Planting and Growing a Successful Riparian Forest Buffer

I have been involved with over 500 miles of riparian buffer plantings and have witnessed plenty of failures and successes.  I would like to share with you what I believe is the recipe for success, that being TREE CANOPY CLOSURE IN TEN YEARS.

Author with Spencer Thompson of Conservation Services and VDOF Forester Patti Nylander. Mocomp Farm, eight year old riparian tree planting.

Author with Spencer Thompson of Conservation Services and VDOF Forester Patti Nylander. Mocomp Farm, eight year old riparian tree planting. Click on the image to watch a one minute video.

I’ll get right to the point then provide details.

If you do these three simple things I believe you will achieve seventy percent tree canopy closure in ten years.

Now for the details:  In the Chesapeake Bay watershed we know from science that forested buffers along streams are one of the best practices for filtering out pollutants before they reach the stream and they supply the inputs to the stream that support a healthy aquatic ecosystem.  A healthy aquatic ecosystem is two to eight times more capable of detoxifying itself than one without.  The drivers of this aquatic ecosystem are leaves from native trees; it’s the energy source or bottom of the aquatic food chain.  No leaves, no macroinvertebrates, no fish.

By planting native hardwoods along a stream we are helping Mother Nature establish a forest in ten years instead of thirty to fifty years.

Let’s look at what we are up against.  In pasture, hayland or meadow we are inserting a two to three-year-old seedling into a sea of mature grass roots.  One of the most prevalent grasses in the Bay watershed is Tall Fescue and we know that it is allelopathic towards tree seedlings.  Un-mowed grassland is also great habitat for meadow voles – one of your worst enemies.  Rabbits and deer will also cause harm to the seedlings.

Suppressing Tall Fescue helps your seedling by reducing toxins in the soil and removing vole habitat.

What causes tree seedling failure?

Number one cause: No tree shelter.

Science tells us that tree shelters are a must.  Without shelters expect 70% mortality.  With properly installed shelters expect only 10 to 30% mortality.

Number two cause: improperly installed tree shelter.

One of the leading causes of tree seedling failure is a broken shelter stake because it leaves an opening at the ground for meadow voles to get to the seedling.

One of the leading causes of tree seedling failure is a broken shelter stake because it leaves an opening at the ground for meadow voles to enter the shelter.

Shelters need to be in the ground two the three inches below the soil surface.  This prevents voles and mice from entering the shelter and killing the seedling.

Number three cause: a broken tree shelter stake.

When the tree shelter stake breaks it leaves an opening for voles.  Use only White Oak stakes or pressure treated stakes.  Replace broken stakes as soon as possible.

Number four cause: inferior seedling or wrong tree species for the site.

Tree seedlings need to be at least ¼ inch in diameter at the collar or 18 inches tall.  Select the right tree for the soil type, e.g. don’t plant a White Oak in a poorly drained soil.

I already mentioned the toxicity of Tall Fescue to tree seedlings.  It is important to suppress fescue in some way.  A vigorous scalping of the sod prior to planting, use of a turf mat, herbicide treatment, tillage or some other method can do this.

Kyle Switzer and Cam Morton of James Madison University planted a bare-root tree seedling with a four foot "Tubex" tree shelter. They also used a 3'X3" turf mat.

Kyle Switzer and Cam Morton of James Madison University planted a bare-root tree seedling with a four foot “Tubex” tree shelter. They also used a 3’X3″ turf mat.  The turf mat helps suppress tall fescue sod.

There are other invasive weeds that can choke out the seedling and it is important to keep these weeds in check.  They include Japanese Hops, Carpetweed and Field Bindweed.  These are vines and simply smother the seedling.

Japanese Hops; one of the most invasive weeds in riparian buffers. Photo by R. Whitescarver

Japanese Hops; one of the most invasive weeds in riparian buffers. Click on the image to watch a two minute video on invasives.

I believe we should also suppress invasive weeds that are unacceptable to the community because it gives the programs a bad image.  These include non-native Thistles, Teasel, Autumn Olive and others.  Be a good neighbor; keep these weeds under control – it will help others want to plant buffers on their land.

Riparian forest buffers are key to a restored stream in your community and restored Chesapeake Bay – the largest estuary in America.

Let me know if I can help you establish riparian buffers on your land.

© Robert N. Whitescarver


  1. Jim Snyder says:

    Another excellent post Bobby. Will be sharing this one far and wide. I learned a lot about riparian buffers while working in the valley. I’ve only had one prodcuer here want to plant one, including using tree shelters and it is over 100 acres. Trees are looked on as noxious weeds along watercourses here. The county drain commisioner makes sure their right of ways are clear of all vegetation except for grasses.

  2. Paul Brefka says:

    Riparian forest buffers were introduced to me a few years ago and ever since I have been astounded with their many benefits. They not only provide a new habitat but also significantly improve water quality. I find the planting of riparian forest buffers a no-brainer and don’t understand why more people don’t follow this positive trend. I remember fondly helping plant trees on a local farm to help improve water quality and better support the local ecosystem. I look-forward to pursuing this interest in my future and enjoy helping improve water quality any way I can and what better way than planting trees. I would like to make a special thanks to Bobby Whitescarver who was an excellent professor and provided the class with this volunteer opportunity I’m sure we will not forget. I wish I could take your class again next fall and I look-forward to hopefully seeing you around campus. Thanks again for the amazing lessons and experiences you presented the class with!!

