I am moving to a new house that is located on a freshwater lake. The backyard has three different levels that are built like stairs; they are large areas of land. What plants would be best suited for this environment, and which ones should I refrain from planting?
Your recognition of the impact on the lake is admirable. The sections you describe are known as bulwarks and are intended to prevent erosion of land into the lake. First and foremost, avoid the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Since they pass through the soil and are so close to the lake, they enter almost immediately. Just a couple of the effects are increased algae growth and killed fish. To avoid having to use fertilizers, stick with native plants (because they are native, they require little or no fertilizer to thrive), especially in the first three zones from the water’s edge to your lawn zone. In addition, plants (rather than lawn) will absorb fertilizer runoff before it hits the lake. If the lawn extends all the way out to the lake, remove at least 10 to 12 feet of lawn and replace it with native trees, ground cover, shrubs, ferns and wildflowers. The first few feet from the waterline needs to be water-loving plants (sedges, lady fern, etc.). The next 10 feet will require plants that prefer moist soil, but not wet. Finally, the last zone extends to the lawn. A variety of shade trees is important for this area. All of this does not mean you must create a barrier of plants that block your access or view; just try to use a combination that will allow continued viability of the lake and an enjoyable view for you.