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Shoreline FAQs

What is a native shoreline planting?

A native shoreline planting is an area of native grasses and perennial flowers planted directly adjacent to a pond, reservoir, stream, or river.  Some plants, called aquatic emergent plants, grow in the water, while others grow on the banks above the waterline.

Why are native shoreline plantings needed?

Currently, many shorelines are planted with turf grass and mowed all the way to the waterline.  Turf grass roots are only a few inches deep – the root depth is approximately equal to the above ground growth.  These shallow roots do little to hold soil in place, so when wind, fountains, boats, or geese create waves, those waves pull soil particles from the bank into the water.  This makes the water cloudy and the bank steeper.  Native plants have roots that commonly grow several feet into the soil.  These fibrous root systems hold soil in place easily.  Additionally, native plants grown in the water (called aquatic emergent plants) absorb and buffer wave action, further protecting the shore from erosion.

Turf grass also allows pollutants like pesticides, fertilizers, and pet waste to run directly into the water.  Native species grow at least one to two feet tall and create a buffer that will absorb and filter those pollutants before they reach our streams and reservoirs.

What are the benefits of native shoreline plantings?

  • Hold soil in place and reduce shoreline erosion
  • Absorb and filter pollutants before they flow into the water (this includes nutrients from fertilizer, which contribute to algae growth)
  • Provide habitat for frogs, turtles, songbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial wildlife
  • Reduce mowing and maintenance
  • Discourage nuisance Canada Geese

How tall do these shoreline plantings get ?

Most native plants are tall by nature, and sun-loving plants tend to be taller than those that prefer shade.  A typical shoreline planting can range from 3 to 8 feet tall.  Fortunately, you can custom design your planting according to your preferences – tall or short.  Short plantings tend to look more manicured and maintained, so if this is your preference, view our short-stature planting plan for a suggested design.

What kind of plants do native shoreline plantings contain?

Native shoreline plantings can have plants growing above the shoreline and plants growing in the water.  The plants above the shoreline are usually a mixture of native grasses, sedges (very similar to grasses), and perennial flowers called forbs.  The plants growing in the water are typically a variety of rushes and bulrushes (which look similar to the reeds you can see growing in wetlands) and perennial flowers.  There are a vast number of species you may choose from, so to help you narrow your options, we have created a few sample planting plans you can download below.

Why native plants?

Native plants are ideal for landscaping for many reasons. Because they have adapted to Indiana’s climate over thousands of years, they don’t need chemicals to help them grow, can tolerate our cold winters and hot summers, have very deep roots that allow them to be more drought resistant, have developed defenses against harmful native insects, and can serve as habitats for native wildlife (consider planting for butterflies, hummingbirds, or songbirds). The deep roots of native plants also make them ideal for shoreline plantings because they can stabilize the soil and help prevent erosion.

Can I just use flowers and no grasses?

Yes, but this will decrease the efficacy and depth of roots for soil stabilization. Many beautiful flowers depend on shorter grasses for support and nutrient uptake as well. We call these companion grasses. Some are short and provide a lot of visual interest by turning autumn colors and moving softly in a breeze.

Do the plants grow in the water or up on the banks?

Both.  Aquatic emergent plants typically grow in 2-12 inches of water.  Other plant communities grow up on the banks, close to but not actually in the water.  Your native shoreline plantings may contain just one or both of these types of plants – it all depends on your goals and preferences.

Will the aquatic plants spread and form a mat in the water?

It depends.  Lilies and a few other native species will spread into deep water, but most plants you would install in a native shoreline planting will not grow beyond 12 inches of water depth.  Talk with the contractor doing your planting, or if you’re doing it yourself, speak with the plant provider, to make sure you understand how far your plants will spread.

Will the plants on the banks spread into my lawn or our neighborhood common area?

No, many natives are not aggressive. In fact, many are struggling to compete with non native plants in the wild, so providing a habitat for them is good stewardship. Ironically, one challenge will be to keep turf grass species from creeping into your native shoreline planting. Choose plant varieties that are not aggressive and mow the area around the native planting. NOTE: many native plants are highly sensitive to tiny traces of weed killers. You may see curling and damage to your new plants if you or a nearby neighbor sprays weed killer.

Do these plantings look wild and messy?

No. Native shoreline plantings do have a natural rather than a manicured appearance, but they need not look messy. You can keep them looking neat and attractive by keeping the edges well defined. Taller plants often have a more unkempt appearance, so use shorter plants if you want your garden to have a cleaner look.  Additionally, using fewer species tends to look more manicured, so choose 5-7 species to plant instead of buying a seed mix containing 15-20 plant types.  Here are example planting plans for both a short-stature and low-diversity planting.

What will these plantings look like in winter?