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Paul, that was a very nice comment, thank you. I hope to see you too this fall. I think I will have an office in HHS; come by and see me. You were an excellent student; keep up the good work and thanks for keeping in touch.

  3. George Ohrstrom says:

    Great Job, Bobby
    Where can one find a list of the appropriate tree for differing ground conditions? Thanks George

  4. Good piece Bobby and it is too bad that more in the farm community won’t plant buffers. Someday hopefully they will be REQUIRED !!
    It will be interesting to see how these all look in 50 years as they are “edgy ” (get lots of light relative to a forest block) and with flooding and invasives ? And while a good tree planting is great natural succession can be an important ally in restoration too as long as someone is watching out for invasives. Now let’s hope it doesn’t rain for a week or two??

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks for stopping by Ned and keeping in touch. Keep up the good work. The 5 acres of native grass Austin planted in looking real good. We plan to put the cows in, in about five days. Thanks so much for your help.

  5. don faulkner says:

    Hi Bobby,
    I’m playing catch-up this afternoon and just had the chance to read your piece on Riparian buffers which I think as brief, clear, to the point, and persuasive as can be i.e. “right on the $Money!

    Thank you, Bobby. Don

  6. Bobby Whitescarver says:

    I received an email via the Virginia Working Landscapes web post. I’m posting it here because she brings up a good point and I posted my response as well.

    Hi Bobby,

    I read your comments via VOWA and I wanted to say that people always mention “thistles” as if every species is alien. That is not accurate and it’s very detrimental to our wildlife. American Goldfinches, for example, depend upon thistle down to build their nests. I don’t understand why conservationists don’t seem to be aware of the fact that we have native thistles and that people should not be encouraged to get rid of “thistles”, period. I would appreciate hearing from you.

    Thanks so much.


    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Marlene, thanks for your comment. I have edited my post to say “non-native” thistles.

      I’ve never seen a problem with native thistles….it’s the introduced ones that cause problems – as do most invasive species. Invasive species are one of the leading causes of wildlife habitat destruction and people not controlling their invasive, non-native plants is one of the leading causes for people not participating in buffer programs.

      The three thistle plants that cause most of the ecological and sociological problems with riparian forest plantings are Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans), Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense). All three are non-native to North America and are invasive. Invasive in that they take the place that native plants would have had and they “take over”. The first two are biennials and are relatively easy to control. Canada thistle on the other hand is a perennial and spreads by seed and rhizomes. It is especially troublesome because it is difficult to control and will absolutely take over leaving no space for anything native. All three of these introduced plants spread to adjoining properties and make more work for the neighbors which causes conflict. This conflict makes people not want to plant riparian buffers. It hurts us all. Think of all the native plants we could have had along the streams and all the pollution we could have kept from entering the streams.

      Riparian forest buffers are important because they help filter pollution, create energy for the aquatic ecosystem and provide incredible wildlife habitat. Conservationists have been espousing this important Best Management Practice for a long time. We would have many more acres along streams with native shrubs, trees and forbes if landowners would control their invasive, non-native plants.

      Even if all the folks that planted these buffers did control their non-natives there would still be plenty of musk, bull, canadian and native thistles around for the Goldfinches. The Goldfinches did just fine without the introduced plants.

  7. Bobby, nice article. I try my best to follow these rules in all of my reforestation plantings. In areas with great deer pressure, I’ve been contemplating trying out deer fencing instead of the traditional shelter approach. Do you have any experience with deer fencing, or increasing survival in areas with exceptional deer pressure? Just trying to gather as much advice from experienced professionals before moving forward… thanks.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Heather, thanks for reading the post and commenting. The Stroud Water Research Center in PA has been doing research on deer fencing instead of shelters. For small acreage they have had some success. I suggest visiting their website and look for their findings. A link is on my website under “resources” if you can’t find them. Also, let me suggest planting trees and shrubs that deer do not like. Indigo bush is one of my favorites. Sawtooth Oak although not native is a fast growing oak that deer do not like. Using five foot shelters is also helpful.

  8. Connor Gray says:

    After reading this article I was wondering if all streams are good candidates for Forest Buffers. I would assume yes? Also, I would assume that each stream that you install a Forest Buffer is different. What makes the application of a Forest Buffer “easier” or “harder” based on the location?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Connor, we will be discussing the issues you raise in class later in the semester. As far as I know all streams in the mid-atlantic states would be good candidates for forest buffers. I think at least 30% of the first order streams need to have forest buffers in order to support a healthy benthic community. What makes it “easier” or “harder” is the landowner.

  9. Michael Rann says:

    An interesting read that drove home the need for and the care that must be taken when planting riparian buffers, I particularly liked the emphasis on the removal of invasive plant species. Where I live I have seen the devastation to native plant life that can be caused by non native species (Kudzu, Alianthus,etc.) and these plants can easily out compete and shade out young trees planted in a buffer zone if it is not maintained. However healthy and mature forested buffer zones are essential to filter the water before it reaches the streams and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

  10. Jeanne Guillen says:

    This is a very interesting post, Professor Whitescarver. How did you figure out the exact recipe for the riparian buffers? It’s amazing that you were able to provide so many specific facts and statistics about tree seedling failure. Before reading this post, I had no idea this much information must be taken into consideration when creating riparian forest buffers. The knowledge you are sharing through this blog post is essential for the public to know in order to help reduce the pollutants that enter our watersheds.

