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Site Preparation

The success of any planting is dependent on good site preparation.  Healthier plants and fewer weeds will be the payoff for hard work up front.  The following pages describe techniques for preparing the ground when lakescaping and gives tips for successful planting.

Sources of Native Plants

Native plants are not that hard to obtain, but before you disturb the ground, make sure you can purchase the plants you desire.  Lakeshore soil must not be left open for very long because it will wash into the lake.  Therefore, during the time you are designing your planting, begin to search for or grow the plants that you need, preferably the season before you expect to plant.

Many native plants are available from nurseries, especially those native to prairies and woodlands.  To protect the quality of the native environment, a few simple rules should be kept in mind when purchasing native plants.  It is best to purchase locally grown plants from local nurseries.  Ideally, the source of native plants should not be more than 200 miles away.  Native plants brought in from beyond this instance are likely to have a different genetic makeup than local native plants even though they may look alike.  Local plant strains have a built-in balance with their environment and their companion species.  When plants are taken out of their native range, they often behave differently than local genotypes (plants of a regional genetic composition).  Plants transported over 200 miles may quickly die out or may become too aggressive and take over a planting.  For example, strains of switch-grass were brought into Minnesota from Nebraska and planted in prairie restoration sites.  In Nebraska, switch-grass grows in a drier climate with poorer soils.  When it was planted in Minnesota, where the climate is more humid and the soils are more fertile, it grew aggressively and quickly out-competed many other prairie grasses and wildflowers, upsetting the balance that existed with the indigenous switch-grass.  It is best for the balance of the whole system to keep native genotypes pure.  Ask the nursery manager about the location of the seed source, and avoid purchasing plants that originated more than 200 miles away.

A second rule when purchasing native plants, and in particular native aquatic plants, is to check with the nursery to insure (with documentation) that the plants being sold were not harvested from the wild and potted for later sale.  Never purchase plants that are collected from the wild.  Trilliums, lilies, orchids, and ferns are often collected from the wild and sold at great profit by unscrupulous nurseries.  Lady-slippers, in particular, are very difficult to propagate, and if found for sale, were most likely collected from the wild.

Contract Growinganimal

One way to ensure that the plants you require will be available when you are ready to plant is to order them three to six months before you intend to plant, and sign a contract with a nursery to grow the species you desire.  This approach is especially necessary if you require a large quantity of plants.  Typically a half-down payment is expected, but this up-front investment is well worth the timely delivery of the plants that you desire.

Propagation From Seed

Many people enjoy collecting seed in the summer and fall and propagating wildflowers and grasses indoors over the winter.  This activity can be an exciting project to get you through the long months of a Wisconsin winter.  However, you must obtain permission from the appropriate agency to collect seeds on state lands, and from the landowner to collect on private property.

Eliminating Invasive Weeds

The essential first step in establishing native plantings is to eliminate competition from lawn grasses and weeds.  The removal of problem species  like reed canary grass, purple loosestrife, crown vetch, and common buckthorn, take time and require persistence.  Plan for their eradication to take an entire growing season before beginning to plant.  The removal of lawn grasses, however, is not as time consuming.

Eliminating Turf

Clearing sod is necessary to create an attractive planting and to minimize weeding in the future.  Remnant lawn grasses tangling through a native planting are unattractive, reduce native plant vigor through competition, and are very difficult to weed out.   Three methods of turf removal are discussed here.

The quickest and most cost-effective method to eradicate sod is application of an herbicide.  Organic herbicides such as Scythe® or Super-fast Weed Killer® will kill sod.  They are made from naturally occurring fatty acids and kill plants by dehydrating the foliage.  These herbicides are considered acceptable by most organic certification programs.  Roundup®, a chemical herbicide, also works well for this purpose.  In situations were herbicide can come in contact with water, Rodeo® should be used.  Rodeo® has the same active ingredient as Roundup®, but is nontoxic to fish.  Any herbicide application to aquatic or shoreline plants must be accompanied by a permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

Take care in spraying.  These herbicides kill any plant with which they come in contact.  After spraying any of these herbicides, it takes 10 to 14 days for sod to die.  At that time, the sod will become yellow.  I usually recommend two complete sprayings.  Another advantage to using herbicide is that the dead sod can be left in place.  Leaving it in place prevents soil erosion, adds valuable organic material to the soil, and saves the labor of hauling it away to be composted.

When you are ready to plant, install live plants directly through the dead sod.  Be sure that the roots are buried in the soil and not in the thatch of dead lawn, where the plant would quickly dry out and die.  If you plan to seed native plants in the spring, however, you must till the dead sod and soil before seeding.  Seeding tips will be provided later.

