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Image of section of shoreline at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum after environmentally-sound stabilization using native plants.
Section of shoreline at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum after environmentally sound stabilization using native plants.

Northern Neck Master Gardeners protect local shorelines

In partnership with other agencies and local governments, Northern Neck Master Gardeners provide shoreline education

Contact Zeke Barlow

When Linda McConahey moved to the Northern Neck in 2001, she had never lived on a shoreline before. As an experienced scuba diver, McConahey had long been interested in water, and soon noticed surprising things about her new community. The water in her well was salty from inundation by the Chesapeake Bay, docks that had once been used to launch boats were now flooded far from shore, and the invasive weed called Phragmites seemed to be taking over local wetlands.

McConahey, an Extension Master Gardener, found a community of other Master Gardeners concerned by these same problems, and together they decided to find a way to address these issues by helping homeowners to be more water-conscious.

Nearly two decades later, Northern Neck Master Gardeners working closely with partners at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and county governments have built the Shoreline Evaluation Program, an educational outreach effort that has provided hundreds of property owners with recommendations for improving upland stormwater management, pollutant and sediment runoff, and shoreline erosion.

Taking care of a shoreline presents a unique set of challenges not faced by property owners inland. Shorelines are dynamic and can be affected by the features of the nearby landscape such as areas of pavement, and even invasive species. Without careful planning and maintenance, shorelines can erode, which poses a potential threat to inland properties and structures. 

“In the Northern Neck, we have a large population of property owners who have never lived on the water before and don’t know what a healthy shoreline looks like,” said Trent Jones, a local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent.


Image of section of shoreline at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum before stabilization.
Section of shoreline at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum before stabilization

New challenges like heavy rainfalls and sea-level rise complicate shoreline management, making it more important than ever.

“Most of Virginia has seen heavier rainfall events. With what we call a 5-year storm, we used to see 3.5 or 4 inches of rain, and now we might see 5 or 6 inches,” said David Sample, Extension specialist and professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

“Heavier rainfall events with over an inch of rain are destabilizing banks that have been stable for years,” said Karen Duhring, a marine scientist with Virginia Institute of Marine Science who works closely with Northern Neck Master Gardeners. “We’re also seeing sea-level rise, which means higher tides, more frequent inundation for periods of time, and a dynamic landscape that property owners are finding themselves having to deal with.”

Through the Shoreline Evaluation Program, Northern Neck Master Gardeners are helping property owners cope with these problems by providing personalized property reports and community outreach on healthy shorelines.

To date, the group has completed approximately 230 shoreline reports for properties in the Northern Neck. Each report involves an on-site evaluation of upland and shoreline property, an analysis of the site-specific situation, and a soil test and nutrient management plan prepared by the Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District. For a $60 fee, property owners receive a comprehensive written report with recommendations for their property and a copy of Northern Neck Master Gardeners’ “Homeowner’s Guide to Shoreline Management.” 

Property owners can use their report to make shoreline improvements and landscaping changes that will improve their shoreline. For example, a report might suggest property owners consider removing or redesigning areas of hardscape that contribute to excess runoff or installing native plants along the shoreline to help with stabilization.

“Most of the recommendations we suggest cannot be implemented instantly. People use the report as a master plan and work on it over time,” says Ian Cheyne, Northern Neck Master Gardener and leader of the Shoreline Evaluation group. “We normally suggest transformative changes — not just planting one plant. We come up with many different things that need to be done, and when done, all work together to improve the shoreline. Most people take some action as a result of our recommendations,” he says.


Image of Northern Neck Extension Master Gardeners discuss shoreline maintenance with homeowners.
Northern Neck Extension Master Gardeners discuss shoreline maintenance with homeowners.

The program is so popular that Northern Neck Master Gardeners have a waitlist of property owners interested in the program.

“This is a really important program because there aren’t enough of us shoreline professionals in the agencies and local governments to provide this service to all who need shoreline assistance, especially to those managing tidal shorelines,” said Duhring.

“The Master Gardeners are also skilled at trying to balance property owner preferences for certain landscapes with the environmental impacts. These volunteers are uniquely equipped to help property owners manage landscapes in an environmentally friendly way and to deal with other horticulture issues, such as saltwater intrusion and very low pH soils,” she added. “A lot of property owners here have lived in other areas and have preferences for ornamentals that just won't grow here. Northern Neck Master Gardeners have experience from their own gardens to guide them in their recommendations.”

The Shoreline Evaluation Program doesn’t end with these personalized property reports. Northern Neck Extension Master Gardeners have a comprehensive shoreline education program that reaches 500-600 people annually through seminars and outreach at farmers markets and with local homeowners associations.

“Their reputation is fantastic,” said Duhring. “The shoreline group has been doing this for eight seasons and has a reputation of being trusted neighbors who can help people who might not otherwise want to have a regulatory agency or representative on their property. They are also good at communicating with local governments and making sure they're giving people the right information across four different counties.”

“The entire Northern Neck Master Gardener unit is very smart and good at helping the community,” she adds. “They are important in the social network of the Northern Neck, providing an important communication link between different stakeholders.”

“Our partnership with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science is critical to program viability,” said Cheyne. He adds that the Shoreline Evaluation Program requires significant advanced and continuous training, and without water steward certification offered by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program state office, the program would not be possible. 

As coastal communities scramble to find ways to protect their shorelines from rising seas and changing weather patterns, this group of volunteers working collaboratively with local communities presents a model for what collaboration can achieve.

Though McConahey has since moved away from the Northern Neck, she continues her work to promote sustainable landscaping as a Danville Extension Master Gardener. 

“I’m impressed with the impact that the Shoreline Evaluation Program has been able to achieve,” she said. “In Danville, we have the Dan River, which has its own set of challenges. We’re teaching sustainable landscaping here too.”

Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Extension Master Gardener program offer localized assistance with home horticulture and gardening education throughout the commonwealth. To find your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, visit

Written by Devon Johnson