A Self-Sufficient Home and Backyard Farm in Portland

Two medical professionals balance careers, parenthood and sustainable living with a family garden in Oregon.

backyard chickens

Four chickens frolic (and forage) in the sizable backyard.

Photo by Stephen Cridland

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Mark and Jen Moylan walk the line between cosmopolitan and agrarian when it comes to their family’s 3⁄4-acre property in Portland, Oregon, where they balance the desires for modern convenience in their day-to-day urban life and the wide-open spaces of the pleasant farm lifestyle they grew up with in rural Missouri.

Mark and Jen both work busy, high-paced jobs—Mark is a medical doctor and Jen a nurse, both specializing in emergency medicine. When they first moved to the Portland area from the Midwest 14 years ago, Mark and Jen immediately liked the laid-back attitude prevalent in the region, and responded to the emphasis on conservation and getting outdoors. Mark is a cyclist and fly fisher, Jen is a runner and they both enjoy hiking and skiing. They bought a tidy, picturesque 900-square-foot bungalow without much of a yard to care for, perfect for the young professional couple.

But eventually, they began to dream of more outdoor space. By this time their family had expanded to include a dog, their eldest child (Joseph, now 8) and one more on the way (Samantha, now 6). Jen and Mark wanted space for the kids to roam—after all, Jen grew up on a 300-acre farm, and they both wanted their kids to be able to experience the outdoors daily. “I remember as a kid being able to roam,” Mark says. “That’s harder to do in a big city, but we wanted them to be able to go outside. I just wanted them to have space to move.”

The Moylans started hunting for a house with more property, focusing on the homes’ outdoor spaces. Their search was long, as they looked for something with adequate space for their mini-farm dreams. Upon first visiting their now-home, Jen and Mark weren’t impressed with the ranch-style house itself. They had gotten used to the charm of their classic Portland bungalow. But the house offered the perfect amount of outdoor space. They kept visiting, and eventually the house grew on them.

Growing the Garden

Six years later, the Moylan yard has undergone a transformation. While many of their neighbors hire professional landscapers and gardeners, the Moylans instead employ four chickens, who roam the yard during the day foraging for bugs and providing compost for the gardens. The kids—now including 3-year-old Carly—love the chickens, and Joseph handles most of the chicken chores: closing the coop door in the evening to keep them safe from predators; refreshing their water; giving them organic feed to supplement what they forage from the yard; cleaning out the coop once a week; and gathering the eggs. “When other kids come over, our kids show them the chickens like it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Mark says.

Instead of perfectly pristine landscaping, the yard features abundant food-producing garden beds and a compost pile out by the chicken coop. Mark has worked to squeeze in as many food beds as possible. “Anyplace I can find some dirt, I’m trying to fit in another raised bed,” he says. Gardening has become a family pastime, and the Moylans produce much of their own food, including tons of vegetables, fruit trees (figs, plums and apples), squash and other root vegetables, as well as plenty of eggs. During the growing season, grains and meat are almost all they need to buy at the store. “My ideal is to have this huge, vast place where I can get everything,” Mark says.

The benefits of the family garden extend directly to mealtime. “I think there is truth to the kids getting excited to eat something they have grown,” Mark says. “They watch it grow, and they are more willing to put it in their mouths. They planted it. They had to water it the whole time. They understand where it comes from. That goes for eggs, too, and extends to the idea of chicken as meat,” Mark says—although he says they haven’t yet had a family conversation about that particular potential for the beloved chickens.

Like gardeners everywhere, the family learns from successes, failures and preferences, evolving the garden year by year. Mark says the kids love to harvest and eat lettuce; it’s easy for them to grow, so they feel like they had a hand in the meal. “Joseph’s favorite foods aren’t always vegetables, but he likes carrots because he can grow them easily,” Mark says. Samantha and Carly love strawberries, while Mark is nuts for kale and tomatoes (“I can grow some crazy-good tomatoes,” he says). Jen is always looking to improve the broccoli harvest. “Every year, something doesn’t work and something else works really well, and trying to figure out why is fun,” Mark says.

Flow of Home

The backyard’s transformation from a standard suburban yard to one of their lives’ focal points is reflected in the house itself, as well. The Moylan family renovated the house, focusing on opening up the kitchen and living areas, simplifying the floor plan and connecting the indoors with the outdoors.

