Growing a shoreline

Photo by KSI Photography

No matter how big your property, the Ribbon of Life is the most important part.

That’s the nickname for the riparian zone, the strip of land that’s right along the edge of the water. This is the most diverse area of your property, a spot that’s vital to the lives of birds, animals, insects, and even fish. Anything you do here will have an impact on the creatures with which we share Muskoka.

To protect wildlife and water quality, we take extra special care when selecting and caring for the plants that will thrive here.

Before going into the details, it’s worth considering why this region is so incredibly important.

It’s partly because it’s always changing. The law – and the property tax people – assume that shoreline is a relatively stable thing. If you have 400 feet of frontage in May, the taxman says you have 400 feet of frontage in September.

But any waterfront owner knows the reality is that the riparian zone is in a state of flux through the year. As the lake levels rise, the amount of property you have shrinks, and vice versa. That’s one of the things that makes the riparian zone so special.

Every spring, when the water is high, the soil there gets saturated. The lake moisturizes the soil, and also loosens it. As the water recedes, it leaves behind a rich cake of nutrients – think of the black soil of the Holland Marsh, which we all drive through every trip up Hwy 400, which is still the most fertile soil in the country more than a century after it was dyked and drained by enterprising Dutch farmers. That same richness of soil, or something very like it, surrounds every lake in Muskoka,

As the lake recedes, tiny plant shoots spring up in this perfect growing environment. The loose, moist soil is superb for fast growth, and the fresh, young shoots feed an abundance of animals in the early spring.

As the plants mature, the woody vegetation brings a host of benefits. The roots stabilize the soil, preventing erosion. The stalks provide a safe environment for birds, amphibians and mammals, where they can shelter from predators and raise their young. Even the fallen woody trunks serve a benefit – as wind blows waves against the wood, the splashes it creates oxygenate the water, making a richer environment for fish and aquatic insects.

The list of benefits goes on and on. A healthy riparian zone is a travel corridor for wildlife, letting creatures migrate from one part of the lake to another without being exposed to danger. The plants block the flow of sediment into the lake after a rain, and take up pollutants that would otherwise go straight into the water. Some studies have found that 80 per cent of wildlife in the region spends all or part of its life cycle in the riparian zone.

If you’re at all concerned with the health of the natural world, you want to do what you can to preserve this incredibly important resource. That’s why, when we’re asked to do some work along the shoreline, we want to do it responsibly.

Some things are mandated by law – anyone who is working along the shoreline needs to take steps to keep silt from flowing into the lake, for example. But really taking care of the waterway means much more than that.

For starters, as much as possible we want to plant native species. The creatures who rely on the riparian zone have evolved to feed on and live among native plants. Some birds and insects, for example, can only extract seeds or nectar from plants with a particular shape; non-natives with a different shape don’t provide them with the food they need to thrive, and crowd out the native plants they rely on.

Using pesticides or misusing nutrients at the waterfront is a serious no-no. We don’t use pesticides at all, at the water or anywhere else, so that part is taken care of. But planting well is also a matter of understanding which nutrients the plants need, and knowing how to apply them. Overfertilizing – whether with chemical fertilizers or even with manure – isn’t just wasteful; when it’s done near the water, those excess nutrients go straight into the waterway, where they wind up driving the growth of algae and other undesirable plants.

And, of course, you need to understand what you’re planting and where you’re planting it. The riparian zone isn’t just one habitat: it’s an array of habitats. The very edge of the water is a different spot for plants than the region ten feet up the bank, where the soil is less moist, and more densely compacted. Our trained staff understand exactly how much of a difference a few feet can make when locating a plant along the edge of the lake.

If you’re thinking of naturalizing your shoreline, or you have some planting questions for this vital region of the property, give us a call and we can come out to discuss your plans.

By the way, the riparian zone is also sometimes called the littoral zone. The distinction between “riparian” and “littoral” is quite complex.

In biology, it depends partly on whether the region is permanently underwater or seasonally flooded. But in law, “littoral rights” exist on still water, like lakes, while “riparian rights” refer to flowing water like rivers and streams.

To simplify things, many people just use riparian the way we do, to refer to that strip of land near the water.


Posted in Connecting with Nature.