Living Buffer

Native plants create attractive shorelines and reduce maintenance costs and erosion.
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Elizabeth Park
Native plants and earthen solutions were used to create a natural buffer on the banks of the Detroit River at Elizabeth Park in Wayne County. Photography courtesy Michigan Sea Grant

Many of the reasons people are drawn to lakefront living — healthy fish, abundant wildlife and clear, clean water — also depend on the individual decisions homeowners make.

While many use seawalls to hold a bank in place, healthy shorelines need a variety of trees, shrubs and plants. Forty percent of Michigan’s inland lakes have poor lakeshore habitat, according to a decade-old National Lake Assessment.

Natural shoreline restoration is an eco-friendly option for lakefront property owners. The practice is encouraged by Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership and local conservation districts.

Detroit River bank
Native plants and earthen solutions were used to create a natural buffer on the banks of the Detroit River at Elizabeth Park in Wayne County. Photography courtesy Michigan Sea Grant

“The basic soft shoreline concept is that you use plants to hold the bank in place,” says Julie Batty, project coordinator for Muskegon Conservation District, which offers workshops for the public. “The amount of work it takes to achieve depends on the extent of the erosion problem.”

It’s known by several names: Bioengineering, softshore engineering or lakescaping. Native plants, biodegradable products and other natural materials are used to provide a stable shoreline, which acts as a living, permeable buffer that changes throughout the seasons and years.

According to Batty and the brochure, “Natural Shorelines for Inland Lakes,” produced by Michigan Sea Grant and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, there are a multitude of benefits. Among them are:

White Lake tiered shoreline
A tiered shoreline is created on White Lake to stop erosion. Photography courtesy Muskegon Conservation District

• Shoreline integrity and aesthetics are improved.

• Plants absorb and reduce wave action and shoreline erosion.

• Habitat for turtles, frogs or ducks is enhanced.

• Native plants provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife.

• Runoff is slowed, reducing sediment in lakes and rivers.

• It lasts as long as a seawall, and living plants do not rust.

Some native plants can be added as a weekend DIY project, but more extensive projects, such as removing a seawall, dredging, regrading or installing coir logs, require permits and professionals. Still, it’s often cheaper than hard armoring the shore using bulkheads and seawalls. “They also look really good,” Batty says.

Many organizations have native plant sales in the spring and can give advice about what plants would work best, including the Muskegon Conservation District. For more information, visit bit.ly/Lakescape or mishorelinepartnership.org.

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