For shorefront homeowners, the area between land and water offers a planting zone with specific demands and requirements. According to Northern Neck Master Gardener and Shoreline Evaluation Program Chair Mary Turville, it is easy to create and encourage a healthy and beautiful shoreline.
“Only one plant, smooth cordgrass, grows along the water’s edge,” said Turville. “Smooth cordgrass provides the basis of our marshes and is uniquely adapted to shoreline conditions.”
Smooth cordgrass needs to be inundated by brackish water twice a day; however, its roots cannot survive if permanently underwater. Smooth cordgrass needs six hours of sunlight each day and prefers a sandy bottom.
“If you have these conditions, you have a marsh,” Turville continued. “The extent of this grassy fringe depends on the depth of the water. The plant’s roots will extend outwards as far as the favorable conditions exist. Once the water is too deep, the growth stops.”
Behind the smooth cordgrass, there are a few more options including salt marsh hay and a variety of rushes. A little farther back, taller grasses and some salt-resistant shrubs start to appear.
“Groundsel bush, wax myrtle, and clumps of switchgrass, all native plants, are perfectly adapted to this environment,” continued Turville. “These plants experience few insect or disease threats and need no fertilizer. They all have sturdy, thirsty roots which will hold the soil on the bank, absorb stormwater run-off, and stabilize the edge of your property.”
Switchgrass, which has roots that can reach six or seven feet into the ground, is the ideal plant to grow on a bank and at the edge of the upland. If it gets too tall, just cut it back. Its open, airy seed heads, waving in the breeze and catching the sunlight, add to the beauty of the shoreline landscape.
A little higher above the water line, flowering plants add variety and color. Marsh hibiscus, marsh mallow, and seaside goldenrod are all native plants that thrive in this zone. “There’s no need to purchase or plant them. The birds and the wind will carry and drop the seeds,” said Turville. “Once established they will easily reproduce and spread.”
If you want additional shapes and colors, try planting flag irises, which can survive in wet conditions. Farther up the bank, where the soil is often moist but only occasional inundations occur, a wide range of commercially available plants can find a home. Experiment with selections from any list of plants for moist conditions.
“The most important guideline for shoreline planting is to have a variety of plants growing in this area and as densely as possible,” Turville stated. “Lawn and turfgrass should not be grown in this area. It does little to protect the shoreline and prevent damage from stormwater runoff. This is the zone for native plants with deep, thirsty roots to provide shoreline stability and erosion control. The shoreline is a place for working plants – and for natural beauty.”
Visit the Northern Neck Master Gardeners’ Shoreline Garden at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum. For more information on the Northern Neck Master Gardeners’ Shoreline Evaluation Program, visit nnmg.org/sep or call your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office.