A second method of turf removal is to directly remove sod with a gas-powered sod cutter.  This method avoids the use of chemicals but is labor intensive.  When cutting sod, the blade should be set deep to reach all of the grasses roots.  Any sod or root fragments left behind may regenerate and become unattractive weeds in the planting.  Cut sod should be either composted on-site or reused to patch open soil areas in the lawn.  Most landfill and composting sites do not take sod.  A drawback to sod removal is that it opens the soil, making it susceptible to erosion.  An erosion control blanket or mulch must be put down immediately after the sod is stripped.

Heavy equipment used to strip sod damages soil and is not recommended for lakeshore landscaping.  Large machines compact soil and can break the structure of lake banks.  Once soil is compacted, plants are difficult to establish because of the lack of air in the soil.  Plant roots require oxygen to survive.

A third method of turf removal avoids the heavy work of removing sod but requires an entire growing season to be effective.  Smother lawn grasses with black polyethylene plastic, old carpet, shower curtains, or layers of newspaper or cardboard.  Stake your material of choice to the ground over the sod, and leave it in place for one entire growing season (5-6 months).  It takes this long to smother the robust roots of grass plants.  After this period, you can plant directly through the dead sod. 

Soil Preparation

Before you disturb the ground for planting, make sure you will be able to obtain the plants that you have selected.  Open soil can easily erode into the lake.  It is best to prepare the site after you have arranged with a nursery to purchase plants.  For large projects, contract with a nursery a year ahead of time to grow the plant you require.

To prevent bank erosion, never till below the normal ordinary high water mark (OHWM) or any closer than 15 feet above the shoreline.  If you will be planting seed above the OHWM, light tilling (approximately 2 inches deep) is necessary to provide a good seed bed, but you must take strong measures to control erosion.

Planting Tips


Detailed instructions for the installation of plants and seeds can be obtained from the nursery where plants are purchased, but a few important points are worth mentioning to help you establish lakeshore plants successfully.


To keep your planting affordable, divide your master plan into small sections and plant one portion each year over a 2-3 year period.  Your investment of time and money will pay off in the long run.


Plant emergent and submersed aquatic vegetation in the spring after water levels have lowered in order to establish a root system strong enough to over-winter.  Planting as late as August is successful in some cases.  Plant upland plants in the spring or fall while it is cool.  Summer plantings of live plants will be successful if regularly watered.


Label a few plants of each species so that you can identify them as the grow.  Labeling will prevent you from accidentallyLobelia cardinalis weeding them out later.  You will also be able to monitor their success or failure.


Native plants are often grown in small compartmentalized containers called cell packs with 6-12 cells.  These plants grow quickly in their cells and form a mass of interwoven roots.  Gently pry the roots in the bottom half of the root ball to stimulate root growth.  For heavily root-bound plants, cut a very thin slice of root mass off the bottom with a knife or pruning shears before planting.  Also cut halfway up to the crown (the point where the plant emerges from the soil).  This stimulate new roots to grow.


Thoroughly soak containerized plants before taking them out of their pots to plant.  Once in the ground, dry root balls tend to repel water even when soaked with a sprinkler.


When installing plants that come in larger individual containers (4 inch to 1 gallon size pots), first dig a hole that is wide, but not too deep.  Within this hole create a small mound of soil.  Break away soil from around the root ball to loosen roots.  Roots of plants that come in individual containers are often matted.  If extremely matted, cut upwards into the root ball, dividing it into four sections.  Cut two-thirds of the way up from the bottom to the crown.  Then spread loosened roots over the mound, bury, and tamp well.


Occasionally, roots of plants grown in large individual containers and roots of bare-root stock can be uncoiled into long strands.  It may not be possible or desirable to dig a hole wide enough to spread the roots.  In this case, selectively cut offCommon Redpoll roots too long for the hole rather than coil the root in the hole.  Coiled roots make it difficult for a plant to survive.


Many plants, especially shrubs and trees, are available from nurseries in a "bare root" form.  Bare root plants have had the soil washed from the roots after being dug.  They are sold in the spring when dormant and must be planted before they leaf out and while temperature are still moderate.  These plants are far less expensive than container grown plants and can make a large plating more affordable.  Never allow bare roots to dry out, even for a minute.  Always cover them with damp straw, compost, soil, or wet burlap when holding them on site before planting.  If possible, plant them within a day.


After planting, water thoroughly.  Shallow watering is usually inadequate; really soak the plants to encourage deep rooting.  During the first season, plants in upland areas will require water once or twice a week if it does not rain.  A good soaking in place with a sprinkler for a couple of hours will do better than frequent brief watering. 


Planting in a lake where there are lots of waves requires anchoring the plants to prevent them from washing away.  Contact the Langlade County Shoreland Protection Specialist at  for a "Buffer Blocker".  A Buffer Blocker blocks or slows down the waves before they reach the aquatic plantings, thereby allowing them to take root.  Once the Buffer Blocker is set in place, simply plant the aquatic plants behind the Buffer Blocker.


