How to plant a wildlife buffer around a pond

frog on lilies

Establishing a buffer area around your pond will benefit both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. A permanent border of vegetation can reduce runoff and provide food and cover for a wide variety of species.

Planting Zones

Four separate planting zones have to be considered when creating a border for a pond. Different species of forbs, ferns, grasses, sedges, rushes, trees and shrubs thrive in different moisture levels. Ensuring the species you choose is tolerant of the moisture level in the zone you plant it in is critical.

The first three zones require aquatic and wetland plants. Plants that prefer a drier habitat should be planted in the fourth zone.

After your border has been established, plants may adjust to the natural conditions that are present and migrate to the zone most suitable for their growth requirements.

Planting zone 1. The first zone is below the water level in the aquatic zone. These plants grow within the lake.

Planting zone 2. This zone exists between the water level and ordinary high watermark. Plant species grown here must be tolerant of frequent water level changes and being flooded for days at a time and being dry for short periods of time.

Planting zone 3. The third planting zone is above the high water mark where the soil is consistently moist. Wetland plants that can handle some flooding should be chosen for planting zone 3.

Planting zone 4. Native plants that prefer dry conditions should be chosen for this upland planting zone.

Planting zone 1


  • Arrow arum – Establishes a massive root system and forms clumps.
  • Pickerelweed – Tolerant to regular flooding in areas of slow-moving water. Forms colonies by spreading rhizomes.
  • Arrowhead – Tolerates regular flooding and can withstand drought periods. Provides wildlife food and cover. It can also protect new plants from Canada geese.
  • Water plantain – Prefers shallow, slow-moving water and will tolerate fluctuating water levels. It provides wildlife food and cover.
  • White water lily – A deep water plant with white flowers that open in the morning and close by midday.
  • Wild iris – Can tolerate regular flooding, but young shoots should not be flooded. Has tuberous roots that send out fibrous masses.
  • Yellow pond lily – A deep water plant.

Grasses, sedges and rushes

  • Common burreed – Spreads readily and opportunistically via rhizomes and can potentially outcompete cattails.
  • Hard-stem bulrush, three-square bulrush and soft stem bulrush – spread opportunistically via rhizomes.

Trees and shrubs

  • Buttonbush – Has deep spreading roots.

Planting zone 2


  • Boneset – Has shallow fibrous roots and attracts butterflies.
  • Cardinal flower – Has shallow roots and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Ditch stonecrop – Has a shallow fibrous root system and can grow opportunistically.
  • Great blue lobelia – Has shallow fibrous roots.
  • Joe-Pye weed – Has shallow fibrous roots and attracts butterflies.
  • Lizard’s tail – Spreads via rhizomes.
  • Purple Joe-Pye Weed – Has shallow fibrous roots, is shade tolerant and attracts butterflies.
  • Swamp milkweed – Monarch butterfly host plant. Rhizomes form single plants.
  • Swamp aster – Spreads opportunistically from rhizomes.
  • Swamp loosestrife – Colonizes in stands dominated by just one species.
  • Water smartweed – Spreads via rhizomes.
  • Other options: Allegheny monkeyflower and sweet gale.

Grasses, sedges and rushes

  • Baltic rush – Prefers sandy areas. Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes and forms clumps.
  • Bristly sedge – Rhizomes form dense clumps.
  • Lake sedge – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Porcupine sedge – Rhizomes form dense clumps.
  • River bulrush – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Soft rush – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Tussock sedge – Slow spreading with dense roots.
  • Virginia wild rye – A bunching, cool-season grass.
  • Water sedge – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Wool grass – Has strong fibrous roots that form clumps in high water.

Trees and shrubs

  • Black willow – Shallow roots.
  • Pussy willow – Has fibrous roots and can spread opportunistically. Benefits wildlife.
  • Red-osier dogwood – Has fibrous roots and can spread opportunistically. Benefits wildlife.
  • Silky dogwood – Has fibrous roots and can spread opportunistically. Benefits wildlife.
  • Speckled alder – Has shallow roots, but can spread opportunistically.

Other options: Bog birch, eastern cottonwood, swamp rose and sandbar willow.

