G1557

Planning Your Riparian Buffer:
Design and Plant Selection

Learn how to plan and design a riparian buffer and select appropriate tree and grass species. A companion NebGuide, Installing Your Riparian Buffer: Tree and Grass Planting, Postplanting Care and Maintenance (G1558), addresses buffer installation, planting trees and grasses, postplanting care and long-term maintenance.


Amanda Fox, Graduate Student in Biological Systems Engineering;
Tom Franti, Extension Surface Water Management Specialist; Scott Josiah, Nebraska State Forester;
Mike Kucera, State Resource Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Conservation buffers are planted for environmental, aesthetic, recreational, and economic reasons. Grass filter strips, grassed waterways, field borders, and field windbreaks are examples of conservation buffers. A conservation buffer also may be a streamside or riparian forest buffer and include trees, shrubs, and grasses. Riparian buffers are a best management practice to protect stream water quality, reduce streambank erosion, and provide wildlife habitat. Buffers also can provide income through payments from federal, state and local cost-share programs or through production and sale of specialty crops. This NebGuide provides instructions on riparian buffer planning, design and selection of tree and grass species appropriate for riparian buffers. It compliments the instructional video Streamside Conservation: Installing and Maintaining Your Riparian Buffer, available from University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension. (To order the video, contact the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Educational Media, P.O. Box 830918, Lincoln, NE 68583-0918 or call 800-755- 7765.)

Planning is the first step in buffer installation. First, identify your goals for the buffer, then select a design and plant materials to achieve your goals.

Goal Identification

Consider what you want to accomplish with your buffer. Do you want to protect surface water quality, enhance wildlife habitat, stabilize streambanks, and/or generate income? Buffers can be used to meet one or more of these goals.

Buffers protect surface water by intercepting runoff and irrigation water flowing from crop fields. Vegetation in the buffer slows the water, increasing infiltration and allowing sediment deposition. This allows nutrients, chemicals, and other pollutants to be removed. Riparian forest buffers also stabilize streambanks and provide shaded areas for aquatic habitat. Plant roots anchor the stream bank and help prevent erosion.

Income can be generated through land rental and maintenance payments by enrolling the buffer in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) or by selling specialty crops such as nuts, fruits, and woody florals grown in the buffer. Typically, specialty products grown in buffers under a CCRP contract cannot be harvested for sale during the contract period; however, these products can be harvested for personal use. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or Farm Service Agency (FSA) office for more information on regulations affecting the harvest and sale of specialty crops planted in buffers.

Selecting the Appropriate Buffer Design

Select a buffer design based on your goals. In the eastern United States, riparian forest buffers provide streambank stabilization, shade streams, and absorb nutrients from shallow groundwater. These buffers typically consist of three zones: trees near the stream, then shrubs, and then 30 feet or more of grasses adjacent to the cropland.

In the Great Plains producers as well as government officials, have been reluctant to have trees planted next to streams because fallen trunks and limbs may block streams, ditches and culverts. An alternative design, with shrubs and small trees planted next to the stream followed by taller trees and then grasses next to the cropland, may be more suitable in this region (Figure 1).

If your main goal is to provide wildlife habitat, design your buffer accordingly. Some birds, including game species such as pheasant and prairie grouse and non-game species such as songbirds, prefer open grassland to woody cover. On the other hand, deer and sharptail grouse prefer woody edges (along narrow riparian forest buffers). Western meadowlark and mink prefer narrow (less than 35 feet wide) grass buffers. White-tailed deer, beaver, and red fox are content with just about any vegetation and width, whereas wild turkey and wood duck prefer forested buffers over 35 feet wide. For more information on wildlife needs refer to NRCS Conservation Practice Standard Riparian Forest Buffer Code 391.

A buffer also can be entirely grass (also called a grass filter or filter strip). Grass buffers are narrow strips of land between the crop and stream. The NRCS recommends a minimum width of 20-30 feet for grass buffers; however, widths may vary according to your goals, cropping history, crop field area, and the program in which your buffer is enrolled (Table 1). For more information, refer to NRCS Conservation Practice Standard Filter Strip Code 393.

Table I. NRCS conservation buffer and Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) width guidelines. 1
  Previous
Land Use
Minimum
NRCS Width
Requirements
(feet)
CCRP
Maximum
Width (feet)
CCRP Grass
Cover
(feet)
CCRP Trees or
Shrubs
Cover (feet)
Grass Filter Strip Cropland only 20-301 120 120 N.A.
Riparian Forest Buffer Cropland 35 180 20-1202 35-180
Riparian Forest Buffer Marginal pasture 35 180 20 35-180
Riparian Herbaceous Buffer Marginal pasture only 20-503 120 20-1203 Shrub clumps
may be planted.
1Greater minimum may be required if the ratio of minimum filter strip to drainage area is more than 1:30.
2Grass width is considered along the outside edge of the buffer only.
350-foot minimum width required for wildlife purposes.


Table II. Commonly used shrub and tree species in riparian forest buffers 1
  Common Examples2 Desirable Characteristics Best Planting Location
Small Shrubs Sand cherry
Peking cotoneaster
Elderberry
Sandbar willow
Streamco willow
Chokecherry
Gray dogwood
Redosier dogwood
Hansen rose
Snowberry
Golden currant
White flowers, black cherries
Berry-like fruit
Dark purple berries
Flood tolerant, fast growing
Flood tolerant, fast growing
Edible fruit
High wildlife value
Floral stems, winter color
Flowers, fruit
High wildlife value
Yellow flowers, purple fruit
Statewide
Statewide
All but Panhandle
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Large Shrubs Chokecherry
American hazelnut
Lilac
Juneberry
American plum
Caragena
White flowers and cherries
Hazelnuts
Flowers
Edible fruit
White flowers, fruit, fall color
Nitrogen fixing
Statewide
All but Panhandle
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Small Trees Black cherry
Chickasaw plum
Amur maple
Cherry wood, fruit
Drought tolerant
Drought tolerant, fall color
East
Statewide
Statewide
Large Trees Red mulberry
Green ash
Cottonwood
Hackberry
Black walnut
Black willow
Silver maple
Bur oak
Edible fruit
Yellow foliage in fall
State tree, major wood supply
Tolerant to adverse weather
Wood, nuts
Flood tolerant
Flood tolerant
Drought tolerant, acorns
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
East
Statewide
Statewide
Statewide
1Additional species are approved by NRCS for buffer plantings.
2Species listed in bold are well suited for direct seeding methods.


Table III. Common specialty crop species.1

  Common
Examples
Preferred
Planting Location
Nut Producing Black walnut
Chinese chestnut
Northern pecan
Hybrid hazelnut
East
Southeast
East
East
Woody Florals Redstem dogwood
Pussy willow
Curly willow
Forsythia
Statewide with irrigation
Statewide with irrigation
Statewide with irrigation
Statewide with irrigation
Fruit Sand cherry
Elderberry
Nanking cherry
Corneliancherry
  dogwood
Chokecherry
American plum
Mulberry
Statewide
East
All but Panhandle

East
East
Statewide
Statewide
1When these species are used to produce a marketable product, planting location is limited to sites with superior growing conditions for maximum production. Planting locations are more restrictive than those listed in Table II.



Table IV. Common grass species used in grass buffers.1
Recommended Mixtures Species in the Mixture Percent of
Mixture (%)
Seeding Rate2
(PLS/ft2)
Upland Bird
Wildlife Value
Cool Season Virginia wild rye
Canada wild rye
Western wheatgrass
30
26
44
7.0
4.0
7.0
Nesting cover
Warm Season Big bluestem
Switchgrass
Indiangrass
40
35
25
4.2
1.6
2.5
Winter cover
Warm/Cool Season Mix Switchgrass
Big bluestem
Intermediate wheatgrass
60
20
20
2.7
2.1
4.0
Winter cover and
nesting cover
Warm Season Big bluestem
Switchgrass
Indiangrass
Sideoats grama
Little bluestem
30
25
20
15
10
3.2
1.1
2.0
1.4
0.7
Winter cover and
nesting cover
Warm/Cool Season Mix Pubescent wheatgrass
Western wheatgrass
Switchgrass
30
30
40
5.2
4.8
1.8
Winter cover and
nesting cover
1Additional species are approved by NRCS for buffer plantings.
2Species listed in bold are well suited for direct seeding methods.



Figure 2. Types of seedlings.

Selecting Appropriate Plant Materials

Trees and Shrubs, Seedlings or Seeds?

Trees and shrubs can be planted as seeds or seedlings. Tree seeds can be purchased or collected free from trees in the fall. Seeds from native trees and shrubs may be best adapted to your area?s climate and soil conditions. Direct planting seeds can be cheaper than planting seedlings and usually results in a denser stand of trees and shrubs. This stand will be more like a natural forest and better able to withstand wildlife damage, especially in early growth stages. Trees grown directly from seeds develop strong root systems that remain undisturbed throughout establishment. Seeds also can be planted in the fall. Some species suitable for Nebraska and appropriate for direct seeding are noted in Table II. For more information on direct seeding trees and shrubs, refer to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension NebGuide, Establishing Conservation Plantings of Nut Trees and Shrubs by Direct Seeding Methods (G1512).

Tree and shrub seedlings can be purchased as unrooted cuttings, bareroot plants, or in a container. Unrooted cuttings look like sticks and are cut from dormant tree branches during the winter (Figure 2). When planted, the underground portion forms roots and the above ground portion forms branches and leaves. Establishment of unrooted cuttings is more difficult than other seedlings and only a limited number of species, such as willows and some poplars, are suitable for this method in Nebraska. Bareroot seedlings are the most common type of seedlings used (Figure 2). They are grown from seed in a nursery until healthy root systems form. They are lifted without soil from the nursery beds and are transported for planting. Containerized seedlings are produced in containers. They may be shipped in the containers in which they were originally grown or removed from the containers at the nursery and packed in plastic bags (Figure 2). Although they are more expensive, their roots are better protected and they may be better suited for planting in dry and hard-to-establish sites.

Commonly used tree and shrub species are listed in Table II. Many tree and shrub species produce commercially valuable products such as decorative stems for the floral industry, fruit and nuts for the food industry, and other products for the pharmaceutical and herbal industries (Table III). Personnel at a local Extension office, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or Nebraska Forest Service office or commercial nurseries can help you select plants suited to your climate and soil type.

Grasses

The selection of appropriate grass species will depend on your goals. Densely planted, stiff-stemmed species should be selected to trap sediment and protect water quality. Other species may be used if wildlife habitat is a goal. Buffers planted under a CCRP contract must follow NRCS specifications for grass selection. To meet NRCS specifications, grass seed must be a mixture of at least three species adapted to the site. Warm season grass mixtures must contain at least 60 percent sod-forming stiff stem species such as big bluestem or switchgrass, and cool season grass mixtures must contain at least 40 percent sodforming stiff stem species such as western wheatgrass or Virginia wild rye. Grass seed should be planted at a minimum rate of 40 pure live seeds (PLS) per square foot. Several common warm and cool season grass mixtures appropriate for Nebraska are presented in Table IV. Wildflowers, such as coneflower and blanket flower, may be added to grass mixtures for appearance and wildlife enhancement.

Resources

For more information on installing and maintaining riparian buffers, contact: 1) your local University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension office or visit the University?s Conservation Buffer Web site at www.conservationbuffers.unl.edu; 2) your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office or visit the Natural Resources Conservation Service Web site, Buffer Strips: Common Sense Conservation at www.nrcs.usda.gov/ feature/buffers; or 3) the USDA Agroforestry Center or its Riparian Forest Buffers Web site at www.unl.edu/nac/ riparian.html.

References

Establishing Conservation Plantings of Nut Trees and Shrubs by Direct Seeding Methods, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension NebGuide G1512, 2003.

Riparian Forest Buffer, Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Practice Standard CODE 391. Filter Strip, Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Practice Standard CODE 393.

Funding

Partial funding for this publication was provided by an Education Grant from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This publication has been peer reviewed.

 



Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Publications Web site for more publications.
Index: Water Resource Management
Water Quality
Issued February 2005

Related Resources

UNL Conservation Buffer Web site

NRCS Buffer Strips:  Common Sense Conservation

USDA Agroforestry Center Riparian Forest Buffers

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© 2005, The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska on behalf of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension. All rights reserved.