Students at Out-of-Door Academy are creating vertical oyster gardens to help with Siesta Key waterways
By Jane Bartnett
Calling all Siesta Key dock owners! Marine science students at the Out-of-Door Academy have a New Year’s gift for you and, what it is, also happens to be beneficial to our waterways: a vertical oyster garden system.
Vertical oyster gardens, known as VOGs in the marine world, create new habitats for young oysters. Out-of-Door Academy upper school students in Lakewood Ranch are creating them by hand as a marine science project and making them available to Siesta Key-area residents, free of charge. Once installed, the vertical oyster gardens are maintenance free.
Out-of-Door Academy’s lower school (pre-K through grade 5) is on Siesta Key.
The students drill and then string lines of oyster shells. The recycled shells, donated by area restaurants to the Robinson Preserve in Bradenton, have been cleansed, sterilized, and baked in the sun for six to eight months.
Science department chairwoman Lurea Doody is directing the program. “Each VOG has a multiplying effect,” she said. “Oysters are a very important part of the ecosystem. One oyster can filter up to 40 gallons of water a day.”
Jean Cannon of the Siesta Key Association, who has worked with Out-of-Door Academy students on numerous projects over the years, is very supportive of Doody’s efforts. She sees great benefit to the students as well as the community.
“It’s wonderful for the Out-of- Door Academy students to see firsthand that they can have a positive impact on the environment and watch wildlife thrive,” she said. “Siesta Key residents also benefit from the students’ efforts, and over time as the vertical oyster gardens grow the quality of our water improves and marine life can thrive.”
Inexpensive and easy to install, Cannon believes that vertical oyster gardens are perfect for docks. “On Siesta Key’s Grand Canal alone, there are 837 docks and at least 300 to 400 more on the rest of the island. With more than 1,000 docks, Siesta Key is an excellent location for these devices,” she said.
Doody’s students learn that vertical oyster gardens offer a hospitable home for young marine life when baby oysters and juvenile fish attach themselves to the shells. Larger fish are attracted, and food sources grow.
The result is an improved ecosystem for all marine life. The school’s marine research project began during the 2022-2023 school year.
“It gives our students the opportunity to appreciate how connected we are to our natural environment,” said Doody.
This past fall, the students created close to 40 vertical oyster gardens.
“My class will be doing their VOG projects after the holiday break so we should have more in stock soon,” she said.
Marine studies are incorporated in all Out-of-Door Academy grades, said Caitlyn Dixon, the schools’ director of STEM. “In the spring, our upper school students will spend time teaching younger students on the Siesta Key campus about marine ecosystems,” she said.
Vertical oyster gardens are growing in popularity. While inexpensive and easy to create, Cannon noted that they are not as powerful as professionally installed mini reefs that can filter more than 30,000 gallons of water a day. The larger mini reefs create valuable habitats for not only oysters, but also fish, crabs, clams, shrimp, and other sea creatures.
When the Siesta Key Association launched its Grand Canal Regeneration program in 2020, it had a goal of installing 500 mini reefs under docks to restore habitat. At the end of December, 461 had been installed across the island.
Last summer, the group released a YouTube video called “Sounds of the Mini Reef,” offering a glimpse into the busy lives of thriving wildlife in a Siesta Key mini reef. View the video at: youtu.be/UarSh3B8Niw.
“While a vertical oyster garden creates a much smaller area than a mini reef,” said Cannon, “it too brings new life. Both help to improve our environment and create a habitat for oysters and juvenile fish. Both are valuable.”
As the school year continues, Cannon is looking forward to working with students as well as Sarasota County schools’ marine biology students.
“We’ve installed many vertical oyster gardens on Siesta Key Canal docks and worked together on other research projects, too,” she said.
Cannon offers these tips for installing a vertical oyster garden to a dock:
Step 1: Choose a location that’s away from turbulence and boat traffic. For heavy boat traffic, place the vertical oyster garden on a corner or under the dock. It should be in the water most of the time. At high tide, make sure the vertical oyster garden is fully immersed.
Step 2: Use a rope to thread the eye-bar that supports the deck Tie the vertical oyster garden to the dock. Leave enough room to hang it at the correct height.
To request a free vertical oyster garden, contact Doody by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once ordered, they may be picked up on Siesta Key from the school at 444 Reid St. You can call the main office at (941) 349-3223.