Life’s a Beach (Grass)

A Day with the Greenbelt Native Plant Center

For years I’d been curious about the Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC). I don’t remember where I’d first heard about it, but it was there on the New York City Parks Department website, tantalizingly close yet never open to the public. Its inaccessibility only piqued my curiosity.

And then one day last year, as Spring was approaching and I browsed the Parks’ website for nature walks, there it was: a volunteer event at the GNPC! “Processing beach grass” is what the description said. Processing? Of course I pounced on it, even if I wasn’t quite sure what the task was. It wasn’t the first time I traded a bit of elbow grease (as my Grandfather called it) for access, and I doubt it will be the last.

Processing beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata, one of several species known as “beach grass”) turned out to mean stripping the dry, brown leaves from clumps of grass to leave the fresh green stems and roots ready for planting at various beaches in the City. It was fairly easy work; we could even sit down. Best of all, after we’d stripped grass for a couple of hours one of the GNPC staff offered to take us for a tour of the facility.

I only made one mistake, but it was a big one: I got so caught up in my work that I forgot to take photos! So of course I had to go back this year and process more beach grass–and remember to take pictures.

Here’s how beach grass is prepared for planting. The photo at the top of this post is the artificial dune at the GNPC, where grass collected from New York City’s beaches is grown. It’s kind of a mess, but that’s what beach grass looks like in its native habitat; the tangle of roots and grass holds sand in place and prevents erosion, which is why some of our beaches need more grass. With 520 miles of coastline, New York City needs to plan for resiliency against flooding (the link is a long PDF) and plants play their role.

Grass is harvested as needed, usually in the Spring. Then the volunteers get to work, stripping it down to fresh greenish-white stems with roots attached. There’s usually more brown than green, as you can see in the photos above, but don’t worry–those dry leaves will be composted. Nothing goes to waste.

As you can see above an individual plant, stripped of its dry leaves, can yield more than one fresh plant. I’ve gotten from one to five new plants from one harvested plant. Two or three is most common.

Beach grass multiplies by spreading at the roots. Occasionally, when I’m stripping grass, there’s a baby plant (or two) developing at the base of a mature plant. Leave these attached and they’ll grow into full-size plants that spread across the beach and help to prevent erosion by forming a network of roots under the sand. It’s not perfect–a heavy storm surge can displace those roots–but it does help.

Each bundle in the photo is 50 plants. They will be stored in damp sand until they’re ready to go to a beach in New York City to be planted by other volunteers. At the end of the morning, about a dozen volunteers (and a couple of GNPC staff who pitched in) had processed a milk crate full of beach grass.

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