I recently earned my Backyard Habitat Certification through Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust. Yay! While this program is specific to the Portland Metro area, the concepts are relevant for gardeners everywhere.
So I wanted to show you how I created my backyard habitat and tell you about other garden certifications and signs you can get, too.
- Removing Noxious Weeds
- Adding Native Plants
- Reducing Pesticide Use
- Managing Stormwater
- Supporting Wildlife
- Other Habitat Certification Programs
Note: This article contains affiliate links. See my disclosures for details.
Removing Noxious Weeds
The Backyard Habitats program requires removing certain invasive weeds that are known to spread into natural areas and displace native habitat plants. You can see the list of noxious weeds in the Portland area here.
Luckily I had already removed the English ivy that was consuming my yard. It took a couple of years to solarize the ivy under plastic until it was dead and crunchy, at which point it lifted right out. I replanted that area with my favorite woodland plants, like bunchberry, sword fern, vine maple, huckleberry, salal and Oregon grape.
Before and After
Vinca (aka periwinkle) is another aggressive spreader that damages surrounding plants. We cut it down to the ground and smothered it under cardboard and a thick layer of wood chips. A few sprouts popped up a year later, so I repeated the process and buried the vinca under another layer of wood chips.
Before, I had a weedy patch of vinca choking out my shrubs. Now I have Oregon sunshine, red flowering currant, meadow checkermallow, serviceberry, common camas and kinnikinnick in this sunny spot by my mailbox.
Before and After
Adding Native Plants
With the bad weeds gone, I had room to add the good stuff: lots of native plants that are beneficial to local wildlife. For the Backyard Habitats program, the plants on the Portland Plant List qualify as native to my eco-region.
The Portland Plant List describes different plant communities in the Willamette Valley, like wetlands, rocky outcrops and prairies. I wanted my backyard to look like a magical woodland, so I printed out the western hemlock/douglas fir forest section of the PPL and used that as my main shopping list.
To qualify for Backyard Habitats, you need at least 5% of your yard “naturescaped” with mostly native plants, including at least three out of five canopy layers ranging from ground-level plants to large trees. See details here.
At first I didn’t think I had room for all five canopy layers including a large tree. But somehow this bigleaf maple fell into my shopping cart, rolled into the truck bed and rooted into my backyard. It can reach 100 feet tall, providing shade, nesting sites, nectar, pollen and gorgeous fall colors.
I also added three small trees, 26 large shrubs, 30 small shrubs and 199 plants (and counting)! Native plants are addicting, you guys.
Don’t Skip the Annuals
I’ve always preferred perennials that get planted once and then come back stronger every year. But there’s a lot to love about annuals, too, especially in a sparse new wildlife garden. Annuals can quickly fill in the gaps with colorful flowers. Even though they die each year, they will often reseed, providing a feast for pollinators for years to come.
Find Native Plants for Your Region
If you search for native plant nurseries near you, there should be some good options. Mainstream nurseries are also starting to add native plant sections as demand increases. Check out the Xerces Society’s native plant directory and Homegrown National Park’s native plants finder for more ideas.
Reducing Pesticide Use
It feels natural to reach for insecticides and herbicides to keep the garden looking beautiful. But pesticides are doing so much harm to bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects—and killing many of the beloved birds who eat them.
The more you invite wildlife into your yard with habitat landscaping, the more the eco-system will take care of itself. Native plants fill in to shade out the weeds. Ladybugs move in to eat the aphids, and everyone is happy. No pesticides required.
We’ve been finding more natural ways to handle weeds, like smothering them under cardboard and wood chips, using our handy weed puller or spraying persistent weeds with vinegar.
Through Backyard Habitats, I learned about this list that categorizes the safety levels of different pesticides. The red-level pesticides are the particularly dangerous ones. To qualify for certification, you have to stick to the green or yellow levels if you use any pesticides.
Slowing down the flow of stormwater can help protect nearby riparian areas from pollutants.
For this category I removed quite a bit of lawn and replaced it with native plants with varied root depths to prevent erosion and soak up our Pacific NW rain. I added rain-loving native plants in a part of our yard that gets waterlogged in the winter.
We leave the leaves to restore the soil (and provide shelter for overwintering insects). Our large trees help absorb the rain. And we divert some stormwater to our 10 rain barrels. See the stormwater requirements.
For me, wildlife stewardship is what the program is all about. I adore animals and want to do everything I can to restore the habitats they need to thrive.
So I committed to maintaining birdbaths, a mason bee house and several bee baths. I leave old plant stems as housing for cavity-nesting bees, and I have native pollinator plants for my buzzing friends.
I’ve become obsessed with old logs: Nurse logs, tree snags and brush piles provide shelter for many kinds of wildlife. In the past we would remove these things from our yard, but I have come to see the woodland beauty in them.
The biggest effort I made in this category was removing my landscape fabric to expose the soil for ground-nesting bees. This isn’t required for the program, but I wanted to provide habitat for the 70% of bees who nest in the ground. They tunneled into my little wildflower meadow, and I got to enjoy hours of beewatching.
- Modern birdbath ideas
- Bee bath watering station
- Pollinator gardening guide
- Flowers for stem-nesting bees
Other Habitat Certification Programs
Displaying a habitat garden sign can inspire more people to add native plants, water and shelter for wildlife. At least that’s my hope!
Even if you’re not in the Portland area, there are lots of signs and certification programs that are available nationwide. Check out these options and try searching for additional programs in your region.
- Certified Wildlife Habitat (National Wildlife Federation)
- Certified Monarch Waystation (Monarch Watch)
- Certified Butterfly Garden (North American Butterfly Association)
- Homegrown National Park
- Pollinator Habitat (Xerces Society)
- Leave the Leaves (Xerces Society)
- Pesticide Free Zone
- Victory Garden of Tomorrow
I also recommend joining habitat gardening Facebook groups. Search Facebook for your city or state plus native plants or related keywords. These groups can provide native plant information and gardening tips specific to your region.
With just a few additions to your yard, you can make a noticeable difference and see your garden and wildlife thrive. Have fun!