Is this you? An expansive lawn going right up to the water may seem appealing, but it contributes to water pollution. Consider adding a buffer zone. rawf8/Shutterstock

Property owners will not find the “Keep Your Dirt to Yourself Law” written into Maine’s statutes.

But the phrase sums up what the department’s Nonpoint Source Training Center is trying to achieve, said John Maclaine of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in a recent online program.

Soil is the primary pollutant of water bodies, he told his virtual audience. Even good soil causes problems when it runs off into Maine’s 6,000 lakes and ponds, 45,000 miles of rivers and streams, 5 million acres of wetlands, 157,000 acres of coastal wetland and 3,478 miles of coastline.

“Soil particles act like tiny magnets picking up nutrients and pollutants,” he said, including but not limited to phosphorous, pesticides, bacteria, heavy metals and hydrocarbons such as oil and grease.

For freshwater, the big problem is phosphorous, which sticks to tiny soil particles and feeds algae, creating a cycle of algae blooms in many lakes and ponds. The algae uses up the oxygen in the water, threatening and sometimes killing fish.

Soil near a river that runs through an undeveloped forest is usually soaked up by leaf litter. But soil that runs off near homes or other structures is more problematic. Maclaine noted that many older structures in Maine are too close to the water line, or even extend over it. Although the talk was attended mostly by landscapers, the information could be helpful to anyone who owns waterfront property.


Say trees and shrubs were once removed to create space for water views, parking and play. But a more environmentally aware owner today wishes to lessen the environmental problems that landscaping and hardscaping created. The key to preventing pollution is to create shoreline buffers that slow down rainfall’s run to lakes and streams and filter out the nutrient-rich soil and the chemicals it contains.

Maclaine likes to create such a buffer by “live staking.” The method is inexpensive, relatively easy and you can do it yourself. Also, it requires no soil disturbance, which cuts down on erosion. Here’s how:

Without disturbing the soil, remove competing vegetation from the site where you intend to put the buffer. Then acquire some plant stakes, which are branch cuttings from other plants. Three native plants that are ideal for live staking are red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and pussy willow (Salix discolor.) Maclaine said plant nurseries sometimes sell them. I’ve never seen them, but I’ve also never asked for them.

Assuming the buying stakes didn’t pan out, you can find these plants growing in the wild. They are common. But ask permission from the owner of the property before you take any cuttings. When the plants are dormant (after October in the fall or before the leaves come out in spring), cut side branches from the shrubs that are at least 2 to 3 feet long and a half inch in diameter at the thicker end, close to the trunk.

Keep the cut stems moist and plant them within 24 hours. With the thicker side down, push the “stake” into the soil if the ground is soft, or pound it in with a rubber mallet if the soil is firmer. Leave just 25 percent of the stake above ground.

If the soil has been disturbed – by removing invasive species, for example – you might have to cover the soil with burlap or mulch to prevent erosion. Water the live-staked plants at least once a week.


I’ve done live staking on our property on a small scale, when our shrubs have suffered broken branches during storms. We’ve just used the method for a rhododendron, in fact. I make a clean end on the broken branch and stick it into another part of the garden or a pot. Roots develop from the bottom of the stem and you have a new plant.

In the buffer photos that Maclaine shared, the plants are about a foot apart and the buffer zone itself is about 4 feet wide.

Live staking isn’t the only solution to runoff pollution. You can plant native seedlings, but in that case, you’ll have to prevent erosion until they are established. Or you can install something like blueberry sod, which is low maintenance, soaks up runoff and will give you berries to boot. Rain gardens can also be useful.

While Maclaine stressed that buffers are not gardens, he made an exception for ground near the water that is mostly lawn. In those cases, it’s OK to insert pockets of gardens, he said, as such gardens will at least slow down the rush of rainfall, with its problematic soil, into the lake or stream.

The talk was sponsored by Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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