stream bank with trees

Shade Your Stream

Mowing up to the shoreline? You should reconsider. Allowing trees and other vegetation to grow along shorelines helps maintain water temperatures, prevents erosion and supports aquatic life.

On any given Saturday, along the banks of Little Tennessee River (or any other Tennessee River tributary river, stream, creek or reservoir truth be known), you can see them: the grass mowers, the weed whackers, the tree choppers—all doing their best to make the shoreline look nice and tidy. This, in America, is what we’ve come to think of as aesthetically appealing: a well-manicured, tamed version of nature with weeds, grass and rogue trees all under control.

Trouble is, what’s good for our sense of propriety is sometimes bad for nature. Keeping the shoreline trimmed like a lawn robs it of its natural riparian buffer—the fringe of plants and trees that hold soil in place to control erosion, shade the stream to help control water temperature and provides a source of food for aquatic animals of all sorts, including bugs and fish.

tree planting

When riparian buffers are lost—through mowing or weed-whacking, development, agricultural use or industry—streams grow stressed. Water temperatures warm up, and quality goes down. Silt begins to fill in the spaces where bugs like to live and the fish spawn. These animals respond by becoming unhealthy, relocating or even dying.

“The easiest, least expensive thing anyone can do to improve water quality and support aquatic habitat is simply to re-establish a riparian buffer,” says Shannon O’Quinn, TVA Water Resources specialist. O’Quinn is working on a exciting project called Shade Your Stream, a cooperative effort between TVA and Mainspring Conservation Trust and other partners in North Carolina designed specifically for the purpose of reinforcing shorelines in the most natural way—by encouraging private property owners along shorelines to let trees, shrubs and other native plants back in, so they can do their jobs. (Find out more at

Make Plans to Plant

A large focus of the project, just getting its feet wet (so to speak), is to encourage the planting of native trees and shrubs, the mainstay of any riparian buffer. “Trees and shrubs act as filters so that runoff doesn’t flow directly into the stream or reservoir—so that all the sediment and pollutants are trapped in the plants around the roots and don’t make it into the water where they can become a threat to critters of all sorts,” O’Quinn says, from the simplest bugs to the most sophisticated fish, such as the sicklefin redhorse, now a species of concern in the far eastern reaches of the Valley.

“Trees and shrubs also stop erosion, so that there is no need for rocks and baskets to reshape lost shoreline,” he continues. “You don’t have to do a lot of restabilization work if you let the vegetation do it for you.”

Any landowner can take action and plant a tree and shrub or three; good choices for shoreline stabilization include natives such as:

  • Black cherry
  • Rhododendron
  • Winterberry
  • River birch
  • Silverbell
  • Silky dogwood
  • Sycamore
  • Spicebush
  • Alder
  • Paw-paw
  • Black willow

“Once the trees are in, let plant life grow wild around them,” O’Quinn suggests. “Resist the urge to prune or cut them again—give them time to get established.”

When they do, the benefits will far outweigh the sight of a shaggy shoreline. In fact, once you know what you’re doing, you’ll begin to see that the shoreline is not yours to groom at all—it belongs to nature. “A stream ‘owns’ more than just the channel it flows through,’” says Bill McLarney, Ph.D., senior scientist and aquatic specialist with Mainspring Conservation Trust. “Protecting the streamside surrounding is he best way to keep it healthy.”

And isn’t that, truly, beautiful?