Key to Hurricane Recovery on Florida Beaches: Rustic Sea Oats

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ARCADIA — From eye level, the shards of green that emerge from the dunes above and below Pinellas County’s barrier islands appear sparse and squat, almost tentative as they peer into the sun. But beneath the surface, they spread out, trapping sand in place and acting as a kind of skeleton for the entire ecosystem.

These are young sea oats, the unassuming plants that make the beaches as we know them possible. They stabilize dunes, provide important habitat, and provide a buffer that protects man-made environments from storms. Without sea oats and other beach plants to stabilize the dunes, the dunes are just large piles of sand that are subject to time and tide.

In the last 6 months 523,520 80,000 of these plants have been planted in the Pinellas sand, and 80,000 more will be born as part of a major restoration. The coastline was once again devastated by Hurricane Idalia last fall and another storm in December.

The commercial market for sea oats is driven by coastal restoration, and the Pinellas project, combined with other projects on the state’s storm-ravaged coasts, has created unprecedented demand for sea oats, and that demand is so great. Pinellas put planting on hold earlier this year. : It was depleted. Supplies available.

Earth Balance, a Northport-based environmental remediation company, landed its first dune planting job in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1998. The company is now the leading supplier of such plantations in the Southeast. When Pinellas came calling, EarthBalance agreed to dedicate all of its available inventory to the dune project. We needed to grow even more to meet demand.

“We’ve planted a lot of sandy beaches in this era,” he said. Sarah Larocque The company’s president and CEO has worked at EarthBalance for 30 years. “I’ve never seen so much demand.”

Sarah Larocque, president and CEO of EarthBalance, gives a tour of the company's greenhouse, where seaside plants grow.
Sarah Larocque, president and CEO of EarthBalance, gives a tour of the company’s greenhouse, where seaside plants grow. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

It is true that sea oats can grow in the wild, but beaches like Pinellas are not natural. Barrier islands change shape and constantly move based on storms and storms. Erosion. Humans have built roads, condominiums, surf shops, and wave runner rentals on top of it, establishing a way of life that would be threatened if left to nature to take its course.

That’s why most of the oats planted in Pinellas and throughout the beaches of Florida, the coast of South Carolina, and the Gulf Coast of Texas are grown in one place. And you have to go quite far from the beach to see where it starts.

sea ​​of ​​oats

Heading south, you cross the Sunshine Skyway Bridge into Manatee County and hit State Route 70. Continue east into interior Florida. A land of cows and citrus fruits. It takes an hour to get to the beach, but it feels even further away. Eventually, you’ll reach Arcadia, the DeSoto County seat with a population of about 7,500 people. Turn right past a feed store and hardware store advertising a custom ranch entrance sign, past a western wear store with a rodeo mural.

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About 10 minutes down the road, right next to Route 17, you’ll see some low-rise buildings, and beyond that a larger building. sufficient The greenhouse covers the size of 16 NBA regulation-sized basketball courts. Inside, the first thing you see is a near-endless row of seed trays growing wiry, grass-like sprouts, or 1.3 million oats.

Sea oat plants are grown in a greenhouse at EarthBalance Native Plant Nursery.
Sea oat plants are grown in a greenhouse at EarthBalance Native Plant Nursery. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Founded nearly 40 years ago, EarthBalance also does other types of work, including cultivating upland native species and freshwater species and sending swamp buggies and airboat crews into nature preserves to remove invasive plants. I am.However, the company never seen. Last week, all 1.3 million sea oats in that greenhouse made headlines, with many heading to Pinellas.

When you plant sea oats, their root system grows up to 40 feet deep, protecting them from sand and soil from being washed or blown away. The stalks whip up more sand on the sea breeze. As sand accumulates, dunes grow.

In Pinellas, the plants are part of a project in which the county has spent more than $30 million since last fall. John Bishop, the county’s coastal management coordinator, said this is the largest coastal greening project the county has undertaken to date.

EarthBalance can last a year or two without shoreline planting work. But with more erosion comes more work, and the storm keeps the company busy. The one-two punch of Hurricane Ian in 2022 and Hurricane Idalia last year has left the state’s coastline in need of repair. Larocque said Earth Balance plans to install about 7 million beach plants this year alone, and demand shows no signs of slowing down.