Planting in a lake where the water is very deep requires the use of something heavy in order to sink the plant to the bottom of the lake so that it can sprout roots.  This can be done simply by loosely wrapping some modeling clay (which is available at most art supply stores) around the plant.  Once the modeling clay is wrapped around the plant, simply drop it into the water where you want it to grow.


The exception to the rule of not adding soil amendments before plantings is in shady uplands.  Here the application of 3-6 inches of compost or manure will benefit the plants.  Spread the compost or manure over the area to be planted but do not till.  Tilling will only disturb tree roots.  Simply mix the amendment into the hole of each plant, and leave the rest on the soil surface to function as a mulch. This step should be skipped when planting on steep slopes that lead down to the lake to prevent the amendment from washing into the lake.

Seeding Tips


Seeding along a lakeshore in the spring is tricky business.  Because it is necessary to till the soil before a spring seeding, and because of the time that is required for seed to sprout and grow, the area is prone to soil erosion.  For this reason, seedinggreen_frog with 15 feet of the lakeshore or on steep embankments is not recommended.  Instead, install living plants that can be mulched and that will quickly take hold in the soil.


Above this 15 foot zone, seeding is acceptable, but erosion control precautions must be taken.  Add a cover crop of oats or rye to the seed mix.  Cover crops geminate quickly and put down roots that hold the soil in place.  Annual cover crop species that will not create a dense shade for emerging plants and will not live to the next year are ideal for the purpose.  Erosion control blankets should be used to hold the seed and soil on steep slopes.


On shallow slopes and flat grades, a light application of straw after seeding will help prevent erosion and will also hold valuable moisture in the soil.  Light plastic nets are available to hold straw in place, or you can just water it more regularly too.


Keep new seedlings moist.


Most perennial species are slow to establish from seed.  Have patience.  A seeded planting will improve over time.  The plants need to mature before they will flower, and may need three years before they will bloom spectacularly.  Weed management is essential during this establishment period.


Plantings are sometimes difficult to weed because seedlings are difficult to distinguish from weeds.  To learn to identify native plant seedlings, plant a small portion of the seed mix in a container of sterile soil.  The plants that emerge will provide specimens of the species you need to protect.


The prevention of soil erosion in order to protect water quality is a prime benefit of re-vegetating lakeshores with native plants.  The deep fibrous roots of may lakeshore plants hold soil in place.  But when soil is disturbed to install these plants, care must be taken to keep it from washing or blowing into the lake.  This can be done by applying mulch to planting beds.  Mulch not only prevents soil erosion but also benefits the planting by controlling weeds and holding moisture in the soil.  Mulch creates a barrier to heat and wind, which dry out the soil.  Weed seeds need light to germinate, and the mulch keeps seeds in the dark.  Mulch also makes a planting bed look neater.

Mulch should not be so fine that it washes away or so coarse that it prevents plants from growing.  It should knit together and hold in place.  Shredded hardwood meets these requirements well and can be used for both woody and herbaceous plantings. Clean, weed-free straw can be used in herbaceous plantings where plants will quickly grow together and stabilize the soil before the straw decays. Wood chips and cocoa hull mulch are undesirable because they float and are easily washed away by heavy rains.  Manure and compost are also undesirable along lakeshores because nutrients can easily be washed into the lake.

Herbaceous plantings should receive no more than 1 inch of mulch.  Care must be taken not to bury the plants.  Keep mulch about 1/2 inch away from individual plant stems.  You should put mulch down before planting.  Just scrape the mulch away for individual planting holes, plant, and replace the mulch.  When planting through mulch, be certain that the entire root ball is in firm contact with the soil, not planted just in the mulch, or else it will quickly dry out.

Trees and shrubs should be mulched with a tangle wood fiber, like shredded hardwood, that does not wash away.  This mulch can be more coarse than that used on herbaceous plantings and can be applied up to 3 inches deeps.  Be sure to pull mulch away from woody plant stems to prevent stem rot.Dusk on Eagle Lake  However, it seems to easier to put the mulch on afterwards when dealing with woody plants.

Do not place mulch directly along the shoreline, where it can be washed into the lake by waves.  On steeper slopes you can keep mulch in place with a light, nylon erosion-control net.  First apply the mulch, and then stake the net down over it.  Finally, install plants through the mulch and the net.  Many different erosion control mats have been developed for the construction industry.


Many individuals desire a neat and tidy landscape, which is one of the appeals of lawns.  Native planting may seem contrary to this notion, but they too can look neat and intentional with a little additional maintenance.  If a neat appearance is desired, native plantings can end in a crisp edge along a lawn.  A crisp edge can be created by either installing an edging material at the time of planting or by physically edging the planting once each year with a spade.  The construction of a split-rail picket fence can also provide desired neatness by distinctly separating a native planting for a lawn.