  11. Bradley Andrick says:

    Very interesting. I think it’s beneficial to explain the development of riparian buffers in a simple three step process as you did. Building a buffer zone along streams can be a project that gets put on the back burner in a lot of peoples minds. We really need more articles explaining riparian areas so that the general public can be aware of the importance both nearby and for the entire Bay Watershed. I know that I never learned about riparian buffers until college so I think general education would be very valuable. Great blog Professor!

  12. Thank you for the article, it is informative and interesting! I was wondering about a couple of things though. When creating a riparian forest buffer, do you generally plant the seedlings directly by the stream, or what is the general distance from the stream? Would it be beneficial to create a riparian forest buffer on property without a stream to reduce runoff?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Megan, thanks. In Virginia the standard hardwood tree planting for a riparian buffer is 110 trees per acre or trees planted on a 20X20 foot grid. We have trees and shrubs that do very well, planted right on top of the bank.

  13. Andrew Lucchesi says:

    Never realized those little plastic coverings, which I now know are called tree shelters, had such a great impact on the healthy development of a trees! Also, forest buffers along streams seems like one of the best practices you could possibly do for the soil, water, and environment in general. Seems like a win for everyone, and I’m looking forward to planting with you and the rest of the class in November!

  14. Seraphim (Daniel) Falterman says:

    This is a really interesting post. I think that is a bit funny when you write that “science” tells us things. I know that the green text links to another page that supports the stated opinion but I feel that saying “science” in this way leads one to think of the present state of science as a static collection of facts that exists in some perfect library. I believe that is important to directly acknowledge that all “science” is the product of humans asking questions about some phenomenon and doing research to answer said question by citing them in text. This emphasizes that they are only people and that the information they suggest is only the best idea that we have at this time.

    Also, I have questions about the affects of riparian forest buffers. I am curious about the changes in the soil itself after the installation of a buffer. Does the chemistry stay the same? How about the flora/fauna of the soil? Do the roots of the trees allow deeper soil development than those of grasses?

    Does there exist a soil properties / growth conditions chart to aid those who would install a buffer in choosing the right tree for their area?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Seraphim, thanks for the questions. I don’t know how to answer your first question except to say I could have written, “empirical data shows us”. It’s the same thing. Using the scientific method, we know things about what works and what doesn’t work. And of course it’s ephemeral…ever changing, because we are always learning.

      Now about the soil. There is empirical data out there that shows us a forest soil has more fungi compared to a grassland soil which has more bacteria. Some scientists argue that forest soils are more mature and that more fungi suggests a more mature soil. Here we are trying to insert a tree into a grassland soil….well, I think there is something there. I believe we have success with certain trees, partly because they can tolerate this lack of fungi. These trees would be what we refer to as “pioneer” trees. These would be catalpa, green ash, sycamore, red maple…

      And finally, yes, of course there are many factors that determine what is the best tree species to plant in a certain soil, with a certain aspect to the sun. We know this from using the scientific method. We can discuss more later.

      All very good questions.

  15. Jenni Comer says:

    I have focused my senior project on preventing erosion from riparian buffers, and I always like to learn about various techniques that can be used. The practical sides of a full tree canopy are very beneficial and necessary to maintain the health of our waters. In addition to that, there is an extreme beauty and habitat that a tree canopy provides.

  16. Eric Quiroga says:

    Before reading this blog, I was not familiar with what a Riparian Forest Buffer was. However, after reading this article and then doing more research on it, I see where you are coming from. I have done a fair amount of research on the Chesapeake Bay and I agree with you that there needs to be a fix now and a fix that can be sustained for many years to come. No doubt, that a Riparian Forest Buffer would aid in the fight to decrease runoff going into the Bay.

  17. Olivia McGuigan says:

    I was unaware that tree covers were so essential to a healthy stream ecosystem, or that they were so susceptible to attack by weeds. I was wondering how exactly the shelters work. Do they get removed at a certain point or do the trees grow out of them? I’ve planted fruit trees before and only used stakes to keep them upright so I’m assuming the buffer is attacked more easily therefore needs more protection. it’s great that you’ve found such a successful way of planting these trees to promote a better aquatic environment.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks Olivia, we will be discussing the value of tree shelters more when we actually plant trees on the 16th of November.

  18. Katie Bishop says:

    This post is very intriguing. It must have taken a very long time and multiple rounds of trial and error in order to find the right grouping of species from the perfect riparian buffer. It shows you dedication and allows for others to build off of what you’ve done.

  19. Amanda Rice says:

    This was a very enlightening post. I never realized how much work goes into not only planting the riparian buffer, but protecting it against invasives so it can fully grow. I see why some people are hesitant to plant a riparian buffer, but it more than pays for itself in the end as it cleans up the stream.

  20. Caroline McKean says:

    Your post and your comments to others’ responses have been very enlightening for me, like your suggestions for specific trees and shrubs that deer won’t bother with. My family tried planting a tree a few years ago right near our back field and it didn’t end up surviving – now I know why! They wanted to try again with a different kind but that may not have been the issue in the first place if any of these other factors were actually what killed it. Interesting that trees have a 70% mortality rate without a tree shelter, I wouldn’t have known that. This is a great post for encouraging people to not just establish riparian buffers but to do it the right way so that everyone benefits.

  21. Kevin Weissgold says:

    Professor Whitescarver,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about riparian forest buffers for streams; I thought it was very instructive. Your three overall broad points sound very agreeable and beneficial. I found it remarkable that a properly forested buffer along a stream can help that stream to detoxify itself by two to eight times more than a stream with an inadequate forest buffer! I think planting forested riparian buffer zones should be a tax write-off because it benefits everyone by helping to clean up our local waterways and thus our larger estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay, which is a valuable resource to many. One day planting forested riparian buffers should be a requisite for landowners! My only question is what type of toxins found in the soil does Tall Fescue produce that causes it to be detrimental to tree saplings?

