Habitat Restoration: The Change Starts at Home

Bleeding Heart and other native plants, Mary Johnson photo

All photos courtesy of Mary Johnson. Featured photo above: Bleeding Heart and Salal in the foreground, and Sword Fern, Salal and more in the background.

When it comes to the tall order of protecting and restoring our planet’s endangered habitats, starting local is a sound rule of thumb. King County resident Mary Johnson took this notion seriously, discovering that in order to make a profound impact, she need not look further than her own Sammamish backyard. Over the past eight years, she’s partnered with KCD to transform her “mow, blow, and go” half acre of grass into a picturesque native plant paradise. Beyond the beautiful results of her efforts, Johnson’s restoration labor has paid off in the return of a breathtaking abundance of biodiversity, with reptiles, beetles, mammals, and birds flocking to her backyard oasis.

  • Henderson’s Checker-mallow (Sidalcea hendersonii)
  • Bleeding Heart and other native plants, Mary Johnson photo
    Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) and Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
  • Pearly Everlasting, Mary Johnson photo
    Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) and Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

“Your yard is part of the ecology of the area,” Johnson explained. “If you’re just doing grass and mowing it and putting chemicals on it you’re really kind of poisoning the land. I wanted to heal the land.”

  • Mary Johnson photo
    Goldenrod (Solidago) and Common Thread Waisted Wasp (Ammophila procera)
  • Bumblebee on Salal flowers, Mary Johnson photo
    Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and bumblebee
  • Bumblebee on Salal flowers, Mary Johnson photo
    Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and bumblebee

In order to begin restoring her property to a more natural state, Johnson took advantage of free KCD services, such as soil testing and a restoration consultation with KCD Senior Resource Specialist Jacobus Saperstein. She also sought out local workshops and courses to educate herself on restoration topics such as planting for native pollinator species. Johnson began following the simple, yet powerful strategy of planting her property with native plants that would have historically inhabited the land.

“Oceanspray, Oregon Grape, and Snowberry,” Johnson chanted off, explaining that this group of native plants became her “mantra”. “And Mock Orange,” she quickly added, as if not wanting to exclude a valued member of her backyard family.

  • Bumblebee, Mary Johnson photo
    Henderson’s Checker-mallow (Sidalcea hendersonii) and bumblebee
  • Native Oregon Iris, Mary Johnson photo
    Oregon Iris (Iris tenax)
  • Native Oregon Iris, Mary Johnson photo
    Oregon Iris (Iris tenax)

She explained that she purchased many of her plants through KCD’s Annual Bareroot Native Plant Sale, which offers affordable native plants to the local community.

“I always like [KCD’s] selection,” Johnson said. “It’s like being a kid in a candy shop!”

  • Native Oregon Iris, Mary Johnson photo
    Oregon Iris (Iris tenax)
  • Bleeding heart, Mary Johnson photo
    Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
  • Snowberry in winter, Mary Johnson photo
    Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

She touts curiosity, experimentation, and joy as guiding forces in the work that she does, and has been pleasantly surprised by the land’s eagerness to heal itself.

“I got on a food forest kick for a while,” Johnson explained. “I was doing huckleberry and salmonberry, which by the way came back on its own. It just started popping up!”

  • Goldenrod (Soldiago) and Flower Longhorn Beetle (Pacific Northwest Xestoleptura)
  • Blackcap Raspberry (Rubus leucodermis)
  • Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

As time passed, she realized that her planting had set off a chain reaction of ecological restoration. She decided to begin photographing and cataloguing the wildlife species that have returned to her land.

“If there’s insects, there’s birds. And if there are birds coming there are birds of prey coming,” Johnson explained. “It’s kind of addicting after a while.”

  • California Hedgenettle (Stachys bullata)
  • Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and bumblebee
  • Various shrubs in Johnson’s backyard, including Sword Fern, Snowberry, Oceanspray and more.

While Johnson is driven by her passion for nurturing plants, she also says she is motivated by a sense of urgency to contribute to a greater wildlife conservation effort, which she believes needs to extend beyond protected public lands. In North America, bird populations have declined by nearly 30% over the past 50 years. More than half of North America’s pollinator species are experiencing population declines as well.

“It’s not an option not to do what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s up to us on our suburban lots to be creating these corridors and to be attracting the biodiversity.”

  • Various shrubs in Johnson’s backyard, including Nootka Rose, Snowberry and Oceanspray.
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
  • Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana)

While starting out a restoration project like hers can be daunting, Johnson’s balanced perspective makes the process feel like less of an “all or nothing” affair. She says that she is not a “purist” and that she does have some non-native plants on her property, as well as a vegetable and herb garden.

  • Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)
  • Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana)
  • Oregon Iris (Iris tenax)

Overall, however, Johnson hopes more landowners can shift away from the view that native plants are less desirable than exotics because they are “common”. Instead, she believes we should value native plants precisely because they are the original inhabitants of the land, and therefore best suited to support healthy and harmonious ecosystems.

  • Various trees and shrubs in Johnson’s backyard, including Sword Fern, Vine Maple and more.
  • Various trees and shrubs in Johnson’s backyard, including Sword Fern, Serviceberry, Snowberry, Western Red Cedar and more.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

“[Resources] are out there, you just have to go seek them,” she advised. “Just start small and have some fun with it!”

  • Goldenrod (Soldiago) and bumblebee
  • Goldenrod (Soldiago) and Yellow-face bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenskii)
  • Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)
  • Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)
  • Fairy Moth (Adela septentrionellla)
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Caroline Boschetto, Community Agriculture Engagement Coordinator


Decline of the North American avifauna, Science Magazine

Pollinators in Peril (Acrobat PDF), Center for Biological Diversity

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