Your Soil Is Alive!

Over one billion living organisms live a teaspoon of soil!  Most of us think of soil as a chemical sponge – nothing but a temporary holding tank for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.  But soil is a living thing.  As you stand in your garden, you are literally standing on trillions of living creatures.  Entire ecosystems can exist between two gains of sand or in the tiniest root.

Biodiversity vs. Monoculture

Just like a normal ecosystem, soil ecosystems consist of producers, grazers and predators.  As the plants and animals above the ground live in a delicate balance, so do the organisms in soil.  Remove a predatory species and the grazers flourish but the producers (the plants) may vanish too.

For every ecosystem, diversity equals stability.  If an ecosystem is based on a signal plant, organism or input, then outside factors like disease, changes in climate or disturbances can throw the entire system out of whack.

In soil monocultures, regular tillage and the loss of organic matter can reduce soil biodiversity and increase the risks of disease, pests and lowered fertility.  When the above ground system is diverse, so is the system below ground.  Cover crops, crop rotation, additions of organic matter, reduced tillage, and reduction in chemical inputs can increase or preserve soil biodiversity.  A diverse soil ecosystem means that there will be antibodies for disease.  Diverse soils have a symbiosis with plant roots that increase their use of nutrients and water.  Diverse soils can even reduce weed infestation by providing organisms that eat seeds or weaken the plant.

Soil is a living thing.  The more you feed and nurture that living thing, the more it will give back and the more forgiving it will be when we make the occasional mistake.

You can find out more about the incredible world of soil at our Annual Soil School, held in the spring in the greater Portland area, sponsored by the West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service and other partners.  Visit our website for event information ( or call our “Soil Guy,” Rural Conservationist Scott Gall, 503.238.4775, ext. 105;

For more resources:

Planting for Erosion Control

Erosion is the process that occurs when soil and other land matter is disturbed by either human activity or natural conditions such as extreme weather.  When land erodes, it is carried from its original location into streams and rivers, where it disrupts spawning areas, pollutes water, and reduces flood channel capacity.  In addition to creating problems by its presence in streams, the land from which it originally came suffers from a lack of nutrients.  Most eroded material is topsoil, which is necessary to sustain healthy plants.  Once land erodes, it can take hundreds of years to reform naturally.  Common human causes of erosion include poorly designed roads, inadequate drainage facilities, poor grading practices, no revegetation practices, and invasive plant species.

What Can I Do To Prevent Erosion?
Thankfully, there are several things you as a landowner can do to prevent erosion on your property.  Below is a short list of erosion control tips to get you started:

Incorporate existing native vegetation into the landscaping plan for new developments. 
Existing native vegetation requires the least care of any planting materials.  Native plants require little or no watering or fertilizer and grow on difficult sites.  Care should be taken in working around trees to prevent damage. Be sure to use native plants with roots at various depths to assist in stabilization. Though each site will be unique, consider incorporating plants that spread well or require less soil, e.g. bunchberry, sword fern, red-flowering currant, Pacific ninebark, nootka rose, and Oregon grape.

Plant grass seed or other vegetation before the fall rains begin. 
Plant a grass/legume seed ground cover on all exposed areas and cut/fill slopes to create a vegetated buffer.  Plant in fall, winter or early spring depending on the variety – make sure to check with the nursery providing vegetation for the best time to plant.  On slopes greater than 20 percent use netting and straw mulch to hold the soil and prevent loss of grass seed while native plants are establishing.  Straw mulch will provide erosion control and moisture conservation.    

Do preserve trees, shrubs and ground cover in streamside areas.
Streamside vegetation can catch and hold sediment before it enters the stream.  Roots of plants help hold the soil and reduce bank erosion.  Streamside plants also provide food and shelter for wildlife as well as filter pollutants in stormwater runoff.  Preserve streamside vegetation for its value in erosion control, wildlife habitat and pollution filtration.

Remove invasive plant species and replace with native plant species.
Many of the streams throughout Portland are being invaded by non-native invasive plant species like Himilayan Blackberry and English Ivy.  These plants have weak root systems that do not provide ample erosion control.  These plants also out-compete native plants and wreak havoc on our native ecosystems.  Remove invasive plants species and replace with a diverse stand of native plant species with varying root depths and densities for greater erosion control and wildlife habitat.

Adapted from Western Shasta Resource Conservation District (

For more tips on land care, habitat, and conservation, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Gypsy Moth Rap

Check out the cute video from students at DaVinci Arts Middle School!


Helping the Streaked Horned Lark

OPB’s Earthfix blog recently featured an article on efforts to help the streaked horned lark, a native Oregon bird species that is in in severe decline. With only 2,000 left, the streaked horned lark is a priority species for the Conservation District. The District endeavors to restore habitats of federal and state listed species, including state “sensitive” species and others in decline, as determined by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and other national and regional wildlife authorities, such as Audubon Society and The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

This striking bird prefers open habitats such as prairies and beaches, and agricultural fields. Within our district, the streaked horned lark would be found on Sauvie Island and on beaches along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. We encourage land managers with such habitats to help the lark using the following conservation tips:

  1. Provide open habitat on your land. The birds prefer low stature vegetation and areas bare of trees for nesting.
  2. Avoid management that will disturb the birds during their nesting season, e.g. mowing or plowing.
  3. Avoid the use of pesticides. Nestlings use insects as a food source and the young birds can easily fall prey to poisoning.
For more information on the bird, please visit ODFW’s page on the species.
Photo credit: David Maloney USFWS

Juniper garden boxes

West Multnomah SWCD Forest Conservationist Michael Ahr works with local woodland owners, some of whom find it challenging to find a market for small trees that are cut during thinning projects. Build Local Alliance, a partner organization, will assist in this process. Recently, Michael built an 8’ x 4’ raised bed in his backyard out of restoration juniper which is rot resistant.  The wood was milled by “In the Sticks” sawmill in Hines, Oregon and then shipped to a local provider who sells it to Portland homeowners.

