Pie-rific Plant: Common Elderberry

Some of the native plants we use not only are beautiful and supportive of northern Michigan’s natural biodiversity but offer you even more. Common elderberry makes for delicious pie! The berries and juice are also great in jam, jelly, and shrub syrup for use in beverages. There are also many recipes using the plants’ flowers, including cordials and cakes (which can be decorated with gorgeous sugared elderflowers). Both the berries and flowers have traditional and indigenous medicinal uses, too. But, honestly, we’re partial to the pie.

A common elderberry plant in bloom

Before we get to that pie recipe and share a little background on this remarkable plant, though, a word of serious CAUTION is necessary. The common elderberry we are referring to is the American species, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis. Another species of elderberry is common in North America: the red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. The roots, stems, and leaves of both the red and common elderberry species can be toxic.

Many sources also recommend against eating the seeds of red elderberry, which can cause digestive upset and even death. Fortunately, as the name suggests, the berries of red elderberry are distinctly red. In contrast, the delightfully edible berries of common elderberry are black when ripe, as shown below.

Because of the berry color, Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis is also called black elderberry. Note that there is also a species of Sambucus nigra native to Europe that is sometimes planted in North America and widely called black elderberry. The European black elderberry also has edible berries and a long history of indigenous and traditional food and medicinal use.

Ripe black elderberries on a bush.

Common elderberrry is truly common in northern Michigan and is covered with beautiful white flowers in late June and early July. Native pollinators love these flowers! You’ll see the white blooms up and down the state along waterways and lakeshores, and even in the margins of highways. It was just such a display that inspired this post! The plant is also common in the sense that it has an amazing range, straddling the Americas from Canada through the United States into Central America and even South America.

Now, let’s talk pie! We like the award-winning family recipe shared on Food.com by RogerOH (who has many other recipes posted there as well). The men in the family have handed the recipe down for generations. Roger explains: “This is my father’s recipe. After many years, I finally got him to write it down. I go out in the fields about August 1 (in my area [Ohio]) and harvest some wild elderberries to make this delicious pie. My grandson took the top prize at the Future Farmers of America pie auction in 2006 with this pie.”

If the American black elderberry is not yet common in your landscape, we’d be happy to help you add some so you can easily start your own elderberry pie tradition. Ask Bret about Serviceberry, too. Oh, the wonders of Serviceberry….


Improve Your Water Access with Biotechnical Erosion Control

The gentle shoreline slope dictated by biotechnical erosion control allows you to access the water along the full length of your shoreline. In addition, we are happy to add special access points to smooth the way for your favorite water activities.

On a shoreline protected from erosion by gradually sloped stone, a special path where the rocks are set with smooth sides up allows for easy launching of kayaks.A popular option is a kayak ramp as shown in the photo above. It is the path in the foreground where all of the stones are set to make a smooth surface from the woods to the water.


On a northern Michigan lake surrounded by forest, two workers take pride in a boat ramp installed as part of a biotechnical erosion control project.

One customer requested a wider ramp for their catamaran.


A fishing boat on a trailer is backed over a kayak ramp into a lake.

We don’t sanction using a kayak ramp this way, but are proud to say that the ramp survived this abuse!

Call us today at 231-340-0446 to talk about your erosion control needs. We’d love to facilitate your favorite water activities in the process of protecting your shoreline.


NBN Has Four Certified Natural Shoreline Professionals. Why is that important for you?


Four of our team members are proud to hold Michigan Natural Shoreline Professional (MNSP) certificates from the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership:
~ Bret Huntman
~ Chris Evans (above left)
~ James Huntman (above right), and
~ Mary Richardson.

Before we get into the weeds about what it means to be a certified Michigan Natural Shoreline Professional, we’d like to share this video from EGLE’s* MI Shoreland Stewards program. It explains some of the challenges of landscaping and controlling erosion on the shorelines of our region’s extraordinary waters.


It takes more than dumping big rocks on the shore of the lake or river and planting some flowers! An effective and enduring erosion-control installation requires really listening to understand how you want to use your shoreline, careful design and engineering, knowledge of the range of appropriate materials and shoreline plants, experience protecting the adjacent lake bottom and shoreline during construction, equipment that makes for efficient work while minimizing damage to the  property, site in the process, and well-informed and supervised installers.

All of our MNSPs have years of experience working on northern Michigan shorelines. The Natural Shoreline Professional certification process ensures that, in addition to all they’ve learned in the field (or in this case, in the water), they have an understanding of the science behind the design of bio-technical erosion control installations.

The program is a significant investment in our employees. It has four parts. First, there are three days of classroom instruction.

Then, the class members work alongside the course instructors and other experienced shoreline professionals to protect an actual shoreline. This is important because some of the other students are general landscapers getting their first introduction to natural shoreline erosion control methods. As a bonus, the class projects are generally service projects protecting waterfronts in public parks. We are proud to note that some of our staff have volunteered to assist with class projects when the course is held in northern Michigan.

