Susan Spencer has spent the last five years building homes in her own back yard. But not your typical four-sided structures.
Her eco-friendly yard is a welcome respite for deer, birds, salamanders, snakes, and red-legged frogs, thanks to her efforts in planting over 100 species of native plants and the installation of a pollinator and water garden.
Spencer's yard is gold-certified by Gresham's Backyard Habitat Certification Program, which provides assistance to gardeners in enhancing their space to create an environment for native wildlife.
"The idea of inviting insects into a garden to make it an active eco place is new. The point is to provide life to gardens and get people to think about their gardens in a new and functional way," said Nikkie West, backyard habitat program manager. "A traditional garden is more beautiful in a manicured way, but not functional from an eco-perspective. I think the habitat garden is beautiful (and) it's functional — beauty in a natural way."
Spencer is eager to show people this functional way of gardening.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, July 30, the city's Backyard Habitat Certification Program is hosting their first open-garden event in Spencer's yard. People are invited to look around her unique property and explore her forested backyard.
The Audubon Society of Portland and Columbia Land Trust originally partnered to create the Backyard Habitat Certification Program.
"The program is good for homeowners because if you sign up for the program, a site technician comes out, evaluates your property and makes suggestions for what to plant," Spencer said. "I really believe in what (the program) does."
There are three different levels of certification, and a yard has to meet various criteria for silver, gold and platinum certifications.
"At each of the levels you have stricter and stricter criteria, so that's one of the fun things about it too because you can get your silver and then you go work for your gold, and your platinum. Having goals like that helps people be motivated," Spencer said. "We would be platinum except we have Vinca which is an unacceptable invasive on the list for platinum."
In order to attract native wildlife, Spencer stressed the importance of native plants.
"The thing with native plants is they're adapted for our environment, soils, sunshine, the amount of water we get," Spencer said. "As long as you plant it right and you put plants in the conditions they're suited for, they provide shelter for wildlife, food, and nesting material."
Spencer added that it's great for the environment and for pollinators whose numbers are dwindling.
"My husband and I both love nature but we also work really long hours. We don't have time to go hiking in the woods all the time so we wanted to have our own nature here," Spencer said. "I love my yard but I'm not going to be a slave to my yard. If you put in the right plant in the right place, you don't have to water them, feed them, prune them, use pesticides. They just grow."
When Spencer and her husband purchased their Gresham home in 2012, the city wasn't yet certifying backyard habitats. But as a biologist, Spencer was familiar with which plants to purchase and had the ability to design her own yard.
"The principles (for creating a backyard habitat) still hold true regardless of whether it's official or not," said Spencer, who was the second home in Gresham to be certified. "It's really addictive (and) it's like my therapy."
The certification program launched in Portland in 2009, now covers a handful of cities — Portland, Lake Oswego, Gresham, Fairview, West Linn, Milwaukie, Oak Grove, and Jennings Lodge.
But the city of Gresham offers something unique — a subsidy of the $35 enrollment cost if someone is experiencing financial hardship.
"It's an awesome, generous thing that the city of Gresham provides," West said. "We are hoping to be an entry point to provide inspiration to get people going."
In terms of homeowners, Spencer thinks the program "makes their lives easier," she said. "You don't have to have a graduate degree in biology to do this."