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CUES: Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability

Sustainable Landscapes and Management for Shorelands

Catherine C. Reed, Research Associate, Entomology, University of Minnesota
Vera Krischik, Assistant Professor, Entomology,University of Minnesota
Serena E. Willey, Research Assistant, Entomology, University of Minnesota

Sustainability and Shoreland Landscaping

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 remain throughout the winter which can also reduce runoff, especially in the spring, as the snow melts and rainfall begins when most new growth is not yet present. Around these native plants particulate matter accumulates and the plants themselves absorb chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous that otherwise would enter the runoff. Successfully growing native plants requires an understanding of the adaptations of the plants to certain light and soil moisture conditions. Prairie plants are 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. Submergent or floating leaf plants have stems and leaves under water with some parts above water. Native plants are self-sustaining and support wildlife such as beneficial insects, pollinators, and native birds. We can create landscapes with native plants in our backyards. Once established, these landscapes can be maintained by sustainable management practices which limits the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Sustainable landscapes require less chemical treatments reducing chemical inputs into the environment which have nontarget effects on the ecosystems, its plants, and its animals. Excess phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers can runoff from the landscape into the waterways and create nutrient enrichment that encourages the growth of algae. Native plants used as buffer strips along lake margins can absorb these nutrients. Sustainable management encourages managing pests by using the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which emphasizes lower pesticide usage. Soil structure is improved by adding composed yard waste. This bulletin contains information on sustainable landscaping in watersheds, sustainable management, a list of native plant vendors, a list of erosion control materials vendors, and an extensive list of recommended native plants. Landscapes and their management are described for drier upland gardens as well as shoreline buffer strips.

Convert shorelands to wildlife havens by sustainable landscaping and management.
Used with permission of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Sustainable Landscapes Protect Water Quality

  • Erosion is reduced since upland plants hold soil and shoreline plants reduce wave and ice action. Shoreland soil is less likely to erode into the water.

  • Runoff volume and particulate matter is reduced. Upland and shoreline buffer strip plants slow down water so it soaks into the soil, rather than racing down to the lake.

  • Herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are reduced or eliminated from runoff. Well-adapted plants like native species, often require fewer pesticide and fertilizer treatments.

  • Plant nutrients are removed from lake water. Plants absorb nutrients which would otherwise increase the growth of water-clouding algae.

Solidago species

Sustainable Landscapes Increase Biodiversity

  • Increased numbers of plant and animal species help make a landscape sustainable. A variety of plant species provide food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects which reduce insect pest outbreaks.

  • Fish habitat is enhanced with aquatic vegetation. Emergent vegetation provides habitat for spawning fish and fry. Water quality improvements increase fish production.

  • Native plants and animals are conserved. Many plants have become rare as their habitats have been converted to farms and towns. Native plants in home landscapes support a food web including birds, insects, and other animals.

Aster Novae-anglia
New England aster

Sustainable Landscapes Provide Social Benefits

  • Property values are increased. Beautiful vistas from the home and water are created by the use of native plants. The variety of colors and plant forms, the energy and activity of birds and insects, and the seasonal changes of both plants and animals provide diversity and visual enjoyment. The house may be partly hidden by vegetation for greater privacy and a natural looking lakeshore. Trees and shrubs reduce noise of jetskis and boats. A landscaped lot adds value to the house.

  • Low maintenance once established. Initially, some weeding may be necessary. Once the plants have become established, there will be less time spent on mowing, planting of annual bedding plants, chemical spraying, and trips to the compost site with leaves and grass clippings. Less time, energy, and money is spent on maintenance and time is gained for backyard butterfly or bird watching.

Ratabida pinnata
gray-headed coneflower

Considerations for Sustainable Landscape Design

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 be determined since MN DNR 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, a landscape design firm can help develop plans.

The MN DNR has an excellent book on landscaping entitled "Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality", by Carrol L. Henderson, Carolyn J. Dindorf, and Fred J.Rozumalski, 1998, MN DNR, Section of Wildlife, Nongame Wildlife Program. Order by calling the Gift Shop at 651 228-9165 or Minnesota's Bookstore 651-297-3000.

