Living just eight miles from the Essex coast, I’m quite familier with working in coastal conditions and recommending plants which will thrive near the sea. The salty air, harsh exposure and light, dry soil can be difficult for some plants, so as always, success depends on choosing the right ones. Some of my client’s gardens are right next to the sea:
Seaside gardens tend to follow a certain theme, and that’s mainly down to the selection of plants and structural landscaping which are optimised to make the most of the conditions. Some plants just find combination of dry soil, exposed site and salty air a bit too challenging, resulting in scorched leaves or generally poor garden performance. But there are many kinds which will flourish and provide a wonderful display and lush, colourful surrounding, and these are repeatedly used in coastal gardens.
Another factor to bear in mind with coastal gardens is the dry, sandy soil. Unlike heavier soils, such as clay, chalk or loam, seaside gardens have very free draining sandy soil which doesn’t stay moist for long after watering or rain. When choosing plants for a dry, sandy site, try to choose varieties which tolerate drought well. Not only will selecting appropriate dry-loving plants save you water, but it means you’ll have more time to enjoy the garden, rather than watering it!
Design ideas for coastal gardens
Creating a rock, sand or shingle garden is a great way of incorporating plants that will thrive in a coastal position, as well as echoing the surrounding landscape. There are lots of Mediterranean plants which suit gravel gardens and can be planted in borders surrounding a gravel area, such as cistus, lavender, nerines, euphorbia and echinops. When choosing gravel, bear in mind that a 25kg bag should roughly cover an area of around one square metre. It will also be beneficial to the overall appearance of the garden to use a type of gravel or shingle that complements or matches other stone features in the garden. Before applying gravel, it’s a good idea to initially cover the area with a semi-permeable membrane to supress weeds.
Coastal gardens can be sun-soaked, which is great for sun lovers, but by planting a small tree or large shrub, you can create some shade which will not only avoid your garden becoming too hot and parched, but also to adds variation in planting within your garden. Some small trees, such as acers, thrive in typically coastal acid soils, but they don’t like a lot of exposure – however they can thrive beautifully in a sheltered seaside garden. Hawthorn is known for its ability to thrive in coastal conditions and can look very ornamental when it’s grown as a small tree. They’re prone to shooting out low twiggy branches, but if these are removed to expose a clean trunk, the overall habit is very pleasing. Bay is also an excellent choice for year-round structure and shade, plus you can use its leaves to flavour Mediterranean dishes. Most kinds of viburnum are also great for coastal gardens, with a long season of interest. Once you’ve created a bit of shade, this opens up the opportunity to grow some shade-loving plants beneath them, such as periwinkle, ferns, Japanese anemones and hellebores.
You can make the most of a sun trap by turning it into a seating area, surrounded by tropical foliage plants, such as cannas and palms. Palms tolerate coastal conditions perfectly well and will add a touch of the Mediterranean to your own patch. Surrounding a sunny seating area with pots filled with sun and drought loving plants, such as geraniums or pelargoniums, will add colour and heighten the exotic charm.
Prairie-style gardens are very popular and also work well incorporated with gravel pathways and seating areas. Use ornamental grasses combined with upright summer flowering perennials, such as echinacea, rudbeckia and sedum (all of which suit sunny, dry conditions) and plant them in mounded beds to create this look.
If you have a large lawn, try dedicating a corner of it to long grass and turn it into a wilderness garden. To create your meadow area, lift the existing grass, cultivate the soil and sow with meadow flowers and rye grass. Water it well until it’s established, then mow a meandering pathway through it. A small apple or cherry tree planted within the wilderness garden will complete the look. A wilderness garden is low-maintenance and easy to manage – all you need to do is strim the grass down after summer, then let it grow back again in the spring.
If your coastal garden is sloped, add levels to create more planting area and useable space. There are a number of ways to add levels into a sloped garden – increasingly popular is the use of circular areas, either using paving or a brick-edged lawn, with steps leading between each lebel. Alternatively, you can use a series of retaining walls and have stepped straight levels. The use of walls also offers the opportunity to plant rockery plants which will hang over the edges, such as aubrieta and erigeron, or even to use succulents within the wall to add a sense of natural maturity.
Plants for coastal gardens
Here’s my pick of some of the plants I see thriving in coastal gardens every day:
Herbs for coastal gardens
Rosemary (pictured), thyme, oregano and sage do really well in hot, dry conditions and are known for their multiple culinary uses. What’s more, they’re all fully hardy, so they’ll provide you with a long season of fresh flavour in your cooking, year after year.
Trees for coastal gardens
Hawthorn (pictured), cordyline, holly, arbutus and Pinus mugo are all small trees which are ideal for growing in small coastal gardens or in more confined spaces. Larger trees include hornbeam, thuja, maritime pine and Turkey oak, all of which can become quite substantial over time, creating shade and seclusion in a big, open space.
Shrubs for coastal gardens
Thorny shrubs such as pyracantha (pictured) and berberis tend to do really well in coastal gardens, both of which look great in a shrubbery, providing plenty of seasonal interest from flowers and berries. Eleagnus and euonymus both add year-round colour with their variegated gold and green foliage. Another popular coastal shrub is escallonia – a wonderful bushy evergreen with glossy leaves and bright pink or white flowers during summer. If your garden is less exposed, or slightly further back from the sea, shrubs such as pittosporum, ribes, spiraea, phormium, hibiscus and forsythia also do well.
Hedging for coastal gardens
Create a low hedge with Lonicera nitida – a small-leaved bushy evergreen variety which makes a great alternative to box or privet, coping well with the salty air and strong winds. Euonymus, yew (pictured), beech, hawthorn and fuchsia are also great choices for hedging in seaside gardens.
Perennials for coastal gardens
Most hardy perennials will be fine in a coastal garden, but there are some that will do particularly well. You can create a fantastic border combination with these seaside classics: achillea, crocosmia, echinops (pictured), erysimum, euphorbia, geranium, kniphofia, rudbeckia, leucanthemum, sedum and verbena. Gardens right next to the sea are often exposed, sunny and bright – adding as much colour as possible means that it won’t look bland or washed out.
Rock garden plants for coastal gardens
Some of the most commonly used rock or gravel garden plants for coastal gardens include erigeron (pictured), ophiopogon, aubrieta, saxifraga, tulips, diascia, ceratostigma and alliums. Plant them so that they cascade over retaining walls, within the cracks in dry walling, or in gravel garden borders.