How to Naturalize Your Shoreline

Every shoreline is unique and requires different approaches to naturalization. Current and desired land use, existing conditions, soil type, availability of sunlight and moisture, and naturalization goals all play a significant role in selecting the appropriate naturalization methods. Some methods may include:

  1. Creating a “no-mow” zone near the shoreline and allowing vegetation to re-establish on its own.
  2. Active planting of native trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and/or aquatic plants in the buffer area.
  3. Placing or allowing the accumulation of woody debris along shoreline.
  4. Removal or “softening” of existing hard structures like retaining walls, gabion baskets and rip rap.
  5. Utilizing various bioengineering methods such as coir logs, live cuttings, and brush mattresses to control or reduce erosion.

Active Planting

1. Assess Your Propertysoil-table

  • Think about how you use your shoreline. How do you access it? Where would you like to maintain views/sight lines?
  • Find your high water mark and the location of your property lines. 
  • Determine site conditions such as soil type, moisture and compaction, drainage patterns and availability of sunlight.
  • Does your property have excessive erosion? Problems with your septic system? Planning to install a new dock? You may want to address these issues before planting your shoreline.

2. Develop a Planting Plan

  • Map out where you want to plant and determine how many plants you will need.
  • In general, shrubs should be planted about 1 metre apart, and trees should be no closer than 2.4 metres (remember to consider mature plant height and width when spacing plants).
  • Place low growing shrubs, wildflowers and grasses in areas where you want to maintain views. Placing larger trees along the edges of your property helps delineate property boundaries, maintains privacy and doesn’t block views of your shoreline.

shoreline buffer


3. Select Plant Species

  • Select plants that are appropriate for your site conditions (soil, sunlight, etc.).
  • Choose native plant species grown from local seed sources as they are best suited to survive local climate conditions and provide the greatest benefits to wildlife (exercise caution when purchasing native species from commercial  nurseries  as  plants that appear native may actually be similar exotic species or cultivars—purchase plants from a native plant nursery whenever possible to ensure authenticity).
  • Choose flowering or fruit bearing plants for maximum wildlife benefits.
  • Look to see what is growing locally—there is a good chance that these plants will do well on your property too.
  • Decide what size/type of plant you want to use:
    • Bare Root-bare root seedlings have exposed roots, so they need to be planted while the plant is dormant (early spring). Bare root plants are inexpensive and easy to transport. They must be properly handled, stored and cared for to reduce transplant shock and ensure good survival rates.
    • Potted- Potted plants come in a variety of sizes. They are more expensive, can be difficult to transport in large quantities, can have good survival rates if cared for properly and can be planted at any time during the growing season.

snp photo2

snp photo2

4. Plant

  • Prepare you site as needed. Examples of site preparation include mowing of tall grass, soil amendment, and removal of sod, ornamental plants or invasive species. Often, plants can be planted directly into existing ground conditions.
  • Keep plants moist and shaded until ready for planting. Ensure that proper handling and planting techniques are used.
  • Water plants after planting.
  • Remember to take lots of before and after photos!

Potted Planting

potted plantingDiagram: On the Living Edge: Your Handbook for Waterfront Living

Bare Root Planting

bare root planting

5. Maintenance & Aftercare

  • Mulches improve growing conditions and promote faster growing by supressing competitive weeds and grasses and by keeping in moisture. They also make it easier to locate small seedlings in overgrown areas. Different types of mulches include:
    • Coir mats: Coir mats are portable, biodegradable, mats made from coconut fibre.
    • Loose mulches: Loose mulches include woodchips, bark and straw. While affordable and useful in some circumstances, loose mulch is easily eroded and should be limited in flood-prone shoreline areas. Always choose non-dyed mulch.
    • Others: Cardboard, wet newspapers, old carpet, biodegradable plastic brush sheets.
  • Tree guards should be installed around deciduous trees to prevent mice and vole damage.
  • New plants will need to be watered depending on site conditions and recent weather.
  • Weeding, pruning and trimming around plants may be required to reduce competition.
  • Replace dead plants as necessary.
  • Do not fertilize.

