December 17, 2008

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Dune and dirty: Hurricane teaches lessons through ecosystem research

By Kathleen Phillips
Texas AgriLife Extension Service

Dr. Rusty Feagin was managing several ecosystem research projects on Galveston Island when the 2008 hurricane season began.

Then he got an unexpected visit from a research assistant named Ike.

"Ike reconfirmed the basic idea I've had for several years," said Feagin, ecosystem scientist with Texas AgriLife Research. "The plants on sand dunes and in marshes build an island's elevation, so we shouldn't compromise that."

Most of the dunes and marshes he and his graduate students had studied were destroyed or severely damaged by Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston Sept. 13.

But with the 2008 hurricane season officially over, Feagin has noted the changes and will begin again.

His research over the years, however, has yielded discoveries that could help the tender ecosystem recover, depending on human interaction. Among his findings, when comparing before and after Ike, is that the marshes lost elevation, which is contrary to what most would expect to happen in a hurricane.

Damage to Texas's barrier islands stokes a variety of long-debated issues. According to the state's General Land Office, Texas is the only state in the nation that has an Open Beaches Act. That means the public has "free and unrestricted access to and use of the beach" or the area between the dunes and the "state-owned submerged lands," the land office indicates.

The state's coastline is more than 365 miles long. The width is measured from the vegetation line on the land to more than 10 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, according to the land office, which estimates a $7-billion-a-year tourism economy from the area.

Thus, tension brews around mending hurricane-slashed coastal ecosystems from the standpoint of people who choose to live nearby and those who want to enjoy the state's property.

Feagin, who admits a passion for coastal ecosystems, said four elements are impacted as a hurricane rolls over a barrier island: beaches erode, sand dunes "blow out," houses and buildings are damaged and, finally, the marshes receive sediment deposits from all the above.

"With beaches, sand from the beach is washed out into the sea, and it usually comes back in the natural wave cycles over time," he said. "But along the Texas coast, our sand doesn't come back very well. That's because it is very silty and so is carried farther away in the Gulf." He said the state's coastline also has a lot of development and engineered structures such as jetties which are meant to stabilize the land but instead interrupt the natural sedimentary process.

"The coast is one of the most dynamic ecosystems there is, and it can totally change in a hurricane," Feagin said.

In some areas, he said, there was only a thin sand veneer on top of clay. With that sand now gone, all of the invertebrate animals are gone because they are not able to live in the clay.

That will impact other animals in the food chain, such as birds that previously fed on the small creatures.

Further inland come the sand dunes.

"The dunes are a little higher than the beach and some do OK," he said. "But basically water is forced through existing holes in dunes causing them blow out. Our dunes have problems because of over-development, so that could make it difficult for sand dunes to re-establish."

Feagin said the sand dunes in the area hit by Hurricane Ike were already eroding at a rate of several feet per year. The natural mending of washed-out beaches might not be possible because of the many structures and non-native landscapes maintained there, blocking dune re-establishment.

He explained that sand dunes need plants to accumulate sand from passing winds. Many of these plants are actually stimulated to grow as they become buried by sand, resulting in the deposit of another layer of sand until a larger, land-sustaining dune is "born." But if a lawn is maintained where a dune used to be, the layers will never be allowed to rebuild and thus no dune will exist to provide some measure of protection in the future.

"Dunes can protect buildings to some degree in the smaller storms that are more common in the area," Feagin said. "Plus the location of vegetation and dunes in Texas is where many legal battles play out for public versus private property issues.

"We care about dunes because we want our public beaches," he added. "And if a private house has been built and there is now no dune in front of it, then that house is now on our public land and may block our access to this extremely valuable tourism resource."

Beyond these legal issues, he added, the dunes also support animals such as Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, which are endangered.

