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Keep off the dunes! DNREC’s Beach Grass Planting

Written on: March 24th, 2023 in Natural ResourcesOutreach

By Eddie Meade, DNREC’s Shoreline and Waterway Management Section

If you head to the Delaware Beaches mid-March, you may notice something along the dunes. Rows and rows of young Cape American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) where there previously were none. Early every spring, the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section puts out a call to action and gathers volunteers from local communities to help plant beach grass along the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. To date, over 5 million stems have been planted.

A group of volunteers planting beachgrass along a southern Delaware dune.

But first, let’s back up a bit.

Who is this section of government involved with natural resources? And why is “Shoreline” (insider nickname) charged with the duty of planting beach grass in our dunes? Well, within the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), there lies the Division of Watershed Stewardship,  within which are are various sections and programs, one of which is the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section (SWMS). It’s a lot to keep track of. One of the many missions of this section is to maintain and improve Delaware’s beaches, shorelines and waterways. The section manages this mission through regulation of coastal construction activities and implementation of dune and beach management practices. Boom – that is where beach grass planting comes in. The plantings are a key component in protecting and enhancing eroded beaches to enable continued recreational use of our precious beach resource. In Delaware, this is a majorly important asset.

Beach and regulated area the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section works in.

“Beach” means that area from the Delaware/Maryland line at Fenwick Island to the Old Marina Canal immediately north of Pickering Beach, which extends from the mean high water line of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay landward 1,000 feet and seaward 2,500 feet, respectively.

“Regulated Area” means the specific area within the defined beach that the Department is directed to regulate construction to preserve dunes and to reduce property damage. The regulated area shall be from the seaward edge of the beach as defined above to the landward edge of the third buildable lot in from the mean high water line.

The Importance of Beachgrass

Sand dunes, by nature, are unstable and shapeable. They are frequently subjected to strong winds and high tides, as well as coastal storms intensified by the climate change crisis. Dunes themselves have the heavy responsibility of being Delaware’s first line of defense against nor’easters, hurricanes, storm events, and erosion. These “big sand piles”, as some may call them, also act as major sand storage areas, helping to replenish the eroded beaches during storm events. An easy way to put it is without sand dunes, storm waves could rush inland and flood properties, damaging belongings as well as structures. This aspect of beach dune protection is not often thought about, and is something we don’t want to happen. Cape American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) is a native plant, meaning naturally found in a region, that assists with stabilizing and building up the natural dune. The blades of grass grow outward to help trap wind-blown sand which can create new dunes and expand existing dunes in an area. In turn, this helps the dunes become more resilient and provide protection against damaging coastal storms by absorbing wave energy. When you walk out to the beaches in Delaware, you are usually greeted by a healthy, stable dune growing some beach grass. 

A completely planted dune during a storm event.

Beachgrass Planting and Plugs

Planting beachgrass is a relatively straightforward process. The grass itself is dormant between October 15th and April 1st and should be planted during this dormancy. Beach grass is sold in bundles of culms, or stems, and can be hand-placed in holes along the designated dune area. At DNREC, we use a large number of volunteers to help at planting locations across coastal Delaware. Here is a breakdown of the planting process and methods.

  • The holes you plant stems in should be:
    • At a depth of 8-12 inches down
    • Spaced 12-18 inches apart
    • Have 12-18 inches between rows
    • Rows should be staggered 
  • In each hole:
    • Plant two stems per hole; placing more than two stems per hole will increase competition for nutrients causing loss of plants

Following these specific planting methods provides a number of critical benefits:

  1. To ensure roots do not dry out and plants do not get blown away
  2. To ensure that there is enough room for the roots to spread and provide maximum wind erosion control
  3. To ensure that if one stem were to die that other still has a chance while simultaneously preventing over competition for nutrients
Planting and plug layout.

Where to Learn More

For us at DNREC, we were given the authority “to enhance, preserve, and protect the beaches in the state so they can be shared and enjoyed by all” by The 1972 Beach Preservation Act (7 Del.C. Chapter 68). The plan is to keep doing just that. Since 1990, DNREC has organized events and coordinated dedicated volunteers to participate in the annual planting. Even though the 2023 Beach Grass Planting is completed, stay up to date here for more information on volunteering as spring 2024 approaches. If you have any questions about the annual beach grass planting or beach grass planting in general, please contact either Jennifer Pongratz,, or Eddie Meade,

To see what else SWMS does, check out this blog post from way back when about waterway management in Delaware. And remember, keep off the dunes and beachgrass – it’s the law!

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