Landscaping to Control Coastal Erosion at Home

Coastal erosion remains a concern for many homeowners. Some homeowners will feel the impacts of coastal erosion more profoundly than others as the climate changes and sea levels rise. According to Carrie Stevenson in a resource for the University of Florida, coastal erosion is also caused by “​​heavy boat traffic [and] foot traffic." Storms, natural disasters and "lack of vegetation with anchoring roots" also contribute to erosion. Uncontrolled erosion can lead to flooding, habitat loss and property damage. It can also strip the soil of vital nutrients. While many remedies are costly and time-consuming, some are fairly simple to implement. One of the easiest and least expensive ways to control coastal erosion is to invest in native plants. In fact, Stevenson notes that “living shorelines have ‘taken root’ as a popular method of restoring property and stabilizing shorelines” in many coastal communities. In this post, we outline five key reasons why homeowners should choose native plants for their seaside gardens. We also explain how you can use landscaping to control coastal erosion at home.

Five Reasons to Choose Native Plants for Your Seaside Garden

#1 Native Plants Attract Local Wildlife Like Birds, Butterflies and Bees

First, native plants attract and sustain local wildlife like birds, butterflies, bees and even some mammals. According to the U.S. Forest Service, "native plants promote biodiversity and stewardship of our natural heritage" by providing nutrients and shelter.

Perhaps most important to sustaining coastal habitats are the insects that native plants attract. Ryan Pankau explains in his resource "Native Plants and Biodiversity" for the University of Illinois. Pankau writes that "insects are an important transition point for energy within food webs."

Not only do insects provide other animals with necessary nutrients, but they also pollinate native plants. By filling our gardens with native plants, we attract important insects that support diverse habitats up and down the coastline. We contribute to wildlife conservation just by choosing indigenous plants over invasive species.

#2 A Native Garden Requires Less Maintenance and Fewer Resources

Because they are uniquely adapted to the soil and surrounding climate, native plants require less maintenance and fewer resources than exotic plants. According to this resource from Penn State, native plants are "easier to care for once they are established." Once established, they need "little or no pruning, deadheading [or] watering."

Some native plants can also fight back weeds. With a dense network of roots, native grasses and other plants keep weeds out while supporting the soil. So long as homeowners site each plant "in a spot that provides the conditions it will thrive."

#3 Native Plants Don’t Need Artificial Fertilizers to Thrive

Next on our list of reasons to plant native plants is that native plants rarely need artificial fertilizers to survive and thrive. This resource from the Audubon Society notes that lawns and other landscapes "are notorious for requiring profuse amounts of artificial fertilizers." They also require "synthetic chemical pesticides" that can be dangerous for people and animals. According to the Audubon Society, "traditional suburban lawn, on average, has 10x more chemical pesticides per acre than farmland."

Native plants -- on the other hand -- "are adapted to local environmental conditions" and can thrive without any extra help. By opting for native plants instead of monocultures like lawns, homeowners can make their property and the surrounding environment healthier and safer.

#4 Many Native Plants That Grow in Coastal Regions Are Salt-Tolerant and Wind-Resistant

As noted above, native plants have evolved to withstand local environmental factors. For plants indigenous to U.S. coastlines, these factors include severe winds, salty air and sandy soil.

Because of this, many native plants along the coast are salt-tolerant and wind-resistant.

Some are especially salt-tolerant. According to this resource from the Norfolk Botanical Garden, Saltmeadow Cordgrass has actually evolved to rely on "regular tidal flooding to thrive."

#5 Native Plants Help Protect Your Property from Coastal Erosion

Last but certainly not least, native plants help protect properties from coastal erosion and its many impacts. According to this article from the National Park Service, "using native plants for erosion control is an excellent biological method to...protect the landscape." Over thousands of years, the roots of plants native to coastal regions of the US have adapted to rocky and sandy soil.

The NPS resource notes that "native grasses and sedges are particularly effective." This is because "their fibrous roots...grab and hold the soil, keeping it from washing away." Below, we explain exactly how homeowners can control coastal erosion with native plants.

How to Control Coastal Erosion with Native Plants

To control erosion around your coastal home, most master gardeners recommend a mixture of grasses, mosses, lichens, shrubs and trees. Fallon Mihalic explains in her article "Erosion Control for Your Seaside Garden" for Houzz. Mihalic writes that "the goal for establishing plants for erosion control is to create a plant community with diverse types of roots."

Some plants should have shallow roots that spread across the soil fairly close to the surface. Plants with shallow roots are especially helpful on hillside lots. Others should have tap roots that shoot deep into the ground. Together, these plants stabilize the sandy soil by creating a complex network of roots that trap sand, twigs and small rocks.

All plants chose for your coastal garden should also be salt-tolerant and wind-resistant. Though many native plants are naturally resistant to damage from salt air and high winds, they should still be protected. Add a few boulders to buffer your garden.

While planning their garden, each homeowner should budget for hardscaping. We noted above that popular coastal areas are more prone to erosion because boats, ATVs, people and pets disrupt the coastline's natural topography. They tear out plants and loosen soil, leaving beaches and surrounding properties vulnerable to erosion. To prevent pedestrians from stomping all over your native garden, add a walkway.

To Review:

Choose Salt and Wind-Tolerant Plants Indigenous to Your Coastline

Plant Native Grasses for Ground Cover

Mix In a Few Shrubs and Trees

Carve Out a Walkway to Protect Plants and Soil from Pedestrians

Add a Few Boulders to Shelter Plants from the Wind

Need Help? Seek Advice from Local Experts

Your local nursery or garden supply store probably has a section devoted to native plants. While you could pick a few grasses and shrubs on your own before heading back home, we recommend chatting with an expert first. Get in touch with the local chapter of your state's native plant society or search through their online directory.

In her article “How (and Why) to Use Native Plants” for The New York Times, Margaret Roach provides a short list of additional resources. First, she notes that the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation also offer free search tools for native plants. According to Roach, these search tools collate a list of native plants based on your specific zip code. Other resources recommended by Roach include the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Xerces Society and the Native Plant Trust Garden.

If your property abuts public land, FEMA recommends that you "consult with coastal erosion mitigation specialists and local officials before pursuing any mitigation options."