It’s a special feeling to play host to an assortment of different wildlife species; to give something back, rather than feeling like just another drain on the immediate environment.
I also saw more of my neighbors as a result of spending hours outside rewilding my yard. Several folks stopped by to chat while I was working near my Backyard Habitat in Progress sign in the front yard. I’ve also coordinated with neighbors to share mulch and tools via Facebook groups and the NextDoor app. I’ve had lovely conversations that might not have happened if not for a shared interest in gardening.
5. Every action has an impact
Once I had invested enough hours in planning, planting, and tending to my native plant habitat, I couldn’t help but start thinking more about how other choices impacted the yard. Early on, I was tempted to use moss-killing chemicals on my front lawn and to buy a gas-powered mower to get my yard work done faster. Ultimately, I opted to hand-pull weeds and battle with a reel mower not with certification levels in mind, but because these decisions fit with my growing desire to see wildlife thrive around me.
6. No one is on trial here
I’m a fairly competitive person. I don’t like losing at board games or pick-up basketball. Any time I’m presented with silver, gold, or platinum levels of achievement, I’m going for platinum.
I put off our certification visit for fear that we hadn’t done enough. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Our certification volunteer was courteous, curious, and happy to share opportunities to improve our habitat without a hint of judgment.
I was thrilled when we achieved silver-level certification last week. I realized that certification isn’t the end of anything. In my mind, our habitat is just starting to really come to life. I’m happy to display my certification sign, but without it, I’d still be proud of the time and energy we’ve spent managing habitat and learning from it.
For those of you who are determined to reach gold or platinum-level certification, I’d suggest you consider the percentage of your yard you want to landscape early on in your planning process. Kim and I decided to plant around the borders of the yard while leaving the middle open to provide our pooch with enough room to run. Ultimately, we didn’t plant a large enough area for gold.
7. It’s a privilege
Throughout this process, I’ve been reminded of the barriers that exist to gardening and creating native habitat. It takes hard work, but also privilege to have the means to own property, to have the disposable income to buy mulch, tools, and plants, and to have time to devote to tending to my backyard. I’m glad the BHCP provides such valuable information and resources for a $35 enrollment fee, not to mention discounts on native plants. I’m also glad that the program is continually exploring ways to increase access to the program and its benefits.
If you’re in the program’s service area and you’re on the fence about enrolling, my advice is to take the plunge. We’ve already benefited immensely from our participation. We now have less lawn to mow and water, we’re increasing shade for our home, and we get to enjoy seeing birds and mason bees (hopefully) in our yard. We’re a little humbler and a little wiser. The best part? The process has helped us chip away at the divide between nature and city.
During our certification visit, our BHCP volunteer kept referring to our yard as our “conservation property”. It sounded funny at first, but gradually it sunk in. This is what conservation looks like, or at least what it can look like. I guess that makes us conservationists.
Columbia Land Trust