Certified (School)yard Habitat in progress

seedlings in egg crates, school courtyard garden, St. Johns

The North Portland elementary school I work at announced this week (by staff e-mail and a new sign propped out front) that they are seeking official Backyard Habitat certification—quiet but welcome local news. Backyard Habitats, for those who don't know, is a program founded by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Columbia Land Trust that officially recognizes the efforts of urban homeowners to encourage native wildlife and native plant populations via ecologically friendly land stewardship methods. Backyard Habitat yard signs can be found during walks in any east-side Portland neighborhood, people proving a commitment to environmental preservation in the most local of places, the home. But now it's clear that such commitment can expand from the home to the public school.

Backyard Habitat Certification in Progress sign at elementary school, St. Johns

The school's informal garden leadership changed hands this year, with a paraprofessional stepping in as head gardener (which only means she's the one doing most of the work) after the departure of the classroom teacher who'd been managing the gardens for years. Maybe no one had thought of the idea before (I certainly hadn't), but Backyard Habitat certification seems a wonderful addition to the school culture as yet another way to instill and reinforce earth-saving values and practices into young urban children, many of whom at this particular school are so poor their families live in crowded subsidized apartment buildings, kids whose playground is most often the beautiful but spooky (and occasionally dangerous) Pier Park, among whose tall, forbidding pine-and-cedar forest the TV show Grimm is often filmed.

Swiss chard in garden bed, school courtyard

diatomaceous earth info, school garden bed, St. Johns

alyssum seedlings (non-native, naturalized plant), school courtyard

In addition to wide fields of manicured grass for soccer and recess play, the school offers a front north-facing yard filled with big rhododendrons and huge old trees, as well as a set of raised garden beds out by the sunnier back playground, with produce like tomatoes and sunflowers rotated each year. But the central piece to the school's Backyard Certification candidacy must be its enclosed "secret" garden, a protected courtyard bordered on one end by a large coniferous tree sprouted essentially from the heart of the school, its branches spreading out above the roof. This courtyard on warm days becomes my favorite lunch spot for its relative seclusion and access to nature.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, native wildflower), school garden, St. Johns

seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucous, a native coastal plant), school courtyard

This not-so-secret garden offers seaside daisy, calla lilies, a strawberry bed, and an herb bed with chives, lavender, and Italian parsley. There's a big rosemary bush and also a berry bush growing along one courtyard wall, not of blackberries or raspberries, so probably a native berry like thimbleberry or salmonberry, though I'm still not sure even after three years because the bushes fruit in mid-summer when I'm not there. The garden is perhaps most lush in early September when everyone comes back to school and before the chill of fall hits, with annual flowers blooming in the beds amid the vegetables and students picking cherry tomatoes during class visits. 

rabbit planter with pansies (non-native annual), school courtyard garden, St. Johns

Backyard Habitat program certification criteria in three levels—silver, gold, and platinum—include invasive weed removal, support of native plants, pesticide reduction, stormwater management, wildlife stewardship, and at the highest level, teaching and volunteering to spread this knowledge in the community. After scanning the list of wildlife stewardship choices, for example, I've realized how simple it would be to put out a wide, shallow dish in my own front yard for a birdbath, refreshing the water daily. And since my cat has always been an indoor-only cat, I've already met the basic Silver level certification for wildlife stewardship (cats being notorious predators of birds and small mammals). So adding a bird bath would put me at Gold level right there in that one category. For many home gardeners, reaching Silver level certification would be easy as first grade. All it would take to get started would be a one-time $35 application fee to schedule a site assessment consultation. 

herb bed, school courtyard garden, St. Johns

But even if a homeowner (or renter like myself) isn't able or willing to commit to the full strictures of the Backyard Habitats program, developing an ability to recognize native plants (versus more widely known introduced species) and supporting these natives' existence in one's yard is an excellent way to grow a thought seed about human impact on natural landscapes that may later turn into a philosophical revolution of what a backyard or front yard means. This is a challenge for myself this year as I return to "yardedness": learning more of the many native plants of my adopted Portland metro area and the wider Willamette Valley. For starters, the Oregon Metro site offers a free native plants booklet, the City of Portland offers a poster of Willamette Valley native plants, and local nurseries like Portland Nursery offer both information and native plants for sale. Certain library and other nonprofit organizations like Milwaukie's Friends of the Ledding Library also hold annual native plant sales, usually in spring, as digging up native species from natural areas is a no-no.

What's in your garden this year? Are you Backyard Habitat Certified or would you ever like to be?

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