Water quality in many lakes across the nation is being greatly impacted by shoreline and watershed development.  In New York State, stormwater runoff is the number one cause of waterbody impairment. After it rains, runoff carrying sediment and pollutions rushes across parking lots, roadways, and other impermeable surfaces and ends up in streams, lakes, and rivers.

As shoreline homes are developed around many lakes, the forest is removed and replaced with large houses and lawns right down to the shoreline of the lake.  Many states are now working to educate homeowners about protecting their investment in their waterfront properties by maintaining – or restoring a shoreline buffer of native vegetation. Shoreline buffers stabilize soil and prevent erosion, filter pollutants and absorb nutrients, and provide food and habitat for local wildlife.  And even if you don’t live on a shoreline, there are other ways you can use native plants in your yard to help protect local waterways from the effects of stormwater runoff.

Last month I attended the North American Lake Management Society’s Annual International Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin. A great conference about everything lake related, one of the talks I attended was about native plants for shoreline buffers on Wisconsin Lakes. The project involved restoring 100 ft of shoreline with native plants and woody debris for habitat cover on 5 different lakes.

When many of us think of shorelines, we might picture wetland plants like cardinal flower, blue flag iris, and rushes and sedges.  These are the kinds of plants we have been planting along the shoreline of our new pond – and there are definitely shorelines that look like this – but there are also a lot of  shoreline areas that are pretty dry – understory of mature forests – not wetlands at all.  It was mentioned during the talk that after some trial and error, they were learning which plants were the hardiest and working the best on their sites. After the talk, I chatted with some of the staff involved in the project about just what these shoreline buffer workhorse species were.  Pennsylvania sedge, bearberry, poverty oat grass, and bigleaf aster were some of the plants they were finding to work well on the shorelines on restoration situations in drier, shady to sunny sites.  Besides being hardy, these species also happen to be native to NY and many other parts of the US as well. They aren’t the showiest species, so they may not be as familiar as some other species – but these natives are clearly deserving of our attention. Besides providing benefits for local wildlife, they also can help protect our local waterways in drier shoreline sites. So if you have a drier shoreline area – including the understory of large pines – here are some species you should give a try.

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica):

Pennsylvania sedge forms a ground cover in the forest (spreads by rhizomes) and is resistant to deer grazing. It grows in low clumps, 6-12” high and gets an attractive cluster of brown seed capsules clinging high on the stem that attracts birds. Foliage is pale-green in spring and summer, turning sandy-tan in fall.  This is a great alternative to trying to grow grass in shady, forest understory locations where grass doesn’t like to grow anyway! And its deeper roots will help stabilize shorelines from erosion much better than turfgrass. Native range covers much of eastern North America.

Poverty Oat Grass (Danthonia spicata):

Not a very well known species, this is a cool season grass with blue/green color that grows in wiry clumps with curly basal leaves. This native grass adds nice texture to the garden or is a good choice for part of a low maintenance native grass lawn. Thrives in poor soils of old fields or open woodlands. The curly-Q leaves are characteristic of this grass. Native range covers most of North America.

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi):

Also called Kinnikinnick – I can’t say enough about this evergreen groundcover. A spreading, evergreen shrub that makes a great groundcover in sandy, acidic soils. Attracts bees, butterflies, and birds – and provides winter interest in the garden with the dark green leaves, red berries, and red, exfoliating branches. Avoid soil compaction and fertilization around bearberry. If you have a dry, infertile area where you think nothing will ever grow – try bearberry! Native range covers most of northern and western North America.

Big-leaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla):

This aster has large heart shaped, fuzzy leaves. Forms a dense spreading groundcover. Big leaf, heart-leaved, and white wood aster are all native asters that can be found in woodlands and make great additions to the shade garden. Taking shade as well as sun, it takes a drier soil than asters such as New England or New York – and it doesn’t tend to ‘lean’ quite as much as some of its taller aster relatives. Native range covers much of northeastern North America.


Remember – a healthy plant community isn’t always about lots and lots of variety of the showiest species out there.  You need a few good workhorses to be the backbone of of a healthy and happy plant community.  Next time you are taking a walk around a lake or stream, pay attention to what species you see growing there. Chances are you will see a few species repeated over and over again than a new species everywhere you look. Try to mimic these natural patterns in your own landscape.I’m sure there are many other great species for drier shorelines as well – these are just a few that seem to work well on Wisconsin shorelines.