One Yard at a Time - Columbia Land Trust
Spring Vine Maple Foliage by Doug Gorsline
As Backyard Habitat Certification Program Manager Gaylen Beatty moves on, a Columbia Land Trust staffer reflects on the program's powerful impact.

On a sunny Friday morning earlier this month, I found myself driving through the bucolic, hilly landscape that unfolds just outside of Oregon City. I rolled down the windows to breathe in the rich, fresh, loamy air of the surrounding forests. I arrived at my destination, a native plant nursery by the name of Echo Valley Natives, feeling reinvigorated after a week parked in front my laptop. Gaylen Beatty, the founder and manager of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program (BHCP), greeted me with a glowing smile. It was a beautiful day for our annual spring native plants sale.

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Deals by the wagon-full at the spring native plant sale

A major perk of the BHCP, the spring plant sale serves as a unique opportunity for program participants to stock up on a wide variety of native plants at deeply discounted prices. I confess that in addition to photographing the event for Columbia Land Trust’s e-newsletter, I had an anterior motive of grabbing plants for my own backyard. I’m on staff with the Land Trust, but I’m also a BHCP participant.  After my site visit last fall, my habitat technician from BHCP had left me a detailed report of Willamette Valley-native plants that would thrive in my shady backyard. I meticulously gather plants from the list until the trunk of my car was full.

I’ve been intrigued by BHCP since joining Columbia Land Trust a year-and-a-half ago. The program struck me as a powerful framework, not just for restoring urban habitat for wildlife, but for behavior change—a process through which urban dwellers from all walks of life could connect with nature in a deep and meaningful way. Looking back, I can tell that I appreciated the potential of the program, but I didn’t really feel it until I started on the journey with my own home.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to buy our first home in Portland last summer. The home had a traditional grass yard in the front and a mulched-over dirt patch in the back. Where some saw an eyesore, I saw a blank canvas, through which I could create a native habitat that brought pollinators, birds, and other wildlife into my under-natured neighborhood.

The Saturday after my time at the plant sale, I set to work putting my new plants in the ground. One plant at a time, I transformed my dirt patch into a mosaic of sword ferns, vine maple, fringe cup, red flowering currant, and ocean spray.  I added mulch from a neighborhood Chip Drop and envisioned how everything might look after a year or two.  In the black walnut that towers over my backyard, I heard a downy woodpecker tapping away.

On Sunday, I joined my friends for a hike up Hamilton Mountain on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. As we set out on the trail through a Douglas-fir forest, I was amazed at how quickly I came across a familiar cast of characters—vine maple, fringe cup, ocean spray, and red-flowering currant littered the forest’s understory, bursting forth in their spring glory.

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Gaylen Beatty (right) with Columbia Land Trust Volunteer Coordinator Sam Schongalla

I recalled a conversation I had with Gaylen when I first talked to her about the Backyard Habitat Certification Program. She told me that the program helped people to see the world around them with new eyes. For years, I had hiked this trail and others like it throughout the region, soaking up the beautiful landscapes while only knowing the names of a handful of plants. As with meeting people, knowing wildlife by name personalizes and deepens the relationship in a real and lasting way. My friends, who are also BHCP participants and I quizzed each other, pointing at various plants along the trail, trying hard to stump one another.

Ten years after launching the Backyard Habitat program as a pilot initiative, Gaylen is moving on. Through her new role with Metro, she’ll continue her important work of creating more and better opportunities for people and wildlife to thrive in the Portland metro area. Thanks to her efforts and our partnership with the great folks at The Audubon Society of Portland, the program has strong systems in place and is poised to continue its impressive growth.

Gaylen often told me how humbled and inspired she was by the stories participants have shared over the years. To currently have more than 3,000 properties enrolled covering 700+ urban acres is a testament to the power of our gardens and the collective difference we can make as individuals. It’s also a testament to Gaylen’s thoughtful leadership and hard work.

My backyard habitat still has a long way to go. I’ve got holly creeping in from the neighbor’s yard, and I have decidedly more bare dirt than green space, but I’m excited to join my neighbors as part of a larger transformation. For my entire life, I’ve loved being in nature. I didn’t expect a simple act of learning about and creating native habitat to deepen my relationship with the natural world in such a meaningful way. Thank you, Gaylen, for all your inspiring work, and for lending me a new perspective. I’m excited to see where my garden takes me.

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