Oyster Gardening

Oyster gardening is the non-commercial aquaculture of oysters.  It’s a popular activity in Virginia whereby waterfront homeowners grow oysters off their dock for local restoration purposes and/or personal consumption. Virginia is one, if not the only, state in the U.S. that permits oyster gardens in approved shellfish harvest areas and areas closed, or condemned, for harvest. Many states do not allow these activities.  Virginia oyster gardeners are also able to legally harvest what they grow, but only in areas approved for shellfish harvest by the Virginia Department of Health.  MAP staff support oyster gardening efforts by providing science-based information and education to Virginia’s oyster gardeners. The most critical steps oysters gardeners can take to protect public health and to continue Virginia’s oyster gardening legacy are to be compliant with the regulations. 

Oyster gardening is an enjoyable way to benefit local waterways by increasing water filtration and habitat. Follow these important steps to make sure you are doing it the right way.

STEP 1: Plan your garden

Use the available resources to determine if your area is suitable for a garden (depth, salinity. etc.) and what type of gear will work best for you and your site. Be sure the area occupied by gear doesn't exceed 160 square feet, which is the allowable space for a garden.

STEP 2: Check the classification of the oyster garden waters (and keep up to date with changes)

You'll need this information to complete Step 3. It's important for oyster gardeners to be aware of the growing area classification of their garden to know whether or not they can harvest and eat their oysters safely. The Virginia Department of Health, Division of Shellfish Safety (DSS) monitors the water quality of all areas where shellfish are growing to ensure that harvesting only occurs from very clean water. Fun fact - the criteria for shellfish harvesting water are 14 times more strict than water open for swimming, crabbing, and fishing. Here's what you need to know:

STEP 3: Apply for a no-cost permit from the state

You have a plan, you know your growing area classification - now it's time to apply for a permit. It's simple, FREE, and all oyster gardening locations need one. Applications are submitted to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This permit must be renewed every 5 years.

STEP 4: Start your garden

There are lots of resources for the how-to part, including the following fact sheets and links to experienced oyster gardeners.

How oyster gardening got its start in Virginia

Oyster gardening got started in the 1990’s when VIMS scientists partnered with waterfront homeowners to expand oyster aquaculture research already underway with the private industry.  Oyster gardens provided access to a wider variety of grow-out locations for research and the oyster gardening community continue to partner with VIMS on research projects.  Virginia’s oyster gardeners continue to innovate, experience, and perfect the art of oyster farming.

Deep Dive into the VDH Water Classification Program

Video series put together by VDH DSS and MAP extension specialist to provide more detailed information about the Growing Area Classification Program.