MARQUETTE - What makes a pretty Great Lakes shoreline? As lake levels drop and grasses and other plants sprout on once plant-free beaches, ecologists are encouraging waterfront property owners to see the splendor in that greenery.
"It's important to try to get people to change their minds and see just how beautiful and wonderful native vegetation can be," said Jennifer Gelb, restoration ecologist for the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization that serves four counties in Michigan's northern Lower Peninsula.
Not only are native plants attractive, they are home to insects and coastal birds and protect against erosion from waves, said Anne Hokanson, Great Lakes coastal wetlands ecologist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Water Resources Division. When higher water returns, they keep sediment from washing back into the lake and covering fish spawning sites.
With the Shiras 3 generating facility in the background, South Beach in Marquette is seen. Experts say the low water levels the Great Lakes are currently experiencing offer a prime opportunity to plant native grasses and other plants near the waterline. (Journal file photo)
Property owners can take a few steps to make their beach both good for the environment and kind on the eyes.
Step one: Be a plant detective
The first priority is to know if the beach plants are native species or invasive species.
"A lot of the phone calls that we get are from people who want to mow the whole beach because they don't like the invasive species," said Jennifer Muladore, an ecologist with Huron Pines, a nonprofit conservation organization serving 11 counties in the northeastern Lower Peninsula.
"But they also misidentify every new plant that comes up as an invasive species because it's all of a sudden there and they've never seen it before."
Huron Pines, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and many other regional groups help property owners learn their plants. "We'll go out to residences preferably during the growing season and take a look to identify what's out there," Gelb said.
For the most part, though, plants that sprout on a newly exposed beach and in shallow water are natives, and most are "quite aesthetically pleasing," Hokanson said. "You'll see different bulrush species, which are the long, wispy grasses that are typical of beautiful wetlands."
Others include a variety of native wildflowers such as joe pye weed with its heads of dusty rose flowers, goldenrod with its spires of brilliant yellow, and native rushes that have more subdued flowers.
"There are also a lot of different asters that will sometimes come into these coastal areas, as well as some prairie grasses," she said.
Step two: Eliminate invasive Phragmites
Although many of the new plants will be natives, one particular invader has become a major nuisance.
"Phragmites is the invasive grass that is usually causing people the most heartburn," Hokanson said. "It's very tall, it obstructs views, it degrades wetland quality, and it can really outcompete the native species and drive wildlife, especially fish, away."
The typical method for removing Phragmites is to apply an herbicide followed by mowing.
"I know that a lot of people aren't excited about using chemicals, but right now it is the recommended technique for managing Phragmites, because if done in proper quantities and at the proper time of year, it allows native wetland vegetation to come in and colonize that area," Hokanson said. "Amphibians and reptiles are not significantly harmed, and then you get a lot of native birds, fish and other wildlife species utilizing that area again."
She recommends that property owners work with a watershed council or other environmental organization to help obtain permits, coordinate with neighbors and perhaps leverage funding for the Phragmites removal.
Step three: Add native plants
"If somebody doesn't like the look of the existing plants that are growing, then maybe they might want to plant additional native species that are appropriate to the site," Gelb said.
Native plant books are good resources for finding species that are more ornamental, have color or seasonal interest or have interesting characteristics, she said.
"We talk to people about different plants, such as common milkweed, that are generally overlooked," Gelb said. "When we explain their value to the ecosystem or their importance for habitat, the property owner usually then finds the plant much more endearing.
"It's about educating people on why these plant communities are special and how they're so adapted to that environment."
Native vegetation in the unmowed area between the sand and the water helps slow runoff and prevents erosion. Compared to turf grass, the native plants have far deeper roots than turf grass, and therefore absorb polluted runoff before it enters Lake Huron. Photo: Huron Pines.
Planting natives on the shoreline can also impede Phragmites, said Muladore. "Especially with the lake levels going down and opening up bigger areas of open beach, plants want to colonize that. If property owners can get good native plants in there first - plants that they want to see, such as lower-growing natives or some beach grasses that aren't going to block their view or their access to the water - then that would definitely be a great way to improve habitat and keep the beach looking the way they want while keeping out invasive species."
She recommends that property owners ask their local soil erosion office or the Department of Environmental Quality permitting staff if specific sites have planting restrictions and if a permit is required.
To avoid the question of permits, Jim Brueck, owner of Native Lakescapes LLC in Clarkston Mich., suggests that homeowners add a native-plant garden a bit farther inland from the shore.
"If they have an established lawn, they could use a portion of that to start that transition between the house and the lake," he said, suggesting perhaps a path through the garden to the beach. "You'd be adding some structure, some color and some diversity on your property line, and there are certainly a huge variety of native plants that would work upland of the water's edge."
A themed garden is a good option, he said. "Maybe they might want to create a butterfly garden, or a wildlife or bird sanctuary."
Or a garden might be designed to target a particular species, he said. "Say I want to go from a generic butterfly garden to one that has the correct host plants and nectar plants for monarchs. Monarchs need milkweed of the Asclepias genus, and there are quite a few species of milkweed in Michigan to choose from: whorled, common, swamp milkweed, and butterfly weed."
By becoming involved at that level, the garden becomes more personal, he said.
An upland garden also manages runoff and filters pollutants from entering the lake.
"It goes beyond just appearance to the functionality of the plantings," Brueck said. "People need to internalize and say, 'I like the way it looks and it's also the right thing for the right reason.'"
Step four: Change your perceptions
Natural coastal wetlands are every bit as beautiful, if not more so, than the typical waterfront landscaping of manicured lawn and bare beach, Muladore said.
"It's very important to me and to us as an organization to let people know that you can have it both ways. You can have beautiful native vegetation that is not tall and wild and overgrown, but that still serves the habitat purpose for the beach," she said.
"It's important to get people to see just how wonderful these things can be."