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Lakeside Editorial Feature

A naturalized shoreline can help wildlife and look stunning at the same time

The shoreline is quintessential cottage country. From wading in for a swim, to casting a line, to setting the stage for a summer sunset, the area where land meets lake is a backdrop for recreation and a source of calm and tranquillity for visitors and residents alike.

It’s not just people who treasure it, though: the shoreline is also an incredibly important habitat for wildlife. Up to 90 percent of aquatic species and 70 percent of terrestrial (land-dwelling) species rely on this area for food, shelter, and dispersal. In fact, this area is so important that lake scientists call it the “ribbon of life” for the outsized role it plays in supporting biodiversity.

Everything from stoneflies, mayflies, and snails to vertebrates such as fish, turtles, amphibians, shorebirds, and waterfowl to terrestrial animals like foxes, deer, songbirds, and bats rely on the shoreline. For some, it’s their sole home; others are passers-by that use it to hunt, travel, or simply take a water break.

Protecting the shoreline is one of the best things we can do to help wild creatures thrive. The trick is to balance their needs and ours, to create a safe place for them to live while also enjoying the shoreline ourselves.

Fortunately, there are options. Some landscapers, ecologists, and other conservation-minded professionals have developed a range of techniques to help property owners craft shorelines that are aesthetically pleasing as well as rich in habitat, and, as an added bonus, require far less maintenance.

A naturalized shoreline doesn’t need to be unruly and unkempt. In fact, it can be designed and curated in much the same way as any other garden, with a careful eye to height, colour, and aesthetic.

The process can range from active and engaged to completely hands-off. Here’s how to get started.

No mow
If you have grass growing right to the water’s edge, you probably also have an abundance of Canada Geese. To deter them, and encourage other creatures, just don’t mow within 15 feet of the water’s edge. It can be as simple as that.

In place of lawn, you’ll start to see beneficial vegetation growing back. Congratulations! You’ve just kickstarted the process of naturalization.

Let it grow
This can mean letting nature do its thing, allowing whatever grows on the shore to thrive. But you can also be a bit more hands-on.

To maintain a certain height or fullness, a pair of clippers and a creative eye can be incredibly effective: simply prune the natural growth as opposed to outright removing it.

Remove hardened surfaces
Here’s where you do need to put in a bit of effort. Concrete retaining walls, Gabion baskets, or other hardened surfaces along the shore will impede naturalization. They can also deflect wave energy along the shoreline, creating new pools and problems in front of your property, and also causing problems for your neighbours. And on top of that, hard surfaces require more maintenance and upkeep as they inevitably crack or shift under the assault of ice and wave energy that isn’t allowed to dissipate.

A naturalized shoreland can absorb wave energy rather than dispersing it, offering better protection for the land.

Rounded boulders offer much better protection than unnatural flat surfaces. The nooks and crannies between the boulders absorb wave energy, while also providing vital homes for fish as well as an opportunity for plants to get a foothold.

Be sure to consult a professional before undertaking any work of this scale, though – permits and great care are needed for construction along the water’s edge.

Design a shoreland garden
For the most manicured look of all, design a shoreland garden.

Native plants are your best bet: they have adapted to thrive in our area, and wildlife has adapted right along with them.

Gardening with native plants has exploded in recent years – there are several nurseries in our area that carry a wide range of ornamental native plants, as well as a number of plant sales that take place every spring. Two of the best are offered by The Muskoka Conservancy and The Muskoka Lakes Association. If you really want to include some non-native ornamental plants, keep them to a minimum – at least half of the plants in your shoreland garden should be native species.

To get started, these plants are go-to options for shoreland gardening in Muskoka. They are native to cottage country and thrive in moist to wet soil conditions, making them ideal additions to many shoreland gardens.

Blue Flag Iris: One of the first pops of colour in the spring, Blue Flag Iris is great for pollinators, and it also produces seeds that are beneficial to birds and small mammals.

Swamp Milkweed: Don’t let the name fool you, this flower produces beautiful pink, hydrangea-like flowers from July to August. Swamp Milkweed is a great food source for butterfly species, including Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, And the flowers smell amazing!

Great Blue Lobelia: Great Blue Lobelia produces dense clusters of buds that reveal vibrant light blue to dark blue-violet flowers in July all the way until October. Revered by Indigenous people for its medicinal qualities, this is not a great choice for properties with a pet that enjoys taste-testing the garden.

White Turtlehead: A whitish-pink wildflower that blooms from August to October, this species was named for its flowers that are shaped like a turtle’s head. It is great for pollinators, like bumble bees!

Blue Vervain: Blue Vervain has fuzzy blue-purple flowers that bloom along a reddish-green stem between July and September. It provides pollinators with continuous access to nectar because the plants bloom from the bottom to the top. has a host of additional resources, including plant lists, instructional videos, and a 188-page e-book on designing your own shoreland garden.

Seek expert help
Not everyone has the time, skills, or desire to take on their own shoreland naturalization project. That’s particularly true if you have very specific aesthetic preferences, or you are looking to take the most tailored approach.

That’s where the experts can help. One option is to hire conservation-minded and trained landscapers, explaining your goals for the property and inviting them to make it work.

You can also engage with environmental organizations that can help take the guesswork out of the design process and ensure that your shoreland naturalization plan is completely customized to your needs and preferences.

The Land Between is a cottage country-based organization that offers a variety of resources, including educational and planting guides, group workshops, and even individualized site visits and plans to help you transition to and start reaping the benefits of a naturalized shoreland.

With a bit of guidance and a well-thought-out approach, it won’t be long before you have a shoreline that is a delight to everyone – humans and non-humans alike.

Shoreline or Shoreland?
It is now widely understood that the shoreline encompasses more than just a small area near the water’s edge.

In fact, it is a rather expansive zone extending 30 metres from shallow water all the way upland. Because of this, is more accurately referred to as the shoreland.

A natural shoreland, or one where native (naturally occurring) vegetation has been permitted to grow, has numerous benefits, not only for wildlife, but also for lakeside property owners.

A natural shoreland will reduce erosion from wave action and ice movement, help protect the property from flooding, and serve as a barrier to unwanted nuisance species like the Canada Goose.

In addition to these property benefits, the shoreland also plays an important role in protecting our lakes from runoff from pollutants and excessive nutrients, a water quality boon to both humans and wildlife.


Kate Dickson is head of marketing and communications at The Land Between. Learn more at


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