While the decades-old idea of golf course fairway quality lawns hasn’t left the American cultural consciousness, a modern movement to reimagine landscaping closer to what nature would have intended is generating more attention. Georgia’s coast displays, like few others, the benefits of thriving plant communities and how they can protect and enhance human development.
Thursday, the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant hosted a presentation at their Brunswick Station on establishing resilient coastal landscapes with native plants.
Rachel Smith, a doctoral student at the UGA Odum School of Ecology, laid out some of the clear hazards to plant life on the coast, in that “we’re very vulnerable to things like storm surge, flooding and sea-level rise. And a lot of these hazards are also exacerbated by human development in these areas. We also know that as human populations have increased in these areas, that development has increased, that a lot of human populations are increasingly vulnerable to coastal hazards.”
Tropical cyclones and other strong coastal storms bring with them flooding, storm surge, erosion and saltwater intrusion, which can cause significant damage to native plant communities, and recovery times are different for different kinds of plants.
Smith said the frequency and intensity of storms are increasing over time, with projections to continue as oceans warm, which may also affect plants’ ability to recover from the effects of one storm to another.
“A lot of this is also exacerbated by sea-level rise — over the past decades we’ve seen increases in sea level … and also predicting that will continue to increase into the future,” Smith said.
Sea-level rise is different for different areas on the coast. For instance, in Coastal Georgia between 1960 and 2015, the sea level increased 4-6 inches. That, in addition to storm hazards, increases instances of tidal flooding, which Smith said is also predicted to increase.
“Plants have been experiencing these changes in sea-level rise over the centuries, and they’re able to keep up with that,” Smith said. “What’s different today is that now we have changes in development and human landscape that affect coastal plant communities.”
In the normal evolution of coastal plant communities, marshland would migrate landward as the tide rose, but development can prevent salt marshes from making those migrations.
“We’re really lucky in Georgia to have some really beautiful, healthy ecosystems that provide us with a lot of incredible services, like salt marshes to maritime forests to dunes,” Smith said.
These foundational land species also provide a lot of support for other diverse plant communities and wildlife.
Smith continued, “Because they’ve been evolving in these locations, in these really harsh environmental conditions, they’ve developed a lot of adaptations to regularly cope” with factors like “salt spray, inundation, winds and high temperatures,” along with the types of coastal soils.
She said using these kinds of salt-tolerant plants can improve coastal resilience because we can take the adaptable structures they have and use them to help our own landscaping.
Keren Giovengo, a public service representative for ecoscapes with Marex/Sea Grant, said there’s a need to think of diversity while landscaping, to enhance what’s naturally adjacent to the property — read the landscape and determine existing conditions — while removing invasive species and replacing those with native vegetation.
“We can mimic — we can create landscapes that mimic those vulnerable and disappearing habitats on our coast,” she said.
In figuring out what to keep and what to change, Giovengo it’s also important to take into consideration the presence of area wildlife.
To assist with this process, Marex/Sea Grant produced a native plant search engine that’s available at gacoast.uga.edu/outreach/resources-outreach/native-plant-search-engine.
As it states on the site, “Plants grown in appropriate conditions will thrive with minimal care. By choosing plants well-adapted to each landscape site situation, you reduce the need for water, fertilizers and pesticides, reduce water pollution, save time and money while providing habitat for wildlife.”