    Thank you professor for an enlightening post.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Kevin, thanks. Most of the tall fescue in North America has an endophyte (internal fungus) that exudes alkaloids into the soil that inhibits other plants from growing. We will be discussing this more when we get to our unit on “invasives”.

  22. Dave DiPascale says:

    That’s interesting Professor Whitescarver. Yes, people know that trees take in nutrients from the soil that may not be good for a river, stream, etc., but it never occurred to me that there needs to be care in plating the tree. It is basically a “duh” moment that just spawned on me that if you plant a small tree without protection, native animals will want to eat it! There was also the fact of keeping native meadow grasses down. It was interesting that I read this today, because while going after the burdock, Mike said how you guys mowed the grass line along the fences to allow the seedlings to grow. Trees are plants, and plants need sunlight to grow. If these native grasses are blocking the tree, then the tree will never grow. This is something I did not realize, however, and am sure that not so many people thought of this either. Sometimes the most obvious knowledge is that which people tend to forget.

  23. This is a very interesting blog on riparian buffers. These are crucial to returning aquatic environments to good health and preventing riverbank erosion. Working with the South River Science team over the summer, I was made aware that most of the mercury released into the South River currently comes from the eroding of contaminated soils that line the river; if these soils could be kept in place then it would greatly decrease the effects of mercury contamination. In addition, they act as natural remediators that are capable of reducing excess nutrient levels from the water; decreasing the effects of algae blooms downstream. In addition, they supply aquatic organisms food that are required for a healthy ecosystem. I believe that riparian buffers should be utilized as much as possible and it is great to learn about how to successfully implement one.

  24. Gabriela Fleury says:

    This is a very informative blog post regarding riparian buffers. It is easy to read and straight-forward and emphasizes their importance, especially regarding the use of native species to filter out pollutants from the stream. I never realized how beneficial the riparian buffers can be to help clean up streams and to provide a habitat for a myriad amount of organisms.

  25. I had the opportunity to come out and help your class plant a riparian buffer area last year. I was hoping to find myself in some of your pictures haha. But that day, we spent the morning clearing out old farm trash and fences to enable our group to plant the trees. It wasn’t until after lunch that we were able to start planting trees. Within about a four hour period our group of about ten, were able to plant at least a hundred trees. It was a really cool experience. For me, it was a great volunteer opportunity I have continuously talked about. I hope that my shared experiences will motivate others to find riparian buffer planting opportunities. It not only is a great service to our ecosystems, but also a great learning experience. While you are planting trees you are learning about native tree species, invasive animals and plants, and how riparian zones help local watersheds.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Drake, thank you so much for reminding me that you were there. You will definitely motivate others, keep the flames going.

  26. Keenan Sperry says:

    Excellent read professor. I found the VDOF PDF to be especially informative, not just in terms of buffers but in tree planting in general. That being said, your three points were very beneficial as well; packing key points in three small bullets made it easier to remember and providing a large amount of background helped put all the pieces together. The aspect that hit me the most was leaves and their role in the food chain. I had a limited understanding that leaves are essential for nutrient reputake over land (and how foolish it is to continuously rake up leaves in autumn). However, I didn’t know how essential they were in terms of aquatic life. In addition, the segment on voles was very informative- I had actually never heard of them before reading and will definitely take that into consideration next time I plant trees in my backyard.

  27. Kevin Van Deusen says:

    I never realized how much went into creating a riparian forest buffer. I had always assumed that by just leaving the area alone, it would grow a new forest. But I never thought of invasive species or about the time scale this would take to complete.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Yes, Kevin, it will be a forest eventually if you just leave it alone and exclude livestock. It will take a long time though.

  28. Michael Hammerstrom says:

    I was actually fortunate enough to have worked as a volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in creating a riparian forest buffer last year. I arrived with 30 or so volunteers and we were all given instructions on how to properly create the buffer. After about fifteen minutes of directions and questions we took off in teams and planted a few hundred trees along the stream. I did it for a class assignment so the name of the farm and stream we were working on escape me, however it was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Everything in your blog here was covered in the walkthrough they provided when you arrived. Great post!

  29. Great post! A riparian buffer is what they planted along Blacks Run in Purcell Park. I remember when the bank was bare. Now there are trees and grasses everywhere! The park looks much better and i’m sure the water is safe enough for wandering kids to get in with out parents being too concerned. There are also signs up around the river that inform people about the importance of the buffer and how they can do their part. I’m glad to see Purcell and the surrounding community step up to the task. I would help with one in a heart beat.

    Though, I was wondering, what about slow growing trees? Aren’t they important too? What role do they get to play?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Heather, thanks. Slow growing trees are also planted such as Swamp White Oak, White Oak, Southern Red Oak etc. We try to plant a variety of trees.

  30. Eric Severn says:

    This was a very interesting and informative article! I always knew that trees played a major role in the health of streams and rivers, but I did not know that the type of trees planted makes a difference. I also never realized the importance of tree shelters; I’m outside a lot and I never really put much thought into their purpose. It was great learning how they protect the seedling and how slim of a chance a seedling has to survive, if a seedling is not given one. Riparian buffers give us food, resources, and they help to maintain and/or improve the biodiversity of an area. And like you said, the Chesapeake Bay has bounced back some from the creation and rebuilding of riparian buffers. Thank you for sharing this article!

  31. Ashley Huff says:

    This post sure does put an emphasis on tree shelters. I have actually always thought they they were a bit of an eye sore, but now I know they are much more important than I ever realized. The statistic stating that without tree shelters you would likely have 70% mortality is shocking to me. It makes me wonder how trees were able to grow before human intervention! I think it is sad that most of the riparian buffers in the Chesapeake Bay area have been lost to agriculture, but I have no doubt that they will be on the rise again!

  32. Christian Cline says:

    I really enjoyed reading the article. I really liked the four reasons why seedlings fail. I am curious about the invasive species. I have to ask the question why are native trees leafs so much better at keeping a healthy ecosystem? Are non-native tree leaves inferior at promoting a healthy stream ecosystem?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Christian, thanks. Native leaves are important because the macro-invertebrates that eat them are species specific. For example, the Stroud Water Research Center could find no macro-invertebrate that would eat multi-flora rose leaves.

  33. Colleen Weidert says:

    It is amazing the little and inexpensive things we can do to stop environmental harm and the small number of people who realize this and appreciate it. You definitely convinced me of using a riparian forest buffer. I was also surprised to learn that it is the leaves from native trees that are the drivers of the aquatic ecosystem. It all just reminds me that everything is connected and nature has got this covered. We have to work to fix the damage we cause and nature will take care of itself. Very nice post:)

  34. Lisa McNabola says:

    This was a very informative blogpost, but I do have a few questions. Besides trees what other plants do you use? Do you use plants that are found in our native prairies? Or are there certain species that encourage tree growth (unlike tall fescue) or a successful riparian buffer? Would a similar methodology be used in suburban/urban areas to prevent run off from getting into waterways?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks Lisa, we recommend planting native prairie seeds prior to planting the trees. Our goal is to have the whole buffer be native. The same techniques are used in an urban setting as well.

  35. Sundaram Periyasamy says:

    Significant achievement is being done when one creates these riparian forest buffers. I have seen them before around streams and creeks, but i have not been aware of their purpose or positive effects until now. With the Chesapeake Bay being in the condition that it is in, it is very thoughtful to attack the issue of contaminants directly from the source, instead of focusing purely on the water in the Chesapeake. It is also very important to make sure the saplings are planted correctly and protected from predators or the work will be almost be for nothing (One thing i didn’t understand is why these meadow voles would want to attack tree saplings). If every stream in America was to be protected by a forest buffer, the changes and conservation of water quality would be amazing. I know I will consider the importance of a forest buffer in future projects that i engage in.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks Sunny, about the voles, they like to girdle the tree seedling and they would like to live in the shelter.

  36. Lauren Donaghue says:

    I though this was a very interesting and informative blog! I loved how straight forward it was because it was easier to understand especially since I didn’t know anything about riparian buffers! I was really blown away about the fact that a healthy aquatic ecosystem is two to eight times more capable of detoxifying itself than one without. It’s crazy how much of an affect it can have. I think it is a method that a lot of people don’t know much about or appreciate it. There is a lot to know and apply in order for a riparian buffer to be successful, however, the learning process is definitely worth it in the end. By the way i had no idea that those white coverings are actually called a “tree shelter”… good to know!

  37. Andrew White says:

    We had an area where we were trying to plant trees in my yard a while ago and I wish I had read this then. While the spot was not necessarily a riparian buffer, this is still very relevant. The trees kept dying until we realized a couple of things. First, the trees we were trying to plant were not native and not taking roots well. Also, we did not set up the proper tree shelters and the shelters ended up rotting the tree trunk. If I had read this then, I am confident that we would have been able to have success in growing our tree patch on the first try.

  38. Arianna Sessoms says:

    This is a very interesting and informative post. It is obvious that you are very knowledgeable on the subject and that you pay close attention to details, which is great. I had no idea that so much went into planting and protecting a tree seedling, or that grass could be harmful to a tree! I also think those Japanese Hops are very pretty, it is a shame that they are invasive. Again, very interesting read!

  39. Grace Corapi says:

    It seems so simple yet so few people know about this! Often people only think about invasive species and removing them, but then there leaves a gap for what the soil and area REALLY needs–trees! Would you say there is one area in particular that is begging for reparian forest buffer? Also how many areas have been successfully refurbished that you have worked on? Already getting excited to get planting this semester!

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks Grace, the biggest problem or the areas that lack riparian buffers are those in pastures and crop fields in the Valley. I have been involved with about 500 miles of riparian plantings. In Augusta County for example we contracted with over 350 farms where we fenced their cows out of the streams then planted these buffers.

  40. Shaina Hyman says:

    I found this post to be very informative and to further my knowledge of what I have already learned about riparian stream buffers. We’ve discussed this process and it’s many benefits in my farming internship class as well. It’s hard for me to see why this wouldn’t be a priority and an optimum fix for everyone. The process seems rather simple while the benefits are extensive. Why not do anything we can to conserve the aquatic environment and its species, while also providing new habitats and filtering runoff escaping to our streams. I was able to visit your farm just last week to aid in the weeding your fields. On this visit you showed a group of us a tree you sheltered with plastic to ensure healthy growth. It was awesome to see the tree had broken out of the shelter and was growing to its full potential on its own!

  41. Lukas Osmers says:

    The simplicity of this whole issue is pretty interesting to me. We all know that the Chesapeake Bay has some major problems, and we are beginning to see some of the effects of those problems. But the simplicity of just planting trees along the edges of streams to help the stream detoxify itself two to eight times quicker is pretty amazing, not to mention all the other benefits that come with tree cover.

