S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Coastal Heritage Magazine

The Way Water Behaves: Rain Gardens and Native Plants—Where Every Drop Counts

Curbing flooding, encouraging native species, and reducing stormwater runoff through native-plant landscaping and the understanding of how water moves. By mimicking local ecosystems, green spaces attract native wildlife while also mitigating flood risks.

Several people look over a selection of plants at an outdoor plant sale.

BENEFICIAL. Rain gardens put plants to work to soak up rainwater and provide habitat for beneficial wildlife and insects. A mix of native perennials, shrubs, and grasses provide interest for all seasons in this highly visible location. Photo by Kim Morganello, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.

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Coastal Heritage Magazine

Volume 36 – Number 3
Spring 2023

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The Way Water Behaves: Rain Gardens and Native Plants—Where Every Drop Counts

Storm clouds gather, heavy and dark. Water droplets saturating clouds bump into each other and combine until they become too heavy to stay suspended. Together, they fall across South Carolina.

Some of this rain will tumble on rooftops. In a drenching rain, the quiet pitter patter on a tin roof quickly turns into pounding as sheets of rain cascade. Water glides off houses and slips into yards. Here, a number of things occur.

Stormwater pools at the base of a home until enough gathers, forcing water to an adjoining lawn. Some of this water might find its way into the ground where its journey is slowed, but if the soil is compacted, runoff will continue onward. Some might collect and overflow onto roadways, unable to infiltrate the ground or travel forward into overwhelmed drains. Instead, the downpour turns into flooding.

Maybe water will follow natural depressions in the yard, stalling in areas with poor draining soil. As the water progresses, it erodes topsoil in bare spots or simply slides over impervious surfaces (such as pavement and concrete). Throughout this trip from rooftop to yard, stormwater picks up souvenirs along the way: pet waste, fertilizers, pesticides, debris from a neighbor’s car wash, or lawn clippings from a ritualistic Saturday afternoon mowing.

A naturalist stands in a wetland ecosystem with pitcher plants in the foreground.

ON THE COVER: Wetland ecosystems are home to a variety of plants, such as the yellow trumpet pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava), the loblolly bay, and sweet bay trees that grow around its edges. Photo by Wade Spees.

Stormwater runoff and its collected pollutants dash down a storm drain—straight into waterways. Unfiltered. Untreated. Unlike the water that moves through our kitchen sinks and showers, stormwater is not treated by municipal water systems before it enters bodies of water. It doesn’t matter if you’re inland or coastal, stormwater will meet our waterways, be it the ocean or a creek.

Ultimately, “humans, we’ve changed the way water behaves on Earth,” says Kim Morganello, water resources associate and Carolina Clear program coordinator with Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.

Climate change, urban development, and in-home habits have transformed the way we interact and live with water. Verdant green lawns, pavement, driveways, and other common humanmade features compound this change by impeding stormwater’s movement. Often, with negative consequences like flooding and pollution.

When rain hits rooftops, it can do so in volume. As a guideline, a 1,000-square-foot roof can generate 600 gallons of runoff in one inch of rainfall. Depending on intensity and duration, impressive amounts of stormwater are generated in a short amount of time. South Carolina’s statewide rainfall varies from forty to eighty inches of precipitation a year, providing ample opportunities to demonstrate the effects of this volume.

Water runs into a storm drain on a city street with people and buildings in the background.

DIRECT DRAINAGE. Runoff pours into roadside catch basins, and then it is routed through subterranean pipes and discharged, unfiltered, into waterways. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Not only does stormwater become a potential vehicle for pollution, it can also usher flooding.

“I encourage people to think of their yards as a mini-watershed,” says Morganello. “Identify the source whenever it rains. Watch your roof. Where does the rain run off impervious surfaces like the rooftops, the driveways, the sidewalks and where is its destination. Where is that water going? Is it going to a water body like a backyard stream, or stormwater pond, or is it going to structures such as a culvert or a ditch. It’s important to understand the source [of water] before it reaches a destination as it relates to a specific property to manage water on site. This is our opportunity to sort of mimic that pre-development hydrology and help reduce impacts.”

Rain gardens, native plants, rain barrels, and adjustments in behaviors at home are ways in which someone could mimic pre-development hydrology by allowing water a chance to move through the landscape and also being mindful of what goes into that water. In regards to flooding and pollution, every drop counts.

