Open Gardens Project – Featuring Peter’s Habitat

Site Information: Peter’s habitat in the Beaumont Wilshire neighborhood of Northeast Portland has part sun to shade conditions and dry soil conditions

The big view looking west. In the right bottom corner in shade is the rain garden. The right side(east) of the fir trees is the forest garden, mostly brief morning sun. Left (west) of the fir trees is the meadow/forest edge, mostly afternoon sun but some morning too. To the very left, partially in shade, is the sun garden, afternoon sun. The pots in the foreground are our non-native hummingbird loving color swatch. The strip to the very left in the shade except for late afternoon is becoming a wetter shade garden of mostly ferns, Maianthemum, Asarum, Iris, and Mitella. The following photos are shown in counter-clockwise direction starting with the rain garden. In the back is the chicken zone. They used to have free rein, but their love of plants, different from mine, meant I was unable to grow anything. They devoured the tasty stuff first and worked their way down to the less palatable. Not having any grass drove them to eat almost everything else. Natives are all edible apparently as are most non-natives.

What inspired you to enroll in the Backyard Habitat Certification Program?

I have always had a soft spot for native plants, it makes total sense to me to replace the habitat we removed when we moved in and scraped the ground to build our homes. I would be doing something like this anyway being such a native plant-nerd, but this program provides a proven structure for my garden plans.

The rain garden. Only 6’ x 6’ but it handles half our roof runoff due to the great drainage qualities of the soil. It’s planted with Douglas aster, violets, aquilegia, lonicera, cornus, camas, Deschampsia, blue-eyed and yellow-eyed (Oregon native) grasses, and assorted other things. The fountain is warmed during winter and was in continual use. Juncos bathe all year long!

How would you describe your habitat?

I am trying to establish four zones in a very small area: a shady forest garden under four mature Douglas Firs; a meadow/forest edge; a rain garden; and a dry, mostly sunny zone. There are boundary areas that aren’t a focus, but I am trying to make them as native as possible.

I do my best to only select plants from the Portland Plant List, but sometimes the plant species I want is not available, but others from the same genus.

I use almost no herbicides. Because of the establishing plantings I cannot dig out selected weeds in some spots, notably the Italian arum, so I use a paintbrush and paint leaves with glyphosate herbicide. It’s a slow process and the plants take a while to die, but it is effective in the long term. For insect pests, mainly flies (I have chickens) I use diatomaceous earth and/or pyrethrum. I am very careful with that to ensure the native bees are not affected.

Forest garden part I. Looking east back toward the rain garden. The small tree to the right is a Corylus cornuta var. Purpurea. To the left is a Cornus nuttallii. You can see the tall Oregon grape, sword ferns, waterleaf, and snowberry.

What are your top three favorite native plants and why do you love them?

Too hard a question. I delight in small flowers. Small delicate plants and flowers seem incongruous; how do they thrive when there are so many large enthusiastic plants all around them?

Forest garden part II. A small patch in which I was trying to grow Hostas. There are violets, ferns, Indian plum, and thimble berry.

What changes have you observed as a result of creating habitat?

Since the conversion to native plants the variety of bird life that visits has increased. Where we used to get about six species throughout the year, mostly to the feeders, now it’s not unusual to get a dozen species in one day. Not bad for one sixteenth of an acre!

Forest garden part III. The nursery “log”, dicentra, ferns, Asarum, Rhododendron, short Oregon grape, Tellima, and Tolmiea.

What were the two most significant challenges you encountered while creating habitat, and how did you address them?

This question is worded in the past tense, as if the challenges were entirely overcome!

Trying to get things to grow in the dry shade under mature trees is a challenge and one that is not going to go away. The selection of plants that naturally grow under Douglas Firs has made my job easier, and they thrive with the addition of extra water. The firs thoroughly suck the water away especially in hot windy conditions, made worse, I suspect, because they are an isolated stand of trees. If there was more of a forest around this stand the need for transpiration would decrease.

I started with pretty much nothing but the firs and bark dust so I had few weeds to contend with, a bit of English Ivy and the wrong sort of weedy Campanula. These I have controlled and keep at bay with vigilance. However the improved growing conditions have encouraged Italian Arum, which I tolerated until I became aware of its weed status. Now it has dug in and I am working hard to eradicate it.

Forest garden part IV with fountain. Deer fern, Maianthemum, other ferns, and lilies.

What resources did you find especially helpful?

I get a lot of inspiration from nature. I regularly visit parks that feature the biomes that correspond to my garden. For example I got a lot of inspiration from Graham Oaks Savannah restoration park. I hadn’t realized just how beautiful a “mere grassland” could be. I now hike and visit parks all over the region studying the different plant communities.

  • The booklet “Native Plants for Willamette Valley yards”, Metro.
  • The Portland Plant List

The books:

  • “Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes” by Kathleen A. Robson, Alice Richter & Marianne Filbert, Timber Press 2008
  • “Revised Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” by Pojar & Mackinnon, Lone Pine 2014
  • “Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest” by Mark Turner & Phyllis Gustafson, Timber Press 2006

The web sites:

  • BackyardHabitats.org
  • OregonFlora.org
  • https://emswcd.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Rain-Gardens-Guide.pdf
  • https://www.wildflower.org
Meadow/forest edge part 1 looking west. Bunch grasses, Campanula, checker mallow, Solidago, honeysuckle. Hard to see Oregon sunshine, Paxistima myrsinites, Nootka roses (forming a hedge between the garden and the chickens), and yarrow.

How do you enjoy your Backyard Habitat throughout the different seasons? What are its highlights in each season?

In every season, every day, I take multiple ambles thru the garden looking for new growth, flowers, fruit, signs of feeding, plants or combinations that are particularly beautiful and/or successful, and I’m always on the lookout for plants that need moving or(especially) patches that can take more plants.

I love having a beverage in hand and just sitting.

Spring is a mix of ups and downs. Delight when new growth begins and unexpected plants pop up. Disappointment when anticipated perennials don’t show or the weeds make an unexpectedly vigorous appearance.

Meadow/Forest edge part II looking northeast, your back to the previous photo. Bunch grasses, Solidago, Mitella, Tolmiea, Heuchera, Lewisia and beach daisy (Oregon natives), spirea, Campanula, and checker mallow. Still very small is Collomia, and Cinquefoil.

What part of your backyard habitat are you most proud of?

How quickly it was used by birds. It makes me realize just how starved our bird population is of their natural resources.

The sun garden. Lewisia (Oregon native), Sea blush (Plectritis congesta), Sedum, Phacelia corymbosa (Oregon native), Paxistima myrsinites (Oregon native by the rock), and nodding onion. In the pot is a Hyssop for pollinators and the edging is a non-native carex.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your journey?

Will it ever end? Hopefully not.