How to Protect Water Quality with Buffer Gardens
Written by Catriona Tudor Erler
Today, most bodies of water are at risk for pollution due to nearby development
and agriculture activities. Fortunately, there is a lot that waterfront homeowners can do to protect their valuable resource.
One of the major sources of pollutants for lakes and rivers is water runoff from
nearby gardens and farms. Fertilizers and other chemicals used by people who
live within watershed areas, as well as silt and animal waste, all can leach
into the water. This pollution problem is intensified when homeowners strip
their land of all or most of its natural vegetation by planting a uniform lawn
that goes right down to the water’s edge.
Lawns extending to the shore or riverbank are bad for the water for several
reasons. Keeping a lawn green requires fertilizers. Unabsorbed nitrogen leaches
into the water, creating greater potential for aquatic weeds and algae blooms.
In addition, because turfgrass roots are relatively shallow, they are not very effective at filtering unwanted chemicals.
In contrast, a buffer planting of trees, shrubs, and perennials along the water’s edge will have a positive effect on the water quality. Also known as riparian
buffers, these water-edge plantings act as a filter for runoff, catching
sediment, debris, and pollutants before they reach the water. The plant roots
hold the soil, slowing erosion, helping water clarity, and protecting aquatic
habitat. Trees and shrubs near the water’s edge also help shade the water, keeping temperatures cooler and improving the
habitat for amphibians, fish, and other aquatic life. Buffer landscaping
provides food and habitat for wildlife. Blooming plants also add seasonal color
and attract butterflies and birds while adding to the beauty of the waterfront
Some may snort at the idea of planting trees near the water because the trees
may obscure an uninterrupted water view. But if positioned well, trees can
frame a view and add an additional dimension and depth to the scene, ultimately
enriching the view line. In addition, they provide privacy. Looking at water
through a filter of trees still allows for a good view; being fully exposed to
every boater who happens by is not as charming.
Before you begin planting, make a general assessment of the physical characteristics of your property. These
characteristics, such as the slope, amount of light, and soil types will help
you decide which plants will do best in the environment. Also think about your
viewshed, deciding which views you would like to preserve as well as areas
where a screen of trees or shrubs could increase your privacy or reduce nearby
Photography by Catriona Tudor Erler.
The ideal choices for shoreline plants are natives. They tend to be deep rooted
(as much as three to eight feet deep) so they are superb filtering agents and
also help to stabilize the shoreline, serving as living riprap. Generally,
native plants require less maintenance and supplementary water once
established, so they are easy to care for; however, any plant, whether foreign
or native, is a better buffer than lawn.
The palette of available native plants, including many that have showy flowers,
is extensive and attractive, so a buffer garden does not have to look like a
weedy mess. Nor should it block your view to the water. Create your design so
that the buffer planting frames your water view, adding depth and ever-changing
A diversity of plant materials adds to the beauty and interest of your
property, as well as reduces the risk of a pest or disease infestation. Opportunists,
diseases, and pests will gravitate to monocultures, such as a mass planting of
spreading juniper, where they can feast uninterrupted.
Invest now in a water’s edge buffer planting for the long-term dividends of a beautiful landscape that
attracts desirable wildlife and promotes cleaner water.
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