The sea turtles' nesting season in Texas runs from April through mid-July, but nesting peaks during May and June. Females typically nest at the base of dunes or within the dune complex, according to Dr. André Landry, AgriLife Research marine ecologist and director of the Sea Turtle and Fisheries Ecology Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

One of Feagin's dune projects — planting of sea oats at Galveston State Park — was totally decimated by Ike. Sea oats, which used to be prevalent on the island, had been eliminated first from overstocking of cattle decades ago and then from building and infrastructure construction, said Feagin.

In the next element of the island, certainly many homes and buildings were damaged, and plants there look "toasted" by salt water, he said.

But the final section — the salt marshes — had measurable damage, as Feagin's ecosystem research shows.

"A salt marsh is normally a fairly nice protected area that benefits from a hurricane because all that sediment gets blown out from the beach, dunes and upland is deposited in the marsh," Feagin said. "But our research on the backside of Galveston where the surge was around 12 feet shows it lost elevation. The marshes need to maintain a fairly shallow water depth to support their unique ecosystem. And sea levels have been rising, so sediment is needed to maintain the depth.

"The sediment accumulation didn't happen. In fact, at our research site, elevation dropped at about same rate as under everyday conditions."

Feagin believes this could be because all the development between Gulf side and marsh side kept the sediment from arriving.

"There was not any sediment addition in the salt marsh, which is not good," he said, noting that a lack of rain since Ike and the influx of a higher concentration of salt water mean that many of the marshes are parched. "Marshes are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are full of organic materials, detritus algae and plants. Gulf crab, shrimp and commercial fish all have some portion of their life in marshes. So if we lose marshes, we lose fisheries.

"Bird watching and hunting are also huge economically," he noted, "and marshes also filter runoff from the mainland to provide cleaner water to the bays."

Feagin said the marshes also play a role in building new land because the plants slow down rising tide water, causing suspended sediment to settle, resulting in layers of land over time.

"Prior to Ike, we tested this near Galveston by killing the marsh plants in one area to compare surface elevation change with a nearby marsh where we left the plants alone," he said. "We found that the plants did help build land elevation prior to the hurricane."

However, when studying post-Ike surface erosion at the site, Feagin said, "we found the plants did not prevent sediment erosion by waves during Ike and in fact enhanced erosion because their roots wiggled, stirring up sediment to be washed out to sea.

"Some would say that plants directly protect the land and thus protect people from storms," Feagin said. "But that's not so in terms of the big storms. But the waves are not what does the damage and cause death, it's the water depth. If you get a 12-foot wall of water, it doesn't matter if you have a front yard full of oak trees.

"We need to rely on 'ecological engineering' and good policy that requires people to build homes in the correct locations," he said. "If we covered a barrier island such as Galveston with concrete, you could say it was stabilized. But without the natural process of building elevation through by plants, the whole thing will eventually drown from the rising sea level."

Gardening tips

"Squirrels in urban areas are good at burying pecans in lawns and planting beds, where they soon become seedlings that can be hard to remove by hand," writes Eleanor Pratt. "Use an ordinary pair of pliers to easily pull them out; grip at soil level where the stem is thickest. Voila!"

Have a favorite gardening tip you’d like to share? Texas Gardener’s Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will send you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here’s a chance to get published and be a garden stylist as well! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.

Did You Know...

Many members of the Apiaceae (formerly known as Umbelliferae) family are excellent insectary plants. Fennel, angelica, coriander, dill and wild carrot all provide in great number the tiny flowers required by parasitoid wasps. Various clovers, yarrow, and rue also attract parasitoid and predatory insects. Low-growing plants, such as thyme, rosemary, or mint, provide shelter for ground beetles and other beneficial insects. Composite flowers (daisy and chamomile) and mints (spearmint, peppermint or catnip) will attract predatory wasps, hover flies and robber flies. The wasps will catch caterpillars and grubs to feed their young, while the predatory and parasitoid flies attack many kinds of insects, including leafhoppers and caterpillars.

