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How to build better backyard habitats

Program has seen rapid growth in LO since its start four years ago

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Paul Lyons was one of the first participants in Lake Oswego's iteration of the Backyard Habitat program. He constructed several berms in his yard for native plants.Protecting the environment can seem like a monumental task, too big for any one person to make an impact. But Lake Oswego is one of several Northwest cities working to combat that mentality through the Backyard Habitat Certification Program.

Last month, the City co-hosted a workshop designed to help spread the word about the program, which encourages residents to cultivate native plant species on their property.

“This is one thing we can do in our own space that is really going to help,” said Gabe Sheoships, the education director for Friends of Tryon Creek.

The Backyard Habitat program was created by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust; versions of it also exist in Portland, Gresham, Fairview and Multnomah County, but local governments have to sign on for it to expand. Lake Oswego joined about four years ago with help from the Friends group. Since then, roughly 300 residents have become certified in the city.

“We have our own unique issues compared to some of our neighbors in Portland,” Sheoships said. “It becomes a little more difficult to take care of (larger lots).”

Homeowners who want to join the program can register online and schedule an appointment for a site technician to visit and evaluate their yard and offer plans for native plant installation. There is a one-time fee of $35 for the evaluation, but participants then get access to a network of support to help them find native plants.

One of the first steps is to remove the various invasive species that have taken root in Oregon. Some of the biggest offenders are English Ivy and Himalayan blackberries, which thrive in the Pacific Northwest at the expense of native plants. The ivy also has a waxy texture that deters native insects.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - SHEOSHIPS“Our native insects haven’t evolved with this,” Sheoships said, “so they don’t know how to use it at all.”

Once the invasive plants are removed, the next step is to replant the yard with native plants, which enables the natural environment to reassert itself. The native plants are easier to maintain and tend to do better during Oregon’s dry summers, enabling homeowners to conserve water.

“When you create a backyard habitat, our wildlife can utilize that,” Sheoships said. “It starts at the insect level, and once you have native insects in your yards, you’ll have birds.”

The program encourages several other actions that participants can take, including avoiding the use of chemicals and pesticides and practicing better stormwater management techniques. There are four levels of certification for a Backyard Habitat — Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum — so participants can choose how much of a change they want to make.

“You don’t have to remove your entire grass yard to be part of the program,” said Sheoships. “We can work with everyone.”

Most of the attendees at the meeting were new to the program, but there was one veteran: Paul Lyons, who was one of the first people to receive certification four years ago. He said he learned about native species by visiting other backyard habitats, and built a series of berms to host new plants. Since then, he said his water consumption has dropped by 75 percent.

“Now I have a jungle in my backyard of native plants,” he said. “You look out and you see all the birds all the time. That’s probably the biggest reward — and just to know that we’re helping.”

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..