How I Got My Garden Certified as a Backyard Habitat

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.

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

Thick ivy on backyard slope before removing it and adding Oregon native plants
Bigleaf maple leaf and other Pacific NW native plants with paver stone path in my backyard habitat naturescape

Read More: Permanent ivy removal with solarization

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

Thick patch of vinca before removing it from front yard
Native flowers in front of evergreen shrubs in modern front yard landscaping: Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum), meadow checkermallow (Sidalcea campestris), red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Read More: The easy way to kill invasive plants like vinca

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.

Little pollinator on a cutleaf beardtongue (Penstemon richardsonii)

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.

Standing next to a newly planted bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) in my backyard habitat

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.

Giant blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora) - a tiny annual flower enjoyed by tiny, adorable pollinators
Cute little native flower, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

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.

Cat showing me around the Echo Valley Natives nursery in Sandy, Oregon
Anya, the friendly pup at Sauvie Island Natives nursery

We met some new friends at our local nurseries, like kitties Ranger and Scout at Echo Valley Natives, and pup Anya who showed us around Sauvie Island Natives.

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.

Gray hairstreak butterfly on sedum flowers

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.

Killing vinca roots with cardboard and wood chip mulch

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.

Managing Stormwater

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.

Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) surrounded by leaves in my backyard habitat
Native ferns and twinberry on slope behind fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) flowers

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.

DIY rain barrel system guide

Read More: DIY rain barrel guide

Supporting Wildlife

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.

Bee on a mossy stick in the birdbath
Bee enjoying the meadow checkermallow flowers (Sidalcea campestris)

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.

Bird in a ground-level birdbath in a backyard habitat

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.

Read More:

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!

Holding my new certified backyard habitat sign from Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust

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.

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!

Creating a certified backyard habitat
Getting certified as a backyard habitat

2 thoughts on “How I Got My Garden Certified as a Backyard Habitat”

  1. Wow Tara!! I’m sure the birds, bees, bugs and other wildlife in your yard communicate among themselves of what a great living space you have created and made for them and tell and invite their “friends” to come live in your yard! It’s an awesome thing what you have done changing your neglected ivy choked yard into a welcome woodland habitat for the wildlife and also a nice place for people to relax and enjoy too! (I know it’s been an arduous journey getting it the way you wanted it.) You did good!!!!

    • Thanks, Judy! It definitely seems like word is getting around as the animals are telling their friends! I love sitting outside and watching all the wildlife. It’s so peaceful. We even had a cute little gray fox once! Now that the bad weeds are gone and we have so many young plants, I’m excited to watch them grow and fill in over the next few years.


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