The team was ready for a blue-ribbon year. With 60 participating schools, brand new greenhouses and a finely tuned process for growing Spartina grass, they anticipated a record-breaking season of salt marsh restoration.
Then everything came to a halt in March 2020 as a global pandemic arrived in South Carolina. Schools and offices shut down, launching the marsh restoration work into question. Five months later, the story of how the marsh grass got planted anyway is one of long hours, creativity, and camaraderie.
The From Seeds to Shoreline Project, a partnership between the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, Clemson University Cooperative Extension and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), engages students in hands-on conservation through salt marsh restoration. Elementary students spend the year learning about the importance of the salt marsh, collecting local seeds, and germinating and growing Spartina grass in their classrooms.
In a typical spring, the year of learning culminates in a field trip into the marsh to plant the young grass, helping to restore South Carolina’s iconic salt marshes — one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. In addition to their beauty, salt marshes provide habitat for young fish and crabs, filter pollutants out of our waterways and protect coastal communities from storm surge.
“Ultimately, this year we could not have those planned restoration days that we had been hoping for,” said SCDNR marine educator Kacie Ferguson, who had been coordinating with 14 schools through the 2019-2020 school year. The team conceded that there was no safe way to host large planting days as schools closed and COVID-19 infection rates increased.
That left numerous greenhouses full of Spartina seedlings in limbo. To have enough healthy plants for all the participating students, SCDNR staff in the SCORE (South Carolina Oyster Recycling and Enhancement) and marine education programs grow tens of thousands of Spartina stalks themselves. In 2020, staff grew over 50,000 plants.
“Starting out the summer with four greenhouses chock full of plants — and not knowing if we were able to get them all in the ground — had me a little worried,” said SCDNR biologist Holly Hillman.
“We had to wrack our brains to figure out a way to adapt,” Ferguson said.
For two months, the uncertainty and severity of the health crisis ruled out the possibility of planting. But as guidelines for safe work environments developed and restrictions eased, a solution slowly emerged. After quarantining at home, not only were SCDNR staff eager to return to field work — their families were eager to get out of the house as well.
The team devised a plan for small, socially distanced groups of staff to safely plant the marsh grass at two locations in the Charleston area. Over the months of June and July, SCDNR workers and their families volunteered to transplant Spartina by the tray in the pluff mud.
In the end, every last stalk in the greenhouses was planted. SCDNR biologists will monitor the growth of the plants over time to see just how much habitat their efforts produced this year.
“We were determined to not let COVID-19 get in the way of doing the best we could with what we had to work with,” Hillman said. “I am very proud of what we accomplished this year.”
“We’ve also learned so much about virtual education through this experience,” said Ferguson, whose team offered virtual training to new and returning teachers in their program this summer. Whether in person or virtually, the show will go on — and students will have another opportunity to learn about the salt marsh and get their hands dirty this year.
If you’re a classroom teacher interested in participating in From Seeds to Shoreline, check out the video below and contact program lead E.V. Bell at EVBell@scseagrant.org.
If you’re a member of the public interested in salt marsh restoration, you’re in luck! Join us on September 3, 2020 for a virtual kick-off meeting about a new, three-year project to engage South Carolinians in salt marsh citizen science. Click here to register!
Writing & reporting contributions to this story made by Emma Berry.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.