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Extension > Garden > SULIS > Design > Shoreland Landscape Design, Maintenance, and Management to Protect Water Quality > Vegetative Buffer Zones

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Vegetative Buffer Zones

In the previous chapter, we learned what watersheds are and how activities within a watershed can have an impact on water quality. But what about direct impacts to lakes and streams from shoreland landscapes? Vegetative buffer zones can play a key role in limiting negative water quality impacts from developed shoreland property.

Darlene Charboneau

A vegetative buffer zone is an undeveloped area directly adjacent to a body of water. Buffers can be comprised of existing plants on the site and/or new plantings. Buffer zones include aquatic plants in shallow water, moisture-loving plants along the shore, and upland plants in dry soils. The optimal size and design of buffer zones will be discussed in Section 3: Shoreland Design. Appropriate plant selection will be discussed in Section 4: Plant Identification and Selection.

The primary purposes of vegetative buffer zones are to:

  • Reduce runoff by increasing stormwater infiltration into soil. Less runoff means less nutrients and other pollutants entering the water -- excess nutrients are the primary cause of algal blooms and increased aquatic plant growth.
  • Stabilize soils with plant root systems.
  • Reduce shoreline erosion due to wave action.
  • Purify water with aquatic vegetation.
  • Improve wildlife and fish habitat by providing food, shelter, and shade.
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Carrol Henderson

Native plant buffer zones are invaluable for wildlife habitat. A study done in northern Wisconsin looked at the impact to wildlife when natural shorelines were replaced with developed shorelines. Researchers found that the number of frog species, as well as the total number of frogs, was significantly reduced in lakes where native vegetation and woody debris were removed from the shoreline. Many bird species were also lost, particularly those depending on insects for food and those that nest on the ground.

Some additional benefits of maintaining a more natural, vegetated shoreline include:

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spending less time doing yard work and more time relaxing.

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Carrol Henderson
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Carrol Henderson

In addition, a native plant buffer zone can create a more aesthetically pleasing shoreline for you and your neighbors to enjoy.

Resources For Additional Information On Vegetative Buffer Zones

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

  • Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality is a "must have" manual for shoreline restoration from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Topics include: buffer zones, lake ecosystems, designing lakeshore landscapes, site preparation, plant installation, and shoreline stabilization. The book is available from Minnesota's Bookstore (1-800-657-3757) , the University of Minnesota bookstores, and most private bookstores.
  • Restore Your Shore CD-ROM is a companion to the Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality book. Step-by-step project examples illustrate solutions to shoreland problems and demonstrate restoration techniques. This helpful guide includes worksheets, a plant selection guide with over 400 color photos, and information on invasive exotic species. Available from Minnesota's Bookstore (1-800-657-3757) Watch for "Restore Your Shore" to be added to the DNR Web site.
  • Sustainable Shoreland Ecosystems provides good basic information on why natural vegetative shorelines protect water quality better than disturbed shorelines. Available at
  • Save Our Shorelines presentation in CD, video, or slide/audio cassette is available for loan from the Nongame Wildlife Specialist in your regional DNR office. Call to make arrangements to borrow.
University of Wisconsin Extension Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Stormwater Center
  • A resource center that provides vegetative buffer zone fact sheets and on-line articles concerning vegetative buffer zones, site design, and erosion and sediment control - all available at
  • The Value of Vegetated Shoreline Buffer Zones provides a concise answer to the question "why plant a vegetative buffer zone?" See fact sheets/ buffers at:
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