Planting a Resilient Habitat

by Megan Van de Mark, Backyard Habitat Certification Program Co-manager; and JP Marchetti-Mendez, Backyard Habitat Certification Program Coordinator

When choosing what to plant, the first step is to observe the conditions of one’s outdoor space to ensure the right plant gets added to the right place. To help plants thrive, choosing plants adapted to the site’s soil, light, and moisture conditions, and size of the space, is critical. If you have a dry and sunny spot, for example, select a plant that can thrive in those conditions. In light of historic drought and heat, this is especially important.

Golden-crowned Sparrow on Tall Oregon Grape
Golden-crowned Sparrow on Tall Oregon Grape, photo by Jon D. Anderson.

The Backyard Habitat Certification Program focuses on planting locally native plants, as they are critical to supporting the biodiversity and health of this ecoregion. Over 90% of plant-eating insects feed and reproduce on specific native plants. By planting native plants, we provide critical habitat for these insects, which are the foundation of a healthy ecosystem.

Climate change is affecting fauna and flora in different ways. Research indicates that plants respond individualistically to those changes and that many Pacific Northwest (PNW) plants have already experienced shifts in their geographic distribution in recent decades. Whether species will continue to shift, adapt, or decline is still unknown. What is expected is that the PNW will not only have wetter winters and drier summers, but also increased air temperatures and extreme weather events.

One action we can take right now is to plant locally native plants that are resilient and drought tolerant. Depending on the conditions of your space, here are a few plants to consider:

    • Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): fast-growing, drought-tolerant, sun-loving herbaceous plants highly attractive to pollinators, with a long bloom time.
    • Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi): low-growing, trailing, evergreen shrubs well-suited to dry, sunny, extreme locations that support pollinators, beneficial insects, birds, wildlife, and humans.
    • Tall Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium): versatile evergreen shrubs adapted to a range of conditions, they are extremely attractive to birds and other wildlife.
    • Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor): a large, adaptable, deciduous shrub with beautiful white flower clusters that provides great cover for birds.
Common Yarrow, photo by Melissa McMasters.
  • Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana): large, long-lived deciduous trees, oaks are powerhouses of the tree world. Oregon White Oaks are adapted to hot and dry conditions, and when mature, provide habitat to over 200 species of wildlife, can sequester a lot of carbon, and manage a lot of stormwater.
  • Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa): tall evergreen trees that thrive in sunny, dry locations, Ponderosa Pines are important for carbon sequestration.

When should you plant?

The return of rains in autumn often feels like the perfect time to head inside. Counterintuitively, autumn is actually a great time to get outside and garden. That’s because fall and winter are the ideal time to plant native plants in the Willamette Valley for a couple of reasons:

Rain

Autumn rains provide critical soil moisture for new plants, helping their roots grow before the dry and hot months (starting earlier every year). That said, most new native plants will still need supplemental water during dry spring and summer months for the first two to three years. Long, deep, less-frequent watering is better for plants than frequent, short, shallow watering.

Wildlife impact

From the beginning of February through the end of July, birds and wildlife are rearing their offspring, with a peak in June and July. Wildlife often nests and finds shelter in the plants in our yards, particularly those lower-growing plants. By planting in fall or winter, we cause less human disturbance during an important and vulnerable time for those animals.

To learn more about creating a wildlife habitat that helps fight climate change, visit backyardhabitats.org. The Backyard Habitat Certification Program is co-managed by Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust.