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Living Shorelines: How to care for our water's edge
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In this area, our magnificent water is like the center of our universe. There are streams, creeks, rivers and ponds and always the Chesapeake Bay. The bay is revered for the bountiful resources it provides. Fish, crabs, oysters, and clams are just some of its benefits. We walk its beaches. We sail and swim on and in its water.

All bodies of water have ecology of their own. The balance is delicate, tentative and magical. Living things that are microscopic and those that are visible to the human eye live everyday in that delicate balance. Too little rain raises salinity or salt levels; too much brings silt washed from the land.

How the land is treated with tilling or spraying becomes an issue with the water. Drought, rainstorms, snow, ice, pollution and other stresses can affect that balance.

The shoreline is where water meets the land. It is estimated that if you took the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay
and stretched it out, it would reach from the New England states to Florida. That does not include the vast expanse of shoreline along all the rivers, streams and inland water.

The ecology of our shoreline is infinite. Critters live in the grassy spaces among plants, logs, water plants and sandy bottom. Some filter our water. A mature oyster of 2 years of age filters approximately 65 gallons of water a day! They all reproduce and provide food for us and each other. Others live in close proximity to the water and depend upon it for their food, shelter, transportation and hydration.

Shoreline is always evolving. Storms move vast quantities of soil from the waterfront and erode land into the water. Spit marshes are small fingers of land that project into the water. Their shape evolves with storms, boat traffic and changes in wind direction and intensity.

Water erosion can also be caused by an increase in hardened surfaces on the land and the removal or lessening of moisture absorbing plant material.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation some 16 million people live on the land that drains into the Chesapeake Bay. So how do those of us who love this area do our part to preserve and care for our shoreline?

One Step at a Time

In our homes we can help by reducing the use of chemicals. The use of baking soda, vinegar and hot water works
well for cleaning without an impact on the water. We need to be aware of the water we use. We should turn it off while brushing, spend less time in the shower, do full loads in the washer and channel our rain water into rain barrels for watering use.

Buying local and supporting our farmers not only gets us a fresher product but reduces the emissions caused by transportation of foods grown out of the area. Driving less and carpooling can help as well.

Our land can be made more “bay friendly” by using native plants that tolerate the wind, salt spray and water inundation. They also are hosts and shelter for the water animals that live here.

Lawns

Lawns are not native to this area. We often have them planted with high maintenance grasses that require mowing, fertilization, herbicides and insecticides. With the first rainfall all of that washes into the water. The insecticides kill the water bugs that feed the fish and other water creatures.

Lawn fertilizers are large contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus as toxic runoff. Nitrogen causes algae bloom that steels the oxygen from the population of fish and water creatures. The herbicides are equally dangerous killing indiscriminately water plants, natives and many sources of food for the animals that live here.

So with that green lawn in place it grows. Now it needs to be mowed. One contributor to pollution is the lawn mower (air, noise and water). Plant them responsively. Check with your local extension office for recommendations of grass varieties that are available locally and grow well in this area and need less maintenance.

The farmer gets a bad rap. Yes they spray and plant and fertilize! But they take soil samples on a regular basis and carefully measure their applications and use buffer zones so they are not planting up to the water’s edge. Their time and products are dollars out of their profit and they care! If they did not care for the land it would affect their way of life. In Virginia it has been reported that we are 95% “no till”. Tilling the soil is known to affect the nutrients and structure and the fertilizer requirements. So the next time you are creeping along the roads behind a piece of farm equipment think of all that and give them the thumbs up!

Alternatives to Lawns

We may need some cleared and open spaces around our homes and there are some wonderful alternatives. Native grasses and sedges are efficient and time conserving choices often requiring minimum or no mowing. Explore the local garden supply businesses. Contact your Native Plant Society. Explore the native grasses that will grow with minimal maintenance and increased beauty. Consider winding a path through native plants to the shore.

Plant Back

Begin to think of the shoreline as an asset that needs to be protected. Continue the plants that like to grow as natives
up towards your homes! How do you do that? Look around you. Choose plants that grow here naturally. Be aware of invasive species such as honeysuckle, greenbrier, grapevine, and Russian and autumn olive. Foreign species once introduced not only grow uncontrollably taking over the habitat of our natives but also introduce harmful insects and diseases.

By exploring and selectively weeding you can observe the natives that like to grow here, where they like to grow and the conditions under which they thrive. When transplanting, repeat the living conditions of the plant being moved.
Is it waterfront, marsh, full sun (6-8 hours daily), shade, upland, forest floor or open meadow? Become familiar with plants that do not like to be moved and those that are protected. Never,
never, dig a plant without the permission of the landowner and a full knowledge of that plant and its needs.

Once you begin this process you will find many treasures. Sweet bay magnolias growing in amongst lush aromatic bayberry. Salt bush with its glorious fall flowers. Highbush and lowbush blueberry with spectacular spring and fall interest. Ilex opacca, our native holly and the glorious grasses that love the waterfront.

Caring for the Waterfront

Native grasses that like to grow along our shores have needs. They are affected by changes in water traffic, storms and the slowly rising water. They need sunshine so overhanging plants can be pruned back to prevent shade. Low wave energy conditions are found along small rivers and creeks and segments of natural marsh fringe have been lost which results in beach and shoreline erosion. Typically this has been corrected using bulkheads, riprap and groins. When applicable, the establishment of a marsh fringe can be workable. This process means the building of a shoreline using appropriate plant material. This can be accomplished with the expert advice and consideration from several agencies. Our counties have wetlands boards that control the zoning and enforcement of the Bay Act. The Bay Act protects the land along the shorelines. Any disturbance within this space needs to have zoning approval.

Native Grasses

Grasses and grasslike plants are numerous. Some of the species that like to grow here are: Panicum amarum, Panicum virgatum, Spartina alterniflora (our predominant variety on the shoreline), Spartina patens and Juncus canadensis. Weeping love grass seed is available through some garden centers and can be planted along the water’s edge to help and prevent erosion. Become informed about the grasses that like to grow along the shoreline and where theyneedtobeplanted.

Help...

Several agencies are available to assist as informational sources. Often these services are free or of minimal cost. Services available include the following:

The Department of Conservation and Recreation 804-786-3998

Virginia Marine Resources Commission Habitat Management Division 757-247-2200

Virginia Institute of Marine Science Wetland Program 804-684-7380

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, cbf.org

The Wetlands board at your local courthouse

Further assistance can be found by contacting:

  • SEAS, Shoreline Erosion Advisory Systems (see their wetlands website)
  • ISEA, Integrated Shoreline Erosion Advisory, a program run by the Northern Neck Master Gardeners starting in 2012, available by contacting the extension office in Northumberland.
  • Yearly the Northern Neck Master Gardeners hold a seminar Gardening in the Northern Neck. The 2012 program “Watershed to Water’s Edge” will be March 31st in Irvington Virginia. For more information contact the Northumberland Extension Office at 804-580-5694.