Upcoming garden events

Houston: Urban Harvest Fruit Tree Sale will be held Saturday, January 17, from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. A class describing all varieties for sale, as well as providing vital information on how to plant and care for each type tree will be held January 10 (12-2 p.m.) and 13 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) at Urban Harvest's office on Canal Street. A nominal fee of $10 is charged for the class. Register for the class by calling Urban Harvest. The tree sale is at Rice University's Football Stadium, on the concourse. For detailed information about the sale as well as about fruit trees, check the Urban Harvest Web site or call (713) 880-5540.

Schertz: Do you have a love for gardening and want to learn more about horticulture? Then the next Guadalupe County Master Gardener training class is for you. Classes are on Wednesday, January 21 to May 13 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Schertz Civic Center, 1400 Schertz Parkway. Instructors include Texas A&M AgriLife Extension specialists, staff and local experts, including Malcolm Beck, Patty Leander and Drs. Larry Stein and Mark Black. Topics cover botany & plant growth, entomology, Xeriscaping, propagation, herbs and vegetables, tree care and pruning principles, composting and organic horticulture, water conservation and much more. Registration is $170 with a 10% discount if received by December 29. For more information and applications visit

Tomball: Arbor Gate will present a Fruit Tree Sale and Seminar, Sunday, January 25, at 15635 FM 2920, Tomball. A presale seminar presented by Heidi Sheesley, Treesearch Farms, begins at 9 a.m. The sale begins at 10:30 a.m. For additional information, call (281) 351-8851 or visit

Houston: The River Oaks Garden Club's 74th annual Azalea Trail will take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 6, 7 and 8, from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, and will feature four beautiful private homes and gardens. Tickets for admissions are $15 before March 6 and $20 during the trail. For additional information contact the River Oaks Garden Club at (713) 523-2483 or visit


Kilgore: Northeast Texas Organic Gardeners meets at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at Wildwood Eco-Farm in Kilgore. For more information, call Carole Ramke at (903) 986-9475.

Allen: The Allen Garden Club meets on the first Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the little blue-gray house located at 102 N. Allen Dr., Allen. For more information, visit

Austin: Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit

Schertz: The Guadalupe County (Schertz/Seguin) Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Guadalupe County Annex, 1101 Elbel Road, Shertz. A plant exchange and meet-and-greet begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by a program at 7. For additional information or an application to join NPSOT, contact

Friendswood: The second Tuesday of each month the Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold a free evening educational program for the public, called the Green Thumb Series, at Southeast Church of Christ, 2400 W Bay Area Blvd., Friendswood, about 1 mile west of I-45 and Baybrook Mall. For more information visit or call (281) 991-8437.

Rockport: The Rockport Herb & Rose Study Group, founded in March 2003, meets the second Wednesday of each month, with the exceptions of June and July, to discuss all aspects of using and growing herbs, including historical uses and tips for successful propagation and cultivation, meets at 619 N. Live Oak Street, Room 14, Rockport at 10 a.m. Sometimes they take field trips and have cooking demonstrations in different locations. For more information, contact Linda (361) 729-6037, Ruth (361) 729-8923 or Cindy (979) 562-2153 or visit

San Antonio: The San Antonio Herb Society meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels (corner of Funston & N. New Braunfels). For more information on programs, visit

College Station: The A&M Garden Club meets on the second Friday of each month during the school year at 9:30 a.m. at the Exit Center, 1600 Rock Prairie Road, College Station. Expert speakers, plant sharing, and federated club projects help members learn about gardening in the Brazos Valley, floral design, conservation topics, and more. For more information, visit

Dallas: The Rainbow Garden Club of North Texas meets the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Meetings are held at member’s homes and garden centers around the area. For more information, visit

Sugar Land: The Sugar Land Garden Club meets on the third Tuesday of each month, September through November and January through April at 10 a.m. at the Sugar Land Community Center, 226 Matlage Way, Sugar Land. The club hosts a different speaker each month. For more information, visit

Denton: The Denton Organic Society, a group devoted to sharing information and educating the public regarding organic principles, meets the third Wednesday of each month (except July, August and December) at the Denton Senior Center, 509 N. Bell Avenue. Meetings are free and open to the public. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. and are preceded by a social at 6:30. For more information, call (940) 382-8551.