That depends on how you maintain them.  To provide wildlife food and shelter throughout the year, you should leave dead stalks and seed heads standing until early spring and then cut them down before new growth starts.  If you do this, your planting will look like a stand of tan vegetation with some seed heads here and there.  While some people do not appreciate this look, it can be quite stunning and interested after a fresh snow.  Additionally, when an American Goldfinch is perched on an old seed head, you can’t help but be happy you left it standing.

If you choose, you may cut the stalks down in late fall or early winter, and your planting will look like a wildflower area that’s been trimmed down.

Will these plantings stop bank erosion?

It depends.  If a shoreline is already severely eroding, these plants likely cannot reverse that trend on their own.  However, if installed early enough and allowed to flourish, they can do a great job of stabilizing the soil and preventing shoreline erosion thanks to their deep, fibrous root systems.  If you choose to plant aquatic emergent plants in the water, they will provide an added benefit by absorbing and buffering wave action before it ever reaches the shore.

Will native shoreline plantings get rid of the geese?

If native shoreline plantings don’t get rid of the geese, they at least discourage them.  Canada Geese are a native species of waterfowl, but our suburban areas have drastically changed their habits and created quite an issue in suburban areas. Our perfectly manicured lawns and unfrozen retention ponds keep them well fed and allow them to stay here year-round instead of migrating like they used to.  Unfortunately, geese can be aggressive, especially if they have a nest nearby.  Their droppings are not only unsightly, but dangerous to humans, pets, and water quality.

Geese tend to avoid native shoreline plantings.  They cannot see through the vegetation and think a predator might be hiding there.  Some neighborhoods have completely eliminated their goose population by surrounding their retention ponds with native plantings.

Will native plantings attract snakes?

They might, but snakes will be more likely in rural areas than suburban ones.  A native shoreline planting isn’t usually enough to provide a complete habitat for a snake, so while the occasional reptile may find refuge in your planting, by using common sense and not disturbing it, you can usually avoid any trouble.  And look at it this way – snakes eat mice and other rodents, so they are providing natural pest control!

Can these plantings attract birds and butterflies?

Yes, many native shoreline plants are both beautiful and nutritious for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and more. This planting plan is customized to attract birds and butterflies.

Will native shoreline plantings attract or breed mosquitoes?

No.  Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water and they need 7-12 days to complete their lifecycle.  Native shoreline plantings do not pond water, they simply filter and absorb it before it runs into the adjacent body of water.

Will native shoreline plantings attract bees?

Fragrant flowering plants do attract a wide variety of birds, butterflies, and bees. Remember that 90 percent of insects are beneficial to gardening and rest assured that native shoreline plantings are filled with busy pollinators pursuing nectar.

Do I need a permit to plant them?

Some areas may require a permit for you to install native plantings or do any work along a shoreline.  The City of Indianapolis has developed a permitting flowchart for their area.  In other cities and towns, you may need to check with your county surveyor, county planning or zoning department, the Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources, and/or the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management to see if any special action is required for native plantings along your shoreline.  If you are working along the shoreline of a public freshwater lake, use this flow chart to determine what permits you need.  If you are working along any other body of water, click here to download an easy-to-use handbook to determine who you need to contact before beginning your project.

How are these plantings installed?

If you choose to plant aquatic emergent species in the shallow water areas, they will be planted as plugs, which are small potted plants.  A small hole is created in 2-6 inches of water depth and the plug is packed tightly in so that it doesn’t pop out and float away.  If geese typically utilize the shoreline being planted, a goose fence will be installed around the plantings to keep geese from eating all the new plants.  This is usually a plastic fence that is left in place for the first growing season.

The species planted on the banks of the stream or reservoir are typically planted as seed.  The existing vegetation on the shoreline is killed, tilled up, and then seed is planted.  An erosion control blanket, a straw blanket held together by nylon or cotton thread, is placed over the seed to protect the soil from erosion.  The plants grow up through this blanket and it eventually decomposes, never needing removed.  For a more instant impact, this area could be planted from plugs or potted stock, but that will greatly increase costs.

How wide of a strip do I need to plant along my shoreline?

The width of the buffer strip can vary, but most plantings are a minimum of three feet wide.  A wider strip provides more benefits, so consider extended your planting or creating an undulating border with wider areas and more narrow strips.

Where can I get native shoreline planting designs?

See the list below to view customized planting plans for a variety of different sites and objectives

Where can I find plants and erosion control products for these plantings?

Download our list of shoreline contractors and native plant suppliers to find the resources to get started on your project.

Can I do the plantings myself?

Yes, and if your shoreline area being planted is relatively small, it may be most economical for you to do the plantings yourself. If you need a supplier of native plants, this list will get you started.

Who can I hire to install a native shoreline planting for me?

