Buffers protect tidal creeks

Saw palmettos at the edge of the marsh.

South Carolina is home to approximately 350,000 acres of salt marsh, comprising 30 percent of all tidal salt marsh in the United States. This is impressive as the salt marsh ranks as one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth (second only to the rainforest), providing vital wildlife habitat and nursery grounds to many species of birds and fish.

The salt marsh also provides protection to our homes and communities. It serves as a sponge to reduce the impact of storm surges, it filters pollution from stormwater runoff and helps to keep our water clean, and it is home to many of the commercially and recreationally important fish and shellfish species.

Here in the Lowcountry, we are fortunate to be surrounded by tidal creeks and vast stretches of Spartina alterniflora, the dominant plant species in our salt marsh.

Many Lowcountry home gardeners find themselves within a stone's throw of a salt marsh. Often, yards adjacent to a salt marsh are low lying and may even become inundated during high tides with brackish or saltwater.

This can be a tricky place to garden as most plants don't tolerate these conditions well. If you find yourself in this predicament, and you want to beautify your yard while also protecting our tidal marshes for current and future generations, the answer is quite simple: Establish a salt marsh buffer.

Buffers really are a win, win, win. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has deemed vegetative buffers one of the most effective ways to protect salt marsh habitat. If a buffer is created correctly, this vegetative strip can provide the following benefits:

Reduce shoreline erosion and protect property from flooding.

Reduce pollution in stormwater runoff as buffer plants slow the flow of water, allowing plants, soil, microbes and sunlight to reduce pollutants.

Increase privacy for the homeowner while still maintaining a view.

Serve as wildlife habitat, providing the opportunity to view species such as the painted buntings, snowy egrets or great blue herons.

Save the homeowner money as little to no irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides are needed to maintain this area of the yard

If you are interested, here are some suggested steps to establish and improve your salt marsh buffer.

Before planting, it is important to be familiar with local, state and federal regulations. In South Carolina, the "critical area" is defined as coastal waters, tidelands, beaches and dune systems. These areas are protected under the direct permitting authority of the Department of Health and Environmental Control's Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.

For the purpose of this article, the buffer zone and recommended establishment and maintenance actions take place above the high water mark, thus inland from the critical area and do not require disturbance of the actual salt marsh.

One of gardening's golden rules, "right plant, right place" is key when establishing a vegetative buffer. Using the "right plant" will increase the effectiveness of the buffer and increase the chances that it will survive.

Plant selection is narrowed by the dynamic conditions that exist adjacent to a salt marsh, including the ever-present elements of wind, salt and sun exposure. There are few appropriate plants for such sites, and most of these are native to our region and have adapted to the pressures of life near the salt marsh.

Before planting, consider the existing topography, vegetation and soil at the site. Surveying the vegetation, you may find that you have existing plants that you would like to include in your vegetative buffer, such as live oak, beautyberry or sweetgrass. The root system of established plants helps to prevent erosion by holding soil in place. Wherever possible, use the natural contours and keep those plants you have in place. This will avoid unnecessary erosion by minimizing disturbance to the soil.

If you already have turf grass in your buffer area, the lawn should be kept at the maximum recommended height for the grass type. This will allow for a more extensive root system and create a larger leaf area, which will work to slow runoff and capture sediment. Irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers should be used sparingly in this area, helping to prevent the transport of pollutants to area waterways.

To learn more about plant selection and maintenance in your salt marsh vegetative buffer, check out the H2O-016 factsheet "Life Along the Salt Marsh: Protecting Tidal Creeks with Vegetative Buffers" at clemson.edu/hgic/water.

Clemson University will be offering the Initial Private Pesticide Applicator Training on Jan. 21 at Clemson University's Restoration Institute, 1250 Supply St., North Charleston. The cost of the training is $50, payable by check, cash, or online but participants must RSVP before Jan. 20. Call Zack Snipes to sign up at 722-5940, ext. 123.

Sustainable Small Farms & Backyards is a six-week course intended to teach people with very small farms (10 acres or less) the basics of caring for livestock and honeybees, growing their own fruits and vegetables, and guidelines required for selling products to consumers (no prerequisites required). Clemson Extension agents Amy Dabbs and Zack Snipes will offer classes starting Jan. 15. The class will meet every Thursday for six weeks from 12:30-4 p.m. at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston. Class space is limited. The registration fee of $175 covers six classes, lesson materials and a field trip. Two S.C. pesticide recertification credits will be available upon completion of the course.

Contact Amy Dabbs at adabbs@clemson.edu, 722-5940 ext. 122 or Zack Snipes at zbsnipe@clemson.edu, 722-5940 ext. 123 for more information or register online at bit.ly/1tPaiW2

Kimberly Counts is a Water Resources Agent for Clemson Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.