When Hurricane Floyd battered Eastern North Carolina in September of 1999, it flattened wide bands of frontal sand dunes along Brunswick County’s beaches. The crashing waves and intense storm surge washed out much of the vegetation along the coast and damaged hundreds of homes behind the dunes. It was at that time that the late David Nash, an N.C. Cooperative Extension agent, stopped by Steve Mercer’s greenhouse in Bolivia, and the two men discussed the detrimental impact of such an intense hurricane cycle.
“David was an avid surfer, and he loved the beach. He realized that the damage from these storms was washing out vegetation and that there wasn’t a source for that vegetation locally. So he came in and we talked about how to grow sea oats and bitter panicum in order to help restore our beaches,” says Mercer.
The town of Oak Island gave Nash a bit of greenhouse space, and it was there in collaboration with Mercer that he perfected a system for growing these plants commercially. Nash’s work led Mercer to focus his own efforts solely on coastal vegetation, and his greenhouse business began producing sea oats and bitter panicum in lieu of flowers. These two predominant coastal plants make up 80% of what grows along Brunswick County’s frontal dunes. Both are upright plants considered to be slow to populate and slow to spread forward.
“By growing those two grasses in the greenhouse, we can go in after a storm event and in two years replace the vegetation that would otherwise take 20 years in nature to come back. What we do is bring the young plants in, plant them and accelerate that growth process and forward movement,” says Mercer.
The purpose of the vegetation is twofold. It provides a living green ecosystem on an otherwise barren sand flat. The plants also serve as intense sand trappers, which in turn help create an upright dune. These dunes are vital to the coastline, as they provide both environmental and infrastructural protection during a hurricane.
“We use an analogy that the dune is a bank, and the sand is your money. So you’re just putting your money in a bank, and then Mother Nature makes a withdrawal every so often with a hurricane,” says Mercer. “You just need to reestablish the bank and let the sand continue to build up and form a dune, and then that dune becomes your hurricane protection for the next storm cycle.”
Mercer’s business, Coastal Transplants, is now a full-service dune restoration company serving municipalities in Brunswick County and beyond. Mercer and his team have placed plants in every state except for Florida. One aspect that makes the company stand apart from others in its niche market is its focus on putting native plants back into their own environment. Mercer’s team strives to always harvest the seed and plant material directly from the designated location in order to bring it back to that same beach.
“That’s where we’re different in the industry. We’re one of the few that harvest the seed from the states where we will be planting. We bring everything back to Bolivia and propagate in our greenhouses here, and then we transport it back to where we need it to go,” says Mercer.
In addition to working with various municipalities and parks departments, Coastal Transplants also provides dune restoration services to individual homeowners. Most of Mercer’s work occurs outside of hurricane season in preparation for the storms that are to come. Since the plants need about three years to mature, Mercer’s team is planting now for a hurricane season three years from now. The company offers homeowners annual maintenance programs where Mercer and his team visit a property multiple times a year and plant any vegetation needed.
“If you own an oceanfront home, you own more than a home. You also own a very unique and fragile ecosystem in front of that home. As a responsible homeowner, you need to take care of that ecosystem. It’s the reason you bought that house, after all,” says Mercer.
Mercer gets calls all the time from people who say they didn’t know maintaining the dunes beyond their home was something they needed to do. He reminds them that they didn’t purchase a home on the beach so that they could spend their time on the street side, but rather they chose that home in order to sit on the back porch and watch the sea oats blowing in the breeze and the waves rolling up on the sand. Yet people take for granted the importance of building up the fragile ecosystem that lives between the ocean and their homes.
“What we’re doing is trying to help people safeguard the ecosystem behind the dunes. Doing so will protect their houses, but it also protects the plants, animals, migratory birds, butterflies, and crustaceans that all live in and depend on that ecosystem,” says Mercer. “We’re here to do nothing more than to invest in that ecosystem and protect it the best way we can.”
To find out more about Coastal Transplants and the work they do, visit www.coastaltransplants.com or call 910-512-2204.