Representatives from about a dozen nations got a lot more than their feet wet recently when they waded into the Potomac River to plant Bay grasses they had personally cultivated. But after a six-month competition only one country got to claim the esteemed prize for raising the “best grass.”

Those bragging rights went to China in a friendly contest to see who could grow the longest, thickest and overall best batch of underwater grasses, which participants transplanted into the river earlier this month during an event at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation helped organize the planting through its Grasses for the Masses program.

Based on the sturdy grass stands the countries brought to the international competition, this could be the first of many efforts to engage foreign diplomats stationed in the nation’s capital to help improve their backyard estuary.  

“They really wanted to get their hands wet, so to speak, and to do something more long-lasting,” said Rebecca LePrell, CBF’s Virginia executive director, who attended the planting. “We thought this was a really interactive way for them to get involved.”

The U.S. State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions organized the competition as part of its Greening Diplomacy initiative, a program in its third year aimed at engaging other countries in environmental issues.

The contest kicked off in January with a workshop on submerged aquatic vegetation. Diplomats from more than a dozen countries — including Costa Rica, Iraq, Malta, Pakistan and Somalia — learned about the role SAVs play in the Chesapeake Bay, adding oxygen, absorbing nutrients, preventing erosion and providing habitat for wildlife. And they learned how to keep such grasses alive in the heated and air-conditioned halls of embassies, where they’d be growing one particular grass, wild celery, until summer.

“It is very difficult,” Anggarini Sesotyoningtyas, a third secretary of economic affairs with the Embassy of Indonesia, told Voice of America, which aired coverage of the planting event. “It’s not just like a regular plant ‘cause I think it really needs careful maintenance and care.”

Joshua S. Wilberger, a program specialist with the State Department’s OFM that helped grow grasses at its office in solidarity with the competition, wrote a blog post about the challenges and rewards of growing SAVs indoors in water-filled trays or pans.

“Once we got the pans into the water, we all developed a strong ‘maternal’ streak for ‘our’ grasses,” Wilberger wrote. “Throughout the day, we'd each check the bin eagerly to see if our ‘babies’ had grown.”

The planting took place in early June, just days after President Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the international Paris agreement to mitigate global climate change. Some diplomats said their participation in the grass-growing challenge is an example of how they can continue investing in environmental partnerships amid a changing political climate.

CBF said the 14 embassies that participated that day planted a total of 90 square feet of wild celery which, with time, will likely grow to cover a much larger area, spreading seeds to produce more plants in the fall.

Last year, as part of its greening diplomacy effort, the State Department deployed foreign diplomats in a half-dozen U.S. cities to remove more than two tons of trash during a one-day shoreline cleanup, said Cliff Seagroves, acting deputy director of OFM. This year, the agency wanted to do something specific to the Washington area where many of these embassy staffers will spend a few years before returning to their countries.

The foundation’s Grasses for the Masses program emerged as the best option, despite the diplomats’ lack of underwater-growing experience. The program has had more than 2,500 participants in its 17-year history of growing grasses for educational purposes and for the Bay. LePrell said engaging such a diverse multinational group was a unique opportunity for the program, one that could lead to an expanded partnership with the State Department.

At the event, LePrell said, “there was a lot of discussion about clean water being a thread in our international communities. The embassy folks were saying how much they’ll miss having the grasses in their office.”