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What is a Native Plant?

Native plants are indigenous to a given area and have evolved over thousands of years in a particular region, adapting to the geography, hydrology and climate of that region.

A native plant is unique because it fully integrates itself into an ecosystem, establishing complex relationships with other local plants and animals. These plants form communities and biological interactions with specific flora, fauna, fungi and other organisms. In other words, these plant communities depend on the organisms where it evolved in order to survive while these local organisms also depend on the same native plants in order to live.

Michigan Native Plants

Michigan’s native plants have adapted to all of Michigan’s soil types - as well as woodlands, wetlands, ponds, streams, meadows, prairies and everything in between.

Coming in a wide variety of shapes, colors, sizes and foliage types, there are over 600 Michigan native plants including wildflowers, grasses, ferns, trees, groundcovers, shrubs, evergreens and vines.

Some species of Michigan’s native plants have root systems that extend up to 15 feet or more underground. This characteristic not only allows the plant to be more successful at searching out water, but it also allows them to hold soil particles in place, preventing erosion and stormwater damage.

Most native species are perennial or self-seeding biennial plants. This means that they will typically re-seed themselves and continue to thrive and multiply with little human intervention. This also helps save costs by eliminating the need to buy new plants each year.

Gardens, Lawns & Landscaping

Why You Should Grow Native Plants

With a new understanding of the purpose and responsibility of wildflowers, our front yards, side yards, backyards, schools, parks, commercial properties, utility easements, driveways and parking lots are now the new frontlines to bridging the gaps between natural landscapes and densely populated areas.

The Detroit Urban Area is now the 11th most-populated urban area in the United States. Today, 95% of the land in the Clinton River Watershed has been plowed, paved, cut down or replaced with turfgrass – removing and changing the ecosystems that stabilize our lakes, rivers, streams and wildlife.

With a fresh approach and some thoughtful planning, our landscaping plants can not only show year-round curb-appeal but also be multifunctional by cleaning stormwater while providing for pollinators, beneficial insects, songbirds and other wildlife.

The Failure of the “American Lawn”

Aside from fume-spewing lawn mowers, homeowners and gardeners have attempted to “green-up” their lawns with multiple applications of fertilizers and pesticides, harming everything they touch – from the soil to the pollinators to the humans and their pets to the streams and rivers.

Because turfgrass has an average root depth of 2-6 inches, most of their water absorption occurrs near the soil surface. These short root systems make lawns more susceptible to not only weeds but also drought and discoloration, so homeowners and businesses alike have invested extra time and expense into the watering of lawn and sprinkler systems

The Lawncare Industry Today

  • Lawns cover over 65,000 square miles of land in the United States
  • Lawns are the largest cultivated crop, exceeding that of corn or soybeans
  • Lawns consume 30,000 tons of pesticides every year, many being possible carcinogens
  • 800 million gallons of gasoline propel lawn mowers each year
  • 30% of municipal water supplies are used to water lawns each year

There are entire industries dependent on the fertilization, weeding and feeding of lawns, and due to consumer demand, the agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporations continue to develop genetically modified grasses and more potent herbicides, even as weed-killing chemicals continue to be found in common U.S. food and beverage items.

As we’ve attempted to pursue lawns that look like they have been meticulously groomed by a dedicated team of golf course caretakers, we’ve applied and coated our lawns in fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Now that there has been a visible loss of wildlife and notable stormwater damage to our streams and rivers, many are seeking long-term solutions.

The New American Landscape Movement

Nationwide, there are new, uniquely-American garden designs and lawn alternatives that are being cultivated by gardeners, landscape architects, homeowners and urban communities alike.

Sustainable landscape designs are now being incorporated into rain gardens, natural shorelines, native perennial beds and contemporary meadow gardens that are not only beautiful, but functional and productive.

New lawn alternatives for no-mow lawns and eco-lawns now include dozens of options including mat-forming fescue grass and buffalo grass or ground covers like white clover, goldmoss sedum and creeping jenny.

Landscapes for businesses, homes and parks can now be functional, sustainable and beautiful by incorporating native plants that support wildlife, serve as a genetic reservoir for diversity, prevent soil loss and reduce stormwater runoff.