“If everybody took responsibility for the water on their home or property, we could really reduce the issues that we face as a community,” says Morganello.

A History of Water and Land

South Carolina’s identity is intrinsically tied to water. Throughout the state, there’s an extensive history of human development in liminal areas that blur the boundaries of water and land.

For example: Urban development in Charleston’s peninsula grew up and around filled-in creeks, marshes, and landfills. Phosphate mining in the late nineteenth century physically changed the landscape of West Ashley forests and Lowcountry riverbanks through extensive mining activities. And today, Union Pier—a seventy-acre site on
the Charleston harbor that sees its fair share of flooding—is at the center of redevelopment debates.

Charleston’s history with water is in flux, reacting and responding to climate change, sea-level rise, the expansion of urban development, local economies, and environmental needs. A 2020 study conducted by James Morris and Katherine Renken of Belle Baruch Institute for Coastal and Marine Science at the University of South Carolina predicted that Charleston would see an increase to sixty flood events a year by 2051, compared to twenty-five days in 2014 and two days in 1950. The risk of flooding is not waning. Looking forward, Charleston looks outward to the Netherlands, which has cultivated its own relationship with water.

In Amsterdam, a unique collective of citizens, entrepreneurs, and agencies formed Amsterdam Rainproof to encourage innovative solutions in water management. A tenet of the Rainproof program is shifting perceptions in humans’ relationship with water—and in the long run, to make Amsterdam “rainproof.” One innovation that has arisen from the program is the polderdak, or roof garden. The polderdak serves as a place of water storage to slow the flow of water after a large rain event, which in turn helps curb flooding.

The Dutch have no intention of “solving” flooding; it’s a natural process associated with coastal living, and also, an amorphous leviathan of climate change. But there are means to reduce risk. And much of that begins with changing attitudes toward a relationship with water combined with eventual policy changes.

Like the Netherlands, Charleston exists in a hazy area that occupies and overlaps land and sea.

In 2019, the city of Charleston hosted the Dutch Dialogues™, a collaborative initiative that sought input from national and international water experts to envision new and creative ways to visualize Charleston’s future relationship with water. A product of that effort: Charleston Rainproof, a program that seeks to encourage individuals, public entities, and communities to capture rainwater through the use of rain gardens, water collection in rain barrels, tree planting, and native plants.

The bottom line: every drop counts. And it starts in our own backyards.

A manicured lawn in a park-like setting with a woman and children walking.

CORRALLED NATURE. Visitors play on the immaculate corralled nature and gardens of Charleston’s Middleton Place that were created in 1741 and inspired by the “grand classic style” that was popular in Europe at the time. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

The Ubiquitous Lawn

Enter a seventeenth century affluent ideal: the lawn.

The American lawn, as some might imagine it, is a lush, unwavering green that is encased in meticulous edging, with homogenous hedges. Tight lines, with little deviation. “Nature,” placated and corralled. And with luck, nary a bug or animal in sight.

“A big selling point if someone says, ‘You know I like my green lawn. I like the way it looks.’ If you tell them lawns started with people trying to show off their money, they usually see how silly lawns are,” says Jennifer Tyrrell, South Carolina Audubon’s engagement manager. Tyrrell encourages the use of native plant landscaping to encourage wildlife friendly backyards and to mitigate flooding.

The lawn is a European invention which is essentially a piece of land replicated to resemble a glade, but it made sense in a European climate that could support close-cut “grasslands.” Lawns however were still deeply entrenched with class and wealth; only rich landowners had the resources to hire the people needed to maintain them. It became a symbol of wealth or status.

Eventually, the lawn made its way to North America where it went through a few iterations.

In the early 1700s, colonists brought English ivy (Hedera helix), an evergreen plant that was used for groundcover and beautification—and has since become an invasive species in many North American landscapes. In the nineteenth century, propelled by homeowners’ desires to escape the aesthetics of rapid industrialization, the idea of the lawn proliferated. By the twentieth century, lawns flourished during the rise in suburbs, a generation seeking housing to raise families, the return of American G.I.s in the 1950s, the cultural and social norms of the era, and technological advances (such as mowers, pesticides, fertilizers, and seed). The lawn morphed from a wealthy European ideal to a hallmark of Americana.