Now, the remodeled kitchen flows into the living area, which opens into the backyard. Integrating the kitchen and living areas with the outdoors made sense to the Moylans, given the strong pull of the kitchen as the heart of the home. “Everybody seems to gravitate toward the kitchen in every house,” Mark says. The result is an improved flow of traffic that makes the home work well for the family, and facilitates another of their passions: Connecting with friends and neighbors. The Moylans can host parties of up to 100 people because guests can mill about easily, spilling outside to make room as needed. “When we get together with friends, we often end up at our house because it’s a good gathering place,” Mark says.

The family can easily throw together an informal Sunday night dinner with friends, with the kids wandering outside and the adults eating and relaxing in the kitchen. The changes make the house perfect for entertaining and family time that centers around their favorite thing—the outdoors. Mark and Jen also built a fire pit in the backyard, which makes for low-key entertaining. “Lighting a fire when we have people over makes it cooler,” Mark says.

Backyard Paradise

The changes the Moylans made to their home have helped them live off their own land as much as possible, while still enjoying all the perks of city living. Mark and Jen have short commutes, so they can be home quickly after late shifts, and the kids can easily bike to school. They can also pop out the door to visit the local bakery, bookstore, ice cream parlor and a favorite breakfast spot. Plus, they can partake of the world-class restuarants and other cultural attractions Portland offers. Then they can return home and enjoy outdoor living. Along with gardening, there’s backyard basketball, baseball, and sword fights with foam swords Jen made for the kids. “There’s always art going on in the backyard,” Mark says. “The little one ends up painting the side of the house sometimes, but it washes off. I don’t care what they do back there, as long as they are back there. That was kind of the whole point.”

Maximizing their outdoor space helps the family connect with each other and their environment, despite unconventional schedules. “With our jobs, it’s hard sometimes because I will work evenings,” Mark says. “If Jen and I had 9-to-5 jobs, we could always sit down as a family, but that is not realistic for every day.”

Still, the family nabs plenty of time together, grilling and eating outside when the weather permits or gathering in the warm-toned kitchen, often eating food harvested from their own backyard. “You get that little bit of time every day to disconnect from everything—phones down, tablets down, reflect on the day,” Mark says. “Jen and I find as we get a little older, you gravitate back to what you grew up with. Small town, big land, live off the land: That sounds hugely appealing to me. But it’s hard to think of uprooting as the kids get older and are established in their schools and activities. So you make it work with what you’ve got.”

An Eco-Friendly Overhaul

When the Moylans launched their remodel, their goals were to improve the functionality of the kitchen and living areas, but also to keep conservation in mind. Their first step was to enlist an area contractor with experience in the world of eco-friendly renovations, Green Hammer. Experienced in the use of salvaged materials, the contractors helped the Moylans save and donate salvageable items such as cabinets and fixtures, and helped them source reclaimed materials for their remodel, including salvaged wood for the kitchen cabinets, trim, shelving and more, and reclaimed building materials such as wall framing. They also built a modular wooden shelving system from wood that had been used to make vats for soaking maraschino cherries. “That’s my favorite thing in the whole house,” Mark says.

The reclaimed wood was perfect to achieve the lived-in lodge look Mark and Jen were hoping for—”it just has a warm feeling that I like,” Mark says—and it changes subtly as it ages, lending charm. “The reclaimed fir gets darker and darker over the years,” Mark says. “The contractors came back out and were amazed by how the wood had changed.”

The Moylans opted for local makers whenever possible—a task made easier by the many product manufacturers available in their urban environment. One such company, PaperStone, an area company that makes a countertop material made from—you guessed it—compressed paper, has a retail outlet within walking distance of the contractor’s office. “There are several eco-friendly businesses you can walk to from our contractor’s office,” Mark says. “Feeling the product is a lot easier than trying to imagine it from your computer when researching on the internet at home.”

The family found a local vendor to craft the island countertop out of local madrone wood, and all the doors were made locally. Recycled and eco-friendly materials also fill the home: nontoxic, U.S.-made American Clay plaster (americanclay.com); cork and recycled rubber flooring made from old tires; recycled insulation; and energy-efficient appliances. Although it took a lot of work to locate responsible materials that fit their budget (“the amount of time you have to research can make you want to lose your mind,” Mark says), in the end, their remodel made their home healthier, more efficient and perfectly suited to their lifestyle.

Mother Earth Living managing editor Allison Martin lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her family. She finds the Moylans’ amazing outdoor space great inspiration for her own backyard.