WITH THE TEMPERATURE nearing 100 degrees, I step into one of the many shady spots behind Carole Kelly’s house and look down the hill toward the Marquam Trail, which runs along the back of her unfenced property. Hikers on the five-mile path that winds through the Southwest Hills often mistake her yard for part of the trail and continue ambling on up the slope just beneath her deck balcony. “I come out here all the time and see people walking into my yard,” Kelly says.
I can see why they’d be confused. Her yard doesn’t look as much like a garden as it does a swath of forest. A 100-foot-tall Douglas fir towers overhead, as does a Western red cedar, and there are other plants, like the bleeding hearts near her deck, that I’ve seen growing in Forest Park. She points out that her vanilla leaf, a shrub native to the Northwest, has been nibbled on by bugs. “That’s nature. That’s what bugs do!” Kelly says, laughing. “I really don’t mind.”
As she walks me through her garden, Kelly says she knows the Latin name for each and every one of the more than 100 different plants that grow here. “See that crazy thing?” she asks in her Florida-native drawl. “That’s a maidenhair fern, or Adiantum aleuticum. It’s a little native guy that just cropped up on his own after we pulled out the ivy. And that thing there? Gosh, What is that called? Oh, and I just told you I knew all of them.”
A moment later, Kelly announces that the shrubby plant with broad leaves is a Philadelphus lewisii, or mock orange, before pointing out several other plants native to the Northwest, such as the Western azalea (Aruncus dioicus). These she has dutifully classified as a deciduous shrub and an herbaceous perennial, respectively, on a two-page chart called “Carole Kelly’s Garden” that she typed up for my benefit.
The 54-year-old nurse admits that she has become a “total plant nerd” since embarking on a project to turn her backyard into a tiny piece of native habitat—which it most certainly was not when Kelly and her husband, Philip Pedigo, moved in six years ago.
Long neglected, the 10th-of-an-acre lot behind their Colonial Revival house was overrun with English ivy, an aggressive invasive plant that covered the slope and snaked some 30 or 40 feet up the native big-leaf maples and Douglas firs growing in the yard. While many people think that English ivy (Hedera helix) imbues a garden with old-world charm, the plant, introduced as an ornamental during Colonial times in America, also grows extremely fast—so fast, in fact, that it beats out other species for light, space, and nutrients. Trees covered with ivy can become so heavy with vines and so starved for food that they eventually topple, and ivy’s root systems are so shallow that a hill covered with the stuff is prone to soil erosion.
I was so fired up, because if you believe in evolution, you know that diversity is crucial for the propagation of all species,
– Robin Jensen.
All Kelly knew was that she hated the way English ivy looked. “I just wanted it gone,” she says.
And so, armed with loppers and saws, she cut back bunch after bunch of the stuff, and then pulled the vines up by the roots until she had cleared the slope, save for the trees.
But she had no idea what to put in the ivy’s place—not surprising, given that her gardening experience began and ended with houseplants. It took a few months of online research, but Kelly, a consummate do-it-yourselfer, ultimately decided to repopulate her backyard with plants native to the Northwest: those that are adapted to our climate, that are naturally resistant to the region’s pests and diseases, and that require less water. “Basically, I found out that I wouldn’t have to do as much maintenance in the long run if I used native plants, which was key for me,” she says.
A couple thousand bucks spent at Bosky Dell, a native-plant nursery in West Linn, and many mistakes later (“I planted everything in the wrong time of year at first,” she laments), Kelly has become a minor expert in Northwest flora, although she doesn’t shun other species completely. To add splashes of color here and there, she’s also introduced nonnative flowering plants like hostas, echinacea, and phlox, though all are varieties that she knows will not start growing out of control.
The result is a yard that doesn’t simply look “pretty for pretty’s sake.” Instead, Kelly’s garden is a kind of working ecosystem in miniature, one that’s beneficial to native insects and birds. It’s so healthy, in fact, that in April 2007 the Backyard Habitat Certification Program gave it a platinum designation—the highest level in its three-tiered ranking system designed to reward homeowners who turn their yards into biologically diverse habitats.