Room to Grow: PDX Kid-Friendly Backyard Retreats



The Austin Family
When Jon, Rachel and Adelaide Austin moved into their Creston bungalow in 2009, the backyard was a sloped mess of weeds and diseased fruit trees. But Rachel had faith, and visions of a terraced yard. “We did everything ourselves,” she says. “I spent that first year digging,” adds Jon.

All that digging yielded other rewards, too. The family found pieces of petrified wood, fossils, geodes and even a petrified peach. Rachel lines them up around beds as extra decoration.


Kids from the neighborhood, like their neighbor’s toddler Arthur, love coming over and exploring the yard — and trampoline.

Rachel is an artist who gets much of her inspiration from nature, and her artistic touches abound in the outdoor space. She adds colored marbles from the dollar store to gravel surrounding the garden beds for a vibrant pop of color. Adelaide is 9 now, but when she was younger, she and her friends made a game out of digging through the gravel for “treasures” that bestowed superpowers.

The bottom level is an extension of the family’s home when the weather is warm. “It’s our family room. We eat dinner out here, play board games,” says Rachel. It also serves a space for hosting friends.

Plants are “like candy” to Rachel, but if a plant doesn’t thrive, it gets replaced with something new. She’s even learned to enjoy weeding, and hand waters everything. But using native plants helps keep that task from being too burdensome.


Around the side of Rachel’s studio, Adelaide has her creation station set up. She builds elaborate mud pies, writes out party menus on a chalkboard and hangs out in the tee-pee her parents sewed for her when she was 2.

In 2015, the Austins’ yard was certified through the Audubon Society’s Backyard Habitat program by using at least 5 percent native plants. Rachel says she’s seen more pollinators, birds and bees attracted to her garden since then.

The Parrish/Van Winkle Family

Heather Parrish and Ryan Van Winkle purchased their Northeast Portland home in 2008 in part because of the expansive backyard. Their two sons Dashiell, 7, and Max, 5, have plenty of room to romp.

Another plus was the partially covered patio with an outdoor fireplace. The wall of the patio features a mystery mural painted by a previous owner. “My favorite feature is the fireplace. We even used it during the snow last year,” says Heather.

When the couple moved in, the huge lawn area’s main feature was an extremely overgrown laurel hedge. No trees or flowers or vegetables. Now the yard is filled with brown-eyed Susans, zinnias, dahlias, Susans, zinnias, dahlias, a butterfly bush, and ginkgo, eucalyptus and dogwood trees. Garden beds produce squash, corn, tomatoes, green beans, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries and a whole lot of pumpkins.

Heather hosted her son’s end of the year preschool party in the backyard—65 people total.

The family hosts a 4th of July party and summer birthdays in the backyard, too. But they also create quieter memories by camping out in the yard on summer nights, just them and a bunch of glow sticks.

Even if they aren’t hosting events, in warmer weather you’ll often find Heather and Ryan at work in the yard. “Wherever we are, they are,” she says of their two sons.

“I have always enjoyed being outside and my family did a lot of gardening. The kids have learned where to look for signs of the seasons in the yard and are excited to see spring is coming” says Heather. “I hope my kids will carry my family’s appreciation of gardening as they grow up.” 

Sung Kokko is a Portland-based photographer and mom of two. See more of her fabulous work at

Managing editor Denise Castañon wishes she had a larger backyard, but does manage to plant at least three Sungold tomato plants each year, which her 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter eat straight off the vine.

Denise Castañon
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