Life at the lake isn’t like life in the city. It isn’t just the gorgeous views or the peace and quiet. Lakefront residents also need to think in a different way about their relationship with nature and navigate an entirely different set of rules.
Nowhere does that apply more than in waterfront landscaping.
“It’s tempting to view the lake as a scenic backdrop that you design around. And a lot of designers who are new to waterfront landscaping fall into that trap,” says Anna van Maris, owner of Parklane Landscapes. “But you can never forget that the lake is also powerful and vulnerable. If you don’t respect it, you can end up damaging the very things you’re trying to protect – your valuable shoreline, and the water itself.”
Parklane Landscapes has been designing fabulous spaces for 62 years. The company was started by Anna’s father, Casey van Maris, who began by landscaping suburban properties near his home in Scarborough. Anna literally grew up in a plant nursery – Parklane’s retail centre was in the family’s backyard until she was 15. Her daughter, Cassie O’Neill, is Parklane’s general manager and is in the process of taking over the business.
Like many of Parklane’s clients, the company has migrated from the city, moving first to Gormley and then, in 2009, to Anna’s rural home in Beaverton. Most recently they’ve moved to a new facility in Orillia, where they also manufacture their own line of outdoor cement-and-wood furniture.
Moving from the city has allowed Parklane to focus on waterfront properties, particularly the challenging shores of Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching.
Take the lake into account
“These are big lakes,” says Anna, “and when a storm comes across the water, it’s phenomenally powerful. You have to factor that into everything you do.”
One of the biggest mistakes people make is building smooth block retaining walls. “A solid wall of limestone blocks is a terrible way to block waves,” Cassie says.
When a wave smashes in to a smooth breakwall, she explains, the force of the wave is reflected back out into the lake. That backward pressure sucks a bit of soil from the bottom, dragging it away from the shore and out into the lake. Not only is this sedimentation bad for fish reproduction, over time, that repeated action will undermine the retaining wall, causing it to sag or even collapse.
A much better approach is to line the shore with boulders. As waves hit the irregular, rounded surfaces, the force is dispersed in many directions at once, leaving the soil and rocks intact.
The irregular surface also creates an array of planting opportunities, particularly for native species that are adapted to exactly this kind of shoreline environment. Underwater, those rock pockets are ideal for fish. “We can create something that prevents erosion, looks amazing, and also provides homes for wildlife,” says Cassie. “All of it enhances the property, protects the lake, and improves its value.”
Free trees and advice
To further enhance the lakes, Parklane has recently launched a Lake Simcoe Watershed Greening Shorelines program. This program is free to waterfront property owners in the watershed who want to enhance the shore by planting and maintaining native plants.
“Homeowners will receive 10 seedlings, as well as training and advice from us,” says Anna. “There’s no cost – if their property is eligible, they just need to contact us to sign up.”
Water as a resource
Protecting the shoreline also means controlling. Rainwater and snow melt can carry a host of harmful elements – everything from road salt to fertilizers to silt, all of which can damage the water. “If you’re pouring nutrients into the lake every time it rains, you can actually be promoting weed and algae growth right at the end of your dock,” says Anna.
The Parklane team has become specialists at preventing this. “We look for ways to slow the water down, to keep it on the property and let the plants clean it before it enters the lake,” says designer Joanne Mohan.
Rain gardens are an effective tool in their arsenal. Also known as fusion gardens, these are essentially underground reservoirs where meltwater and runoff can be stored temporarily, allowing it to either be used by plants or trickle slowly into the lake.
Rain gardens can look like garden beds or can be completely hidden from view. “We’ve topped rain gardens with patios, with play areas, with lawns… you name it,” says Joanne. “They’re functional, but they also look fantastic.”
This respectful approach to waterfront landscaping also involves navigating a host of regulations. “On Lake Simcoe, you may have to get approvals from the municipality, the region, and the Conservation Authority, all of whom have their own requirements,” says Anna. “If you try and take shortcuts or ignore them, they can shut your project down, issue fines, and just make life miserable.”
“We know their rules are in place for a reason, and we take the time to work with them. And they respect that.”
In the end, she says, everyone wants the same thing: gorgeous waterfront properties that enhance the lake. Smart design and construction can achieve that.
TEXT CHRIS OCCHIUZZI | PHOTOS ANDREW FEARMAN