- The Value of Backyard Habitat
- Elements of Backyard Conservation
- The Value of Deadwood in the Landscape
- Our Backyard Conservation Articles: weeds & erosion, soil health, water-wise gardens
Don’t have a backyard? Check out our Apartment Conservation page or our Conservation Strategies (Apartments, Condos, Townhouses) .
The Value of Backyard Habitat
The landscape of our cities and counties has changed significantly over the last 100 years. Today, there are over 4 million miles paved roads and 45.6 million acres in lawn in the United States. Of the remaining landscape, a growing area is covered by invasive plants with little wildlife value.
Land currently devoted to natural areas is sometimes too fragmented and in patches too small to serve the habitat needs of many species. With 56% of total landuse in the U.S. is in an urban/suburban matrix too fragmented for use by wildlife and 41% is devoted to agriculture, backyard habitats are increasingly important.
The results of habitat loss are visible in the landscape. 33,000 plants are no longer common enough within natural areas to perform function in ecosystems. One thrid of North American native birds are endangered.
An emerging response to this troubling phenomenon is happening across the country, though, literally right in your backyard. Backyard habitat conservation programs are emerging to help homeowners understand how the choices they make can help protect valuable resources for wildlife.
Learn more about local resources for understanding backyard habitat conservation:
East Multnomah SWCD Naturescaping classes
Five Basic Elements of Backyard Conservation
1. Control of Invasive Weeds
Many people are affected by invasive plant species and noxious weeds, whether or not they realize it. Non-native plants reduce land productivity, destroy helpful native species, and use up valuable resources for growth, such as soil and water. Additionally, these invasive species and weeds could be hazardous to human health, poisonous to livestock, and reduce the aesthetic and recreation value of public lands.
You can learn more about the species encroaching on Washington County and how to help prevent their spread here on our website: Invasive Species
2. Use of Native Plants
- Some native insects rely on special relationships with native plants.
- Fruits and seed from native plants are a staple food source for Oregon’s birds and small mammals.
- Tall trees and snags as well as low shrubs and thickets create nesting sites and shelter.
- Wildflowers and flowering shrubs feed and shelter native pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Gardening with native plants helps keep rivers clean.
- Trees and shrubs along stream banks shade the water, keeping it cool for fish and other aquatic life.
- Roots of native plants control erosion, keeping streams and rivers clean.
- Native plants naturally filter and break down toxic compounds in the soil.
Native plants often require fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, reducing exposure to toxic compounds through skin, ingestion and dust.
Gardening with native plants can save time, energy and water.
- Native plants are adapted to wet winters and dry summers. Once established, they require less water during the driest part of the year.
- One or two established trees provide shade, keeping your home cool during the hottest months of the year.
Learn more in Help for Farms and Homes about the value of native plants and using them in your home or farm landscape.
Find native plants using the Clean Water Services Native Plant finder.
Learn more about water efficient landscapes in the 7 Basic Steps for Creating & Maintaining Water Efficient Landscapes guide.
3. Reduction of Pesticide Use
Many conservation groups have been concerned in recent years about the impact of pesticide use on native wildlife, particularly bees. You can learn more about pesticide reduction and alternatives on these websites:
4. Stormwater Management
One major threat to water quality is pollution from people’s day to day activities at home, including the choices they make in caring for their home landscape. Using too much fertilizer or pesticide, or applying it at the wrong time, will increase the amount of these chemicals running off the land and into local waterways. Some landscaping choices may also increase the rate of soil erosion, delivering sediment and other chemicals to those waterways as well. When it rains, stormwater runoff from areas where water cannot penetrate the grounds carries pollutants to the nearest wetland, pond, stream or other waterway – this includes some areas of the lawn or garden where soil compaction is severe. Newer developments are required to provide treatment to remove pollutants from stormwater, usually by filtration through a swale. Neighborhoods and businesses built before these regulations took effect in 1992 have little or no stormwater treatment, though. Although runoff from the built environment is unavoidable, you can make wise choices in your home landscape to help reduce the amount of pollution that is washed into our streams.
Local resources to help get a grip on stormwater management in your landscape:
5. Wildlife Stewardship
According to the Portland Audubon Society, our region provides critical habitat for 365 native species of wildlife. Your backyard conservation efforts can help decrease the impact of habitat fragmentation by providing food and shelter for these species.
Resources to help get started:
Xerces Society: How to build nests for native bees
Audubon Society of Portland: Living with urban wildlife
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: More on living with wildlife
The Value of Deadwood in the Landscape
From bee lovers to bird admirers to fans of the creepy and crawly, a word of advice as you clean up the yard this spring: leaving dead wood in place for wildlife makes good sense from the garden bed right up to the tree tops:
Learn more from OSU Extension online: Improving garden soils with organic matter
In just a tablespoon of typical agricultural soil, you could find up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungi, thousands of protozoa, and numerous nematodes, all munching away at, digesting, and transforming the woody debris contained in soil. Not only does woody debris help fuel their growth, but these microscopic creatures form the basis of your backyard food chain. While some invasive bugs might also thrive in dead wood, most are good bugs, and most of the bad bugs only feed on fresh wood.
