Just another little neighborhood in Portland OR, where residents have happily given up their lawnmowers. I recently survived a family trip to the Northwest with teens, and despite the incredible natural beauty we hiked through, Portland sticks in my mind. This post may seem like a digression from my usual subjects, but there’s a connection. Every little front and back yard is a fragment too, much like our forest on a tiny scale. It’s potential habitat for butterflies, bees, birds, snakes, lizards, box turtles… or it can just be lawn.
I didn’t expect to explore urban habitat on our trip, but when the flight home was delayed as usual, we had an extra day to do something. The neighborhood near the Motel 6 didn’t look promising, with drifters and panhandlers hanging around the 7 Eleven as I started my morning walk.
Just a block into the neighborhood I encountered the first chicken coop along the sidewalk.
This neighborhood of small homes and flowery yards reminds me of Louisville’s Clifton, with residents by and large committed to growing all sorts of plants in their front yards and in the median between the sidewalk and street.
The largest Trumpet vine Campsis radicans, I’ve ever seen occupies the frontage of one home, with hordes of hummingbirds in attendance.
Admittedly, Portlanders have more reasons than some of us to kill their lawns. The West Coast has a summer dry/winter wet climate, and lately the summer dry is getting longer and hotter. It was 98 degrees the day we were there, and residents were being asked to restrict water usage.
The manicured emerald carpets so pervasive in the urban east are just not going to happen here. It’s led to a rethinking of personal landscapes – Portland’s apparently enlightened city ordinances, and live and let live attitudes are refreshing to say the least.
One of the reasons I’ve come to dislike lawns so much started with my first job, a paper route. In those days you still walked the route twice a day with a bag of newspapers slung across your shoulder. At that time, mid ’80’s, the Chemlawn craze was in full swing, and I still recall the nauseating smell of fresh chemical applications I had to tramp through day after day.
So it’s no surprise my front yard is an urban jungle. This streetside habitat would be right at home in Portland, OR, but in my supposedly hip Highlands neighborhood I’ve had plenty of experience with our local code enforcement. I responded to the first warning letter with a long email polemic outlining why I was in the right, as well as what native plants I was growing, and their value as pollinator or host plants. I never heard back.
The second time (reported by our next-door neighbor again) led to a great conversation with code enforcement officer Cindy, who was quite sympathetic and onboard with our habitat enhancement. We dug up some extra Milkweed and Passionflower for her garden, and she shared some good info for would-be front yard gardeners. First off, city code inspectors don’t drive around looking for problems; your lovely front yard habitat will only draw their attention if one of your neighbors reports you. Second, the only issue they really care about is tall grass – if the habitat looks decently well-kept regardless of how bushy, and you know what’s growing there and why – you are probably ok.
For more info on the front yard garden ethos, check out this great article: https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2008/09/is_it_time_to_kill_your_lawn.html
And though we like to say “Keep Louisville Weird”, that phrase was first printed on a bumper sticker in Portland OR. I’d say we still have a ways to go…