Do you have a stream or wetland on or near your property? If so, it is likely that you have a restricted area around it in which you are not allowed to build anything, mow, or clear. This is called a riparian buffer/zone. This is not there to cost you yard space or cause problems for you. These areas serve an important purpose for our environment and it is part of my job during the plan review process and construction site inspection process to ensure that these areas are planned for, implemented, and not encroached upon. Unfortunately, many developers, business owners, and homeowners do not understand their importance and just see them as a nuisance and eyesore.
Depending on the stream size and type/category of wetland, these buffers can vary in size from 25 - 120 feet or more. At a minimum, these buffers can consist of just turf grass, but let's be honest, that's boring. Plus, the shallow roots of turf grass do little in the way of bank stability and soil health and the monoculture provides little in the way of habitat.
Get the most out of your buffer and create something that you love looking at, provides good habitat for multiple species, soil health, stormwater filtration, flood control, and bank stability. A riparian area really shouldn't look like a lawn, it should have a stepped edge. This is a transition area between different types of habitat, for example, forest transitions to a shrubbed area to a field. Do you like the shock of being thrown right into a completely different situation? Neither does wildlife. This transition area of natural vegetation provides many benefits such has plant and wildlife diversity, cover and nesting areas away from predators, a wide variety of food for a various types of wildlife, infiltration of water, oxygen, and nutrients for soil, and greater soil stability. It is also GREAT pollinator habitat. In addition to these benefits, riparian areas serve a big purpose when it comes to the health of streams and wetlands. The taller, stronger native plants help to slow down and spread out the stormwater runoff from developed areas such as your yard and the strong roots penetrate deep into the soil profile. This helps to decrease erosion of your yard and stream banks and helps to reduce the risk of downstream flooding. Because these areas slow down the stormwater runoff it gives sediment and pollutants a chance to settle out of the runoff and allows the soils and plants to absorb access nutrients and filter the stormwater before it gets to the wetlands, streams, and groundwater, thus protecting not only wildlife, but also the water we swim in, recreate in, eat food from, and drink. It helps improve the health of everything. It's like I always say, everything we do affects everything else from the very itty bitty to the very big and tall.
So, leave those natural restricted areas of your yard, subdivision, or business property stay natural. If they look like a turf lawn and you have permission, create that edge by planting native trees, shrubs, and plants. If you do your research you can create habitats that can attract specific species of wildlife such as birds of prey, songbirds, pollinators, etc. Are you worried about mosquitoes because you have a wetland? Create habitat for bats! Mosquitoes are one of their favorites.
While you are getting the most out of your buffer so are the birds, bees and the rest of nature's creatations.
Blog Author: Kelly Parker, Stormwater Specialist
For further information on riparian buffers and where you can buy native plants:
- Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District: Native Plant Sales
- Iowa State University Extension and Outreach: Riparian Buffers Can Make Good Pollinator Habitat
- Landscaping for Biodiversity with Ohio Native Plants: A Species Guide for Planting
- Native Plant Nurseries Map
- Olentangywatershed.org: Flow: Riparian Corridors
- Woods for Waters: A Guide for Planting Riparian Buffers for Healthy Streams