Creating Inland Havens

Restoring and preserving Michigan’s inland shorelines by “lakescaping” is a mindset that’s taking root.
Photography by Michael Buck

Like global warming, natural shoreline landscaping — or “lakescaping” — is a concept attracting more interest each day.

“It’s really just getting started,” noted Mike Mlnarik, designer/owner of Rivertown Landscapes in Rockford, Mich., and a Michigan Certified Natural Shoreline Professional (MCNSP). “People are realizing that the world around us is changing, and we need to protect what we can by returning some of our land to a more native state.

“They’re also learning there are varying degrees of naturalization,” he noted. “They’re discovering ways they can enhance the quality of their lake’s water without losing access to it or giving up a beach.”

Painted Turtle
Photography Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

Perceptions that preservation can’t be pretty are beginning to change, too, as more property owners are discovering the benefits of fringing their waterfronts with indigenous, deep-rooted grasses and plants over high-maintenance expanses of turf and sand.

“A lot of people think of native plantings as prairie grass that looks wild, not aesthetically pleasing,” said Chris Meyer, president of Sustainable Water Management, LLC in West Michigan. “But you can absolutely utilize fast-growing grasses like bluestem clumped up, along with a lot of colorful native flower varieties that bloom at different times, to add beauty and biodiversity.”

Lake-facing Lawn
Lake-facing lawn at this inland shoreline home is reduced and enhanced by a diverse, generous fringe of grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees. // Photography by Michael Buck

Healthier Lakes, Happier Homeowners

While restoring native plant and wildlife habitats to naturally protect and enhance lake quality for years to come is the main purpose for lakescaping, homeowners of one year-round residence — customers of Mlnarik’s for more than two decades — made it their own property’s new protocol for a bigger reason.

“They were tired,” he said. “They had a beach that stretched from one side of their property to another that was hard for them to maintain, and they’d grown weary of keeping weedy growth out and replenishing the sand. But shoreline access was important to their family for recreation, and they still wanted a beach for their grandchildren.”

Though bordered on both sides by neighbors whose manicured lawns butted against groomed sand and seawalls, Mlnarik’s traditionally “neatnik” clients decided to let nature loose in strategic zones the designer proposed to protect their land from erosion and their lake from runoff.

Photography Courtesy of Michigan DNR/David Kenyon

“A buffer zone of indigenous plants and grasses filters (fertilizers, pesticides, lawn clippings, etc. from) runoff naturally before it enters the lake,” noted Mlnarik  (see page 48), who recommends keeping the native landscape-to-beach ratio 3-1 and likes to create more privacy by lowering the sandy space, then “building up” its edges with high-rising grasses and native shrubs.

“They liked the idea of a no-maintenance shoreline and wildflowers blooming at different times — and that it was less costly than a bricks-and-mortar seawall would have been,” he said. “But had it been apples to apples, they would have chosen natural landscaping anyway.

“It’s much better for their lake, and allows them to enjoy it more. It also adds an aesthetic value a lot of people aren’t used to — including them.”

Sustainable Water Management LLC
Photography Courtesy of Landscape Design Services

New Views of Green

“For us, it’s a whole paradigm shift of trying to move people away from what they know, these large grassy lawns they fertilize and grow just to cut down,” Meyer said.

While popular but high-maintenance turf like Kentucky bluegrass has a root structure of four inches and doesn’t filter runoff or anchor ground beneath the topsoil, he noted, the roots of many drought-tolerant, no-maintenance natives grow down eight to 10 feet, are fibrous, bind onto more soil and infiltrate contaminants.

“Utilizing these where you’re bound to have a lot of groundwater coming down and taking out a lot of sediment is incredible,” said Meyer. “Without them, nutrient overload spilling into a well-populated lake can create an explosion of algae blooms.”

Photography Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

Eco-friendly ways to restore waterfront property to a healthier, more natural state vary, noted Meyer, who specializes in stormwater management with landscape design partner Ryan Riebel in West Michigan. While basic rain barrels for collecting reusable water and biodegradable sticks to support erosion-thwarting plants do the job on some sites, other landscapes call for more aid.

Directing rain water above-ground to a bioswale with deep-rooted native plants that will soak up and disperse its benefits rather than pumping it below ground right into the lake;  rain gardens packed with native vegetation to absorb and reuse runoff; and protective moisture-retaining “blankets” of fibers, straw or other plant residue woven with string  can also all bring damaged, developed shoreline back from the brink, Meyer said.

“Bioswales, rain gardens — this is all a new mindset, a new way of thinking,” he observed. “Before we began creating driveways, rooftops and other pervious areas, nature had been cleaning and revitalizing itself for billions of years. Preserving and getting our waters back to that level of clean is important.

Photography Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

“Learning how you can treat the problem at the point it’s happening is the first step.”

For more details about these services, visit and For details about the lakefront property on pages 44, 45, 48 and this issue’s cover, call Todd Fencil at Remax Lifestyles (616-581-1041).

Rivertown Landscapes
Photography Courtesy of Rivertown Landscapes

On the Frontlines

War zone or welcome wagon? While tall native grasses and more dense areas of vegetation fringing inland shorelines turn nuisance visitors like Canadian geese away, indigenous plants, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses more importantly can prevent invasive aquatic plants including purple loosestrife (at left), phragmites and reed canary grass from taking over. At the same time, the shelter and food these habitats provide attract insects and wildlife in and around the water that are beneficial and/or fun to watch.

“Biodiversity is the sign of a healthy lake ecosystem,” said Mike Mlnarik, a Certified Natural Shoreline Professional whose own family has fun watching bats fly out of shelter they put up near their own shoreline’s edge. “If you make the right kind of ‘house’ (simple directions can be found online), they’ll nest in it — and they eat a ton of mosquitoes.”

Landscaping Sunset
Photography by Michael Buck

Dig in: Lake-friendly landscaping:

Guidebook. “Natural Shoreline Landscapes on Michigan’s Inland Lakes: Guidebook for Property Owners” outlines how to use native vegetation to preserve natural lake habitats, control waterfront erosion,  attract beneficial insects and desired wildlife, thwart unwanted visitors, remove invasive species and maintain a shoreline restoration until native species take root. A collaboration of MSU Extension, Michigan DNR, MSU-Department of Horticulture, Michigan Sea Grant and JFNew, the guidebook (#3145, $25) can be ordered online at

Conference. A program of the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership, the third annual Shoreline and Shallows Conference on March 6 at the Kellogg Center in East Lansing highlights shoreline restoration and habitat improvement, as well as wave energy in relation to native plant selection (

Demonstration Area. In Hickory Corners along Gull Lake north of Kalamazoo, MSU has installed four different contiguous lakescapes so property owners can compare varying ways native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, sedges, grasses, aquatic plants and “soft engineering” can be used to buffer erosion, control runoff, create privacy, disperse wave energy, withstand foot traffic and provide wildlife habitat (

Online Support. The Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership (MNSP) and the Michigan Inland Lakes Partnership work together to protect the state’s lakes from pollution and degradation and to promote management of them as ecosystems connected to their surroundings. Find information about Certified Natural Shoreline Professionals, using native plants and more at and

Lisa M. Jensen is editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine. 

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