Clemson’s floating wetlands go beneath the surface

CLEMSON — Clemson Tigers fans have a new team to root for, and this one is another winner.

A large floating garden — shaped like a Tiger paw — was recently installed in the old Seneca River Basin adjacent to Doug Kingsmore Stadium on the campus of Clemson University. The garden, which is technically called a “floating treatment wetland,” is laced with plants and flowers that will beautify the pond and benefit the environment. It’s sort of the horticultural equivalent of having a good offense and defense.

Ryan Medric, a recent Clemson graduate who majored in environmental and natural resources, envisioned the project last fall. And with help from members of Carolina Clear, a service of Clemson Cooperative Extension, Medric assembled the floating wetland on April 29 and put it on vibrant display.

“It’s a 400-square-foot, orange-colored Tiger paw mat with about a thousand circular holes in it designed to contain potted plants,” said Medric, who was also a water resources Extension intern for Carolina Clear before his graduation. “The roots of these plants will grow through the pots into the water and work like a sponge to absorb excess nutrients and pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The garden will also provide habitat for wildlife. The dangling roots will be great hiding places for fish and frogs, and the plants will attract songbirds, bees, dragonflies and a variety of other creatures.”

Floating treatment wetlands are made of a foam and nylon matrix that will remain afloat despite bearing a lot of weight. The matrix is a series of mats pieced together like a gigantic puzzle to form the Tiger paw. While still in their pots, selected wetland plants that thrive in water and hungrily absorb pollutants are placed in the holes. As the roots grow and lengthen, they will consume the excess nutrients from lawn fertilizers, animal wastes, car-wash soaps and other sources, outcompeting the algae that might have otherwise thrived from nutrient-rich runoff. Excessive algae growth leads to euthrophic conditions, which can cause fish kills, especially during hot summer months.

“Carolina Clear’s mission is to educate the public through involvement and demonstration. This floating treatment wetland is an example of one type of effort that can be deployed across our region to remove nutrients from our watersheds,” Carolina Clear Director Katie Buckley said. “And it’s always a bonus when nature lends a hand. The plants that we have here today are wetland plants, which do an excellent job of mitigating stormwater pollution, whether in a neighborhood pond or a body of water at a large commercial complex.”

Wetland plants can be purchased at native plant and aquatic plant nurseries and it doesn’t take them long to mature into a garden bursting with color. A Clemson-produced fact sheet titled “Floating Wetlands: Container Gardens for your Pond” describes how to build and maintain a floating garden, as well as listing the most effective and attractive plants to use.

“For Ryan’s project, we’re using water canna, which is more geese-resistant than other wetland plant varieties. Sometimes, if you have a pond that has a lot of geese in it, they’ll try to eat the plants or nest on the garden, so canna may discourage them,” Buckley said. “We’re also using pickerel rush, which has a nice purple flower to accent our colors. And tussock sedge, which is a common wetland grass that will grow very successfully. Our final plant is swamp sunflower, which will add some nice golden color through the fall.”

The state of South Carolina and S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control have been delegated to protect waterways from polluted stormwater through a regulated permitting process. Clemson recently became the first university in South Carolina to obtainNational Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit coverage.

“We joined dozens of other universities across the country that are permitted for their stormwater discharges and we are taking proactive measures to protect healthy waterways,” Buckley said. “We’re working with partners in Pickens County, Anderson County, cities and towns and other conservation groups to address the different types of pollutants and behaviors that could be better managed with further assistance or instruction.”

Medric’s floating wetland is the second one built by Carolina Clear on the Clemson campus. A smaller but more mature Tiger paw garden – which was originally planted in 2015 – floats in a pond adjacent to the ninth hole of the Walker Course. The plants in this garden have outgrown their pots and need to be replaced by new ones. But when it comes to floating gardens, nothing goes to waste. The team intends to beautify shorelines with the original plants, helping to reduce erosion along the pond banks and buffering waterways from pollutants.

“We’re going to be replanting the first garden in a couple weeks,” said Charly McConnell, a water resources agent for Carolina Clear. “And we’ve also been doing research to see which plants have been most effective. The best part is that you only have to replant once a year and nothing goes to waste. So in addition to helping purify water, a floating wetland has long-term benefits that will enhance the environment for years.”

Both floating gardens were strategically located to attract as much attention as possible. Dozens of golfers playing the ninth hole see the original garden every day, and its beauty might even lessen the anguish of shanking a ball into the pond.

Meanwhile, the new Tiger paw garden was placed in a pond within Clemson’s expansive athletic complex, so that hundreds of fans will be able to admire it as they pass the pond on their way to various events.