Stream Buffers

Stream buffers are unmowed areas along streams with appropriate streamside vegetation growing, preferably native trees and other plants. The width can vary according to available space and homeowner preference (5 feet, 10 feet or more). As a general rule, the wider the stream, the wider the "no mow" zone ought to be. Widening the no mow zone increases the services provided by the buffer (e.g. removal of pollution from runoff).

Advantages of this practice

According the Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District, stream buffers are one of the most cost effective practices suburban landowners can implement to control bank erosion, protect water quality, and promote wildlife habitat. The root system of the trees and vegetation along the stream bank helps to anchor the soil, and filter pollutants. Native vegetation such as warm season grasses, meadow plants, and water loving trees are better for erosion control and pollutant removal because they have much longer root systems than turf grass. Stream buffers help reduce flooding by slowing stormwater runoff and increasing infiltration. Stream health improves due to increased shading which keeps the water cool and reduces algae growth, making the water more livable for fish and other aquatic organisms. Vegetation along streams provides food and habitat for aquatic insects and fish. After the stream buffer is established you will be saving time by reducing the area of your property that has to be mowed.

Costs of this practice

The costs of establishing a buffer vary considerably, depending on the size of the buffer, the kinds and sizes of plants you would like to use, as well as the planting method you choose. In a suburban or rural residential setting, whether you choose to use seeds, plugs, or plants in pots changes the costs considerably, as does the type of plants. A slope stabilization seed mix of grasses and sedges can cost as little as $95 for enough seed to plant ¼ acre ($0.01/sq. ft.), while other kinds of seed mixes can cost as much as $400 for ¼ acre ($0.04/sq. ft.). Using plugs can cost anywhere from $1 to $4.50 per square foot ($9,000-10,000 per ¼ acre on the low end) depending on the plants and the supplier. Plants in one gallon pots cost roughly 2 to 3 times as much as plugs. Bare root trees can be planted at a rate of $500 to $750 per acre (less than $0.02 per square foot). A bare root seedling costs $1 to $2. The costs of site preparation and planting are additional.

In the context of larger rural parcels, seeding mixes cost = $1000 - $2000 per acre, depending on seeding rates. Seeding rates will depend on the type of species planted and the methods used to plant. Seeds that are broadcast are typically broadcast at higher rates because fewer of the seeds ultimately become plants. Seeds that are drilled require lower seeding rates, although drilling is typically only practical on sites of 1 acre or more. Seeding rates may vary from 6 lbs. per acre to 20 lbs. per acre.

For larger sites, e.g., more than 10 acres, one would need to rent a no till drill to plant the seeds. No till drill rental usually costs $6-$12 per acre for rental. You will also need to pay for delivery costs, which could be $50 for a 25 mile delivery. You also will need a tractor to pull the drill.

An alternative is hiring a company to seed your location. Costs will depend on the distance the company is from your location, and their experience. You should be sure to check their sources for evidence that they have conducted these types of plantings before and their success. Hiring a company will cost $500 - $1000 for one acre just for the planting and equipment if they use a drill. Costs per acre above 1 acre will rise at $100 - $200 per acre.

Newly planted sites must be mowed fairly frequently the first year, perhaps once per month during the growing season. Mowings will cost $40-$70 per acre per mowing operation.

Newly planted sites may require spot herbicide treatments during the first year. These should be conducted by a trained expert so they can identify the weed plants that potentially invade. Costs will be $25-$50 per acre for spot herbicide treatments.

To summarize, the table below presents per acre costs of installing a stream buffer area with native Ohio species on an acre or more. The low estimates are based on individual landowners doing the seeding themselves with broadcast methods and purchasing a broadcast seeder. The high costs assume a high cost planting mix and the use of a professional team to install the 1 acre plot.

  Low High
Seed $1,000 $2,000
Install $400 $1,200
Mowing $370 $650
Herbicide $90 $180
  $1,860 $4,030

Some suburban landowners we interviewed mentioned that while they were contemplating leaving a stream buffer, they were worried that it would look messy and offend their neighbors. We spoke with one suburban landowner who had put in stream buffer. He was very pleased with his stream buffer now, but said that it did take awhile to mature (one to two years depending on the plantings) and that it did look kind of messy in the meantime. He addressed the issue of his neighbors concerns by encouraging his neighbors to create a backyard stream buffer as well. Some other costs to be considered might be the loss of the view of the stream from your home. One way to address this would be to have the stream buffer in the areas where erosion is most likely such as around bends or curves in the stream.

Next steps

The easiest way to start this practice is just to stop mowing up to the stream. If you want to do a little more you can begin by removing the existing sod/turf, till and amend the soil, and seed with a native mix of wildflowers and warm season grasses. Tip Sheet 1 has a list of steps for buffer installation. Contact your local SWCDs to obtaining assistance with establishing a stream buffer including purchasing native trees and shrubs.


Photo credit: Western Michigan University, Environmental Safety and Emergency Management

Homeowners Guide to Streamside Gardening

Although created for streamside homeowners in Oregon, this colorful nine page guide offers plenty of practical guidance for creating a now mow zone such as inspecting your streamside property, deciding where to put your no-mow zone, and how to calculate the number of native trees or shrubs needed for planting.


Living Streamside Guide to Designing Your Property and Protecting Your Watershed. Philadelphia Water Department (Office of Watersheds).