Oyster Gardening

December 2024

Message regarding the closure of the Oyster Gardening Program

After more than 20 years, the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays Oyster Gardening Program ended on December 31, 2022. We will not be delivering new oyster spat-on shell in 2023.

Why is the program ending?
The program’s goal was to determine if the wild Atlantic Oyster could grow in the Inland Bays. This goal has been accomplished, oysters have been proven to thrive in the Bays, and in fact, one result of the program’s success is the introduction of a commercial oyster farming industry into the Bays. So, with the goal accomplished, it’s time to look to other ways to promote the health of the Inland Bays.

Can I still join the program?
For new, potential Oyster Gardeners, we regret that we will not be accepting any new applications to join the program. We encourage you to seek other ways to support the Bays by checking our Contact page.

What do I do with my 2022 oysters?
First, please continue to care for your 2022 oysters. We’re not giving up on them, and we hope to see a good “harvest” for the season. Remember to log in your volunteer hours spent caring for your oysters. Second, we will collect your 2022 oysters, beginning late Summer. The 2022 deliveries did not begin until September, and we want the new oysters to have as much growing time as possible. We will contact you when collections are about to begin. Third, The Center is exploring new ways to engage you in helping restore the health of the Inland Bays. We hope you will continue to support these new projects as you have so enthusiastically supported Oyster Gardening.

Thank you for your support
On behalf of the Center for the Inland Bays Thank You to all of you who participated in the Oyster Gardening Program over the years. We will be in touch regarding future projects, and we ask you to continue to “Get on board with the Bays” by volunteering your time and by participating in the many Center events. For more information, visit our event calendar.

-The Inland Bays Oyster Gardening Program

About the Program

The Center’s Oyster Gardening program was a restoration project that employed waterfront property owners to raise small amounts of oysters in the waters that surround their docks and bulkheads. The Center provided juvenile oysters and gear to raise them; the “gardeners” provided basic husbandry and grew them for about one year, when they were then used in restoration projects.

The program began in 2003 through a generous grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Five-star Restoration Challenge Grant Program. The program brought together scientists and volunteers in an effort to restore the American Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) to the waters of Delaware’s Inland Bays. The program was a cooperative effort between the Center, the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, and volunteers throughout the Inland Bays watershed!

The Oyster Gardening program employed volunteer gardeners to care for small “spat,” growing them to adult size by practicing basic husbandry techniques. Each gardener was responsible for one site, and each site grew approximately one-hundred oysters, using spat stocks and gear provided by the Center.

Oyster larvae used in the program were hatchery-produced at the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, using broodstock lines bred for resistance to MSX and Dermo disease. In the hatchery, a million or more microscopic oyster larvae are exposed to spent oyster shell to imitate the natural “setting” process. During early summer, trays of oyster shell with fingernail-sized spat were then distributed throughout the Inland Bays to the gardeners for grow-out in their baskets. Gardeners were in possession of the oysters for one year, when the Center then removed them and placed them in various restoration or research projects throughout the Bays.

Oyster Gardening oysters were not grown for food and are NOT SUITABLE for human consumption


  • Research on oysters and prove that oysters can grow great anywhere in our Inland Bays;
  • Improve water quality through various restoration efforts;
  • Protect young spat, giving them a chance to grow through better conditions;
  • Create habitat for other marine species which are the base of the food chain for fish, crabs and other species;
  • Educate volunteers and the general public about the ecology and value of a healthy population of Inland Bays oysters.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Don’t we already have oysters in the Inland Bays?

Delaware’s Inland Bays have a very small natural population of oysters. The Center believes that oysters were at one time, and hopefully will again be, a thriving and important component of Inland Bays’ ecology. The goal of our Shellfish Restoration Program (which includes the Oyster Gardening efforts) is to restore a viable population of oysters to our local waterways, thereby creating critical benthic (bottom) habitat and increasing the filtering capacity of the bays’ shellfish population.

Oysters are like the building blocks of the benthic community and create very important reef habitats for other organisms. Some of the many important species you will find around an oyster reef include: barnacles, mussels, bryozoans, worms, algae, plankton, as well as several kinds of fishes and crabs. Our oysters are not meant for harvest but for creating more reef habitat. Oysters are also filter feeders; they can remove tiny one-celled plants called phytoplankton and other small particles from the water and improve water quality.

Yes. Special cages and baskets were built to hold the oysters. We don’t have to worry about oysters swimming away, but the cages helped contain the growing spat for a scientific study and survival. The cages allowed a good supply of food and oxygen to reach the oysters near the surface. They also reduced the threat from predators and sedimentation. The cages and baskets make it easy for the volunteers to maintain the oyster garden populations. The goal is to provide the juvenile oysters a protected environment which will result in more successful survival rates.

Baskets with wire inserts are ideal for volunteers with access to waterfront property. Each “gardener” is supplied with one basket and two-wire inserts. The dimensions of the baskets are 2′ x 3′. Oyster “spat” are placed inside the insert, which rests inside the basket. Each insert has a carrying capacity of approximately 75-100 shells with spat. The baskets are suspended from gardeners’ piers, docks or bulkheads. When necessary, they can be lifted from the water in a similar manner as crab traps. However, the baskets must be suspended at least a foot off the bottom to avoid oyster drill predation.

Yes, 15 volunteers signed on as participants in our pilot oyster gardening project. Now we have approximately 70 sites. They maintain the oysters and keep the cages clear of bio-fouling. Volunteers have also assisted with measuring and recording oyster growth and mortality as well as water quality parameters, such as temperature and salinity. The volunteers are involved for several reasons: to play a hands-on role in oyster restoration, to educate their neighbors and friends about the benefits of a healthy oyster population, and to provide a diverse array of study sites throughout the Inland Bays system.

The juvenile oysters, known as “spat-on-shell”, come from a disease-resistant line of larvae produced at the Rutgers University Haskin Shellfish Laboratory.  “Spat” are tiny free-swimming larval oysters that attach themselves (in the tens to hundreds!) on spent oyster shells, also called “cultch”, collected by the Center’s “Don’t Chuck Your Shucks” shell recycling program, at the University of Delaware’s College Earth, Ocean and Environment’s campus in Lewes. The “spat” are then transferred to the wire inserts, which are placed inside the baskets.

Oyster Gardening oysters are NOT SUITABLE for human consumption and we prohibit our gardeners from consuming the oysters. If we are successful in our efforts to restore oysters to the Inland Bays, there may be future opportunities for recreational harvesting of oysters for personal consumption.

Oyster Gardening oysters have been planted in rip rap located throughout the Inland Bays. Some have been used in various research projects. In the future, the Center envisions using many of the oysters in Living Shorelines. Also known as “soft-armoring”, this technique mimics natural shoreline features to reduce shoreline erosion. Research indicates that Living Shorelines improve desirable aquatic habitat (fish and crabs!), reduce nutrient inputs into the Inland Bays, and are often more resilient than traditional hardened shoreline techniques.

Contact the Program Assistant

James Tully