According to the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, South Carolina has an estimated 350,000 acres of salt marsh. This delicate wetland is the most productive ecosystem on the planet (just recently nudging into first place ahead of the rainforest).
Many people do not realize that the salt marsh provides numerous ecological benefits, including improving water quality; mitigating the impacts of storm surge and flooding; serving as a nursery for commercially important seafood such as crabs, oysters and shrimp; and providing a resting place for migrating birds.
Not only do our marshlands play an important role in our ecosystem, they make the Lowcountry one of the most appealing places in the country to live. That’s why protecting them has become an important environmental mission.
What threatens our wetlands? Pollution, run-off and development pressures to name a few. It’s the good and the bad of living in a place where so many want to move.
In 2011, the From Seeds to Shoreline initiative was born under the direction of the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Clemson University Cooperative Extension. E.V. Bell, the marine education specialist with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, says that the idea came from the need for a stewardship project that would be long-term.
And long-term it is. The program is the state’s only salt marsh restoration program designed specifically for students. It’s the students that cultivate and transplant young seedlings of marsh grass. Bell says that she has seen real progress since the program’s inception. “I saw a picture of an area with disappearing salt marsh from two years ago, and now it is all filled in, thanks to this program,” she says.
One of the biggest advocates of marsh restoration is Nancy Platt, who has been teaching the program at James B. Edwards Elementary School for five years now. When I visited her at James B. Edwards, I felt as though I was visiting a plant nursery rather than an elementary school. Platt’s horticulture program is the first of its kind in the Charleston County School District. When it comes to From Seeds to Shoreline, she takes the program very seriously and believes it has taught her students to become stewards of the environment and to help conserve an ecosystem that is such a huge part of living in the Lowcountry.
Platt showed me around the working classroom greenhouse, which was erected in the summer of 2018, and explained how the program works. Currently, since it’s winter, Platt and her students are germinating Spartina alterniflora, otherwise known as smooth cord grass, which is the plant that forms the foundation of the salt marsh ecosystem.
After the germinating stage, they will transfer the small seedlings into six-inch pots filled with MiracleGro until they are grown. “At the end of May, we are going out to Wadmalaw Island to a location that is suffering from erosion,” she says. “The Spartina will be transferred there, and it is amazing how this plant will just grow all the way up towards the oyster reefs, filling in the whole area.”
There are currently about 40 schools in South Carolina participating in the From Seeds to Shoreline initiative. “We have schools in almost all the coastal counties and a few inland as well,” Bell explains.
The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium offers a one-day training session in the summer for teachers who are interested in starting the program at their school. “This training session is mandatory in order to get the program started in a school,” Bell says. “It allows us to teach the educators about salt marsh ecology, the restoration process of Spartina alterniforla and they get a chance to network and learn from each other, too.”
Since the program is now eight years old, Bell says that they really have seen a footprint of how it has helped. “Areas that were just pluff mud are now regenerated and growing again,” she says. “We have really seen the benefits.”
Bell says that her favorite part of the program is that students are the stewards of it and that they are the ones really making a difference. “I remember eight years ago when we first started it and we were just so happy to have a program where students could be involved in helping out their local environment,” Bell reminisces.
Platt has definitely seen the benefits in students as well through this program. “It is very rewarding for them to see the progress of their work and to know that they have helped to conserve and restore such an important habitat,” she says.
Although it’s Platt’s fifth year with Seeds to Shoreline, she has been an advocate for the South Carolina Oyster Restoration program for 10 years. “Oysters are filters and they help with pollution,” she says. “Preserving their habitat maintains our environment.”
James B. Edwards Elementary also has an herb garden, two rainwater barrels, a tower garden in the cafeteria and a Victory Climate Garden where they grow kale, radishes, mustard greens, cabbage, onions, garlic and much more. Students receive horticulture lessons through the volunteer Lowcountry Sustainability Program. Funding for the garden came from grants through South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Herb Society of America.
“We have two plant sales a year, and our children actually get to eat this food, which is helping them learn to eat healthy,” Platt says. She even sends food from the garden home with the children.
“What Nancy has done with the From Seeds to Shoreline initiative is above and beyond,” Bell says. “But what she has done for the environment as a whole and for our children appreciating it is hard to explain in words. She has taken all of it a step further and has done a wonderful job.”