Consult our list of shoreline contractors or look in the Yellow Pages under Landscape Architects or Landscape Contractors. Remember that not all landscapers are experienced in native shoreline plantings, so ask lots of questions to be sure you’re hiring someone who will install a quality project.  Below are a few suggested questions to get you started:

  • What experience do you have with native shoreline plantings?
  • Are you willing to work with homeowners?
  • Are you familiar with local and state requirements and permits (if there are any)?
  • Can you help me find an appropriate design for my native shoreline planting?
  • Can you complete erosion control measures after planting?

What is the cost of a native shoreline planting?

Native shoreline planting costs vary a great deal depending upon the degree of existing erosion, the size of the planting, and the plant species utilized. If the bank is still gently sloping into the water and isn’t eroded too badly, costs typically range from $10-15 per lineal foot of shoreline.  If the bank is seriously eroded and coir logs or other structural pieces are needed, costs can jump as high as $40-50 per lineal foot.  This is one serious motivator to install native shoreline plantings now before erosion becomes an issue!

How much maintenance do native shoreline plantings require?

Once established, native shoreline plantings are low maintenance, but they do require some care, especially in the first two years.  For the first two years, weed control is the main concern.  Native plantings take their time growing up – they tend to grow their deep root systems first and then worry about growing up and flowering.  For this reason, native buffers can look sparse and leave space open for annual weeds like foxtail, ragweed, and lambsquarters.  If these weeds are only present in small quantities, hand pulling or spot spraying with herbicide will keep them under control.  If the entire planting contains weeds, it may need mowed at 10 inches high once in June, July, and August the first year or two.  Mowing at this height cuts off the top of weeds before they set seed, but doesn’t hurt the native plantings, which aren’t that tall yet.  By year three, the native plants should be filling in and weeds will have a harder time taking hold. The site will still need monitored for weeds, but pulling or spot spraying should be sufficient for their control.

The other maintenance question is what to do with those dead stalks of the past year’s growing season.  Ideally you should leave them standing until early spring and then cut them down.  Leaving them up all winter provides important food and shelter for wildlife.  Cutting them down in spring allows the sun to warm the soil more quickly, promoting quicker growth of your plants.  If you or your neighbors really don’t appreciate the way the planting looks all winter, it can be cut down in the fall after the flowers and grasses have gone dormant.


Though many native plants were subject to burns historically, cutting them to the ground in winter or early spring mimics the “burn cycle” and encourages growth for the next year. So consider this strategy for your shoreline planting if you want to encourage wildflower and forb growth. Early spring cutting is preferred over fall or winter, since brown, dry seed heads can provide important bird food over the winter.

Do I need to fertilize a native shoreline planting?

Native plants do not need special attention once they are established. They do not need to be fertilized or sprayed. Storm water carries many nutrients and therefore shoreline plantings are already fertilized regularly. One benefit of these buffers is they help remove or take up excess nutrients/fertilizers in storm water. Fertilizing them with additional fertilizer would defeat the planting’s purpose as a storm water treatment method and would actually end up feeding the weeds more than the native plants you are trying to encourage.

Will I need to water a native shoreline planting?

Maybe, but only if the weather is very dry for extended periods of time (greater than a month) the first two years.  Native plants are adapted to a wide range of conditions, so they will only need watering in the driest seasons. Drought tolerant plants need to grow deep roots during the first two years to withstand dry periods. Overwatering may discourage this important growth.

What if I want to fish ?

Native plantings are typically a minimum of 3 feet tall, so if you want to fish on your shoreline, you will want to identify a few favorite spots to stand and then either fill those areas with short-stature native species or skip planting there altogether.

My shoreline is shady ?

Definitely.  There are fewer species to choose from in a shady situation, but it is absolutely possible.  This part-shade planting plan can help get you started.

Can I order a sign for my native planting?

A sign does a world of good in communicating to neighbors and onlookers. If you are within the city limits of Indianapolis, you can register your native planting with the City of Indianapolis and elect to receive a sign for your yard. Among other programs, the National Wildlife Federation has a certification and sign program. Installing a shoreline planting with native plants and leaving the seeds over winter covers the checklist requirements for backyard habitat. To learn more, go to National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat page.

My pond or stream banks are really eroded ?

Yes, but there will be some extra considerations.  If you plant plants and seed on a severely eroding shoreline, you run the risk of the shoreline eroding further and destroying the new plantings.  For this reason, some type of structural stabilizer will be required.  The most common practice is to install a coir log, a coconut fiber roll that looks like a tree trunk, along the shoreline.  This roll gets staked against the shoreline, forming an instant buffer against wave action and further erosion.  Because the roll is made of coconut fiber, the native plants you install can grow in and around it.  Eventually the log will be covered in plants and you’ll never know it’s there.

Are there any existing native shoreline plantings out there?

There may be a rain garden near you. There are several demonstration rain gardens around Central Indiana and within the Upper White River Watershed for you to visit.  Your county’s soil and water conservation district may be able to tell you where the nearest demonstration garden is located.


Want to print this page?

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    Need more help selecting plants?

    The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website recommends native species for each state and a variety of situations.