------------------------- U of MN Extension Service BU-07447



Native Plants for Sustainable Landscapes: Establishment and Management of Lakeshores and Gardens

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Sustainable Landscapes and Management

Native plants can be used around homes and in gardens to create sustainable landscapes. Most native plants are perennial and have extensive root systems that hold soil and slow runoff. Persistent stems, leaves, and flower parts which remain through the winter also reduce runoff, especially in the spring, as snow melts and rainfall begins before new growth is present. Particulate matter accumulates around these native plants and the plants themselves absorb chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous that would otherwise enter the runoff.

Native plants have many positive characteristics. Native plants used as buffer strips along water margins slow runoff and absorb nutrients. They are also self-sustaining, and they support wildlife including beneficial insects, pollinators, and native birds.

Successfully growing native plants requires an understanding of the evolutionary adaptations plants make to specific light and soil moisture conditions. Prairie plants have adapted to dry, sunny uplands, while woodland plants tolerate shade. Wet meadows contain plants species tolerant of sun and wet soils, while plant species in the emergent zone grow with their stems above water and their roots in water. Submerged or floating leaf plants have stems and leaves under water with some parts above water.

Once established, these landscapes can be managed by using principles of Integrated Pest Management, which emphasize lower pesticide usage. These sustainable landscapes require less chemical treatment, reducing the amount of chemicals put into the environment which have nontargeted effects on the ecosystem, its plants, and its animals.

This bulletin contains information on sustainable landscaping in watersheds, sustainable management of such landscapes, lists of vendors who sell native plants and erosion control materials, and an extensive list of recommended native plants. Landscapes and their management are described for drier upland gardens as well as shoreline buffer strips.

Traditional Landscapes

traditional landscapes graphic

Sustainable Landscape

sustainable landscape graphic

Convert upland gardens and shorelands to wildlife havens by planting native species and practicing sustainable management. (MNDNR). Copyright 1998, State of Minnesota, Department of Natural Resources, Section of Fisheries.

Benefits of Sustainable Landscapes

Sustainable Landscapes Protect Water Quality

Sustainable Landscapes Increase Biodiversity

Sustainable Landscapes Provide Social Benefits

Site Considerations for Designing a Sustainable Landscape

When designing a sustainable lakeside landscape, information is needed about the lot and adjacent lakeshore, including water runoff patterns, so that erosion can be prevented and water quality improved. Microhabitats must be identified so that suitable plants can be chosen and adequate numbers of plants can be grown or ordered. The ordinary high water level of the lake must also be determined since Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regulations apply to areas below this level. All this information can be organized and summarized into a plan based on your needs and preferred property uses. If desired, there are landscape design firms which can be hired to help develop plans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has an excellent book on landscaping, Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality, by Carrol L. Henderson, Carolyn J. Dindorf, and Fred J. Rozumalski. Ordering information can be obtained from the Gift Shop (651-228-9165) or Minnesota's Bookstore (651-297-3000).

Landscape plan with buffer strip. Used with permission
of Fred Rozumalski, design and Reseanne Esparza, drawing.

landscape graphic

Planning to complement activities

Landscape to complement your activities. For example, if a large lawn is not needed, parts of an existing lawn can be replaced with ground covers, perennials or shrubs. Note areas where views may be enhanced or screened with vegetation. Do not disturb areas with natural vegetation. Plan to install bird feeders and bird houses and benches to sit on to enjoy the view.

Accessories in the landscape are signs of a cared for and well-managed property. These elements of care show neighbors that the property is not neglected, and they are especially valuable in unconventional landscapes.

Correcting and avoiding erosion problems

Storm water management needs attention since water carries soil into the lake and cuts gullies. If serious erosion problems are developing, seek the advice of your watershed district, or county extension specialists.

Some erosion can be reduced by proper landscaping. Tour your property during heavy rain to observe runoff patterns. Work with your natural topography, and keep water quality in mind.

Steep slopes need careful planting to control erosion. Gardens should not be located on steep slopes unless the area is terraced perpendicular to the slope. Paths on the shore from house to water line should run diagonally rather than straight down a hill. Eroded paths should be replaced with steps. Hard surfaces that allow water to run off should be replaced with porous surfaces such as gravel or mulch.

Selecting plants

Native plants are hardy, do not require fertilizer once established, and provide food and habitat for native animals. Most native species are perennial, and they also maintain themselves by reseeding on the same site. In contrast, popular bedding plants such as petunias and geraniums often provide little value for wildlife and must be replanted each year.

Though many exotic perennials can be adapted to local climates, they may not be as valuable in supporting beneficial insects such as predators, pollinators, and butterflies. Horticultural varieties of native plants, which could also be used, have been altered in ways that reduce their value as food to animals. For instance, double flowers provide little nectar to butterflies, bees, and beneficial insects.

It is also important to know that the use of some exotic plant species is illegal. Buckthorn and purple loose-strife, for example, are exotic plants that escaped from cultivation and have become serious pests in natural areas.

Identifying microhabitats or zones

Habitats within the landscape need to be identified based on light and moisture regimes so that proper plant species can be added to each such microhabitat. Dry, sunny locations support prairie vegetation, while areas under trees are preferred by shade-tolerant species. Places with wet soils support wet meadow vegetation. An emergent zone is an area of shallow water. And a submerged, floating leaf zone, supports plants that grow through the water column to the surface.

Four specific zones are defined:

Plants must be selected which are suitable for a location, and suitability is based on actual observations of soil moisture and sun or shade conditions. Some recommended species are listed in Table 1 and Table 2. A more comprehensive and extensive native plant list begins on page 13.

