Shore up your bottom line

Shore up your bottom line

Features - Design/Build

The increasing popularity of natural shoreline landscapes has some landscapers bathing in new revenue.

November 20, 2012
Neil Moran
Industry News

Landscapers who don’t mind getting their feet wet may want to consider getting in on the ground floor of a potential revenue stream: installing natural shoreline landscapes. As concern for the aquatic environment grows, homeowners on inland lakes in the Upper Midwest are considering alternatives to costly and ecologically defunct breakwall construction.

“There is increasing interest in natural shoreline landscapes,” says Ron Niewoonder, owner of Niewoonder & Sons, a landscape firm out of Kalamazoo that has installed several of these landscapes recently.

Niewoonder and other landscapers across Michigan are taking advantage of this new revenue stream by becoming certified to install natural shoreline landscapes via the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership (MNSP). This program is a collaboration between Michigan State University (MSU), the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other partners.

Certification will continue into 2013 in Michigan for landscapers and marine contractors who want to test the waters of this new market. The Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership is providing the training to interested companies and has already certified 131 individuals. Participants must pass a certification course that consists of three days of classroom training followed by installing a demonstration landscape along a shoreline property.

Bruce Snyder of Gull Lake Landscape Co. out of Richland. Snyder says he often taps into his existing customers who own lake front property as their primary residence or as a vacation home.

As for the tools of the trade, other than a good pair of hip boots, Snyder and Niewoonder say most of the tools and equipment needed is already in a landscaper’s arsenal – shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows and a track loader. Another piece of equipment Snyder has found to be a labor saver is a backhoe with the thumb attachment. This can be handy on properties with steep, sloping banks. The thumb attachment allows workers to move equipment and materials up and down the bank.

The real tool of this trade, however, is knowledge, according to both landscapers.

“It’s all about learning the plant material, because the success of the landscape is based on the plants establishing themselves,” Niewoonder says. Because of the omnipresent action of waves and ice along the shore it is imperative that the plant material be installed correctly.

Plants for these projects consist of deep-rooted native plants that can secure a shoreline against erosion, which is a constant threat to along shorelines.

Native plants specific to these installations can either be purchased locally or grown by landscapers. Snyder is currently realizing an additional profit by growing his own native plants.

The profit margin for natural shoreline landscapes is higher than traditional landscaping because the work is more challenging and it’s a niche service.

“There’s a 20-25 percent profit margin in this work,” says Snyder, who is certified by the MNSP, but got into installing natural shoreline landscapes before certification was even available and is now reaping the benefits. He gets three to four calls per month to install one.

Follow-up maintenance is required mostly for weeding, a low profit margin service Snyder begrudgingly offers to satisfy customers and to ensure these landscapes are successful.

“You can’t have the kid down the street do the weeding,” he says, adding that it takes an educated eye to know the difference between a native plant and a weed.

Making the sale.
A natural shoreline landscape isn’t an easy sell to a homeowner. Snyder says he gets on his soapbox as often as he can to expound the virtues of aquatic landscapes, which he tells clients help improve the ecology of a lake and is at the same time aesthetically pleasing.

However, he says homeowners don’t always take the word of a contractor like himself who will be doing the work. He said what really convinces folks to make the switch from unnatural breakwalls and riprap is to see other people around them take the plunge. It is then that they start to realize they’re making the right choice for the health of the lake.

“There is the satisfaction and comforting thought that they’re doing the right thing for the body of water they live on,” says Snyder. “They also like the ‘up north’ cottage type look of a shoreline landscape.”

In addition, some lakefront property associations, townships and counties are now requiring a riparian buffer of native plants back from the water’s edge to prevent chemical discharge into critical waterways.

While curbing erosion is necessary for a natural shoreline landscape, there are more reasons to have one installed.

These landscapes act as a buffer against runoff and, unlike traditional breakwalls, a natural shoreline landscape, with its deep-rooted shoreline plants, provides habitat for aquatic life. The tall plants that replace close-crop mowing along the water’s edge also discourage nuisance geese who are leery of what might be hiding in the tall vegetation. “Native plants provide a lot of amenities to the shoreline that were there before,” says Jane Herbert, a senior water resource educator with the Greening Michigan Institute of MSU Extension.

Permitting. One potential roadblock is the permitting process, which Snyder admits can be a downright pain and has discouraged some landscapers from taking advantage of this potential revenue stream. Snyder says landscapers should allow for a 90-day lead time for a permit to be processed. If there is going to be a delay in processing the permit it will probably be attributed to an incomplete application. The best thing Snyder has found to expedite the process is to set up an appointment to see a MDEQ permitting agent and discuss exactly what they want from you so that the permit won’t get kicked back or end up in a slush pile.

Natural shoreline landscapes are not only good for the environment, but also allow accessibility to the water for recreational purposes and can increase property values, according to John Skubinna, of the MDEQ and facilitator for the MNSP. This niche service gives landscapers an opportunity to diversify their business in this changing economic climate. 

Neil Moran is a horticulturist and freelance writer based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.


MNSP has a website that includes future dates for certification training, current certified contractors, recommended native plants and a library of educational materials. Learn more at: