Where the Land Meets the Water

Buffers are the stewards of the waterways
A mature, diverse buffer at Georgica Pond doesn’t block the view. Priscilla Rattazzi

If you are fortunate enough to live next to one of the East End’s stunning ponds, bays, or harbors, you can help improve our water quality by creating a vegetated buffer between your lawn and the water’s edge. This holds true for both freshwater ponds and coastal areas.

Although antiquated septic systems are the largest source of nitrogen entering the groundwater, and ultimately our water bodies, excessive use of fertilizer (N-P-K) on lawns and gardens contributes as well, especially phosphorus.

The annual outbreaks of harmful algal blooms, fish kills, and low oxygen levels are all symptoms of excessive nutrient loading. Buffers can help!

What exactly is a buffer? A buffer is a zone, preferably 50 feet wide or more between a lawn and the water body where no fertilizer is applied and the vegetation is allowed to grow. Once the buffer is established, no irrigation or any pesticides should be used. There is extensive scientific literature on how buffers work and their effectiveness in preventing nutrients, sediment, pesticides, herbicides, and pathogens from entering a water body. Because of this, many municipalities require them.

A lot of factors impact the effectiveness of buffers and how wide they should be. Some key factors include:

1. Slope. The steeper the slope, the more runoff and the less opportunity for absorption back into the soil.

2. Soil Type. Water percolates faster through sandy soils than silty or clay soils. The more organic matter in the soil, the greater its capacity to absorb water and nutrients.

3. Surrounding Land Use. Paved (nonpermeable) and cleared lands increase the amount of runoff. In addition, the vegetational composition of the buffer — grasses, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees and combinations thereof — impacts the buffer’s functions such as filtering sediment-borne nutrients.

The use of native plants in buffers is recommended because they are best adapted to local conditions and can thrive without fertilizer. Handsome native grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees are all commercially available to use in planting a buffer, and the good news is the inventory of commercially available native plants keeps increasing. An added benefit of native plants is the habitat value they can provide to wildlife and pollinators. What is more thrilling than seeing a monarch butterfly feeding on one of our native milkweeds? The species of plants you use in your buffer will depend on the site’s conditions.

To protect our precious freshwater and coastal water bodies, New York State law prohibits the application of lawn fertilizer within 20 feet of a water body at all times, and between Dec. 1 and April 1 no lawn fertilizer may be applied anywhere in the landscape.

When designing a buffer, let the contours of the land dictate its shape. All steep slopes should be planted as buffers, never lawn. Buffers add a softer interface with the water — after all — it is highly unnatural to have sharp lines in nature. Even the most formal, manicured garden can benefit from a softer, waving buffer at the pond interface.

People are often concerned that a buffer will block their view or access to the water. While a diverse buffer of grasses, shrubs, and trees will offer important functions, just a wide buffer of switch grass (Panicum virgatum), little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), or love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) will make a difference. Native grasses, with their dense root masses, have been shown to be very effective at trapping sediment and filtering sediment-borne nutrients, microbes, and pesticides. A wide mowed path through the buffer can take you to the water’s edge and minimize your exposure to ticks.

By installing a buffer in your landscape you will reap many benefits. Some of these to consider include:

1. Cleaner water at your pond, bay, or harbor

2. Saving money by using less fertilizer

3. Saving money by mowing less

4. Enjoying more wildlife in your landscape

For more information on bayscaping and garden buffers visit: peconicbaykeeper.org

And for native plant information and seeds, contact the Long Island Native Plant Initiative at info@LINPI.org.

Sara Davison is the executive director of the Friends of Georgica Pond Foundation. She has a master’s degree in botany and ecology and has worked in the not-for-profit sector her entire career. For further information on the Friends of Georgica Pond the website is friendsofgeorgicapond.org

A newly planted buffer will grow into a lush, low-growing habitat. Sara Davison Photo
Hibiscus palustris (Marsh-Mallow), at left, A monarch visits Joe Pye Weed.Durell Godfrey photos
Butterfly Weed with another monarch.Durell Godfrey
Milkweed in bloom Diane Berthel-Bouchier