Ecoscaping—used interchangeably with "naturescaping"—is becoming more and more popular in Portland and around the nation as sustainability, organic plants and vegetables, and being more earth-friendly become prevalent concepts in our culture.
Essentially, ecoscaping refers to the process of transforming your yard and garden space from something that may have been non-organic and not so natural or earth-friendly to a yard that makes use of local, sustainable and native resources.
The era of grass lawns, sprinkler systems that run all day long, and planting any plant you want, says Pat Lando, the owner of Lando & Associates Landscapes Architects, “is gone.”
“We’re moving to something that has to be more sustainable. People want a landscape that is going to function,” he says.
Annie Bamberger, residential landscape designer and project manager for Dennis’ 7 Dees nursery, thinks of ecoscaping as “a well connected plan.” In many ways, doing one thing to your yard, such as planting native plants, will have other benefits, like saving water and cutting down on the need to use pesticides.
Amanda Hoyt-McBeth, owner of landscape design company Habitat Gardens, says the cost to ecoscape your yard can be the same as any other type of landscaping service. But there are also numerous resources in Portland—including the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Audubon Society of Portland—that provide free workshops, incentives, and plant sales to help people plan their yard.
Here are six things you can do to make your yard and garden more eco-friendly and sustainable—and there's a lot you can do now for a productive growing season.
Plant Native Plants
One of the most significant things you can do to make your yard more sustainable and suiitable to Portland area’s ecosystem is choosing plants that are native to the area. “They thrive in our climate and our location. They don’t need a lot of maintenance,” Hoyt-McBeth says, or water. Hoyt-McBeth says the main resistance to gardening with native plants is that one's garden “isn’t going to look as pretty,” but she says that people don’t realize the wide variety of native plants that exist.
People can choose from vine maples, evergreen huckleberries, flowering currents, irises, astors, and other perennials. “There’s tons of things that flower. There’s a lot of perennials,” Bamberger says. “A good time to plant is now.”
The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District recently began their online native plant sale on January 7. The pre-order ends on February 6, and the plants are available for pick up on February 19. There are over 33 species of trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials and grasses to choose from that cost between $2-$3 per plant. “It’s a really cheap way for people to gain access to native plants,” Hoyt-McBeth says.
The Soil and Water Conservation District offers free workshops on native plants, naturescaping, and other related topics, as does the Audubon Society of Portland, which will designate your yard as a wildlife habitat if it meets certain requirements.
Eliminate Pesticides and Artificial Fertilizers
Fertilizers, pesticides, and other substances people put in their yards to help plants grow and keep out weeds eventually leach into the soil and groundwater system, meaning that any toxic material will thus add toxics to the soil and groundwater. If a yard is mostly planted with native plants, fertilizers and pesticides become less necessary. “They don’t get diseased here,” says Mark Parisien, the co-owner of Fiddlehead Landscapes. “Planting densely prevents ground space for weeds to pop up,” says Hoyt-McBeth. “Once people get lots of weeds, they’re more inclined to think of ways to get rid of them.”
Bamberger recommends mulching as something people can do in January and February. Mulching is placing a layer, around three inches, of compost, bark mulch, leaf debris or straw around plants so there is no exposed soil. Water soaks into the mulching, thus saving water, and suppresses weeds from growing.
Lawns are not part of Portland’s natural landscape. “If you go out into the woods, you’re not going to see a big swath of lawn,” says Hoyt-McBeth. They are also a water and time sucker. “Occasionally, when people have dogs or children, a lawn has its place. “They need a lot of maintenance, and a lot of water, to keep them green,” Parisien says. So another way to save a significant amount of water consumption is by delawning your yard, or removing as much grass as you desire. That increases the amount of space at your disposal for plants and vegetables.
Remove your yard’s grass with a shovel and your bare hands, or try something Bamberger is a huge fan of—sheet mulching. “It is very easy to do,” she says, and requires approximately three months of patience. To sheet mulch, lay a half inch-layer of cardboard and newspaper over the grass, then water it. Then pile about eight inches of compost and soil on top of that to create a mounded bed. After three months, the grass underneath the dirt, cardboard, and newspaper will be dead. “Afterwards, you just plant it,” Bamberger says. “That three months gives the time for the soil to settle, for the grass to get killed underneath, and for the cardboard to decompose, creating a wonderful way for earth worms to develop. Now is a great time to do it.”
Add a Water Feature
Many water features enhance a yard’s other qualities—such as its plants—give the eye something else to look at besides greenery, and also provide an opportunity to use water in a way that conserves it or puts it back into the groundwater system. Bamberger, Hoyt-McBeth and Parisien are big proponents of rain gardens. Rain gardens are depressions in the soil that allow rain water to collect and then percolate into the groundwater system between a time period fo 24 to 48 hours. After digging their own rain garden, one can plant water loving plants, such as irises, rushes and fetches, as well as place rocks and stone for an accent. “It’s a simple thing to construct, and it’s a nice focal point for the landscape,” Parisien says.
One source of water for a rain garden is from disconnected downspouts. Parisien says downspouts take water from a storm drain, and then into the Willamette or Columbia Rivers. “It taxes the combined sewer system and brings a lot of pollutants to rivers,” he says. People can disconnect their downspouts if the water is diverted three feet away from their home’s foundation. The Portland Water Bureau offers will discounts to people’s water bills if they disconnect their downspouts.
People can also disconnect their downspouts to harvest rain water and use it to irrigate one’s lawn or garden. Lando says there are a variety of smart clocks available that can be used for a drip irrigation system. Water barrels and cisterns are a great way to start using harvested rain water, but Lando and Parisien warn that barrels cannot hold enough water to irrigate an entire yard for the three or four months it does not rain in Portland.
Add a Retaining Wall
Retaining walls are walls shorter than four feet, typically made of stone, that are used to prevent soil erosion in areas where the ground may slope or fall away. Most often, they are utilized in places where people’s front yards border the sidewalk. Parisien says it is necessary to excavate below where the wall will be located to make the ground level, and to also pack it with a hard-packed layer of gravel below, to keep the foundation straight. Fiddlehead Landscapes specializes in dry stacking retaining walls, meaning that no mortar is used. “It’s an ancient way of construction,” Parisien says. “It’ll last longer than the house.”
Hardscapes are the parts of a yard made out of stone—driveways, patios, stairs, paths, etc. “One of the things about ecoscaping is understanding the hardscapes you have and how they create run off,” says Hoyt-McBeth. A solid block of concrete will not let any water seep into the groundwater system, but will instead run off into the storm-water system. Breaking up the concrete into crushed gravel or big chunks and creating gaps as small as one inch will reverse that.
If getting rid of concrete altogether is the route one wants to go in, there is a large amount of native rock that is quarried in the Portland area, including basalt, that can create permeable patios, pathways, and decorative features. “The biggest thing is getting rid as much permeable material as possible,” Bamberger says. And if you want to get all post-Missoula Floods, Fiddlehead Landscapes specializes in boulder placement, which can provide an accent to a yard and garden.