Saving the dunes



As a kid, spending every summer on Topsail Island, North Carolina (my father was a reserve Marine who worked at Camp Lejeune as his summer job), I never considered that the barrier islands weren’t really designed to be permanent places to live. We did notice the hurricanes—at least one major storm every few years—but when you’re ten years old and have a whole summer ahead of you, the beach seems to stretch on forever.


It doesn’t seem that way now. We were just on Topsail for a week, and the beach looked distressingly narrow, though just as beautiful (and refreshingly free of crowds) as ever. While we were at our rented cottage, for the first time in memory, a landscaping crew showed up. Their mission: to plant beach grass along the dunes that slope down to the beach from our cottage. I had already noticed some rather nice plantings immediately in front of the house. (Top and below; our yearly trip to Topsail is pretty much my main experience with Southern gardening.)


All up and down the beach, you see fences with “do not walk” signs attempting to protect the dunes and their grasses; some homeowners are more vigilant than others. I’d say the owners of our cottage are among the most conscientious dune protectors; some owners let their fences fall apart and don’t seem to do much in the planting line.

Is this a lost cause? Is Topsail just a hurricane or two away from being wiped off the face of the earth? I know that grass planting is just a minor methodology of beach replenishment; I imagine sand is added regularly, though no sea walls have been built, as they are in New Jersey and other places. It’s debatable if they help.

It was interesting to watch the planting. A long steel watering rod was inserted first and then the strands of grasses were placed, laboriously, one at a time. This is not a garden I’d want the job of maintaining!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. That is most definitely gardening with a purpose–survival. But with such a difficult and strenuous task, it’s probably not surprising that more people don’t embrace the idea of dune gardening with a passion. Still, keeping a fence in proper repair seems a no-brainer when you live in a fragile area.

    Gardening Examiner

  2. Though I am not a resident of Topsail I do live an hour or so from it and visit the Outer Banks often. I believe there are limits to what a land owner can do ‘garden wise’ on the dunes. The whole chain of barrier islands are controlled by either the feds or the state and you can’t just plant anything you want except right around your house. More than likely the people you saw planting the beach grass were being paid by the government and not the land owner.

    A side story worth telling are the specialty nursery operations set up to grow the native plants for this type of restoration. Sometimes its done by small private businesses, sometimes as a side branch of a large growing operation and sometimes by the state prison farm (where all the road side plantings come from in North Carolina). A bunch of hard working dedicated people.

    Your story mentioned my favorite part about the NC coast – it is primarily a launching point for deep sea fishing, on most weekends you will have the beach to yourself.

  3. I lived for four years in Galveston in college where there is a long seawall that was built after the 1900 hurricane. The beach is replenished along this area often and after storms there is rarely any beach left in some spots. There are jetties all along the way as well as a means of stabilizing but it hasn’t necessarily helped.

    On the portion that doesn’t have a seawall there are areas where houses are now on the beach front, not behind the dunes, and in Texas anything in front of the vegetation line is public property and access.

    Keep in mind, barrier islands are meant to be fluid through the years, changing with storms. We can help build back up what we’ve lost, but storms will naturally take things away.

  4. The thing that is tough here, is we have the “Friends of the Dunes”, in all good intention, removing all the non-native plants from the dunes, but not replanting anything for at least two years after they remove things (they want to give the native plants a chance to grow in on their own). You can guess what happens – we have a dune area that is fast disappearing, with nothing at all, native or non-, to hold the sand in place.

    I’m all for reclaiming spaces and replanting native plants (as long as it’s done with private money), but to remove and not replant seems a waste of time and resources at best, and at worst a quick way of losing the dune area we have.

    I wish somebody locally would challenge this group’s methods, because while I am sure they have good intentions,I think they are harming our dune area WAY more than they’re helping.

  5. I suppose everyone knows we suffer from the same problem here in Louisiana. We lose a Manhattan size chunk every ten months. That’s why hurricanes are increasingly more dangerous every year. I did some research on vetiver grass, which tho’ it’s not indigenous, seems to really help with erosion, and yet doesn’t displace natives; in fact, it seems to help create area for natives to regrow. I don’t know if it works that far north. Another benefit is termites (and other insects) hate it. And the perfume industry uses the roots for a green scent. We really need to work on the preservation of our coasts throughout this nation.

  6. Cornelia Dean’s “Against the Tide” (there’s a preview in Google books) is a really interesting work about beach towns, and the physics of tides, storms, and barrier islands. It’s not the plants (native or non) that’re the problem (or the solution), it’s that building jetties and seawalls (to protect the houses + towns) has disrupted the normal flow of sand along the coasts.

    Enjoying the site!

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