Planting zone 3


  • Blue vervain – Has short, spreading, tough roots that can adapt to many soil types and spread opportunistically.
  • Canada anemone – Rhizomes spread rapidly and offer some soil stabilization.
  • Culver’s root – Has a thick root system that establishes well in alkaline soil. Provides nectar for butterflies.
  • Dense blazing star – A nectar source for butterflies.
  • Golden Alexander’s – Has a thick root system. Provides a nectar source for butterflies.
  • Grass-leaved goldenrod – Spread opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Meadowsweet – Has dense fibrous roots and can spread opportunistically. Its shallow root system has also been known to form suckers.
  • Missouri ironweed – Has a thick root system. Provides nectar for butterflies.
  • New England aster – Has short rhizomes and readily reseeds on disturbed soil. Benefits butterflies.
  • Obedient plant – Spreads via small rhizomes, carpeting areas it takes over. Provides nectar for butterflies.
  • Purple meadow rue – Has a fibrous, shallow root system and can spread opportunistically.
  • Roundleaf goldenrod – Spreads via rhizomes. Low drought tolerance.
  • Sneezeweed – Has a shallow, fibrous root system and can spread opportunistically.
  • Tall flat top white aster – Has fibrous roots and benefits butterflies.
  • Tall sunflower – Spreads via rhizomes.
  • Turtlehead – Has deep fibrous roots.
  • Virginia mountain mint – Spreads out horizontally, above ground via creeping stems with roots and shoots forming at points along its length to form new plants.

Other options: Tall tickseed, cut-leaved coneflower, Ohio goldenrod and Riddle’s goldenrod.

Grasses, sedges and ferns

  • Awl-fruited sedge – Prefers calcium-rich soil. Has a fibrous root system that forms clumps.
  • Canada blue-joint grass – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Fowl manna grass – A bunching, cool-season grass with dense roots.
  • Fox sedge – Spreads via rhizomes and forms dense clumps.
  • Fringed sedge – Forms dense clumps. Prefers partial shade.
  • Green bulrush – Has strong fibrous roots and forms clumps in high water.
  • Prairie cord grass – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.
  • Rattlesnake grass – A bunching, cool-season grass with dense roots.
  • Riverbank wild rye – Helps prevent erosion. Deer resistant.
  • Royal fern – Has stout rhizomes, and fibrous roots and spreads slowly.
  • Sensitive fern – Has branching rhizomes.
  • Sweet woodreed – Fibrous roots spread via rhizomes. Deer resistant.
  • Switchgrass – A cool-season grass with dense roots that form bunches and stabilize soil.
  • Torrey rush – Spreads opportunistically via rhizomes.

Trees and shrubs

  • American elderberry – Spreads via rhizomes.
  • Arrowwood – Known for suckering.
  • Balsam poplar – Propogated by stem cuttings.
  • Basswood – Provides for a variety of wildlife. An excellent nectar source for honeybees.
  • Hackberry – Has deep-spreading roots and is medium to fast growing.
  • Honey Locust – Has an open canopy with small leaves and will not shade out grass and other landscape plants. Has many uses for wildlife.
  • Michigan holly – Has a fibrous root system and prefers aidic soil. There are both male and female plants.
  • Nannyberry – Shallow fibrous roots that develop suckers.
  • Northern white cedar – A favorite for deer to browse.
  • Red maple – Provides food for squirrels and birds. Deer resistant.
  • Red oak – Fast growing.
  • Silver maple – Has shallow, wide-spread fibrous roots.
  • Swamp white oak – Has shallow fibrous roots that prefer acidic soil.
  • Sycamore – Fast growing and establishes well in sites with saturated soils.
  • Yellow birch – Provides food for birds and wildlife.

Other options: Ninebark.

