Nature patches: a step towards an eco-responsible landscape

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If you walk through Columbia Park in North Portland, you might notice an area filled with ferns, thorny Oregon grapes, logs, and dark purple hellebore flowers where there once was a patch of muddy ground.

Small gardens with a combination of native and ornamental plants have sprung up all over Portland’s parks. These areas, called natural plots, are more than a pretty place to rest – they’re the result of Portland Parks and Recreation’s initiative to introduce sustainable landscaping to Portland’s green spaces that began in fall 2017.

Sustainable landscaping practices offer an eco-friendly alternative to traditional landscaping, which often involves the use of pesticides, herbicides and excessive amounts of water to maintain the rippling green grass seen in most parks. Instead, nature patches, part of the Ecologically Sustainable Landscapes Initiativeprovide habitats that contain fresh berries for local birds and year-round blooming flowers for pollinating insects.

Environmentally Sustainable Landscapes program coordinator at Portland Parks and Recreation, Eric Rosewall, is spearheading this project.

Nature patches “serve both hummingbirds, bumblebees and all [local] wildlife, but also inviting people to learn, explore and relax,” Rosewall said.

Large covered shelter at Columbia Park in North Portland. Sofie Brandt/PSU Vanguard

Rosewall described how the gardens were placed in underused areas of parks or areas that have maintenance issues. For example, Rachel Burdon, president of Friends of Columbia Park, said Columbia Park’s natural patch was strategically planted where there had been slight drainage issues.

These drainage issues caused the mud that hikers saw before the natural plots were planted. According to the detailed sign outside the patch, the garden creates healthy soil enriched with fallen leaves and twigs that are intentionally left on the ground to decompose.

Burdon explained that Friends of Columbia Parka volunteer-run organization dedicated to the protection and maintenance of Columbia Park, has partnered with Portland Parks and Recreation to plan the project and recruit volunteers to place the plants, a community event in itself.

“We probably had 60 or 70 people who came out to volunteer to help plant the nature patch,” Burdon said.

Rosewall said the idea for the program took shape after the successful restoration of Crystal Springs Creek in Westmoreland Park in southeast Portland. The project involved adding a natural playground for children to the park and bringing local populations of salmon back to the newly restored creek.

The Parks Department was inspired by the positive change the project brought to the area. Rosewall and his team thought about how they could pursue faster, more cost-effective restoration projects that could serve other Portland neighborhoods in the same way.

Walkway through the trees to the Columbia Park baseball field in North Portland. Sofie Brandt/PSU Vanguard

The Parks Department finally drafted a plan for a pilot project to plant nature plots in 10 parks over five years. The pilot is nearing completion and he will continue the project in other parks across Portland.

“The city has more than 150 developed parks all of which could benefit from a closer connection to nature, improved local ecology and increased horticultural interest,” Rosewall said.

Sustainable landscaping is spreading to other areas beyond Portland. Halifax, Canada recently implemented a similar program while Vancouver, Washington, is working to create additional natural plots in their local parks.

Whether they volunteer or simply take a moment to stand among the plants, Rosewall stressed that the natural patches will make nature more easily accessible to Portlanders who may not regularly engage with nature.

“We need to give people a quiet place to experience the natural world,” Rosewell said.

Interested volunteers can sign up through a Google form on the Portland Parks and Recreation Nature Patches program website, portland.gov/parks/nature-patches.

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