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For the sake of the lake

Native plant buffers slow runoff, erosion

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published May 17, 2007, 3:31 p.m.)

Every year, many Wisconsin lakes are growing in size, becoming more polluted and getting shallower, environmental concerns easily addressed by a shoreline buffer consisting of native plants.

Stormwater runoff pouring into lakes brings pollutants that upset water chemistry and nutrients that promote excessive weed growth. Shorelines slowly erode away, causing increased sediment and making navigation difficult.

Planting a native lakefront garden is an easy and relatively inexpensive-when compared to lakefront property values. For less than $5,000 (depending on size), it can help maintain a lake's ecology and give homeowners the added benefit of potentially keeping geese off the grass.

Here are a few things to know about installing natural waterfront buffer areas.


* Before you start, zoning permits are usually needed for any environmental disturbance that occurs within 35 feet of the water's edge. Check with your county or municipal zoning department to see what, if any, permits are needed. Even killing off a large patch of grass near a lakefront needs a zoning permit.

* Zoning officials will often do a site survey-either in person or with pictures-to determine what existing plants should stay before putting in a buffer garden. They will also help determine what native plants should go in the buffer area.

* Using plants native to Wisconsin have longer root systems that help stabilize soil, which helps prevent erosion and slows pollutant-rich runoff from entering the water. "They may not be the end to all our problems, but it's a good start," said county Lake Specialist Audrey Greene. "Native species have evolved here so they're more likely to survive our weird weather conditions."

* Plan your buffer and make sure it is approved by your local zoning department before beginning work. A landscaper can help determine the size and scope of the buffer and recommend what plants to use and where to put them for maximum effect and longevity. Some plants thrive closer to the water's edge while others need to stay drier.

* Understand that a shoreline buffer is just like any other garden. They need to be maintained. Watering in the first year is vital and removing weeds or other invasive species is also very beneficial. Protect the plants from hungry wildlife with small fences. Root systems sometimes take a season to firmly plant themselves in existing ground.

* Don't expect the buffer plants to fully blossom out in its first year. You'll get good colors on flowering plants, but they won't reach maximum size for a year or more.

* Leave dying plants alone in the fall and winter. They're perennials and will come back in spring. Come spring, remove the dead plants to make room for new growth.

* Using wood chips will help keep weeds down and retain moisture in the soil.

* If erosion is a serious problem, consider using bio-logs or soil wraps on the waters edge. They are made of natural materials and help further stabilize soils at the lakefront or riverfront. Landscaping companies or nurseries can often order and install the materials for you.




Walworth County is hosting a native plant fair this Saturday and a hands-on landscaping training session on Thursday, June 14.

Both sessions are free.

The native plant fair, featuring local growers and landscapers, is from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. in front of the Walworth County Government Center in downtown Elkhorn. Plants will be available for purchase from local nurseries.

The landscaping training is from 8 a.m. until noon at Terrace Park in Delavan (between Walworth Avenue and Washington Street. Park on Brook Lane). Local experts will show how easy it is to install a natural shoreline buffer.


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