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Beach gardens: gardening on the coast has plenty of challenges--wind, sandy soil, salt spray. Here are two seaside landscapes designed to thrive.

ALL THE THINGS you love about the beach are better in a seaside garden. The quality of light, for instance: Whether it's a sunny day, when everything sparkles, or a gently over-cast day, when everything glows, seaside illumination--as every artist knows--flatters plants as much as people. Mild maritime weather also benefits plants by prolonging their bloom season. Wind swirling through tall grasses, ocean views framed by statuesque trees, and the tangy scent of salt are more enjoyable from the vantage point of a garden.

But salt, wind, and sandy or rocky soil make gardening near the coast a challenge as well as a pleasure. The secret, say the landscape designers who regularly face these conditions, is to work with the elements, not against them.










"Over the top" on Puget Sound

When Peter and Susan Manning hired landscape designer Susan Calhoun to redo their south-facing garden on Bain-bridge Island, Washington, Calhoun asked, "Which direction do you want me to take it?" Peter answered, "Over the top." Despite Calhoun's caution that his request meant "lots of maintenance," the Mannings--he's an architect, she's an artist--told her to press on with a garden that people would remember. The results are shown on pages 114 and 115.

Calhoun started by considering scale. Because the garden would grow between a two-story house and a see-forever view, she chose large plants such as cardoon, big-leaved plants like canna, and, for textural contrast, grasses such as blue oat grass. Then she considered seasonal color, favoring a sunrise-to-sunset theme that blends reds, oranges, and purples (cannas, crocosmia, Persicaria 'Red Dragon', salvia, smoke tree, and coneflowers), as well as sea blues (catmint, Geranium 'Rozanne', lavender, Verbena bonariensis). The plantings, which fringe a central patio and firepit, back up against the house without blocking water views. Nine favorites that stand up to coastal conditions are pictured at left.

Because most of her work is along Puget Sound, Calhoun has learned to think of the wind as an ally, not as a problem. "I want the movement it brings to the garden, so I use large perennials and grasses that sway and shiver in breezes. I tuck plants that don't like the wind--Heuchera 'Marmalade' or 'Frosted Violet', for example--into protected spots behind rocks."

To help the plants adjust to the wind, Calhoun suggests planting the smallest sizes you can find. Younger plants, because they're shorter and more pliable than older ones, are better able to bend (rather than break) in the wind, and to develop a branch structure suited to those conditions. Similarly, because younger plants have spent less time in a nursery container, their roots are usually quicker to spread into surrounding soil, helping to support the top without the need for stakes. If prevailing winds are particularly fierce, however, planting a few trees along the waterfront will break their force and make life easier for plants and people in their lee. Pines do well everywhere and, in California, species like pink melaleuca and New Zealand Christmas tree are also good options.

DESIGN Susan Calhoun, Plantswoman Design, Bainbridge Island, WA (209/842-2453)

Breakwater terrace near Santa Barbara

A sandy path was the inspiration behind the terrace garden pictured at right. "The path was here when we bought the place, and I loved it," says Susan Sullivan, who owns the property in Carpenteria, California, with her husband, Connell Cowan. "To me it's the beckoning road to unknown possibilities. I insisted we keep it."

Sullivan and Cowan, unlike the Mannings, wanted a simple garden that would work well with the architecture of their home and that would not require much maintenance. They also wanted landscaping that would complement their surroundings. "We wanted our garden to relate to the marsh and wetlands sanctuary near us," says Sullivan. Along the path, landscape architect Susan Van Atta created a garden that has the feeling of a dune grass wilderness. The simple plant palette includes beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), common thrift (Armeria maritima), and native grass Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince'. The grass is especially appropriate, because this particular cultivar was discovered on Price Island, an islet located off San Miguel Island, which Sullivan and Cowan can see from their property.

At the end of the path, a simple concrete terrace is snuggled up against the breakwater. Unlike the larger terrace next to the home, this one is intimate, just right for a tete-a-tete against the backdrop of gently rolling surf. At night the scent of wood smoke and the flicker of flames in a firepit make conversation easy and long. The warmth feels good, too, as temperatures drop.

Coastal fog is laden with salt, and soil by the beach is often nearly pure sand. But a surprising number of plants have adapted to exactly these conditions, Van Atta says. Having done a lot of beach revegetation, she particularly admires tough native species like beach strawberry. "Blowing sand can completely smother it, and the plant will just grow right up through it," she says. "Use plants like this, and you'll have almost no maintenance." Though irrigation was used to get plants established, they could survive without it now, she adds.

Other plants aren't all quite as tough as coastal natives, but several, including shrubs such as Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) and euonymus, can tolerate seaside challenges. Many ornamental grasses also thrive here, as do succulents such as sedums and aloes. A few annuals reseed readily here too, such as Livingstone daisy (Dorotheanthus bellidiformis) and Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber). For more suggestions, see "Top Plants for Coastal Locations," at right.

DESIGN Van Atta Associates, Santa Barbara (805/730-7444)

RELATED ARTICLE: Beach in a pot

If you yearn for the beach but live miles inland, you can re-create the look easily in a pot.


What you'll need

* Low, wide pot or bowl, approximately 14 inches in diameter

* Potting soil

* Three small, slow-growing plants in 4-inch nursery pots

* Horticultural-grade washed sand (a 1-qt. bag is enough for a 14-inch pot)

* Small pieces of driftwood or other found objects

STEP 1 Partially fill bowl with potting soil.

STEP 2 Set the plants--still in their nursery containers--atop the soil, adjusting their position as needed until you're happy with the arrangement.

STEP 3 Knock the plants out of their pots, gently tease apart any coiled roots, and plant; fill in around them with more potting soil up to within an inch or two of the pot rim. Tamp the soil to firm it; water to thoroughly moisten.

STEP 4 Carefully pour a mulch of washed sand atop the soil. Finish with a piece of driftwood or other beachy treasures.

STEP 5 Set the pot on a sunny patio (light afternoon shade in hot inland areas). Irrigate once a week or so using a gentle stream of water from the hose or a watering can with a narrow spout.--KATHLEEN N. BRENZEL

RELATED ARTICLE: Top plants for coastal locations

Whether you live on a Southern California beach, atop a bluff overlooking Puget Sound, or somewhere in between, if your property is within sight of salt water, chances are your garden gets buffeted by wind. The following plants thrive in such conditions. Most are native to the Mediterranean and do best in fast-draining soil.


English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). The hardiest, most widely planted species; fragrant blooms. Many varieties.

Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans). Shrub. Large candle-like clusters of bluish purple flowers above gray-green leaves in spring.

Rockrose (Cistus). Shrub. Showy flowers of white or lavender pink (depending on species) appear spring into summer on mounding plant.

Sea lavender (Limonium perezii). Perennial. Clusters of rich purple, crepe-papery blooms above rosettes of wide green leaves.
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Author:Cohoon, Sharon; McCausland, Jim
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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