  42. Dylan Shifflette says:

    I participated in a tree planting for one of my classes in high school and we actually planted trees in a riparian buffer zone. After reading this post I now know that we didn’t do it 100% correctly. I had no clue about the toxicity of the Tall Fescue grass on the tree seedlings or how specific you should be when picking what kind of tree to put somewhere.

  43. Brad Anderson says:

    Very helpful and concise way of explaining how to plant a successful riparian buffer. I think it is important to get the word out and provide assistance to those who want to benefit the environment. I was unaware that that the invasive species could cause such a hindrance on establishing a riparian buffer. Riparian buffers are a necessary benefactor to provide stability and health to the aquatic life within the streams. Building these buffers along the streams is the next step we need to take in order to clean the bay. Hopefully, soon everyone will realize the benefits of building these buffers and wildlife will continue to flourish within these streams.

  44. Scott Brooks says:

    Your informative blog posts raises awareness about the dangers of mismanaged riparian buffers. Proper procedure is required to successfully establish tree canopies. These canopies can help reduce the amount of toxins entering the water stream. Before reading this blog I did not realize that trees played a big role in filtering toxins. Hopefully future projects will be implemented in a sustainable fashion to increase the health of all watersheds.

  45. Fanuel Haile says:

    This was very insightful in terms of how to go about planting trees and it reiterates what I learned about how essential a riparian buffer is to a stream. I agree that riparian buffers should be established to streams (if not already) in order to ensure sustainability within aquatic ecosystems. I wasn’t aware that trees needed to be protected after you plant them and that you need a shelter stake prevent mice and voles from destroying the tree. I know in this natural resource course we’re going to be planting trees so I’m looking forward to being a part of that process. Thanks for another great post professor!

  46. Walker Turner says:

    I really found this post interesting. In the past I have always assumed that tree shelters were used as protection against deer and wind. I never thought about it acting as a small scale greenhouse. The success rate of reaching maturity of trees with a shelter compared those without is much larger than I would have assumed as well. Going off those statistics it would silly to plant a seedling without a shelter. This post got me thinking of the streams in Fulks Run. The several streams that have a remaining population of native Brook Trout all have very dense tree canopies. “The drivers of this aquatic ecosystem are leaves from native trees; it’s the energy source or bottom of the aquatic food chain. No leaves, no macroinvertebrates, no fish.”– This explains the lack of productivity I’ve experienced fishing in areas of rivers with no tree cover!

  47. Stanley McMillian says:

    Nice article! I had no idea of the mechanics behind forest buffers, let alone riparian buffers. The in’s and out’s of the buffer plantings sound like common sense at first glance. Quickly I realized there is much more too it. When it comes to tree shelters, I always thought the trees took care of everything. The studies, science, and statistics behind these ‘little plastic covers’ is a lot deeper than what I previously knew. In the future I can see myself wanting to know more about the techniques and Riparian forest buffers. I was just wondering how long until you remove the tree shelters? Great Post professor!

  48. Michael Yuhas says:

    Wow I never knew that planting trees took so much study of the area and all parts of the ecosystem. It is amazing that a little plastic tube (tree shelter) can increase a tree’s chance at life by 40-60%. It’s hard to believe that the forest could regenerate itself at all without our help. I have a few questions. Are there any laws in place to facilitate riparian buffer growth? Does the government offer incentives to people living on land that needs buffering to plant trees? I think more people need to start writing about the specifics of how to properly plant a riparian buffer because there is so much that goes into it, and so much that can go wrong. I know i had no idea about what it took to successfully plant trees, and i think that is true for much of the population. This was a very informative article, thanks!

  49. Michael Reeser says:

    This post was both informative and inspiring professor. It is amazing to see how easy it is to make a difference simply by planting trees and how big of an impact trees make on keeping our watershed clean. It makes you wonder how big an impact it would be if every person in the world planted just one tree. As far as the riparian buffer system goes, I am surprised more people don’t use them. It seems like a simple process, but is it expensive or require too much maintenance for people to deal with? Does the government offer incentives or programs for using riparian buffer systems?

  50. Daniel Freeman says:

    I always wanted a good source that I can show my father about riparian buffers. There is a stream at his work (and where I used to work) that they mow right up to every week that is completely unnecessary. I was always trying to explain what I learned to him, but actually making a riparian buffer still seemed out of my hands. Now I can just send him this link and hopefully he will understand better. Maybe if their company had the money, I could use it to make a riparian buffer around the stream as a little side project with the help of this post.

  51. Schylar Healy says:

    This was a very interesting post and I really enjoyed reading it. I learned the importance a riparian buffer for a healthy aquatic ecosystem, and I was also somewhat surprised of the amount management the buffers need. This leaves me wondering if it is possible for riparian buffers to occur naturally? If it is, are naturally occurring riparian buffers limited to certain types of environments?

  52. Daniel Warren says:

    Great post, I enjoyed the simple three steps that will ensure a successful riparian buffer. Between this post and the discussion in class I may have conjured up an interesting business idea.
    Purchase or rent the land from the farmer (or other type land owner), plant hardwood, fruit and nut trees and perennial shrubs (all natives of course). Then basically farm the land, collecting the fruits of your labor and selling wholesale or direct to local businesses, through a CSA, at farmers markets, or through a farmer-coop. You could even grow bio-fuels! It would only make economic sense for one to do this on a long, all or mostly continuous, stretch of land, with wide buffers (100 feet). Everybody wins! What do you think?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Hey Daniel, great idea! There is one “kink”. If the land is enrolled in CRP, harvesting anything from the CRP area is not allowed during the life of the contract. These contracts are typically 10 years so it would give your trees a good start. When the contract is over….start your harvest.