snp photo2

snp photo2

Softening a Hardened Shoreline

In the past, shoreline erosion problems were often dealt with by the “hardening” of shorelines through installation of retaining walls constructed of armour stone, rip rap, old railroad ties, gabion baskets, and other materials. While these structures offer a temporary solution to erosion, they can actually result in more damage to downstream/neighbouring properties and even the shoreline they were intended to protect.  
Retaining walls interfere with natural shoreline processes and currents. Overtime, the increased impact of water on the vertical walls in combination with surface water runoff behind the walls leads to slumping, eroding gullies, undercutting and eventual failure of the wall.

In response to the issues caused by retaining walls, there has been a push towards “softer” shoreline protection options such as vegetated buffers and bioengineering techniques. In cases where a retaining wall is already in place, erosion can be reduced and the life of the wall can be protected by planting native shrubs around the wall, or in the case of a rip rap shoreline, planting between the rocks. The roots of the plants will help hold the soil in place, and overhanging branches and foliage will soften the impact of wave action.

snp photo6


Bioengineering is the combination of engineering techniques with the use of natural materials like live plant material and geotextiles to stabilize soils. It is often used as a means of repairing/remediating shorelines from the effects of erosion with the intent of minimizing the overall impact to the environment. The end goal is a self-repairing shoreline that stabilizes soils, minimizes erosion and contributes to healthy habitat. 
Bioengineering is an excellent alternative to rip rap or hardened shoreline structures because it is:

  • low maintenance and self-repairing
  • cost effective
  • less Invasive
  • promotes good habitat for fish and wildlife
  • allows for the establishment of native plants
  • protects shorelines from erosion

Bioengineering is not an appropriate solution for all erosion problems. Existing site conditions such as waterfront access, erosion type/source, soil type, existing vegetation, wave action and fluctuating water levels all need to be considered for bioengineering projects.

Coir Log

snp-photo7A flexible log made of biodegradable coconut fibre material that can be staked in along the shoreline to help absorb wave energy and allow vegetation to establish. Intended for use with upland planting.


Live Stakes

snp-live stakesLive cuttings taken from dogwood and willow species can be used to re-vegetate shoreline areas.


Live Fascine

snp-live fascineLive dogwood and willow cuttings can be bundled together to form a log that is staked in along the shoreline. The live cuttings will begin to root creating a protective wall of shoreline vegetation.


Brush Mattress

snp-brush mattressA layer of live cuttings are placed along a shoreline slope and held in place with twine or rope. The cuttings will begin to root creating a protective layer of vegetation. A fascine is typically used to secure the base of the mattress.


Soil Wrap/Brush Layering

snp-wrapOne or more layers of live cuttings are partially covered with compacted soil and allowed to root and establish. Soil layers are often wrapped with a geotextile material for extra stability.


For more information on bioengineering see:

How Much is Enough?

Determining how much of a shoreline buffer you need is dependent on many factors including the slope of your shoreline, your goals for naturalization (bank stability vs. habitat creation), and reasoning behind naturalization (personal decision vs. regulatory/building permit requirement).

Regulatory and planning approvals typically require a 15-30 metre buffer allowance. While new developments require significant setbacks from watercourses, RVCA recognizes that this is not always possible for pre-existing properties and that ANY size buffer is an improvement.

For landowners that simply wish to begin a shoreline naturalization process, a minimum width of three to five metres is suggested. In general, it is recommended that the entire shoreline frontage is vegetated leaving 15 metres or 25% (whichever is less) open for access (sitting and swimming areas, docks, etc.)

Contact Us

Rideau Valley Conservation Authority
3889 Rideau Valley Drive
Manotick, Ontario K4M 1A5

613-692-3571, 1-800-267-3504


Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Member of: conservation ontario