The need for beach plants is both a business boom and a challenge for EarthBalance. Larocque said the company is by far the largest grower and distributor of this type of plant in the region, but still has limited production capacity. The company is adding 25,000 square feet to the greenhouse, but space isn’t the only limitation. Sea oats may seem simple, but the cultivation process is complex. This is why other nurseries don’t grow as many, and why Earth Balance values ​​the seeds at $500 to $1,000 per pound.

“It’s not easy,” Larocque said. “Otherwise, everyone would do it.”

“Many sleepless nights”

EarthBalance’s Nursery Manager is Joe Hayden.he He has tanned forearms and curious blue eyes. Hayden comes from a family of citrus growers. His grandfather owned the only grocery store in Fort Ogden, a small community in southern Arcadia. He went to university to study architectural design, but after he got his degree he realized he missed working with plants.

“The first week I sat there drawing pictures of the house, I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t sit inside,’” he said.

He spent the next 27 years growing orchids. He got good at it. Sea oats may not be sold in retail stores, but if you bought an orchid at a Lowe’s or hardware store near the beginning of this century, there’s a good chance Hayden had something to do with it. Six years ago, he began researching sea oats.

“You know, everyone says orchids are very difficult,” he said. He pointed to a greenhouse full of oats. “This… causes me a lot of sleepless nights.”

Nursery Manager Joe Hayden helps maintain the plants growing in the greenhouses at EarthBalance Native Plant Nursery.
Nursery Manager Joe Hayden helps maintain the plants growing in the greenhouses at EarthBalance Native Plant Nursery. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The complex nature of sea oats begins with its parentage. Sea oats are protected in Florida, so Earth Balance needs the permission of the landowner (in some cases, the state or local government, and in some cases the condominium association) to harvest them. The harvest season is a narrow period of about one month in September or October. Field workers collect the panicles, the golden-brown seed heads that give Uniola paniculata its common name. A large panicle with many spike-like seed pods may contain only one seed.

EarthBalance sends the ears to a company that dries and “washes” them, then rolls them in a machine to separate the seeds. It’s a delicate process, Hayden said. “Seeds have small embryos. If they break, the seeds are no good.”

Even if done carefully, Hayden said 10% of the seeds collected could survive by the time the cleaning process is finished. That’s when his expertise takes over. He knows how long to refrigerate plants to give them the best chance of germination (3-4 months). He has devised a precise schedule of watering and feeding by hand, and can tell how healthy they are by running his hand over the sprouting stems or glancing at the roots. .

He designed both the nursery’s fertilization equipment and a decidedly low-tech bird protection system. It’s an aluminum pipe tin warden with billowing streamers and googly eyes. And they are constantly watching for signs of fungal or insect-borne diseases that, if left unchecked, could wipe out a greenhouse full of young oats.

It takes about six months to harvest the seeds and grow them into the 10- or 12-inch tall plants desired by the purchaser. The urgency of the Pinellas Dunes restoration project required growing plants in winter, when the process was slowest.

“This is a living plant,” Larocque said. “All we can do is grow them this fast.”

line of defense

Hayden, who has been growing the coveted flower for decades, said he sees growing oats and other native plants as contributing to a bulwark against environmental damage.

“So many people are moving to Florida, and they want to be a part of Florida,” he says. “But Florida is disappearing, and Florida’s natural environment is disappearing. And that beauty disappears with every house and every time you put in concrete.”

A landscaping team works to install sea oat plugs into reconstructed dunes at Sunset Beach on Treasure Island in October.
A landscaping team works to install sea oat plugs into reconstructed dunes at Sunset Beach on Treasure Island in October. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Earth Balance’s efforts are part of a larger, decades-long shift in environmental management philosophy from attempts to fence off beaches with piers and seawalls to nourishing them with fresh sand and plants, Larocque said. he pointed out.

The next chapter of that story unfolds. Climate change caused by human carbon emissions means more frequent and more destructive hurricanes will reshape our coasts. Pinellas County’s ongoing conflict with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over nutrition policy highlights the dangers of living on barrier islands, which without coastal protection are vulnerable to routine winter storms. .

After Hurricane Ian hit Florida, it boomeranged back to the South Carolina coast as a Category 1 storm. In Myrtle Beach, Earth Balance sculpted the open dunes that she first planted in 1998. It was a rare opportunity for Larocque to see a cross-section of his old works. I had only been able to see the tips of the plants, but now I could see stems as tall as a man.

“I could see all the root nodes all the way down,” she said.

In October, recently planted oats join the oat clumps on the reconstructed dunes of Sunset Beach.
In October, recently planted oats join the oat clumps on the reconstructed dunes of Sunset Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

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