Today this fixture also plays a role in flooding and pollution.

Water pollution comes from many sources, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pollutants from stormwater runoff contribute up to 30 percent of water pollution. The EPA also estimates that nine billion gallons of water every day are used for outdoor uses in the United States. Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, pet waste, detergents, waste from failing septic tanks, oil and other petroleum products, chemicals, construction debris, bacteria and viruses, and other materials make up stormwater pollution. Water quality in bodies of water is impacted by this pollution, affecting swimming, recreation, human health, and local economies such as tourism and shellfish industries.

Native Plants: “Right Plant, Right Place”

Integrating native plants into developed spaces is a simple way to incorporate individual action. Entities like Clemson Extension’s Carolina Clear, Charleston Rainproof, South Carolina Native Plant Society, and Audubon South Carolina all encourage the installation of native plants, rain gardens, or rain barrels.

A woman deliberates over plants at a native plant sale.

DECISIONS. A shopper considers native plant species at a South Carolina Native Plant Society plant sale. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), a harbinger of spring and native plant, unfurls its deep blue-to-violet petals to mark a closing winter. It is a resilient plant, adapted to South Carolina’s temperate climate and capable of blooming year-round. In spiderwort’s classification as a native plant, it is also symbolic of simple action for redefining our relationship with water, and mitigating stormwater pollution and flooding.

“We have native plants that are just as beautiful as nonnative plants,” says Matt Johnson, Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest center director and grants coordinator for the South Carolina Native Plant Society (SCNPS). “I’m not saying ‘get rid of your lawn.’ Plenty of people have them for their kids. But think about reducing the lawn. When you’re planting the next thing, plant something beneficial.”

A native plant species is one that has historically occupied an area. These plants are best adapted to a region’s soil, climate, and ecosystem. Some cope better with drought conditions while others are better suited for consistently wet soil. Their hardy nature allows them to create stronger root networks that provide soil stabilization, better storage for water, and stormwater infiltration. In contrast, conventional turf grass can act as an impervious surface when the grass’s short roots become impacted over time.

Nonnative plants aren’t necessarily evil; they’re just not indigenous to an area, having been introduced through human-driven activities such as colonization, agricultural trade, intentional and unintentional introduction, or ornamental cultivation. These plants are usually not as beneficial for the overall health of an ecosystem.

Findings from a 2020 study led by the Bio-Protection Research Centre published in Science also indicated that “exotic plants” might have a more dramatic interaction with soil microorganisms and local invertebrate herbivores of an area than previously thought: 2.5 times as much CO2 was released from the soil compared to that of native plants in the study. These findings indicate that native plants possibly sequester carbon in soil longer or at least stabilize carbon better than exotic plant species. So native plants might also aid the fight against climate change through carbon storage.

A group of young people sitting on the ground among potted plants.

BUDDING GARDENERS. Students in Clemson Extension’s Master Rain Gardener program design and install a rain garden at the Folly Beach Community Center located on Folly Beach, S.C. The 2022 installation took place following weeks of online instruction as part of a hybrid training approach. Participation in the field day is a requirement of the Master Rain Gardener Certification. Photo by Kim Morganello, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service.

Invasive species, however, are nonnative species that may cause harm. These plants could pose possible threats to human health, the environment, and local ecologies. They are species that lack predators or other ecological checks, proliferating and outcompeting native contemporaries. Eradication and removal can also be difficult and expensive, causing extensive damage.

An example: the introduction of the Bradford pear tree or Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana). It was a tree extensively planted during post–war suburban growth in the 1950s—it could grow everywhere, was fairly disease free, did not produce messy fruit, and was pretty, its infamous white flowers being synonymous with suburban development. Quickly, the introduction proved problematic. The trees choke out native plants, limiting biodiversity. It’s also known to topple over in periods of extended, intense rain. Beginning in 2024, it will no longer be legal to sell or buy Bradford pear trees in South Carolina. Clemson Extension sponsors the Bradford Pear Bounty: remove a Bradford pear tree on your property, and with proof of removal (a selfie is acceptable), receive a free native tree replacement. It’s a one-for-one replacement program that covers up to five trees.

Complete tree extraction and replacement with an alternate native species is not the only way to introduce native plants. Starting small is possible.