  53. Brandon Walraven says:

    Good post professor, especially just after helping start a buffer last weekend. Its unfortunate that it is not a more popular practice, especially with all the incentives! When driving through the countryside around Harrisonburg I’m noticing that the majority of farms do not have their cows fenced out of the stream, much less have an established buffer of any width. What do you think it will take to see real progress with riparian buffers since it seems there is plenty of financial support if farmers want to use it. More education? Command and control regulation?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Brandon, thanks for your comment. In my opinion, what we need next in the journey is marketing leadership. We have several federal agencies involved with most of the incentives but they lack leadership delivering the program.

  54. Josh Kugler says:

    Extremely informative post Professor. It was a pretty detailed summary of what needs to be known about riparian forest buffers, and I truly enjoyed, again, learning stuff from you that I never learned before. I can sense the type of writer you are in that you present both sides to the same story. In this post you did that again where you not only persuaded the reader about forest buffers but also why they fail. Which was vital information for anyone with the means to plant this buffer on their land.Hopefully people read this and know that planting a riparian forest buffer on their land will have positive ripple effects for many different types of things and be encouraged to take action. Great read overall.

  55. Jordan Palamone says:

    Once I read the first sentence I was hooked Professor. The fact that you have assisted in 500 miles of riparian buffer plantings is incredible, but I also realize that is such small portion of waterways in need of riparian buffer systems. I understood the general concept and function of riparian buffers prior to this article, just not quite in the great detail you provided. Your knowledge and expertise on this subject should be enough to convince people of the benefits to be had through this process. Hopefully people wake up and start asking for your assistance on the planting of their riparian buffer.

  56. Allyson Ponn says:

    Growing up on the Shenandoah River, I have always had an insight to riparian buffers and their importance in keeping the water clean. With the influence of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their cleanup efforts, riparian buffers have become a favorite on and off the farm. Your simple summary and easy steps to follow just go to show how easy of an effort can make such a difference in a large scale. With or without incentives, keeping the water clean should be of interest to us all. Although the dispersion of money to those in favor is appreciated, I feel like proper education would suffice. At least I hope it would.

  57. Ashleigh Cotting says:

    This was a very informative read. I became especially interested in the use of native plants in riparian buffers. While this may seem like common sense, it is important to realize that a lot of people don’t even know that some plants are not native to their area. After following the link to VDCR’s website about invasive and native plants, I learned that planting native species is not enough. It is also important to pay attention to things like the soil pH, elevation, hydrology, and much more. Doing so will help guide you in selecting the right plants for your particular project. The success of a riparian buffer relies on the success of the plants, so I can see why these are important things to consider.

  58. Leah Wilkes says:

    I appreciate how you laid out this article. It is easy to follow and breaks it down in a way that is easy to comprehend. It is interesting to read about the invasive species and the techniques that are able to best help trees grow in the area to be a riparian buffer. And so encouraging to read that with the right techniques seventy percent tree canopy closure in ten years is possible!

  59. Harley Burton says:

    Another informative post Professor! It is interesting to see the effectiveness of such a valuable BMP. I have been introduced to Riparian Buffers in the past, but never seen the implementation process. I appreciated your straightforward instructions and guidelines for a successful installation. I believe everyone should be made aware of this simple process and its multitude of benefits for our environment.

    The weed species control is also an interesting aspect of management that I was previously unaware of. Your post helps clarify any misconceptions about what is necessary for weed control and successful tree establishment.

  60. Susan Andersen says:

    For someone who has never grown up on a farm or even lived near a farming community until i reached college, I’ve always felt that trees were a good thing and that it was a no brainer. But to a farmer, where every square foot of land needs to be used and used well, i can see why they would be hesitant about planting trees. Not very often do you see a densely forested area that is a farm, unless it’s a christmas tree farm. Trees and farms just don’t seem to go in the same picture. But that picture needs to be changed, and as your post shows it can easily be changed! If every farmer was just educated of all the great things trees could do for their farms their lives would be so much easier. Can we forward this post to the local farmers who need this? Or do they not know how to use the computer yet…

  61. Nathan Irving says:

    Great article Prof. Whitescarver. I feel like restoring riparian buffers is a simple way to control water quality that not many people think to take advantage of, due to their lack of understanding how beneficial it is to the watershed, and in some cases the lack of concern for the damage that is taking place. Thinking back to where I grew up, which was literally right along the South Fork of the Hardware River, there was plenty of farmland that had a stream passing through it, and there was fencing to keep the cattle or other livestock out of the stream, and the stream itself didn’t have a thriving ecosystem that helped keep the water clean. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but now there could be serious damage going on to the larger water systems in the area that could all be avoided. Not to mention how aesthetically pleasing it is to have a thriving aquatic ecosystem in the neighborhood.

  62. Caitlin Shipman says:

    As many of my classmates have already stated, this post gives the basics to a successful riparian buffer in clear step by step instructions. The post went as far as to troubleshoot why a buffer may fail and what steps should be taken to avoid that. The incentives available to farmers makes this a feasible best management practice for them to undertake. Clean water is a necessity for everyone, therefore steps should be taken to ensure it’s protection.