Veronicastrum verginicum
Culver's root

Site aspects: Planning to complement activities
Landscape to complement your activities. For example, if a large lawn is not needed, parts of the 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 are especially valuable in unconventional landscapes.

Site aspects: Identify any 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 will need careful planting to control erosion. Do not locate gardens 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 can be replaced with steps. Replace hard surfaces that allow water to run off, with porous surfaces such as gravel or mulch.

Site aspects: Identify microhabitats or zones
Identify habitats based on light and moisture regimes so the properly plant species can be added to the habitat. Dry, sunny locations support prairie vegetation, while areas under trees are preferred by shade tolerant species. Areas with wet soils support wet meadow vegetation. The emergent zone is the area of shallow water. In the submergent or floating leaf zone, plants grow through the water column to the surface.

Zone 1 prairie if sunny, or woodland if shady
Zone 2 wet meadow, wet soil
Zone 3 emergent, shallow water
Zone 4 submergent, aquatic, soil is never exposed
Select plants which are suitable for the location based on observations of soil moisture and sunny or shady conditions. Recommended species are listed in Table 1 and the more extensive native plant list at the end of the bulletin. Trees and shrubs will 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.

Table 1 A Short List of Plants for UPLAND, WET MEADOW, EMERGENT, and SUBMERGENT Zones

Site aspects: Selecting plants
Native plants are often hardy, do not require fertilizer once established, and support native animals. Most native species are perennial and also maintain themselves by reseeding on the same site. In contrast, many popular bedding plants such as petunias and geraniums provide little value for wildlife and must be replanted each year. Many exotic perennials can be adapted to local climates, but may not be as valuable in supporting beneficial insects such as predators, pollinators, and butterflies. Horticultural varieties of native plants can be used, but in many cases they have been altered in some way that reduces their value as food to animals. For instance, double flowers provide little nectar to butterflies, bees, and beneficial insects. In addition, some exotic plant species are illegal to use. Buckthorn and purple loosestrife, for example, escaped from cultivation and have become serious pests in natural areas.

Used with permission of Fred Rozumalski, design and Roseanne Esparza, drawing.

Site aspects: Use a buffer strip of vegetation
Buffer strips are natural unmowed areas between the water's edge and the lawn or hard surfaces such as driveways and patios. Water will pass through the buffer strip to reach the water. A buffer strip should be at least thirty feet deep and extend up the slope from the water's edge and should extend as far as possible along the shoreline. For example, if you have 100 feet of shoreline, reserve 25 feet or less of shoreline for lake access, and convert the remainder to buffer. Wider buffer strips will be even more beneficial. 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 been demonstrated to reduce access by geese to lawns. See the University of Minnesota's
Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology for more information.

Site aspects: Identify the lake boundary
Locate the ordinary high water level. This is the highest water level that the lake has maintained for enough time to leave evidence on the landscape, and is 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 the ordinary high water level. A DNR permit is required to remove or add any plants in this area. Plantings above the ordinary high water level are subject to municipal ordinances, if any.

Monarda fistulosa
wild bergamot

Liatris species
blazing star

Andropogon gerardii
big bluestem

Verononia fasciculata

Iris versicolor
blue flag iris
wet meadow

Lobelia cardinalis
cardinal flower
wet meadow

Carex comosa
bottlebrush sedge
wet meadow

Implementing the Landscape Plan

Implementing: Obtaining plants and seeds
As native plant landscaping becomes more and more popular, more nurseries are propagating and selling native plants, locally or by mail. It is best to buy plants that are propagated from plants native to Minnesota. Although it is tempting, do not remove plants from the wild unless you have a permit.

Plants can be raised from seed. Seeds may be purchased from suppliers, or collected on private property with the landowner's permission, as long as this can be done without harming wild populations. Seeds from endangered, threatened, or special concern species must not be collected. These species are not included on the plant list. Most seeds of native plants require a cold treatment before they will germinate. Mix the seeds with damp sand and refrigerate them for two months. Or seeds can be planted in pots in the fall, covered with mulch, and left outdoors in a protected, shaded spot or unheated garage, for the entire winter. Uncover the pots in spring and keep them watered.