Table 1. A brief list of plants found in upland, wet meadow, emergent, and submerged zones.

bur oak Quercus macrocarpa
common chokecherry Prunus virginiana
red maple Acer rubrum
red oak Quercus rubra
white oak Quercus alba
wild plum Prunus americana
American elderberry Sambucus canadensis
American highbush cranberry Viburnum trilobum
Prairie grasses for sun
big bluestem Andropogon gerardii
Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans
little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium
sideoats grama Bouteloua curtipendula
Herbaceous plants for sun
anise hyssop Agastache foeniculum
bergamot Monarda fistulosa
butterfly milkweed Asclepias tuberosa
Culver's root Veronicastrum virginicum
gray-head coneflower Ratibida pinnata
prairie blazing star Liatris pycnostachya
prairie smoke Geum triflorum
purple coneflower Echinacea augustifolia
purple prairie clover Dalea purpurea
thimbleweed Anemone cylindrica
Herbaceous plants for woodland shade
Canada wild ginger Asarum canadadense
common blue violet Viola papilionacea
Jacob's ladder Polemonium reptans
mayapple Podophyllum peltatum
true Solomon's seal Polygonatum biflorum
wild geranium Geranium maculatum
Zone 2: wet prairie soils (wet meadow)
black spruce Picea mariana
cottonwood Populus deltoides
Saskatoon Amelanchier alnifolia
red maple Acer rubrum
swamp white oak Quercus bicolor
buttonbush Cephalanthus occidentalis
meadowsweet Spirea alba
pussy willow Salix discolor
red osier dogwood Cornus sericea
prairie cord grass Spartina pectinata
Herbaceous plants (and others)
blue flag iris Iris versicolor
blue vervain Verbena hastata
bottlebrush sedge Carex comosa
cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis
Culver's root Veronicastrum virginicum
great blue lobelia Lobelia siphilitica
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium maculatum
marsh marigold Caltha palustris
spike rush Eleocharis species
swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata
Zone 3: emergent lake margins
Herbaceous plants (and others)
arrowhead Sagittaria latifolia
bur-reed Sparganium americanum
Canada bluejoint grass Calamgrostis canadensis
cattail Typha latifolia
green bulrush Scirpus atrovirens
lake sedge Carex lacustris
pickerelweed Pontederia cordata
river bulrush Scirpus fluviatilis
soft rush Juncus effusus
water plaintain Alisma plantago-aquatica
wool grass Scirpus cyperinus
Zone 4: submerged or floating leaf (for wet soils always under water)
American lotus Nelumbo lutea
spatterdock Nuphar advena
white waterlily Nymphaea odorata
wild celery Valisneria americana

Trees and shrubs can provide shade, frame your view, and hold soils on steep slopes. Grasses, sedges and flowering perennials can be used where an unobscured view is important.

Identifying the lake boundary

You need to locate the ordinary high water level of any body of water where you seek to landscape a shoreline. This is considered to be the highest water level that the lake has maintained for enough time to leave evidence on the landscape.

The high water level is considered to be the legal boundary of the lake bed. It is often the highest point reached by emergent plant species such as sedges, rushes, and cattails. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has jurisdiction over all areas below that ordinary high water level. A permit from the DNR is required to remove or add any plants in this area. Plantings above the ordinary high water level are subject to local ordinances, if any exist.

Using a buffer strip of vegetation

Buffer strips are natural unmowed areas between the water's edge and a lawn or hard surface such as a driveway or patio. Runoff will pass through the buffer strip to reach the water, but its speed will be reduced and much of the sediment it carries will be captured by the buffer strip.

A buffer strip should be at least 30 feet deep, reaching up the slope from the water's edge and extending as far as possible along the shoreline. For example, if you have 100 feet of shoreline, you should reserve 25 feet or less of shoreline for lake access, and convert the remainder to buffer. Wider buffer strips will be even more beneficial. Even simply leaving a strip unmowed will allow the growth of taller and denser plants which will slow down runoff and intercept sediment.

The use of native plants will make buffer strips more attractive and increase the area's biodiversity. The most effective buffer strips consist of vegetation with dense root systems and many erect stems which persist through fall and spring rains. Multiple layers of trees and shrubs are most effective against soil erosion on steep slopes.

Buffer strips along lake margins have also been demonstrated to reduce access by geese to lawns. The University of Minnesota's Department of Fish and Wildlife website has more information on this subject (www.fw.umn.edu/extension/indept.html).

buffer strip graphic

Table 2. Some common native plants.

goldenrod graphic

Solidago species

new england aster graphic

Aster Novae-anglia
New England aster


Ratabida pinnata
gray-headed coneflower

culver's root

Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver's root

blazing star

Liatris species
blazing star

wild bergamot prairie graphic

Monarda fistulosa
wild bergamot

big bluestem graphic

Andropogon gerardii
big bluestem


Verononia fasciculata

blue flag iris

Iris verisicolor
blue flag iris
wet meadow

cardinal flower

 Lobelia cardinalis
cardinal flower
wet meadow

bottlebrush sedge

Carex comosa
bottlebrush sedge
wet meadow

pickerel weed 

Pontederia cordata
pickerel weed

bur-reed graphic

Sparganium americanum
bur-reed emergent

plantago graphic

Alisma plantago-aquatica
warter plaintain emergent

arrowhead graphic

Sagitaria latifolia

cattail graphic

Typha latifolia

waterlily graphic

Nymphae odorata
white waterlily

wild celery graphic

Valisneria american
wild celery
submergent/floating leaf

lotus graphic

Nelumbo lutea
American lotus (protected specie)
submergent/floating leaf


Produced by Communication and Educational Technology Services, University of Minnesota Extension Service.

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