In working with a client on a recent project, I specified crushed oyster shells as the path material. It gives the paths the same look as Colonial Williamsburg, it reuses waste materials, and the light color of the shells reflect any available light at night, aiding in wayfinding. I thought it would be a great application for a rarely used product. As it turns out, there’s a reason they’re infrequently used: they are very hard to come by, and the price reflects that.
Apparently oyster shells are not just a trash product. As I discovered, the shellfishing industry takes the shells back out to sea and dumps them. Not to get rid of them in an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, but as a boost to the oyster population. As Joyce Deaton explains on the Cape Fear Pilot’s website:
Baby oysters start out as free-floating organisms, but soon settle to the bottom and attach themselves to hard surfaces. If they can’t find a hard substrate, they die. They’ll grow on pilings and concrete, but their preferred spot is on oyster shells. A mound of shells placed in brackish water with a good tidal flow will soon become an oyster reef, hosting not only the young oysters but algae, worms, barnacles, crabs, minnows and fish. Soon a diverse marine habitat results from the simple act of depositing the shells.
In addition, the filter-feeding oysters make the water cleaner by feeding on plankton and waterborne detritus.
Several states have formal shell recycling programs, and in some cases volunteers bring dump trailers to festivals, oyster roasts, and restaurants to collect shells. In other areas, those who make their living from oysters regard it as a best practice, and bring the shells with them when they head out for the next catch. This is the kind of sustainability I can get behind! It’s given me a whole new appreciation of what I had previously assumed was ending up in landfills. It looks like I’ll be searching for a product that will give me a similar appearance, since the oyster shells seem to end up where they’re needed most.
Part of the reason I posted this is because I think this is a great reason not to be able to use a product I specified. The other reason is because I did some exhaustive searches on Google, trying to track down oyster shells for landscape use. Instead, I got several links for shell recycling programs, and several more of people wanting oyster shell paths but unable to find a source. So if you’re a fellow traveller who came here looking for a source- the best price I found was out of South Carolina, at just under $1,000 per cubic yard plus freight!
Very cool new tidbit of knowledge, and great photo!
Thanks! That’s one of the few photos you’ll see here that I can’t take credit for- I had some iStockphoto credits to use up and no photos of oysters laying around!
Great post Dave! Thank you for explaining this infrequently discussed, but important water quality issue, especially for coastal gardeners.
I live in Wilmington, NC and have had first-had experience with the Oyster Shell Recycling programs. Apparently, our own NC DOT didn’t understand the value of the program, as they put down bushels and bushels of oysters as mulch on a new project near the Wrightsville Beach bridge. After a public outcry and several great local media pieces, the DOT sucked the shells back up, sent them for recycling, and planted a wildflower meadow instead. Best decision, all around!
Oysters are filter-feeders and have an important place in water quality of tidal creeks, of which Wilmington has many. Our creeks have been closed to shell fishing for over 50 years, but the oyster recycling programs are helping to clean up the water, and at least make it more habitable for the wildlife.
Katie- I guess that’s just proof that we can all fall into the trap of thinking that if we don’t understand the value of something, it therefore has no value! I had a few people recommend some other mollusk shells from other regions, but I have to draw a line somewhere. As a landscape designer, I am asked to create spaces that are not as sustainable as I would like; but I have to put my foot down at trucking in clamshells from New England. Especially now that I know how valuable they are to the waterways.
Great blog, by the way!
I live in Williamsburg, Va. I have a foot path I want to cover in crushed oyster shells. Any idea where I can purchase them in large bulk?
Al, being as that you live in Williamsburg, I’d start by asking the maintenance folks at Colonial Williamsburg to share their source. If you’ve tried that route, the best thing I can recommend is to try farm & feed stores, and higher-end stoneyards. Unfortunately, I no longer have my notes for the job I mentioned, so all I can tell you about the source is that they were in SC, and you’re looking at a LOT of money.