Rethinking Landscape Design

For decades, Americans have tried to emulate the perfectly manicured lawns of ancient English estates on the other side of the Atlantic. Now, we’re beginning to see and understand that the ideal “American Lawn” is not sustainable or healthy.

Waterfront Properties

Riparian Buffer

With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to development, riparian buffers have become a common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.

A riparian buffer or a stream buffer is an area of land maintained in permanent vegetation. This “buffer strip” along streams, rivers and lakes helps control air, soil and water quality.

How Does a Riparian Buffer Work?

Riparian buffers trap sediment and enhance filtration of nutrients and pesticides by slowing down runoff that could enter the local surface waters. The root systems of the planted vegetation in these buffers hold soil particles together which alleviate the soil from wind erosion, stormwater surges and stabilize stream banks by providing protection against erosion and landslides.

Riparian Buffers can have several different configurations of vegetation varying from simply native grasses to combinations of native grasses, wildflowers, trees and shrubs. Areas with diverse vegetation provide more protection from nutrient and pesticide flow, and at the same time, provide improved biodiversity amongst plants and animals.

Shoreline Erosion

Shoreline erosion is one of the most common problems that lakeshore property owners experience, and large amounts of human activities can accelerate the natural erosion process.

Shoreline erosion is a problem for the property owner, the lake and the entire lake community because sedimentation from erosion changes the entire lake ecosystem. For example, erosion and the intentional removal of water plants limit the feeding and spawning areas for fish and cause the water to become turbid and cloudy by the lack of roots holding soil in place.

In an attempt to protect shorelines and provide wave protection, previous lake and stream communities removed vegetation from the shoreline and added seawalls accompanied by shallow-rooted turfgrass. Unfortunately, these conventional practices have resulted in over 40% of Michigan’s inland lakes having poor shoreline habitat and eroding water quality.

Understanding Erosion at the Shoreline

Over time, shorelines change naturally due to seasonal water level changes, waves and ice movement. This perpetual motion grinds and displaces soil particles which end up in the lake. In natural conditions, this is a very slow process over a long period of time.

An eroding shoreline can be the result of natural or human elements, can be site-specific or widespread and may have more than one cause. In addition, the causes of shoreline erosion may differ because of a property's location on the lake, water level changes and season.

Lawns & Landscaping on Waterfront Properties

In the wild, lawns are not naturally-occurring on lakeshores for many reasons. Unlike turfgrass which has the average root depth of 2-6 inches, the root systems of native plants extend to a foot or more.

Native plants on a lake edge or river can live at or below the water level, and their densely interwoven root systems are required to physically stabilize a shoreline. These plants have strong roots that are especially designed to withstand waves, hold the soil in place and thrive through all the climatic conditions of the region.

Aside from attracting geese who like to graze, turfgrass escalates the erosion of shorelines overtime because their short root systems cannot withstand the energy of hitting waves, ice movement or stormwater runoff.

Seawalls & Lake Erosion

Seawalls are hard-surfaced barriers installed along the shore with the intention of blocking waves, and they can be made from concreate, steel, wood and rock filled structures.

When shoreline erosion becomes an issue, property owners may choose a seawall because of the wave flanking domino affect (i.e. multiple neighbors who already have seawalls installed) or because a seawall may be perceived as the only viable option.

Seawalls Can’t Stop Waves

As a wave hits a seawall, it is not absorbed by the hard-surface area. Instead, the energy from the wave is directed downwards and sideways. This abrasive energy irritates and scours the lake bottom, removing sediment such as sand a gravel and scooping-out deep holes.

As the wave energy is deflected sideways, wave flanking causes erosion to both sides of the neighboring properties. Where there might not have been any erosion to begin with, now there is a domino effect of seawall installations around the lake.

Scour and wave flanking can affect the lake size, wave height and water quality, causing the lake to become deeper in front of a seawall in comparison to a nearby property without a hard-surfaced barrier. Overtime, scouring will go deep enough to undercut the bottom of a seawall, causing a wall failure.

Options for Shoreline Erosion Control

There are many different options and combination of options for shoreline erosion control techniques and products that are used in protecting shorelines. The main ingredient in all of the more natural solutions are native plants. To learn more about seawall solutions and natural shoreline options, please visit Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership. []

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