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Volunteers plant grass along shore at Terra Ceia habitat on Tampa Bay

Volunteer Sean Yagins, 9, of Plant City, throws his weight on A dibble stick to make a big enough hole for a marsh grass plug.

SUSAN GREEN | Special to the Times

Volunteer Sean Yagins, 9, of Plant City, throws his weight on A dibble stick to make a big enough hole for a marsh grass plug.

PALMETTO — "Plug it in" took on new meaning Saturday for about 130 volunteers who showed up to plant coastal marsh grass on the muddy shores of a man-made tidal lagoon along Tampa Bay.

Children, in particular, showed off a variety of techniques for pushing pointed dibble sticks into the packed sand-and-shell shoreline to leave a hole for a grass plug.

Sean Yagins, 9, of Plant City, and Bekah Akins, 8, of Temple Terrace, were among those who treated their dibblers like pogo sticks, throwing their full weight on the spade-like tools to sink them a few inches into the ground.

The two were Busch Gardens' summer camp alumni recruited for the planting at the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Terra Ceia habitat restoration project, just south of the Hillsborough-Manatee county line. Other volunteers of all ages came from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, recruited by the nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch.

The idea was to help nature create a healthy lagoon that will exchange tidal flows with the bay, improve water quality and support fish and birds, said Brandt Henningsen, chief environmental scientist with the district.

For Bekah, the lagoon already was paradise.

"It's beautiful," she said. "It's ready for planting, and there's a bunch of crabs."

Part of a 130-acre wetlands restoration project at Terra Ceia, the gangling pond was a former farm field covered with nuisance Brazilian pepper trees and guinea grass before the district began making improvements. More than 800 of the site's 1,900 acres have been targeted for restoration, making the project the largest restoration effort on Tampa Bay so far, with an estimated price tag of $7 million. Scientists are determining how to conduct a final phase on Frog Creek, Henningsen said.

Volunteers first planted the lagoon about 18 months ago, he said. Although mangroves have taken root, much of the cord grass from the previous effort failed. Saturday, teams of volunteers added about 15,000 grass plugs to bare spots in the shoreline.

Dawn Menegazzi of Tampa, who came with her husband, Paul, and children Gabriella, David and Mia, said she read about the planting on Facebook and decided the family should try it.

"It's fun," said Mia, 8.

Terra Ceia once was earmarked to become a subdivision of homes on canals. The state acquired it in the mid 1990s as a joint effort between the water management district and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The site is several miles south of two large, adjacent restoration tracts in Hillsborough County: Cockroach Bay and a former Tampa Electric Co. property dubbed Rock Ponds. Bids for the beginning phases of work at Rock Ponds are expected to go out in November.

Susan Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Volunteers plant grass along shore at Terra Ceia habitat on Tampa Bay 10/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 5:31am]

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