Army of volunteers ready to plant the beach


Coastal Point • File photos: Dune grass is planted by hand — one bunch at a time.Coastal Point • File photos: Dune grass is planted by hand — one bunch at a time.The good news for organizers of the state’s annual beach grass planting day, set for Saturday, March 19, all along the coast, is that all volunteer slots have been filled for the event. The bad news is that the grass is more important than usual this year, due to a pair of storms that devastated Delaware dunes.

“Delaware’s coastline was ravaged by the January storm that weakened, and in some areas destroyed, dunes and eroded sand from our beaches,” said Jennifer Luoma, environmental scientist for the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section.

“The dunes were hit especially hard, and hundreds of volunteers are needed to help stabilize dunes that have been repaired after the coastal storm,” said Luoma, coordinator of the annual beach grass planting event.

The dunes and beaches also suffered damage in an October storm.

Last year, approximately 1,000 environmental enthusiasts, families and students planted 110,000 stems of beach grass along over 3 miles of coastline between Kitts Hummock Beach and Fenwick Island. This year, 150,000 stems of Cape American beach grass will be planted, according to Luoma.

Officials are particularly grateful this year for the corps of volunteer planters who will descend on the beaches, armed with heavy gloves and long sticks, dropping the beach grass plugs into holes about 20 inches apart. The process generally takes a few hours.

Cape American beach grass is dormant from October to April, and in Delaware is planted as close to the end of the winter storm season as possible.

Sand dunes are considered essential for protection against damaging coastal storms. When sand dunes are destroyed, storm waves can rush inland, flood properties and put lives at risk. Stabilized dunes absorb wave energy and act as major sand storage areas, which replenish sand to eroded beaches during a storm.

Beach grass helps to build and stabilize dunes by trapping windblown sand. As the grass traps the sand, it builds the dunes higher and wider, which makes dunes even more protective of the structures behind them. Since the program was introduced in 1989, more than 5 million stems of beach grass have been planted.

Luoma said it’s not unheard of for all the volunteer spots to fill before the event, but that the spots on the southern beaches usually fill more slowly. “Cape Henlopen, if we plant it, always fills up first,” Luoma said.

For those who have signed up to help plant this year, Luoma said e-mails should go out a week or so before the March 19 event with information on beach assignments.

“Most folks have gotten their first choice, and I try to close out sites that fill up as we go, so that volunteers can only request sites that are still open.”