Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: September 6, 2007

Landscaping River, Stream and Lake Banks

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A stream with natural vegetation

There is something soothing about living near water. Whether it's a flowing stream or a lovely lake, the water seems to bring about a sense of calm. There are, however, state mandated rules that govern our rivers, lakes and streams. Specifically, all creeks, streams, lakes and rivers unless they are contained entirely on the property of a single landowner fall under the jurisdiction of the state. Almost all of these bodies of water (with some exceptions that I won't detail here) are required to have a minimum buffer of natural vegetation of 25 feet or 50 feet if they contain trout. In some localities, these buffers may be larger (check with your county planning office). You can read the state regulations here (pdf) in this 22 page document.

Why Have Buffers?

The rules for buffers are in existence for several very good reasons: Unfortunately, some people are unaware of the rules and often disturb these critical buffers during construction or in the process of landscaping or other activities. Also, within densely populated areas such as metro Atlanta most of the vegetation that I see within buffers is not natural but instead consists of a mix of non-native invasive plants. The most common invasives that I see in buffers are: It is preferable to have native vegetation on banks and in buffers, in fact the state recommends it. The best natives to use are those that naturally occur in such areas and have a suckering habit with a spreading root system. So, if you have the non-native invasive plants listed above on your bank or buffer, I highly recommend that you eliminate them. However, the elimination process for plants in such areas is different from removal from the rest of the landscape (see below).

Lawn is not a good bank/buffer plantPrivet-choked buffer

Eliminating Invasives from Banks and Buffers

Remember, one of the most critical functions of a bank and buffer is to hold the slope and surrounding soil from collapsing into the waterway which has all kinds of undesirable consequences. Therefore, you do not want to disturb the bank or surrounding buffer when removing invasive plants. Here are some suggestions: If plants resprout, treat them again until they don't return. Once plants like ivy and honeysuckle are dead, you can cut the above ground vines and remove them from the area leaving the roots to hold but decay in the soil. Leaving the root systems of invasive shrubs or trees intact will allow the bank to be stable and the soil held until replacement plantings take root.

*Most chemicals are not labeled for use near or in aquatic environments. If you find you can't spray without drift into the water, switch to using a product called Rodeo®. Always follow the labels when spraying and do not get these herbicides onto desirable plants.

Native Plants for Shady Banks and Buffers

Doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana)Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Maple leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)Smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata)

Other natives for shady banks and buffers: Smooth Viburnum (Viburnum nudum), Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea).

Native Plants for Sunny Banks and Buffers

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)Ironweed (Vernonia altissima)
Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Other natives for sunny banks and buffers: River Birch (Betula nigra), Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Black Willow (Salix nigra) and Alder (Alnus serrulata).

If you want more information and even more extensive lists of native plans for banks and buffers, visit this pdf document on the web site of the Georgia Native Plant Society.

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