Finally, before the students receive their certificates, they have to demonstrate that they’ve grasped the information by passing a formal written exam.

Our Michigan Natural Shoreline Professional certificates are additional evidence that, when you hire North By Nature Landscapes to protect and landscape your shoreline, you are hiring specialists committed to best practices from the ownership and management (Bret), to the designer (Mary), to the installation team (James and Chris)!


Photo shows James and Chris' Michigan Natural Shoreline Professionals certification class installing a shoreline buffer garden.

Can you find James and Chris in the picture? You can spot Bret, too, in the video around 4:50. He’s the one working very fast!

*EGLE is the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.


What’s the Homegrown National Park and Why Do You Want In?

Logo of the "Homegrown National Park" movement, featuring their mascot, a firefly!

Homegrown National Park (HNP) is, in their own words, “a grassroots call-to-action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants…where we live and work…extending national parks into our yards and communities.” We at North By Nature Landscapes couldn’t be more excited about this movement!

Whether you have 100s of acres, a suburban yard, or a container garden, you can join in growing the Homegrown National Park (HNP)!

What should you plant? The HNP team has identified “keystone species” by region that provide food, shelter, and/or nesting places for outsized numbers of different pollinators, birds, and other wildlife species. These include everything from giant oak trees to tiny flowers. Here’s their list of recommended trees and shrubs for our area of northern Michigan.

Homegrown National Park’s Keystone Trees for our EcoZone, #8.1

Why do we need the Homegrown National Park? The originator of the idea and one of the movement’s co-founders is Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He and the HNP team explain the urgency of the project:
“We’ve reached a critical point. Local ecosystems are losing so many species that their ability to provide the ecosystem services (oxygen, clean water, flood control, pollination, pest control, carbon storage, etc) that sustain us will become seriously compromised.”

Currently, protected areas are not big enough to do it alone, “Our National Parks, no matter how grand in scale, are too small and separated from one another to preserve species to the levels needed,” says Dr. Tallamy.

BUT, the HNP team says, “…don’t worry…this isn’t a ‘bad human’ moment. We can fix this together–with good stewardship–and have fun doing it!” No finger wagging needed.

Since you are reading the North By Nature blog, you’ve probably already begun planting northern Michigan native plants. If so, you can get on the map of Homegrown National Park. Let’s get Michigan into the top ten in the state rankings!

The Homegrown National Park movement's map of those who have planted native plants in the United States.

We could go on and on, but we’ll share more about this inspiring movement and all the HNP team has to say in future editions of the North by Nature blog, on our Google profile, and on Facebook.

In the meantime, explore the Homegrown National Park website and/or follow them on TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook. They aren’t kidding about having fun!



Erosion Control Project Restores Shoreline Patio Retreat


Photo shows trees hanging perilously over the lake.

After years of family “camp” fires and fun, our client’s shoreline retreat was destroyed by ice push and erosion. Erosion had undercut beautiful maple trees and tipped them into the lake, while ice pushed boulder “steps” up under the bank and lifted flagstones on the lakeward side of a patio completely out of place.

Stones formerly used as informal steps to the water and loose logs tumbling down the bank.

With the informal stone steps into the lake undermined and the patio broken, the only access to the lake was off the dock. This confined access along the 120 feet of shoreline to just ONE spot!

Photo shows where ice has pushed the bank up under the patio's flagstones leaving them on roughly a 70 degree angle.


How did we fix this one??

Photo shows four men standing on the shoreline with erosion control installation in progress.

To install protective stone rip-rap on the shoreline, the NBN crew would need to make many trips with our Gator and wheelbarrows. First, we installed plywood over the patio stones to protect them. Of course, the existing boulder seating had to be set aside to create the travel path.

The design of the new biotechnical erosion control rip-rap included restoring the stepping stones down to the water and adding an access ramp. A shoreline buffer garden featuring deep-rooted, native shoreline plants (the biological part of biotechnical) will also help stabilize the lakeshore while also adding beauty and a subtle sense of privacy.

Photo of flagstone patio being reset like a giant puzzle.

With the shoreline protected, we turned to putting the patio puzzle back together. We re-set the boulder seats and slabs. This stone was one of the steps that had been pushed into the bank. The stone legs underneath brought the stone up to a comfortable seat height.

Photo shows a slab or ledge stone being lowers onto two stones which will serve to raise it to a comfortable height for sitting.

Photo of the finished patio with the access steeping stones and ramp in the foreground.

It was satisfying to see the restored patio and shoreline come together. The access ramp of smaller stones set at a gentle slope will deflect future push-ice events, freeing the family to enjoy their lake-side patio and waterfront for decades to come.