Samantha Porzelt, Clemson Extension’s water resources agent and the president of SCNPS, has a few suggestions but maintains that plants should be chosen to best suit site soil and conditions. Clemson offers a soil sampling service that aids in this determination. To start small, Porzelt recommends looking to native sunflowers (which are keystone species, supporting wildlife), coreopsis, asters, or butterflyweed. While Audubon’s Tyrrell also suggests American beautyberry, a wildlife favorite. There are many resources now, between plant databases and local guides such as those provided by Clemson and SCNPS.

A collection of painted barrels connected by pipes.<br />

EVERY DROP COUNTS. On the College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab campus on James Island, rain barrels, a cistern, and rain gardens have been installed to aid in rainwater harvesting. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

“A misconception I’ve run into with native plants is that they’re perceived as being ‘weedy’ or ‘messy,’” says Porzelt, but public opinion is shifting. There are species of native plants that hold similar aesthetic value as their nonnative ornamental counterparts. An example of which would be replacing a nonnative species such as Japanese honeysuckle with Carolina jessamine (the state flower).

“Homeowner associations (HOAs) are more open to having them [compared to a decade ago]. Further education might be needed, but people are more often than not willing to have the conversation about native plants. Some are okay with native plants, but they want them evergreen, and we have curated lists for that. There are also compromises that can be made: some HOAs are okay with incorporating native plants—a nonnative crepe myrtle with a small native tree, for example,” says Porzelt.

There are also cost benefits of native plants. Porzelt states that lawn costs can be reduced through the use of native plants if you factor in mowing, fertilizers, pesticides, and watering. According to Statista, Americans spent a little less than 129 billion dollars on lawns and gardens in 2022.

Native plants have moved from a niche underground interest to budding public knowledge. Still, it takes a little preemptive consumer research. Many big-box stores still carry nonnative and sometimes invasive species of plants. “Demand drives supply,” says Porzelt.

Walking into a nursery you might see Chinese or Japanese wisteria (invasive) or Carolina jessamine (native)—they might not be labeled to indicate their native or nonnative status, so it might be hard to know where to start. Fortunately, there is a plethora of resources available to consumers to aid in pre-purchase study.

On a larger scale, an initiative launched by Audubon South Carolina with the support of S.C. Department of Natural Resources—the South Carolina Solar Habitat Act—went into effect in 2018. This act provides a foundation for owners of solar energy sites to voluntarily incorporate practices that provide spaces for native plants, encouraging native pollinators and wildlife while also reducing stormwater runoff and erosion. Recent studies have identified a potentially positive solar-pollinator habitat relationship between native plant sites provided at solar farms and increased local agricultural production.

Rain Gardens and Rain Barrels

The Dutch Dialogues™ final report encourages water-management practices that slow, store, and drain water. Installing a rain garden is one project that moves toward creating efficient green spaces with those principles in mind.

“The rain garden is going to be placed in between a source and a destination so we’re trying to intercept that water before it leaves,” says Clemson’s Morganello. “Impervious surfaces [like pavement] get in the way and water isn’t able to do what it does naturally and that’s infiltrate the soil or slow down to evaporate. Instead, it’s running off, so this is our opportunity to sort of mimic that pre-development hydrology and help reduce impacts that might occur in our own yards or in our neighbor’s yards. Taking responsibility for water in their homes or property and thinking about flooding in terms of community might help reduce the issues we face.”

A diagram of a rain garden showing stormwater running off into the garden.

TREATMENT TRAIN. Rain gardens reduce stormwater runoff and mitigate flooding by slowing, storing, and draining water. Graphic by Lee Bundrick, Kiawah Conservancy.

An ideal rain garden is an intentional depression in the landscape that allows rainwater to collect then drain into the ground. Rain gardens use native grasses, shrubs, and perennials that also reduce water runoff while filtering out pollutants and providing shelter and food for local butterflies, avian species, and wildlife. Rain gardens have the potential of reducing the amount of pollution from entering creeks and streams, by allowing 30 percent more water to soak into the ground than conventional lawns.

Capturing rainwater through the use of rain barrels also helps intercept runoff and lessen flooding. If that 1000-square-foot roof funnels 600 gallons of water during one inch of rain, a fifty-gallon rain barrel is going to fill up quick. But rain barrels can be connected to allow for overflow which is redirected to rain gardens. The captured water can be saved for later use.

