As Hurricane Matthew swirled up the Atlantic coast in October 2016, I rushed inland from my coastal field sites in North Florida to anxiously wait out the storm. When I returned to the field station two weeks later, our lab buildings and gear were damaged, debris littered the ground and a boat was stranded on my front lawn. And yet, the marshes and mangroves at my field sites appeared unscathed – a natural defense against the hurricane’s storm surge and high winds.

As a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology at the University of Georgia, hurricanes have disrupted my life and research multiple times. I have also seen that native plants, which are adapted to the extreme conditions of Georgia’s coastal environments, can protect communities from coastal hazards. Combining these experiences, I am working as a graduate assistant for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s EcoScapes Sustainable Land Use Program (EcoScapes) to develop guidance for landscaping with native salt-tolerant plants to provide resilience to Georgia’s coastal hazards.

Due to its low elevation, coastal Georgia is extremely vulnerable to weather-related coastal hazards. As we saw during Hurricane Matthew, storms bring severe rain and wind to coastal areas. Associated flooding, storm surge and stormwater runoff cause saltwater damage to manmade landscapes, upland plant communities and human infrastructure.

Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in Marineland, Florida. Photo by Leslie Babonis.

In addition to storms, sea level rise accentuates saltwater damage due to daily tidal flooding, and increasing development exacerbates these problems by inhibiting the landward retreat of plant communities. Unlike native plant communities, developed, impervious surfaces do not provide water infiltration, purification and coastal protection.

Native plants form the foundation of healthy ecosystems and are adapted to local environmental conditions, insects and diseases. Creating or enhancing coastal landscapes with native salt-tolerant plants can restore the ecological function, health and value of our local ecosystems. At the same time, native salt-tolerant plantings reduce the size of disturbances and destruction to human communities.

I am working with Keren Giovengo, EcoScapes program manager, to develop resource documents for both conservation professionals and homeowners focused on establishing site-appropriate, native salt-tolerant landscapes in coastal Georgia. In addition to providing information about native salt-tolerant plant ecology and coastal hazards, the resources will give guidance for the selection, design, sourcing, installation and maintenance of salt-tolerant landscape plantings. A curated list of native, salt-tolerant plants that are currently landscape-available in coastal Georgia will also be available. This work will culminate with two workshops hosted at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Brunswick office this May. Together, the documents, plant list and workshops provide the technical assistance, tools and training for conservation professionals and homeowners to increase community resilience to coastal hazards.