Shoreline Erosion Control on A Forested Site


Photo of a sandy lake shoreline adjacent to a forest. In the foreground several trees have fallen across the beach and into the lake. Their roots pull the bank down. The eroding bank is roughly three to four feet tall. Down the shore a point is littered with stones.At this location (photo above) on Douglas Lake, ice push and the power of wave action at high water levels can be devastating to near-shore banks and trees. The photo, taken from an adjoining property, shows our client’s property in the background. It includes the rocky area and a portion of the heavily eroded, bare bank. Note also the many uprooted and fallen trees, just a fraction of those lost over years of damage.

A close-up before picture shows stones and plastic weed barrier--from an improperly designed erosion control structure built roughly 20 years earlier--tumble down the steep shoreline into the lake.

The steep bank on our client’s site has been shaped by years of ice push events despite a previous effort to stop the erosion. Roughly 20 years ago, rip rap stones were installed over landscape cloth. This photo illustrates three problems with the previous installation:

  • First, using landscape cloth interfered with the establishment of plants that would otherwise grow between the stones and help stabilize the shoreline. Plant roots cannot readily penetrate the plastic material. The plants we use have deep, fibrous roots.
  • Second, the rocks were installed at too steep a slope, so instead of sliding up and onto them, ice pushed INTO the bank, destabilizing the entire structure.
  • Third, given the property’s orientation and the distance the wind travels across the open lake, the rocks used were too small for the expected waves. After the rocks were disturbed by the ice push, storm-driven waves washed many of them out into the lake, along with the newly exposed soils. The upper bank was then undercut, and the erosion worsened.

To address all three issues, our North By Nature team applied the current best practices in biotechnical and natural shoreline protection.

First, we removed as much of the old landscape cloth as possible. This will allow the owner to plant a selection of native shoreline plants into the rip rap where they will form a strong web of roots. These plants, along with the existing trees, will seed more native shoreline plants into the rip rap. Over time they will vegetate the upper bank.

CAD drawing showing the necessary gradual slope which will allow ice to ride up onto the stones instead of pushing them into the bank. Also shown are the stones sizes calculated to with stand wave action at the site given its orientation and fetch.

Second, the finished slope of the bank is engineered to be shallow enough to direct both expanding ice formations and windblown ice up and onto the protected shoreline instead of into the face of the bank.

Photo of work in progress: an excavator arm is used to roughly place the largest stones. Adric and Chris use hand tools to adjust them to achieve the required slope.

And finally, the stones were sized to remain in place even when three-foot waves batter the shoreline for days on end.

Almost an "after" photo: in the foreground the new stone rip rap slopes gently toward the lakeside, ready to deflect wave energy and ice for decades to come. Down the beach, the crew continues to install stone.

Visit the Shoreline Erosion Control gallery on our Photos page for before and after photos a few of our other shoreline projects.


Delay Yard Cleanup!

Photo of a chrysalis with coloration very similar to dried leaves and stems.
Do Not Disturb: a chrysalis is a future butterfly, waiting for its moment to emerge.

How would you like one less item on your to-do list this week? Pollinators are still overwintering in leaf litter, stalks, and among roots underground, so you can hold off on spring garden cleanup tasks.

When will they be safely on their way? This article from the Xerces Society shares signs to look for as spring unfolds each year.


With the time you’ve freed up, you could get out your hammock or lawn chairs: it is a great time to sit and enjoy the fresh spring air in northern Michigan! Maybe all bundled up…

Thanks for joining the North By Nature team in protecting biodiversity and pollinators!


From Hazardous to Handsome

The owners of this new Harbor Springs home came to North By Nature Landscapes with several challenges around the steep slope to the right of their elegant front door:

  • stabilizing the surface in front of the entryway,
  • allowing for access to a water spigot located on the side of the stone column and
  • creating a path down the steep slope to their lower-level patio and yard.



(A closer look at the surface to be stabilized and the spigot, above.)


Our designer suggested using natural limestone outcroppings and flagstone to complement the color and texture of the beautiful stonework on the house. First, we retained the earth at the entryway level with this dry-stacked wall. The outcroppings were stacked, without the use of mortar, on a compacted base of crushed stone to assure good drainage. One course of outcroppings are buried to provide the mass needed to retain the slope.



Next, we created this flagstone extension of the poured concrete sidewalk to further stabilize the area and keep everything neat.



A photo showing a steep slope descending next to a new home. North By Nature Landscapes designed and installed a retaining wall and stairs which provide access from the front entry to the lower level patio and yard.

Then, we installed snapped limestone steps down the hill. Note the large outcropping stones set in the garden between the house and the stairs. These help to stabilize the slope and provide access both to the spigot and for maintaining the new garden.

Finally, we began plantings on the reshaped slopes on either side of the stairs.

Handsome, huh?