Native Plants

In the Twin Cities area, native vegetation included oak savanna on the uplands with wet prairie grading into wetlands in the valleys. The native plants supported animals and people. Many plants were used in historic times as foods, medicines, dye plants, building materials and craft materials. Preserve our native plants by using them in landscapes and large scale revegetation projects.

Implementing: Planting prairie, woodland and wet meadow
Remove existing vegetation before planting to increase success. Existing plant roots can compete with tender young roots of newly planted vegetation. Sod and weeds can be removed by hand, by rototilling, or by covering them with plywood and/or black plastic sheets for two months or more. In areas that are rototilled, care must be taken to prevent erosion and reduce runoff. Alternatively, herbicides can also be used. Do not allow herbicides to enter the water. If herbicides have been used, wait two weeks before planting. Areas which are overgrown with reed canary grass, purple loosestrife, or cattails are difficult to plant due to the intense competition from these weeds. These plants may be removed mechanically or with the use of herbicides.

It is best to plant on a drizzly or overcast day. Planting tips include:

  1. do not allow the plants to dry out before planting;
  2. provide ample room in each planting hole;
  3. do not plant too deep; keep the plant at the same level it had in the pot;
  4. protect the plants from strong winds;
  5. mulch first, then plant, which is much faster than mulching after planting;
  6. water immediately, then daily for two weeks until the plants become established, and
  7. water until the plants become established.

Pontederia cordata
pickerel weed

For plantings, one plant per square foot is recommended, but dense plantings will cover the ground faster, especially on slopes. Three years may be needed for some plants to mature. Most plants are slow-growing at first as they develop roots, so small transplants yield more rapid results than direct seeding. Direct seeding of prairie and wet meadow plants may be used to cover large areas. Spring and fall are the best times for seeding in Minnesota. Broadcast seed by hand or use a spreader on prepared soil. Ensure good seed-to-soil contact by lightly raking the seed in, then rolling with a lawn roller. Cover the seeded area with a light mulch of weed-free straw.

Newly planted buffer strip along a lake margin with wavebreaks and silt fence.

Implementing: Planting the emergent and submergent zone
All aquatic areas of lakes and areas below the ordinary high water level are regulated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A permit is required to plant or remove vegetation, to use herbicides, and to install wavebreak structures. Revegetation in the emergent and submergent zones is not as well researched as prairie plantings. Prevent sediment from entering water by placing straw bales or filter fences between the planting area and water.

Undesired vegetation in the emergent zone can be removed by hand or by heavy mulching with plywood or black plastic left in place for two months before planting. Wetland soils should not be tilled. Herbicide use is not recommended and requires DNR approval.

Areas with heavy wave action, whether natural or due to boat traffic, may require wavebreaks such as brush bundles, coconut fiber logs, or plywood held in place with a PVC frame so plants will not be washed away before the plants take root. Plants can be planted directly into coconut fiber logs or biodegradable erosion mats. See the list of suppliers at the end of this bulletin. Remember different bottom sediments influence wave action. Area with sandy bottoms often have higher wave action, which could be reduced if aquatic plants colonized the area.

Sparganium americanum

We recommend using plants, rhizomes (underground stems with buds), or tubers rather than seeds, in the emergent and submergent zones. Seeds of most emergent plants will not germinate under water, so unless the water level can be controlled, you must wait for a dry period to plant them.

Plants for emergent and submergent zones should be planted as soon as possible after you receive them. Keep them cool and moist. Emergent plants must have some of their leaves above the water in order to start growth, although they may spread into deeper waters later. Do not clip or prune them. Tubers of arrowhead, bulrushes, and waterlillies need to be planted by pushing the tubers firmly into the mud or sand. Plants, tubers, and rootstocks may be held in place by staking them down, tying them to bricks using cotton string, or placing them in cheesecloth bags weighted with rocks. Some suppliers sell tubers, rhizomes, or plants with weights attached. These can be dropped directly into the water in areas protected from wave action. As roots develop, plants will be held in place.