Granbury: The Lake Granbury Master Gardeners meet at 1 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Hood County Annex 1, 1410 West Pearl Street, Granbury. The public is invited to attend. There is an educational program each month preceding the business meeting. For information on topics call (817) 579-3280 or visit

Houston: The Native Plant Society of Texas — Houston (NPSOT-H) meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except for October (4th Thursday) and December (2nd Thursday). Location varies. For locations, for more information on programs, and for information about native plants for Houston, visit

Rosenberg: The Fort Bend Master Gardeners meet at 7:15 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except December at the Bud O’Shieles Community Center located at 1330 Band Road, Rosenberg. For more information, call (281) 341-7068 or visit

Seguin: The Guadalupe County Master Gardeners meets the third Thursday of each month at the Texas AgriLife Extension Bldg. at 210 E. Live Oak at 7 p.m. For more information, phone (830) 379-1972 or visit

Longview: The Northeast Texas chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas meets the third Thursday of each month at St. Mary’s Parish Hall in Longview. For more information, call Logan Damewood at (903) 295-1984.

Edna: The Jackson County Master Gardeners present their "Come Grown With Us" seminars on the fourth Tuesday of each month, January through October, beginning at 7 p.m. at 411 N. Wells, Edna. The seminars are free, open to the public and offer 2 CEU hours to Master Gardeners or others requiring them. For additional information, contact the Jackson County Extension Office at (361) 782-3312.

Fort Worth: The Organic Garden Club of Forth Worth meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month except July and December at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens main building. Refreshments are served. For more information, call (817) 274-8460.

Seabrook: The Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold an educational program at 10 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month at The Meeting Room (on the Lakeside) at Clear Lake Park, 5001 NASA Road 1, Seabrook. The programs are free and open to the public. For more information, visit

Dallas: The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 824-2448 or visit

Arlington: The Arlington Organic Garden Club meets from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month (except November and December) at the Bob Duncan Center, 2800 S. Center Street, Arlington. For more information, contact David at (817) 483-7746.

If you would like your organization’s events included in "Upcoming Garden Events," please contact us at Garden Events. To ensure inclusion in this column, please provide complete details at least three weeks prior to the event.

The Southern Kitchen Garden

By William D. Adams and Thomas R. Leroy

A kitchen garden, or potager, is a celebration of the seasons: brimming with vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even fruit trees, it’s our link with nature and a source for fresh produce. The kitchen garden has always been an important part of life in the rural South, at times meaning the difference between being well-fed or going to bed hungry. In recent times, the kitchen garden has become more fashionable and now more and more homeowners are reaping the delicious rewards of growing their own food.

A kitchen garden needs little more than a small raised bed, so an aspiring gardener with only a modest backyard will have plenty of room to get started. If you have more space on your hands, then you can include some produce requiring a little more space like fruit trees, corn or pumpkins.

In the book, the authors with take you through the process of starting your very own kitchen garden from location to soil preparation to planting and then to harvest. It is also loaded with useful information on propagation, pest control and is laced with mouth-watering recipes and beautiful color photographs.

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Wish you’d saved them?

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Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac

Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac is a giant monthly calendar for the entire state — a practical, information-packed, month-by-month guide for gardeners and "yardeners." This book provides everything you need to know about flowers and garden design; trees, shrubs, and vines; lawns; vegetable, herb, and fruit gardening; and soil, mulch, water, pests, and plant care. It will help you to create beautiful, productive, healthy gardens and have fun doing it.

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Grow-Web encourages plant growth and development, and also provides protection from insects, birds, diseases and frosts. It is also air and water permeable and allows for ventilation. Grow-Web provides excellent protection to seedlings when applied directly to the seedbed.

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