Living on the wild side in East County
The best part of Bill Hunt's day is stepping out into his backyard each morning, coffee in hand.
The Troutdale resident gets to watch bees and butterflies flutter around natural flowers, listen as birds sing up in the tree canopy, and witness the occasional appearance of deer or coyotes.
"This is my office working from home," he said with a smile. "It's so wild out here even though we are only a few feet from the house."
Hunt's own personal oasis was created through his hard work and support from a regional program dedicated to bringing nature back into communities across Multnomah County.
Backyard Habitat is co-run through a partnership between the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust. The goal is to support urban gardeners in their efforts to transform their yards of less than one acre through advice and support.
There are five pillars participants learn to establish within their own yards. The program teaches gardeners about native plants, noxious weeds, how to reduce pesticides, stormwater management, and wildlife stewardship.
When someone enrolls in Backyard Habitat, a technician visits for a walkthrough of their property. They will identify harmful weeds to remove, listen to any goals for the yard and make recommendations based on those conversations. Participants get a Site Report document with all the steps needed to reach certification.
There are three levels of certification — silver, gold and platinum. All three require removal of invasive species, growing native plants, reducing pesticide use, wildlife stewardship and stormwater management. Platinum certification also requires volunteer hours.
"With Backyard Habitats you begin to understand what is invasive and the negative impact certain practices can have on birds and other critters," said Ladine Marquardt, who participants in the program with her husband Scott.
Participating in the program and working through the certification levels leads to awards and benefits, including discounts or garden supplies. There are currently more than 6,000 people certified through the program.
"With Backyard Habitats you begin to understand what is invasive and the negative impact certain practices can have on birds and other critters," Ladine said.
Hunt first got interested in doing more with his yard about 11 years ago when he enrolled in a rain garden class through East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District.
Before, his yard felt disjointed and he disliked having to waste so much water on keeping the grass green and utilizing chemicals and sprays to keep non-native plants alive.
"I was into this idea of reducing my carbon footprint," Hunt said. "I love backpacking and being in nature — I wanted to bring it closer to home."
So he dug out his front lawn by hand, creating a 10-by-12 foot tapered rain garden surrounded by sedge grass and native plants that also served as a pollinator garden.
He then turned his attention to the rest of his property, and a Backyard Habitat technician helped come up with ideas. They highlighted the invasive plants to remove, and gave Hunt a roadmap to move forward.
Now, his backyard feels like stepping into a hidden green gem in the Oregon wilds. He has a tiered yard with a creek running through the middle. In the back are a stand of trees that opens into a city-owned natural area.
"There is harmony here now," Hunt said. "I hands down recommend this program. They are knowledgeable and really know their plants."
This is the third home the Marquardts are transforming into a backyard habitat. They got hooked into the program a decade ago when they lived in the Hollybrook neighborhood in Gresham, kept with it after moving to Happy Valley, and are currently being certified for a house they moved into three years ago in East Gresham.
"It is about building a system of plants that work together," Ladine said. "Having a backyard habitat has significantly increased the numbers of birds, bees and butterflies in my yard. It is so exciting to see these creatures come without having to feed them with feeders."
Some of the local plant combos the Marquardts have been drawn to are sword ferns, bleeding heart and Oregon oxalis. They also love planting maidenhair fern and deer fern together in the shade.
With the current home they are in the process of removing the non-native plants that were planted before they moved in. And it doesn't take much for the fast-growing natives to find a foothold. Even though they haven't put in any natives, the plants in the nearby riparian corridor are already starting to pop up.
One project is moving a log left from a tree they had to remove into the backyard. It will become a "nurse log" which starts to decay and attracts bugs, which in turn draws birds and other animals.
"The best thing about native plants is it is all low maintenance," Ladine said. "Once you get them in, you don't have to water or fertilize."
She loves planning how things will look, and enjoys taking her time working in the yard and planting new natives.
"It's a pleasure to watch things grow," Ladine said.
Scott jokes he does the hard labor.
"Move this, cut that," he said with a chuckle. "I tease her I am only going to move that shrub one last time."
Ladine added the program works great for anyone wanting to do something with their yard, or who is, perhaps, tired of constantly caring for their grass.
"I recommend starting small — work on a corner of your yard," she said. "It's a process, but once you get into it you find so much enjoyment."
Create a Backyard Habitat
Learn more about the program and apply online at backyardhabitats.org/apply/
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.