Q+A: Regenerative landscaper Kyle Leslie-Christy turns Portland lawns into food forests

The founder of PDX Urban Gardens is establishing self-sustaining green spaces that support the surrounding environment and community.

An urban front yard containing various species of biodiverse plants separated by wood chips. A blue house with a yellow door is in the background.

“Remember, it’s never too late to cultivate a green thumb and embrace the wonder of gardening. If you’re reading this, there’s still time and hope to embark on your own green journey,” said PDX Urban Gardens founder Kyle Leslie-Christy.

Photo by Kyle Leslie-Christy

Winter is taking a bow, relinquishing the limelight to a new season in which the natural world awakens seemingly overnight. It’s a busy time for flora and fauna — and for the humans who tend to them.

Portlander Kyle Leslie-Christy is deeply passionate about supporting and enriching the community and environment through gardening. He founded regenerative landscaping business PDX Urban Gardens, offering “a distinct perspective that challenges outdated landscaping practices and policies” by replacing lawns with “food forests” and biodiverse habitats like pollinator-friendly wildflower meadows.

Read on to learn more about PDX Urban Gardens and Leslie-Christy’s journey.

Q: What is regenerative landscaping and why is it important?

A: Regenerative landscaping is a holistic approach to land management that focuses on restoring ecosystems, promoting biodiversity, and enhancing environmental resilience. It involves using ethical and design principles to work with nature rather than against it, similar to the concepts found in permaculture.

The goal is to create landscapes that not only sustain themselves but actively contribute to the health and vitality of the surrounding environment. This approach recognizes the interconnectedness between humans and their environment, acknowledging that our well-being is intimately tied to the health of local ecosystems. By implementing regenerative landscaping practices, we can mitigate environmental degradation, conserve natural resources, and promote healthier, more sustainable communities for both humans and wildlife alike.

Kyle Leslie-Christy PDX Urban Gardens.png

Along with his work transforming green spaces, Leslie-Christy offers handmade, garden-inspired products like lip balms, salves, drinking vinegar, dried herbs, and photography.

Photo by Kyle Leslie-Christy

Q: You have a degree in Social Science with a minor in Indigenous Nations Studies from PSU. How did those fields of study lead you to a career in regenerative landscaping?

A: Throughout my studies, courses such as “Indigenous Gardens and Food Justice” and “Indigenous Ecological Healing Practices” instilled in me a deep appreciation for the Earth and the importance of giving back to it. Learning from instructors like Judy Bluehorse Skelton and Gabe Sheoships emphasized the interconnectedness between humans and the environment, and the significance of traditional ecological knowledge in sustainable land stewardship.

Additionally, my coursework in urban planning and civic engagement provided me with insights into how different spaces within communities, such as parks and plazas, can be designed to enhance the social and ecological environments. By employing a socio-ecological framework and logical systems thinking in urban planning, while also incorporating an environmental justice lens, I offer a distinct perspective that challenges outdated landscaping practices and policies.

Q: Do you see Portland as an urban trendsetter for embracing the movement away from ornamental gardens and lawns?

A: Indeed, Portland stands out as a pioneering city in embracing the movement away from ornamental gardens and lawns towards more ecologically beneficial landscapes. The Backyard Habitat Certification Program, in collaboration with the Bird Alliance of Oregon and Columbia Land Trust, has played a pivotal role in this transformation by enrolling over 10,000 participants since its inception in 2009. This program encourages residents to restore native habitats lost to urbanization, thereby supporting local wildlife and enhancing biodiversity.

As more individuals seek ways to provide food for themselves while also meeting the needs of native fish, wildlife, and plants, the demand for sustainable landscaping practices has grown. The impact of native plantings in public space can be observed in the resurgence of wildlife and native plants in numerous parks across Portland, highlighting the success of these efforts. However, there is still significant potential for further innovation in reimagining urban green spaces.

A close-up shot of a sunflower being pollinated by an iridescent emerald green bee.

Protecting native bees is part of Leslie-Christy’s work, having trained with OSU’s Master Melittologist and Bee Steward programs.

Photo by Kyle Leslie-Christy

The Portland Climate Investment Plan, supported by initiatives like the Portland Clean Energy Fund, underscores the city’s commitment to garden education and green workforce development. By prioritizing garden education in schools across the city, including underserved communities, Portland aims to empower future generations to steward the land and foster a deeper connection to nature right in their neighborhoods. This emphasis on education and community involvement represents a significant step towards creating more sustainable and resilient urban landscapes in Portland.

Q: How could regenerative landscaping shape the city in five years? Twenty years? And how could it help our region cope with a changing climate?

A: In five years, we could see a noticeable shift in urban landscapes as more individuals and communities adopt regenerative practices. Simple changes like reducing the use of harmful chemicals and replacing non-native lawns with biodiverse habitats, such as wildflower meadows and pollinator hedges, can have immediate positive impacts. These changes not only enhance the aesthetic appeal of our neighborhoods but also provide opportunities for community engagement and connection.

Over the next 20 years... these regenerative landscapes would not only provide essential habitat for wildlife but also offer valuable ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and improved air and water quality. Moreover, by creating interconnected green spaces and promoting urban forestry initiatives, cities can enhance resilience to climate change impacts such as heatwaves, flooding, and extreme weather events.

Q: What kind of investment can someone expect to make if they want to turn their front yard into a “food forest”? What are the options for someone with an apartment balcony?

A: When considering turning a front yard into a “food forest,” the investment required can vary depending on factors such as the size of the yard, the desired level of landscaping, and the availability of materials. Generally, someone could expect to invest between $1,500 to $5,000 in materials costs alone for such a project. This estimate includes expenses for plants, soil amendments, mulch, and other necessary materials.

A yard full of flowering plants separated by wood chips and surrounded by a chain-link fence in an urban neighborhood.

Leslie-Christy also launched a seed catalog this year so locals can grow their own beneficial plants specifically adapted to the region.

Photo by Kyle Leslie-Christy

To reduce costs, individuals can consider propagating plants from seeds or cuttings and dividing existing plants to fill in the landscape. Additionally, implementing cost-saving techniques like sheet mulching, which involves layering cardboard and mulch over the existing lawn or planting areas to suppress weeds and improve soil quality, can help minimize expenses associated with sod removal and soil preparation.

To start your balcony garden, get some lightweight containers, like plastic or fabric pots, and make sure they have holes in the bottom for drainage. You can hang baskets or put up trellises to save space. Plant herbs like basil and parsley, and try growing salad greens in shallow containers or hanging baskets. Look for compact vegetable varieties, like cherry tomatoes and peppers, which fit well in small spaces. If you’re short on room, microgreens are perfect—they grow fast and only need shallow trays. Consider dwarf fruit trees if you have space, but remember to prune them regularly. Aromatic plants like lavender and jasmine can add a nice scent to your balcony. Don’t forget to include flowers that attract bees and butterflies, such as marigolds and salvia. Just make sure to give your plants enough sunlight and water regularly!

Interested in establishing a food forest or backyard habitat (or both)? Send an email to PDX Urban Gardens.

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