Bay-Friendly Living Tip: Plant a Buffer

Bay-Friendly Living Tip: Plant a Buffer

Kate McPherson, Save The Bay’s Riverkeeper

Walking down my quiet, little street with my dogs I eye my neighbor’s leaf pile.  He’s the kind of guy who mows up all the leaves that fall on his lawn with his riding mower and deposits them on the edge of the woods across the street. Perfect, I think to myself. Next time I see him, I’ll ask if I can load up the Nissan with his unwanted leaves. I’m putting in a new buffer.

The best buffer is the one that’s never cut. The wood-duck’s eye view from this pond is totally screened from any development in the distance.

A buffer is just what it sounds like, something put in place between something else. In my case, I’m expanding a buffer I started last year between my front yard and my neighbor, but buffers are important for the waters that flow to Narragansett Bay.

There are many benefits to planting one yourself:

  • Buffers provide wildlife habitat and physically screen noise and light from human disturbance.
  • The stems of the plants in a buffer slow down rain from downpours.
  • The plants in a buffer can use excess nutrients that run off in that stormwater, and they require far less maintenance than a lawn. 

You could put a buffer in along a coastal feature if you are fortunate to live along the coast, or anywhere else in the watershed: next to a small stream, river, pond, wetland, or just to reduce the amount of lawn you have to take care of.

Method One: “Stop Cutting & See What Grows”

The ground surface of a buffer should have a lot of complexity. Notice the leaves, twigs, sticks, sedges, and wildflowers in this buffer, with small seedlings in the background. Lots of surface to catch rainwater before it runs off into the river.

Back in my yard I stop and reflect on the work I’ve done, or rather, the growth I’ve allowed.  Last spring, I stopped mowing the portion of my lawn where I wanted to create my buffer, and all sorts of neat plants popped up. In the fall, I left the oak leaves in my new buffer, even adding some in some areas where long grasses were peeking through.

I crouch down on my hands and knees and see small Canada Mayflower; I definitely want to keep those. I also see some American wintergreen, a few eastern red cedar seedlings, and to my delight, two new sprigs of lowbush blueberry. Some maple-leafed viburnum colonized in a hard-to-mow spot a few years ago, and is almost full grown. But with the native species I also see invaders: burning bush, bittersweet, multiflora rose, and autumn olive.  There are lots of these non native species in my corner of the watershed, looks like I need to go find my clippers.

My “stop cutting and see what grows” method of buffer creation works for me, and is very affordable (free!) but the drawbacks for some folks might be time: it takes years for plants to mature to full size, and those pesky non natives need to be identified and removed, which takes some effort.

Method Two: Create a Wildflower Meadow

Creating a wildflower meadow is a quicker way to get a natural buffer, and is especially suited to large lawn areas.

Wildflower meadow buffer at dawn.
  • First, mark out your buffer with signs that anyone can understand. I think back to my visits to National Parks with their “give plants a chance” signs that were clear to visitors of all nationalities to not disturb areas off the trail.
  • Next, contact a lawn care company to see if they have a slice seeder machine to cut slices into the lawn you want to restore.
  • Order a specialty seed mix to spread directly over the cut lawn.  A great mix will have a range of species, from plants that like full sun to partial shade, wet roots, drought resistant, and is a good way to get a lot of variety. 
  • Sit back, relax, and wait for the buffer to grow.  No raking or regular mowing necessary! To maintain as a meadow and keep non native shrubs from creeping in, simply mow once a year.

Deluxe Method: Plant Native and Smother 

A new “deluxe” buffer with plantings that needs some invasive species management. The Japanese knotweed, foreground, will take over this buffer if not cut.

For this type of buffer, you don’t mow or rake, and it makes a convenient spot to spread excess leaves from your lawn. It also looks quite nice from the start because you’ve planted and smothered the lawn:

  • Mark out your area with signs or a small fence
  • Smother the lawn with a 2-3 inch layer of mown or raked leaves, and then plant. 
  • Plant native trees about 20 feet apart and native shrubs in clumps 2-3 feet apart from each other.  The more plants the better!

Over time, allow new native species to colonize your buffer. The more layers you have, from a tree canopy, to a shrub layer, to ferns and wildflowers in the understory, the more effective your buffer will be. Remember, the best buffer is the one that never gets cut.  That’s why Save The Bay works hard to advocate for state regulations that protect the maximum natural buffer that the latest research suggests is effective to protect water quality and habitat around the rivers that are the source for Narragansett Bay.

If you want to put in a buffer but need a little help contact Riverkeeper Kate. She’s always happy to talk plants, especially if those plants will be put to work protecting the water quality that flows to Narragansett Bay.


*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.