To plant or remove aquatic vegetation, contact the DNR office nearest you or the

Ecological Services Section
Minnesota DNR
500 Lafayette Road
St. Paul, MN 55155
651-296-2835 (metro)
or: 1-800-766-6000
or contact the MN Extension Service at 612-625-8173 and request the bulletin, "Managing Aquatic Plants in Minnesota Lakes"

Maintenance of the Sustainable Landscape

Maintenance: Long-term sustainable management
Watering may be necessary during the first season after planting, even in areas close to the lake. The native plants will out compete the weeds gradually, but it is best to remove as many weeds as possible by hand before they develop deep roots. Prairie restorations may be mowed or burned in fall or spring to prevent invasion of trees and exotic grasses, but check local ordinances and the MN DNR, as burning requires a permit. Do not burn for the first three years after planting. Once the restoration is well established, burning every three years will maintain it. In urban areas where burning is prohibited, mowing in early spring can mimic fire conditions.

The components of sustainable management are

  1. placing plants in their correct microhabitats:
  2. low input lawn care;
  3. composting; and
  4. integrated pest management.

Maintenance: Use plants suitable to the microhabitat
Every site contains different microhabitats due to light and moisture differences. The use of perennial plants, especially natives, which are adapted to each microhabitat, reduces the need for fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Replanting is not necessary since these plants persist for many years.

Maintenance: Low input lawn care
Limit lawn fertilization to a low-phosphorus fertilizer in August and September. Water the fertilizer lightly into the soil or vegetation Do not allow fertilizer to enter the water as it will increase the growth of algae and aquatic plants. Longer grass survives better in the shade and during hot dry weather. Weeds are slower to invade longer grass, so mow to a height of three 1/2 inches. If grass is tall, only take 1/3 off the height until the 3 1/2 maintenance level is reached. Leave grass clippings on the lawn, but keep them out of the water. Remove weeds by hand rather than applying herbicide. In the shade, use shade-tolerant species of ground cover, not grass.

Maintenance: Composting
Compost yard waste and add the compost to gardens to improve soil structure, hold moisture, and provide a low level of nutrients. Purchased mulch retains water, but does not provide the same soil structure benefits as composting. Leave twigs, leaves and other litter on the ground under trees, but not on lawns. Winter stems and branches will slow the rate of runoff during spring snowmelt.

Maintenance: Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
any pest problems develop, control is best accomplished by Integrated Pest Management. IPM is a decision-based management system based on timing pesticide applications when insect pests are in earlier stages and most vulnerable. Biorational pesticides such as soaps, horticultural oils, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, and Beauveria fungus are favored over conventional pesticides. These biorationals tend to conserve beneficial insects such as predators and parasitoids. Conventional pesticides should be used on a limited basis, only when necessary. Beneficial insects are predators, parasitoids, bees, and butterflies. Predators and parasitoids reduce pest insects. Bees and butterflies pollinate plants and add beauty to the landscape. Below are some examples of beneficial insects that utilize native plants.

Maintenance: Appreciate the sustainable landscape
Over the long term, less maintenance will be required as the new landscape continues to develop. Take photos and observe the site after planting, and regularly for several years, to watch the progress of the plant and animal populations. Some plant species will thrive and others will prove unsuited to their site and vanish. Birds and insects will arrive and leave as the seasons change. Always be aware of changes that may cause erosion and be ready to prevent them. Sustainable landscaping will enhance the enjoyment of the property and increase its value for years to come.

Alisma plantago-aquatica
water plantain

Sagitaria latifolia

Typha latifolia

Some beneficial insects
Odonata: adult dragonfly predator Odonata: aquatic nymph dragonfly predator
Coleoptera: ground beetle predator eating caterpillar Neuroptera: larval lacewing predator
Hymenoptera: adult parasitic wasp or parasitoid Hymenoptera: adult parasitic wasp or parasitoid laying egg in aphid
Lepidoptera: swallowtail butterfly pollinator Lepidoptera: sphinx moth pollinating Michigan lily

Nymphaea odorata
white water-lily

Valisneria americana
wild celery
submergent/floating leaf

Nelumbo lutea
American lotus, protected
submergent/floating leaf

References and Further Resources
Related Websites
Native Plant List
Back to
Gervais Lake Shoreland Project


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Last modified on March 06, 2013