Better Living through Better Design
Two years ago I was going to present a symposium on buffers as part of the Delaware Native Plant Society’s outreach mission. The pandemic had other plans. However, in a couple short weeks I will be presenting another version of it to my peers and students of landscape architecture. And since buffers have been a hot topic of conversation in our county, I’d thought I would spend a little more time talking about them here.
First, I guess we should define a buffer. Buffers are, in essence, transition zones between two distinct spaces. People most often associate them with either a protective area that surrounds a wetland or other body of water, or a visual screen between neighbors. These buffers offer a lot more than privacy if designed well. I think we tend to dwell too much on the width of the buffers rather than how they are planted. In fact, you could have a buffer more than 100 feet wide, but if it is only planted as lawn it will have little impact as a buffer, both visually and environmentally speaking.
Let’s talk about forested buffers as they are the most likely to be utilized by the average homeowner. Forested buffers between properties are quite common, and mainly used to visually screen an undesirable view. But we really need to design a better buffer in terms of plantings.
Layering the plantings from the ground plane up to the canopy not only creates a denser visual screen, it also provides a food source such as berries and nuts for numerous wildlife. It becomes a destination for pollinators and insects, which in turn attract birds feeding their new families. In addition, the fruiting shrubs, such as arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), help migratory species fuel-up for their long journey.
Place lower things in the front, medium things behind them, and taller things after that. The canopy trees such as oaks, maples, sycamores, and tulip poplars would be around the center of the overall buffer. Evergreen trees such as white pine, loblolly pine, cedars, and hollies are the midground plantings and offer the most visual screening. Pop in some smaller flowering trees like dogwood, redbud, or serviceberry.
Then utilize small to medium shrubs in front of them like winterberry, witch hazel, inkberry, and viburnums. Finally, depending on how much sun your yard gets, choose herbaceous plants to fill in around the shrubs and the ground plane. Ferns, black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, sneezeweed, or native grasses and sedges would do well here.
We didn’t even get to the other benefits, such as erosion control, rainwater infiltration, ground cooling through shading, soil formation, carbon sequestering, habitat—the list goes on.
Even though I didn’t want to dwell on buffer width, I do want to note another way you can get involved and increase the buffer you may have in your rear yard. Consider planting a portion of the yard as a forested buffer in the layers that are described above. Then try and get your neighbor behind you to do the same. If you have a common area in between as well, you may have just doubled the buffer between you and them.
I hope I made you think about building a better buffer. If everyone starts a piece in their own backyards, imagine what we can accomplish when the puzzle is finished. ▼
Eric W. Wahl is Landscape Architect at Pennoni Associates, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.