Across much of eastern Oregon, juniper encroachment is a problem to native ecosystems.  After years of fire suppression, the tree is much more abundant, and uses a great deal of the scarce soil moisture on our vast range lands.  The situation can damage sage grouse (a candidate for the Endangered Species List) habitat by degrading the local sagebrush resource.  Juniper is often cut, but then left on the ground to decompose since there is not a strong market for the wood.  In the Sticks Sawmill mills juniper that comes almost exclusively from these restoration projects while creating a small market to pay for the restoration.

Check out the Build Local Alliance and visit the website for In the Sticks Sawmill for much more information.



We love bats

Small Yuma MyotisWhite Nose Syndrome has killed more than 6 million bats since 2006, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. It reported on a study that predicts the syndrome will virtually annihilate endangered Indiana bat populations throughout most of the bats’ range within the next decade. Learn more at Aside from disease, bat populations are also suffering from habitat loss, something we can all help with at home.

Bats play an important role in Oregon’s ecosystem eating nuisance insects that often disturb humans (think mosquitoes) and economically hinder farmers by damaging crops. Bats eat between 600-1000 bugs in an hour!

Here are a few things you can do to help bats on your land:

  1. Provide them a water source.
  2. Be sure they have lots of food available to them by having a thriving garden. Bugs need plants. And bats need bugs!
  3. Give them roosting habitat by leaving snags (dead trees) or installing bat boxes.
  4. Reduce your use of chemicals so that bug populations are high enough to sustain a healthy bat diet.

For more information on Oregon’s 15 bat species, click on the “Batty for Bats” Fact Sheet courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife:

Bats Poster

Other resource:

Center for Biological Save Our Bats Campaign

Feel free to share any bat stories or photos with us in our comments section, on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

Hoo, who do you want in your tree?

 Barn owl
 Barred owl
 Great horned owl
 Northern pygmy owl,
courtesy of Greg Gilson
 Western screech owl

Helpful tips for supporting owls via artifical nesting habitat:

1. Owls eat rodents for the most part.  Every habitat seems to be rodent habitat to some extent so there’s not much you can do to increase the food resource.  If you have some edge habitat with trees growing next to open grass, that can be a good place to see owls hunt.  They’ll rest in the forest, and then move to the edges to hunt the open ground at dusk.   They will eat small birds sometimes, but typically birds are inactive at night when the owls are hunting.

2. Common owls in our region: great horned, barred, barn, and western screech.  Barred, barn, and screech owls nest in cavities often.  Owl boxes can be good for these species, but if the box has a big hole, that may be good for barred owls but not screech owls.  A small hole could be good for the screech but not the barred, so some variety  in hole size may help your chances of getting owls.  The owls would likely have been using these boxes over the last couple of months and could still be using them to raise young right now.  Great horned owls will use next boxes some, but they also frequently nest in abandoned hawk and squirrel nests – so they don’t always focus on the cavities.  Barn owls really like the nest boxes, but if there are numerous barns in the area, they truly do use the rafters as habitat too and may not be looking for natural or artificial cavities in the forest.  Even a small hole in a barn can allow the barn owl to enter and exit the barn.

3. If you have lots of large dead trees or snags, the owls may find cavities in those and use them instead of artificial boxes.

4. You can monitor the boxes to make sure raccoons are not using them instead of the owls.

5. Try changing the orientation on boxes.  Example, if they face north now, try facing them south to see if that changes anything.  Not sure about owls, but bats are more likely to use SE facing boxes because they warm up more quickly in the morning.  Facing boxes towards clearings and away from prevailing winds can help.

6. Plant some conifers if you don’t have many.  Douglas-fir and western redcedar can be good trees for owls because they can find cover and hide out a bit in the winter when the deciduous trees have no leaves.

7. Attracting songbirds or owls to nest boxes can be difficult and sometimes just requires a bit of luck.  They are territorial, so if a neighbor mentions having owls, you may not have any on your property just because they are giving another breeding pair some space to avoid altercations.

For more information on Oregon owls, please visit Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife:

I spy… a trillium!

Small TrilliumSmall TrilliumMichael, our Forest Conservation, spent the morning near the Holbrook Community searching the forest for English ivy. This invasive canopy weed if very prevalent throughout the region. Michael received a pleasant surprise when during his walk he spotted his first western trillium of the season. The white blooms serve locally to announce the arrival of spring. A salmonberry was also starting to bloom near a creek on the property.  

Click here for more information on invasive weeds.

Click here for more information on native plants.