Learn more from OSU Extension online: Bugs, the good and bad (dead wood revisited)
Moving on up the ladder, many of our native bees like the mason bee are ground or wood nesting. Leaving woody debris and shrubs in place provides them with a place other than your roofline in which to nest year after year. Such low lying woody debris can also provide habitat for shrub nesting birds and small mammals such as squirrels.
Learn more from the U.S. Forest Service online: Bee basics
When a tree falls in the forest, whether you hear it or not, the trunk left behind becomes the perfect nursery for still more microscopic bacteria and fungi, as well as many mushrooms and tree seedlings. These help to rebuild the forest constantly over time, diversifying the structure and types of habitat for many birds and mammals, as well as creating niche habitats for several different species of native plants. Our native animals and plants are much like a family, having grown together over millions of years to the point where they really don’t get by very on their own. So when an area becomes more complex with native plants, be it the forest or your backyard, this variety offers a greater abundance of food for a wider array of native wildlife.
Learn more online: Nurse logs
When a tree falls in the stream, on the other hand, it is definitely going to make a big splash, especially for salmon and other fish. Our native salmon may travel to the ocean for a portion of their life, but young salmon are born right here in our local streams. The trip from Washington County to the coast via the Willamette and Columbia Rivers is no short swim in either direction, and tree snags in creeks and streams can help by providing cool, deep waters for fish to rest and feed in.
Learn more from the U.S. Forest Service online: Creating and Maintaining Habitat in Dead Wood
Of course, perhaps to showiest of all dead wood in the forest is the dead tree snag. While not always a very pretty sight, these snags help support the very top of the food chain: predatory birds, which often need to nest and hunt from higher perches with a clear view.
Learn more online: Snags
Our Backyard Conservation Articles
Autumn doesn’t usually bring butterflies to mind but if you want to see them in your garden next spring, now is the time to start planning. Planting natives in the fall can help support a butterfly community when the weather gets warm again in the spring.
Creating habitat for butterflies is all about having a design structure that considers the life cycle and needs of butterflies throughout the year. Butterflies need windbreaks, nectar plants, host plants, sunny basking sites, and water sources. Having all of these elements can support butterflies throughout many generations. We encourage incorporating a variety of natives that will attract butterflies and other pollinators to your yard. Native butterflies recognize native plants more readily, making it easier for them to find the resources your garden provides.
Read the full article for tips on designing your own butterfly garden!
One billion. That seems like an unimaginable number to most of us, but that is how many birds die each year in the United States due to collisions with windows. That’s three times larger than the 322 million people living in the United States. Try to imagine one billion birds.
If you haven’t heard that distressing “thud” of a bird hitting your window, it is probably just a matter of time. Each residential home in the United States kills two birds on average, representing 44% of the total mortality. In the Portland area there are nearly 70 native bird species that have been found dead or injured from window collisions. The only human cause of bird mortality greater than window collisions is destruction of habitat.
Continue reading to learn how you can help reduce bird mortality from window collisions.
It is true that some ground cover is usually better than no groundcover in stopping erosion because all plants help to reduce the powerful impact of raindrops that loosen soil particles. However, many of the fast growing, fast spreading ground covers that have been imported over the years for use in the home garden can be problematic.
Weeds like English ivy, Reed canary grass and Japanese knotweed cause more trouble than just displacing the food and shelter native wildlife depend on. These plants often invest little of their energy in deep, complex root systems. When they take over an area, excluding other plants, the resulting monoculture does a poorer job of holding onto soils than a diverse mixture of plants, especially native plants.
For those living on highly sloped areas or near streams, this probably comes as no surprise. Stream banks in these areas can be more susceptible to eroding over time if there is little or no vegetation where weeds have taken over. Check out the article to learn more about how to prevent this issue!
What is soil health, anyway? We’ve been hearing this phrase a lot lately in the conservation world. Basically, soil health describes how soil functions and is measured by its ability to do many things, from holding water to providing habitat for soil microorganisms to supporting plants. While the structure of soil does matter, scientists are coming to understand more and more just how important the biology of soil is.
There are many benefits of healthy soil. Healthy soil is high-performing and productive, which is important for farmers and gardeners alike. It can also increase the yield of gardens and farms while reducing the cost that comes with certain chemicals and watering. Good soil health also protects natural resources and can help reduce erosion and other challenges. Read the full article to learn more!
“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin Roosevelt wrote these words in a 1937 letter calling for the creation of local Soil & Water Conservation Districts like the Tualatin SWCD and the West Multnomah SWCD as part of the national response to the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl. Eighty years later, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the strength and fragility of native soils, yet erosion remains a constant concern.
This article was also featured in our spring newsletter!
Following on the heels of such a dry winter, and with two hits of early heat already, spring rains are a welcome sight this year. Gardening and landscaping to reduce the need for watering can be a really good way to reduce water bills and conserve water. As our population grows, and the variety of ways we use our land grows with it, demand for water resources may outpace the present-day supply.
Did you know that our area uses up to two to three times as much water in summer months than during the winter? When dry conditions impact our area, water consumption can become a problem. If you want to try something new in the garden and yard this spring, check out the full article for some ideas to try.
[Much of the information on this page is summarized from Doug Tallamy’s excellent book, Bringing Nature Home.]