  63. Jessanna August says:

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on the subject matter Professor Whitescarver. I’ll admit I don’t know much about tree planting, but it seems that it is quite an involved process. The importance of riparian buffers in preventing erosion of river banks is made very clear and I hope that this article provides a lesson for all stream landowners. I wish this article would extend into explaining the science behind the benefits of a riparian buffer. Do plants and trees help to clarify the water as well as provide support for the river bank soil? If so, how do they do this? Are there some trees/plants that do a better job at supporting the river ecosystem?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Yes, Yes, and Yes. Streams flowing through a stream side forest are 2 to 8 times more capable of processing pollutants than streams not flowing through forests because of the thriving benthic community.

    • Sara Guthrie says:

      I wondered the some of the same things as Jessana as I was reading through. The article is very informative and gives clear step by step directions to success. I think it would be interesting to know which plants/trees provide the most benefits in certain areas. That knowledge could prove to be useful on remediation sites, as certain plants could pull out certain pollutants on site and lessen the load of remedial work, in addition to helping out on farms and such. Such a simple solution should be more prevalent than it is now.

  64. Ben Petersen says:

    It amazes me how something so simple as a tree can reduce pollution and remediate a stream. How much does this typically cost? I imagine that when it comes to conservation plans, this is one of the cheaper options. Not only is it probably cheaper but I feel like it’s a more simple process than other plans. You seem to have developed a good formula. Not only is it better for the stream, but I think it makes the streams prettier too.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Ben, an average cost for planting a riparian forest is about $1,000/acre, which would plant 110 hardwood trees with shelters and turf mats. This includes labor.

  65. Amanda Brown says:

    Very informative and enlightening post as always, professor! I’m curious though, is there ever a point you reach in a stream where planting a buffer this far down would be fairly insignificant? You would think having buffers along the entire stream would be a no brainer, but seeing how this has become virtually impossible with such large scale urbanization, where would be considered the prime location for such buffers?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      The most important places to establish riparian forests are the headwater streams. Those first, second, third and forth order streams.

  66. Codey Johnson says:

    Man this class is starting to really turn me into a tree huger. After reading this article, Plan B, and part of American Chestnut I have really begun to see the importance of trees and really do appreciate them more. Just the other day I was following the UN Climate Summit and it stood out to me how many countries talked about reduction of deforestation and working a lot on reforestation. I really hope we get the chance to plant some for class. Also, growing up at the beach the Chesapeake Bay has always been a big part of my life. In the last few years I found out how big the watershed actually is and how much people far away could affect the bay. It really makes me happy seeing people all the way out here in Harrisonburg doing what they can to help the bay.

  67. Anders Hasselquist says:

    Riparian buffers are an important BMP that environmental concentrations in ISAT seem to hear about the most frequently. I was not aware of how truly beneficial restoring lost riparian buffers are. I always knew how helpful natural riparian buffers are but did not realize that proper planting techniques can create its own buffer in around ten years. However, I also did not know how much work and precision goes into maintaining a healthy riparian buffer. There are so many threats to the seedlings as they mature over the ten years that it has to be a little difficult in maintaining them. I wonder if this is a reason that more riparian buffers are not going up since their benefits seem to make perfect sense.

  68. Brody Edwards says:

    I always love your blog post professor they are not only informative but very interesting as well, this one especially. I have been a part of planting and implementing riparian buffers back home for the Dan River Basin Association and everything in the post we took into account which is awesome and makes me feel better. Trees are so vital to existence and we need to not only take care of them but continue to plant as many as possible. When we plant trees at head water and first order streams they help in the process of decreasing algae blooms and the effects they have by providing more oxygen, they keep nutrient levels in check, and also can be a supplier of food for not only the aquatic life but life on the banks as well. Awesome post.

  69. Jesse Peebles says:

    Absolutely wonderful article Professor! I think that a good riparian buffer is not only necessary to all water sources but is paramount to the safety and longevity of the water resource in general. If we as a people cannot protect our most basic of needs then we will surely parish! The riparian zone of any stream or river can really give a good synopsis as to how healthy that body of water is!

  70. Jackson Snarr says:

    I am a huge fan of riparian buffers, which is why I chose to research them for my best management practice that we submitted the other day. The thing is as much as I knew, I never realized how much actually went into getting the tree to catch seed and sprout. i was very surprised to hear of all of the things that actually went into planting and maintaining a successful riparian buffer which would take up to ten years to mature and reach tree canopy closure. The one aspect of riparian buffers that this article does not address that i am still wondering is why farmers still do not do it. With the funding opportunity its hard to believe that the maintenance is to much for them to upkeep that it would keep them away from doing it, or maybe there are some time and monetary cost on the back end that are not being addressed. Good article!

  71. Oliver Allen says:

    Great post professor! Riparian buffers are an essential addition to any riparian ecosystem that many people do not consider. The positive impact that these can have are astounding. And the best part about it is that the results can be seen very easily. The river begins to look healthier, the leaves aid in the establishment of a food chain, and quite frankly; healthy trees can never be an eye sore. To put it simply, those trees just make things better.

  72. Great stuff here! I feel that most people realize how important riparian buffers are to the watershed but don’t understand what it takes to create a riparian buffer that will be sustained for years to come. This is a great article for people to see the correct procedure to take in order to have a flourishing riparian buffer. I thought it was interesting that you must plant the correct tree for your environment.

  73. Hi Bobby,
    Farmers are not always big fans of buffers, citing loss of acres, ongoing maintenance costs, etc. What are some approaches or species or planting techniques that make buffers more “farmer-Friendly?”

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