Maintaining Onshore Plantings

The First Season: Regular maintenance during the first few years after planting will give native plants a competitive advantage over weeds.  After they are established, the large plants will be able to out-compete most weeds.  Plantings benefit from supplemental watering the first year of establishment when their root systems are small and unable to reach deeply for the nourishment they require.  For the first year herbaceous plantings need 1 inch of water per week.  As the soil dries during the week, roots need to reach deep to find the moisture they require.  Frequent shallow watering trans roots to stay at the surface.  This can result in the death of plants during prolonged dry periods.  If it does not rain for a week, put a sprinkler out for and hour or two to soak the ground well. Water cautiously to avoid erosion on steep slopes.  Trees and shrubs also benefit from a slow, gentle soaking once a week during the first growing season.

Diligent weeding the first year is very important to give your planting a competitive edge.  Keep an eye out for invasive species, like reed canary grass, purple loosestrife, and common buckthorn.  Pull them while they are small because they are difficult to eradicate once established.  Scout for weeds once every two weeks, and hand pull or spot spray any weeds you find.  Spreading mulch between plants helps prevent weeds from germinating.  Placing name labels with a few examples of each species planted will allow your to tell the difference between weeds and desirable plants once you begin to weed.

Planting of native species should never be fertilized.  Doing so encourages weeds.  Native plants have evolved in native soils and will find the nutrients they require without supplemental fertilizing.  They actually look better without fertilizing.  When fertilized, they grow fast and flop over, resulting in an unattractive planting.  The fact that native plantings do not require fertilizing is on of their attributes; lake water quality is not compromised by fertilizer washing in the adjacent properties.

If you find that native plants you have installed are struggling because of a lack of fertility, you have likely selected the wrong native plant for the site.  Look again at the native plants that are growing undisturbed in other areas around your lake and in the same soil types for the best species to use as substitutes.

Insecticides and fungicides are also unnecessary maintenance tools for native plantings.  The few insect problems that do occur on native plants should be considered part of the natural process.  These insects are a vital link in the food chain.

The Second Season:  During the second season of growth, maintenance tasks begin to ease.  Watering is necessary only duringPicture drought periods.  Scouting and weeding frequency can drop  to once every three weeks.  Woody plants, like willows, soft maple, or cottonwoods, may become a problem.  Even though they are native, you may want to remove them as they sprout to prevent the establishment of a woody thicket.  You must become familiar with both the plants you have planted and invaders in order to know which plants to pull.  Other desirable native species may come in on their own, and some study may be required to become familiar with these plants.

Spring is the best time of the year to tend a lakeshore planting.  Most people are eager to get outside and being gardening after the long winter.  Take advantage of this energy.  Begin by cutting back the dried herbaceous vegetation from the previous year's growth to within an inch or two of the ground.  This step will bring a neat appearance to the planting but can be skipped if that is not aanimal concern.  Clippings can be left in place as mulch or carried away and composted.

Next, a thorough weeding is in order.  Spring is a good time to find and pull weeds, especially tree seedlings.  Be sure to pull or dig out the roots of unwanted tree seedlings; if simply cut back, they will re-sprout from the base.  Thistles, dandelions, quack grass, and other herbaceous weeds should be pulled to prevent them from going to seed.  This focused, once-a-year project will give native plants a competitive advantage and is the single most important maintenance activity of the year.  Continue weeding throughout the summer once every three weeks during the second season.

In the fall, standing dried vegetation should be left in place, rather than cut and raked, as a buffer for additional protection for theEastern White Pine lake.  Standing dried vegetation also provides interest in the winter landscape, as colorful grasses and seed heads peek out of the snow, and provide food and cover for many different birds and mammals.

The Third Season (& Beyond): Both upland and lakefront plantings are continually susceptible to invasion by invasive non-native plants.  Controlling these is necessary to achieve a beautiful and diverse planting.  After the second year of growth, maintenance can be reduced.  Begin each season by cutting dried vegetation (if you desire a neater appearance) and by conducting a thorough weeding.  Then, simply walk through your plantings once a month after spring cleanup to scout for and pull or spray weeds and invasive non-native specie.  No watering should be necessary after the second season of growth.  Leave dried vegetation standing in the fall.spreadwing silhouetted against sunset

Supplemental Planting:

Expect your lakeshore plantings to change over time.  This change is part of the fun of a lakescaping project.  Each plant species will find its niche.  Some plants may not fit as well as others, and they may die out to be replaced by different plants.  Change occurs as water levels change, as animals, such as muskrats, take advantage of the habitat, and as trees grow to shade the plantings.  Enjoy each plant community and it evolution, and enjoy the diverse wildlife community that thrives within it.  Since the title of the land is in your name, the native flora and fauna are counting on you for their survival.