On a lovely spring morning, I had the privilege to stroll through West Bliss Butte, a 74-acre natural area in Gresham where Metro is improving habitat.
It was a fallow field for many years. When we established habitat goals for the site, we decided that we wanted it to be upland forest, woven seamlessly into the woods to the east and south, which are also publicly owned.
Had we been doing this project 10 years ago, we probably would have planted the majority of the site with trees, and we would have sprayed the competing grasses from time to time to reduce the competition for water. It’s a tried and true way to establish a forest. The parks and natural areas levy that voters passed in 2013 provides us with opportunities to innovate new ways to provide wildlife habitat.
For example, what would happen if we sprayed out the grass in the first place and installed native wildflowers and grasses? And then planted native vegetation, but with very few trees and lots of shrubs. The science tells us that those amazing old-growth firs grew in conditions with plenty of light and very low tree density.
What if we plant them that way in the first place, instead of coming back to thin them in another 10 years, and 10 years after that? What if we have abundant food for pollinators and plentiful shrubs to provide fruit, seeds and other food for wildlife along the way?
Well, that’s what we did at West Bliss Butte, and we are watching to see how well it works. We cleaned up the thick, non-native grasses and seeded a variety of wildflowers and a few native grasses. We planted with more than 95 percent shrubs and just enough trees to grow a bunch of big, “wolf-y” firs.
On that spring morning, the flowers were in bloom and pollinators were everywhere. When I paused, I could hear the buzz of bees all around me. At least six kinds of bees and three kinds of butterflies were feeding on the flowers. And yes, the woody plants were there too. For now, the wildflowers provide nectar and pollen. Shrubs like red-flowering currant will provide nectar and pollen, too, when they grow up.
Do we still have weeds to manage? Yes, and a lot of them. But for the most part, they aren’t grasses and they are not taking much moisture from the woody plants.
Will we have lower maintenance costs? I think so. I can’t wait for a few more years when I can get my pencil out and see if this is just as economical as the “old way.” I think it has more habitat value in the short term; now we just need to confirm whether it can provide the results in the long term.
Resources for your backyard
Pollinators need help. Just as parks providers are providing better habitat for them in natural areas, you can supply habitat in your own yard.
Pollinators need a place to nest and native flowering plants that bloom throughout the growing season.
Why native plants? Because the area’s pollinators evolved with them and can make the best use of native flowers and shrubs. Most native bees nest in the ground, so a little bit of bare ground in your garden is good for them. Unlike honeybees, native bees don’t need to have water set out for them.
There are great local resources to help home gardeners provide pollinator habitat:
- Metro's tips for native plants, including a handy guide to plants native to Willamette Valley yards
- The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation's garden guide
- The West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District’s Meadowscaping Handbook was published in spring 2016 for urban gardeners in the Pacific Northwest
- Residents in some parts of the metro region can sign up for the Backyard Habitat Certification Program
Be on the lookout
You can view native wildflowers at many Metro parks and natural areas. Next time you visit, be on the lookout for some of these native wildflowers.