Beyond the Backyard - Columbia Land Trust
Portland communities are making more time and space for nature.


One might assume that the Backyard Habitat Certification Program is possible only for those who own or rent a home with land, or those who have ample time to garden, but the program has encouraged schools, churches, community centers, and other organizations to restore urban areas beneficial to both people and wildlife. Since the inception of the program in 2006, 4,400 properties have been enrolled, 190 of which are considered neighborhood or business projects, and an estimated 55,300 native trees and shrubs have been planted on all certified properties in the Portland Metro area.

It’s moving to see local groups carve out time for nature and use the program as a catalyst and tool for education, culture, and even sustenance. We’re highlighting three outstanding community gardens to pay tribute to a successful summer of urban restoration and inspire fall and winter plantings.

Focus on Youth
Size: Approximately 1 acre
Location: Southwest Portland
Certification: Silver

Focus on Youth is a one-woman nonprofit run by director Donna Lee Holmes, who purchased this property in 2013 after it had been abandoned for 10 years. The organization has provided learning experiences for more than 13,000 disadvantaged and homeless youth, with programs teaching sustainable gardening, job readiness, nutrition, cooking, and even science and photography. Donna worked with volunteers to transform the site—overrun with noxious plants and stormwater issues—into a sustainable food garden with more than 1,600 native plants and trees that benefit the Fanno Creek watershed. This precious habitat (dubbed Sunflower Farm) is now used as an outdoor classroom as well as a place for job readiness training for homeless youth and doubles as a safe haven for flora and fauna. Visit

Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple
Size: 9,772 square feetHeart of Wisdom Zen Temple. Photo courtesy of Nancy Kodo Conover
Location: Northeast Portland
Certification: Silver

Our lives can be overwhelmingly busy with work, family, and other commitments, so where do we go to find balance? The Zen Community of Oregon founded the Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple in 2011 to “provide a refuge of stillness and peace in a busy urban environment, to practice and share Buddhist teachings, and to cultivate the qualities of unflagging optimism, self-discipline, compassion, and wisdom.” Nancy Kodo Conover, who’s practiced Zen for the past 17 years, along with Nan Kyoko Whitaker-Emrich, led the temple’s outdoor restoration efforts. After many years of hard work and help from volunteers, the Heart of Wisdom grounds and newly restored, historic Portland church offer all who visit a place for relaxation, complete with phenomenal rain gardens, ornamental plant beds, and native shrubs. Birds and other wildlife enjoy the rejuvenated habitat, and community members from all backgrounds and experience levels are welcome for meditation and classes in basic Buddhism. Visit

Pleasant Valley Elementary SchoolPleasant Valley Elementary School Wild Side Project. Photo courtesy of David Scharfenberg
Size: 16.2 acres (10 acres certified)
Location: Southeast Gresham
Certification: Silver

Imagine a world where more kids enjoy learning about plants and wildlife. That’s what one sixth grade teacher at Pleasant Valley Elementary School is aiming for. David Scharfenberg is the driving force behind Wildside, a restoration project that began 11 years ago to create habitat on the outer edges of the school property. The garden features a pathway to make the wild areas more accessible, and family and community volunteers have helped plant more than 4,500 native trees and shrubs. The project also features a greenhouse with a 500-gallon water harvesting system, raptor perches, a newly planted wetland area, and a “three B’s garden,” featuring pollinator plants like showy milkweed and twinberry for bees, butterflies, and birds.

Visit to start your garden project at your home, your business, or your organization to support more nature in our communities! The Backyard Habitat Certification Program is a joint partnership between Columbia Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Portland.