Planting zone 4


  • Alum root – Deer resistant.
  • Big-leaf aster – A host plant and nectar source for butterflies. Does well in dry, shaded areas.
  • Black-eyed Susan – grows well in well-drained soils. Provides nectar for butterflies.
  • Blue cohosh – A woodland plant with berries that turn dark blue. Deer resistant.
  • Butterfly weed – Beneficial to butterflies. Can spread rapidly and be aggressive.
  • Early goldenrod – Beneficial to butterflies, moths, game birds and song birds.
  • False solomon’s seal – A woodland wildflower.
  • False sunflower – Thrives easily, even in clay soils.
  • Foxglove beard tongue – Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Harebell – Low-growing and well adapted to dry slopes. Gets easily outcompeted by other plant species.
  • Hoary vervain – provides a nectar source.
  • Nodding wild onion – Low-growing and versatile.
  • Pale purple coneflower – Beneficial to butterflies, hummingbirds and song birds.
  • Penstemon – low growing and well-adapted to dry slopes. Beneficial to birds.
  • Prairie dock – Provides a nectar and seed source.
  • Prairie heart-leaved aster – A host plant and nectar source for butterflies.
  • Purple giant hyssop – Beneficial to bees and butterflies.
  • Rough blazing star – Drought tolerant and beneficial to butterflies.
  • Sand coreopsis – Prefers sandy soils and well-drained loamy soils.
  • Showy goldenrod – provides a nectar source.
  • Smooth aster – A nectar source for butterflies and seed source for birds.
  • Spiderwart – grows aggressively and provides wildlife cover.
  • Spikenard – Versatile and astetically pleasing when it goes to seed.
  • Starry solomon’s seal – Grows in moist meadows in woodlands, woodland borders, sandy riverbanks and  on semi-wooded slopes.
  • Stiff goldenrod – provides a nectar source.
    Tall bellflower – Grows well in moist soil in open woods.
  • Tall coreopsis – tolerant to heat, humidity and periods of drought.
  • Three-lobed coneflower – grows in low wet woods, thickets and on rocky slopes.
  • True solomon’s seal – Deer resistant. 
  • Western sunflower – Provides nectar to pollinators and seeds to wildlife.
  • Wild bergamont – Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Wild columbine – Perennial woodland wildflower that attracts hummingbirds.
  • Wild geranium – A woodland wildflower.
  • Wild ginger – Woodland groundcover.
  • Wild strawberry – A beneficial groundcover for wildlife that produces edible fruit.
  • Yellow coneflower – Adapted to sand and clay soils. Beneficial to wildlife and butterflies.

Grasses and ferns

  • Big blue stem – A good grass to use for erosion control, but can be opportunistic. Beneficial to birds.
  • Blue-eyed grass – A short grass.
  • Bottlebrush grass – Grows well in dry shade and rocky upland woodlands.
  • Bulbet fern – Likes consistently moist, well-drained soil.
  • Canada wild rye – A cool-season grass that’s well adapted to dry sunny slopes.
  • Christmas fern – Grows in fountain-like clumps. Good for erosion control.
  • Indian grass – Showy and clump-forming.
  • June grass – Grows well in clay soils and woodlands and tolerates seasonal flooding.
  • Little blue stem – A grass with a reddish-brown color.
  • Prairie dropseed – ornamental.

Trees and shrubs

  • American bladdernut – Easy-to-grow shrub.
  • American elder – Attracts birds and provides edible fruit.
  • Black cherry – A butterfly host plant and nectar source. Also, provides edible fruit.
  • Black oak – Host plant for butterflies and food source for wildlife.
  • Bur oak – Host plant for butterflies and food source for wildlife.
  • Common witch hazel – Beneficial to a variety of wildlife.
  • Hazelnut – Beneficial shrub for a variety of wildlife.
  • Hop tree – Host plant for butterflies.
  • Maple-leaf Viburnum – Beneficial shrub for wildlife. Produces black fruits and turns reddish-purple in the fall.
  • New Jersey tea – A taproot shrub that is drought tolerant.
  • Paper birch – Host plant for butterflies.
  • Red-berried elder – Beneficial to birds.
  • Red oak – Host plant for butterflies and food source for wildlife.
  • Redbud – A flowering shrub that blooms in spring.
  • Serviceberry – A shrub with edible berries that attracts game birds and songbirds.
  • Sugar maple – Shade provider that can be used for maple syrup production.
  • White oak – A food source for a variety of wildlife.
  • White pine – An evergreen that tolerates a variety of soil types.
  • Wild plum – Host plant for butterflies that provides edible fruit.

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