Redefining Our Relationship with Water

As another storm cloud rolls in overhead and unleashes a downpour, stormwater glides off a roof into rain barrels. Water churns inside rain barrels, allowing the excess to run into a lawn depression full of plants such as vibrant swamp azalea and cheerful native sunflowers. The stormwater sinks deep into the rain garden, where it is slowed, stored, and drained.

Rain gardens, native plants, and habit changes within homes and yards help placate the evolving dynamic people have with water. By mimicking systems that were established prehuman development, some flooding and pollution risks may be reduced.

“Watching the water flow off a roof, into a rain barrel, then see it overflow into a rain garden. To see it work, it’s just magical,” says Morganello.

Rethinking Backyard Ecologies: Bird Friendly Yards and Beyond

In the canopy of a 1,000-year-old cypress tree, a pair of barred owls sound off: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” A cottonmouth raises its triangular head out of the blackwater, taking on a mantel of stillness. Heralds of spring, Carolina jessamine, drop their cheery yellow trumpet-shaped blooms as an excited Carolina wren hops and replies: “teakettle-teakettle!” In the midstory, a brilliant-red (ornery) cardinal cocks its head and responds in a round of laser-like calls: “pew, pew, pew!” The cacophony of vocalizations has rung out in the Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest in the Four Holes Swamp for generations.

Beidler Forest is the largest virgin old-growth cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world, having also never been touched by logging. The Audubon’s ~18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary is located about an hour northwest of Charleston near Harleyville. The native plant and animal species are an amalgam of its character; knobby cypress knees and the ensemble of calls adds to the distinct South Carolina landscape.

A barred owl stands in shallow water below a tree.

WILDLIFE. Barred owls are often active during the day, providing Francis Beidler Forest visitors regular opportunities to observe them along the swamp boardwalk trail. Photo by Don Wuori.

Another facet of South Carolina’s landscape: water, and with it, flooding. Along Beidler’s 1.75-mile boardwalk, there are signs posted indicating the 100-year-flood water levels from 2015. But swamps provide hope for flood resilience and biodiversity through trees.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one acre of wetlands has the potential to store one million gallons of water and coastal wetlands offer some storm protection through buffering wind, storm surge, and deluges of water. The ability to absorb and store water can slow the rate at which water enters rivers and streams, reducing downstream flooding. Unfortunately, coastal wetlands in the U.S. are disappearing at an estimated rate of 80,000 acres per year due to development, silviculture, and agriculture—anthropogenic change that has an indirect impact on the hydrology of wetlands.

How can we learn from Beidler Forest to curb flooding and reap the benefits of biodiversity? Encourage the proliferation of local ecosystems, even in our own yards and green spaces. Rain gardens, native plants, and trees provide avenues to those benefits.

“Trees are organic water pumps,” says Jennifer Tyrrell, Audubon South Carolina’s engagement manager. “Controlling stormwater and flooding starts with you, on your own property.”

Through canopy cover, root systems, interruption of impervious surfaces, and in death, trees help reduce the risk of flooding. Canopy cover works by simply getting in the way of rainfall; this allows for the spread of rainfall over time which aids in the evaporation of rain within the canopy. Root systems allow water to drain quicker into the soil while also preventing surface runoff, which provides more storage for water. With the increase in urban development, comes an increase in impervious surfaces (like pavement and roads)—urban trees improve water infiltration. And in death, trees that succumb near waterways aid living trees to slow the flow of flooding.

Beyond flood-risk reduction, trees encourage diverse wildlife.

Research by entomologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware demonstrates favor for native trees in this regard: a nonnative gingko tree might host five species of caterpillars while native oak trees support over 550 species. Insects are vital for avian wildlife. Refueling migratory birds depend on them and the majority of terrestrial bird species feed their young insects.

Inviting and supporting wildlife in backyards through native plants provides an avenue to reconnect with the landscape that predates human-built environments.

In a native plant-landscaped yard, one might discover similar sounds to those at Beidler Forest: Gregarious cedar waxwings congregate and chatter in unison around anything berry-related. Barred owls frequent urban settings on silent wings, delighting in rodent population reduction. Indigo buntings, nicknamed “blue canaries,” migrate and consume seeds and insects while letting out their infamous sharp “chip!” call.

A bird perched on the side of a tree.

HABITATS. A Prothonotary warbler feeds its young in a tree cavity. Nest sites include old woodpecker nests, bird boxes, and in holes of their own making, filling the cavity with moss and vegetation. Photo by Don Wuori.

Through mimicry of local ecosystems, a green space can be transformed into a wildlife or bird friendly yard while also combating flooding.

“You want to look at your yard as if it’s a habitat. You want to structure it: have some ground cover, have a midstory, have an upper story, and have a canopy,” says Tyrrell. “And if you’re starting out, try selective weeding. Learn what native plants are coming up in your yard and decide ‘hey, I’m going to protect this thing here.’ Add edging so it looks like you meant to put it there. I have a lot of spiderwort, a native iris, that got in my yard on its own. It’s one of the first things to bloom in the spring—which is important for bees. If these things volunteer, leave them.”

Curating a native plant landscape comes with a few reminders of the cyclical nature of plants and animals.

Matt Johnson, Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest center director and grants coordinator for the South Carolina Native Plant Society, says, “Your plant is going to get eaten. And if it gets entirely eaten, that’s a job well done! I had a milkweed plant that was nothing but stalk—it looked like a ghost forest, but I had some happy, fat caterpillars.” Milkweed plants support the emblematic, migratory monarch butterflies, populations of which have been in decline for the last few decades.

Birders tend to be interested in planting for enjoyment, too. If bluebirds are on your desirable visitors list, they aren’t coming for your seeds. According to Johnson, they’re after grubs, inchworms, and caterpillars and are drawn to native oaks that house a diverse array of insects. “Think of a bird feeder as a supplement,” says Johnson. “Be intentional about what you’re growing. The trees and shrubs provide food and cover.”

A smiling man in a baseball cap holds a bird on one finger. A swamp environment can be seen in the background.

BIODIVERSITY. Matt Johnson, Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest center director, pictured with a shy, reclusive Swainson’s warbler that makes forested ravines and swamps its home. Photo by South Carolina Audubon.

While native plants are a great place to start, nest boxes are additions that also entice wildlife. It’s advisable to install nest boxes where predators cannot come to call. Predator guards, such as baffles, and strategic placement help mitigate the risk; placing the box on a pole four feet from a structure with a predator guard instead of mounting the box to a tree or fence helps discourage curious climbing raccoons, squirrels, and cats. Ultimately, nest boxes can be a gateway to witnessing nature in your own yard. “Something will use it,” says Johnson. “Even if it isn’t what you intended.” Nest boxes also provide an alternate location that aids in deterring nesting in gutters or shelves in open garages.

Besides trial and error and the initial learning curve associated with landscaping for wildlife, there are other hurdles some might face: cats, the fear of snakes, and Homeowner Association (HOA) restrictions.

The greatest of these obstacles to rewilding or creating bird friendly backyards? Domestic cats. According to a study published in Nature, outdoor cats in the United States kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year, earning them a place on the world’s list of the hundred worst nonnative invasive species. Tyrrell’s advice: if you have cats, keep them inside.

Another hindrance is a fear of enticing snakes, but they’re present even in traditionally landscaped yards. “People eventually make the connection that having a lawn doesn’t mean animals are kept away. That realization is helpful in getting people over the hibbie jibbies of nature, of bugs, rats, and snakes,” says Tyrrell.

A smiling man in a baseball cap holds a bird on one finger. A swamp environment can be seen in the background.

CONSERVATION. After certification, participants can post a Palmetto Wildlife Habitat sign to help spread the word about gardening for wildlife. Graphic by South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

HOA restrictions are gradually reflecting the change in public perception, becoming more open to native plant landscaping. As consumer demand has grown, native plant vendors and local nurseries have increased, offering a variety of resources as plants become more commercially available. Public knowledge and conversations about the benefits of native plants are becoming commonplace. “We’re probably going to need more native plant landscapers to keep up with demand. Landscape maintenance is a big issue: Roundup, weed whackers, mowing, bush hogging… contracted crews don’t realize those plants were put there intentionally,” says Tyrrell. But native plants also need fewer fertilizers and pesticides, which is beneficial in reducing stormwater pollution and lawn maintenance cost.

Wildlife Habitat Certification

The South Carolina Wildlife Federation (SCWF) offers individuals and communities wildlife habitat certifications for their yards, balconies, schools, churches, and just about any other green space. Businesses and corporations can also apply for similar certification to create dual-process business land spaces. The certification encourages a commitment to local environments and education about declining habitats.

The SCWF has been around since 1931 and affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation since 1946. The SCWF’s goal: to conserve and restore South Carolina’s wildlife and wildlife habitat. The certification program offers one way to meet that goal. Currently, South Carolina is ranked eleventh across the nation in the number of certified lawns per capita; the SCWF has logged 10,957 certified yards in its fifty-year history. A portion of the proceeds garnered from the program is fed directly back into local programming in South Carolina.

The United Nations estimates that one million plant and animal species are threatened by extinction. Worldwide species are being lost alongside disappearing habitats. According to Savannah Jordan, SCWF’s habitat education manager, it can be overwhelming to think of the magnitude of loss. “But you can start in your own yard, your own community, and it can make a huge difference,” says Jordan. “It all starts with one person getting interested and then it just spreads. It’s really cool—seeing people [who] want to learn and then teaching others as well. I think that’s super.”

A closeup of a light flower with a round cluster of flowers.

REWILDING. Many native plant species are available to consumers, such as this eye-catching swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Wildlife habitat certification is straightforward. The requirements are food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. Certification requirements encourage using native plants, capturing rainwater, installing pollinator or rain gardens, reducing lawn areas, and reducing erosion—all of which lessens stormwater pollution and flooding.

“Native plants reestablish the ecosystems that are already there. The plants are adapted to the climate. They go hand in hand; they’re made for each other. They’re more drought resistant and generally easier to grow,” says Jordan.

If rewilding or certifying a backyard is too daunting, Jordan suggests starting small. A native plant pollinator container garden allows for portability and the reduction of space requirements, but the benefits remain in providing colorful flowers for local pollinator species. A nest box or bird feeder can act as a low-stakes gateway to wildlife in green spaces.

For Jordan, it all started in her own backyard, birdwatching and noticing birds she had never seen before. “It could develop into a love for something that somebody never even knew they would love. That’s all it takes. Just one small step could lead to something amazing.”

From Francis Beidler Forest to the Congaree National Park, to the Upstate mountains or the Sea Islands, or to your own backyard, wildlife and native plants are integral to the character of South Carolina.

Where else can you walk among the dwarf palmettos in the shade of towering oaks and hear: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

A woman carriers a large plant in a plastic gardening pot.

BUY NATIVE. A shopper makes their selection at the spring 2023 South Carolina Native Plant Society plant sale at Charles Towne Landing. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.


Ways to Reduce Pollution and Flooding at Your Home

Turning the focus within the home, Porzelt suggests low- or no-cost ways to help reduce pollution and flooding.

Outside the home:

  • Clean up pet waste. Not only is it important to pick up pet waste in public spaces, but it’s vital to prevent waste from accumulating in yards where it can be picked up by stormwater.
  • Avoid driving on your yard which can compact soil and disrupt the way rainwater is stored, drained, or slowed.
  • Keep up with septic tank maintenance, which is recommended every three-to-five years.

Inside the home:

  • Avoid pouring F.O.G.s (fats, oils, grease) down drains, which can help curb what goes into our sewers and stormwater. F.O.G.s can solidify in pipes or septic tanks causing damage, blockages, or overflows—issues that can also occur in stormwater systems. Instead dispose of F.O.G.s in household waste or at recycling centers.
  • Be aware of what you flush. Only flush toilet paper—even disposable wipes marked as flushable should be disposed of in household waste.

News & Notes

Jones Re-Elected Board Chair, Boyles Re-Elected Vice-Chair

Robert H. Jones, Ph.D. Photo courtesy Clemson University.

Clemson University Provost Robert H. Jones, Ph.D., was re-elected chair of S.C. Sea Grant Consortium’s Board of Directors and S.C. Department of Natural Resources Director Robert H. Boyles, Jr., was re-elected vice-chair by unanimous votes in November 2022. Both one-year terms began on January 1, 2023.

“I am honored to continue to serve as chairman of the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium,” Jones said. “It is a pleasure to work with such an impressive board and outstanding staff, and to build on the Consortium’s successful record of achievement.”

Jones earned a B.S. in forest management in 1979 and a M.S. in forestry in 1981, both from Clemson University. He completed a Ph.D. in forest ecology from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 1986. Before returning to Clemson, Jones served as dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University and as department head and professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech.

Robert H. Boyles, Jr. Photo courtesy SCDNR.

“The Consortium’s research, education, and outreach programs are deeply important to our state, and I look forward to continuing to support them in this capacity,” said Vice-Chairman Boyles.

Boyles earned a B.S. in mathematical economics from Wake Forest University and a M.S. in marine policy from the University of Delaware. He was a Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy fellow for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Ocean Program, as well as a Bradley fellow in Marine Policy at the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Boyles then worked for the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium as assistant to the director for programs before joining SCDNR, where he went on to serve as deputy director for marine resources from 2003-2019.

NOAA Awards $300K to Study Effects of Sea-Level Rise on Groundwater and Infrastructure

In collaboration with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and a multidisciplinary team of scientists, Beaufort County recently launched a study called “Beaufort County Adapts: Sea Level Impacts Beneath Our Feet.” The team is taking steps to analyze how sea-level rise may negatively impact underground infrastructure and groundwater in order to lessen the potential impacts.

The two-year study is made possible by a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office to the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium. Working on the study is a team of social- and natural-resources scientists from the University of South Carolina, College of Charleston, S.C. Department of Natural Resources, as well as mapping experts and community engagement specialists at the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and specialists from Beaufort County’s planning division.

The study is focusing on small communities within Beaufort County to enhance their ability to withstand the impacts of sea-level rise on groundwater levels and underground infrastructure. The research team is collaborating with community members and the Beaufort County planning division on the siting and monitoring of ten groundwater wells and how to use the results to develop and implement sea-level rise adaptation measures.

When the study is completed, Beaufort County communities will have specific recommendations for how to avoid system-level failures before they occur and local municipalities will be equipped with data to inform strategies and policy decisions. More information about Beaufort Adapts.

Nominees Chosen for 2023 Knauss Fellowship

Consortium nominees Chloe VanderMolen and Maggie Carson have been selected for the prestigious Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, providing them the opportunity to spend a year living, working, and learning in the Washington, D.C., area. This competitive fellowship is offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program. Recipients are matched with host organizations in the legislative and executive branches of government, and their fellowships began in February 2023.

Chloe VanderMolen

VanderMolen earned a B.S. in biology from Montana State University and a M.S. in environmental and sustainability studies and public administration at the College of Charleston. She was matched with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Office of Environmental Programs. During her fellowship, VanderMolen would like to advance a public-service perspective that allows science to positively impact people, communities, and the environment.

Maggie Carson

Carson holds a B.S. in psychology from Presbyterian College, a M.P.H. in health promotion, education, and behavior from University of South Carolina (USC), and a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from USC. She was matched with the Executive Office of the President in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. During her fellowship, Carson hopes to translate scientific data into usable information for the public and policymakers. Learn more about graduate fellowships.

Climate Change and Contaminants of Emerging Concern Focus of $400K Study

The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and the National Sea Grant Law Center are collaborating on a $411,148 grant to create a competitive research program in the Southeast focused on the influence of climate change on contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). CECs, such as pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and microfibers, are increasingly detected in drinking and surface waters, posing health risks to humans and wildlife. The three-year project, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program, will support the development of a research network that improves understanding of CECs and enhances stakeholder outreach to communities in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

The project team is conducting an analysis of existing research, publications, and monitoring efforts in the region that focus on environmental contaminants. The National Sea Grant Law Center is gathering information on state regulations and policies that advise the management of these contaminants. Results from these analyses will be compiled and used to inform future research and outreach materials. An advisory committee of community leaders with diverse perspectives is being assembled to guide the development of priority needs for a competitive request for proposals to be released in year two of the project. Projects that engage student researchers, extension professionals, and state agency partners in evaluating CEC presence, public perceptions and behaviors, stressors, interventions, and mitigation will be prioritized.

In the final year, a Community Engaged intern will be hired in each state to support stakeholders identified by the advisory committee, including those who represent historically marginalized or underrepresented communities, by sharing resources that feature key findings from funded projects.

Questions about the upcoming request for proposals may be directed to Brooke Saari, Coastal Environmental Quality specialist.