Gardening at the shore can present its own set of challenges. Plants that behave one way in town can take on an entirely new aspect by the sea. Still, there are many good options to choose from that can weather a good, stiff breeze and a little salt in their soil. It just takes a little know-how and some tough maritime plants, and you can create a coastal garden that will provide non-stop blooms from now until fall.
SEASIDE GARDENING CHALLENGES
Coastal gardens often bear the brunt of high winds that can leave plants vulnerable to breakage. And salt spray can damage buds, stems and leaves, causing branch dieback, which often doesn’t show up until late winter or spring.
Protection: To perform at their best, plants in your seaside garden are going to need a little extra protection. Screens are one way to protect vulnerable blooms while providing a great backdrop. Or, you can site your garden in a sheltered area such as close to the house, behind a stand of trees or at the edge of a woodland to help break the wind and lessen its impact.
My own seaside garden: a mix of mostly drought-tolerant plants
Sandy soil: If you’re gardening at the shore, you are gardening in sandy soil, which is naturally more porous. Porous soil tends to drain quickly, meaning water retention can be a problem for coastal plants. Improve your soil structure by adding generous amounts of compost, leafmold or other organic matter. This will help conserve moisture and provide much-needed nutrients for plants to grow.
Choosing mostly drought-tolerant plants is the number one way to ensure your seaside garden’s success. For those plants that need a little more attention, make sure you’re around to water them often or install a drip line on a timer.
Sandy soil drains water more rapidly
Color: This isn’t exactly a challenge, but it has its own set of parameters. Simply put, brighter colors show up better at the shore. Bold colors stand out in strong sunlight, which tends to wash out lighter colors. Choose strong hues like purples, deep blues, magentas, yellow and oranges for your coastal garden. And select plants with bold architecture like big leaves and strong stems for added definition.
Bold colors show up best in bright sunlight
Plant in the fall: Lastly, plant trees, shrubs and large perennials in the fall when the soil is still warm so their roots can begin growing before the soil freezes.
Plant trees, shrubs and large perennials in the fall
TOP PLANTS FOR COASTAL GARDENS
Allium (Flowering Onion)
‘Purple Sensation’ is perhaps the best known of the alliums; it’s the giant onion with the 4-inch rounded purple blooms that appears in late spring to early summer. Alliums, however, are actually a large family of easy-to-grow bulbs that come in a range of shapes, sizes and colors. Yellowing foliage can sometimes be a problem, so pair them with large-leaved, mid-size perennials to mask any decay.
Mildly onion-scented, alliums like full sun and good drainage, which is key to preventing the bulbs from rotting. Plant in the fall in groups of 3 to 5 for best impact.
Also known as rudbekia, Black-Eyed Susans are some of the most heat and drought-tolerant of plants around. Native to North America, these tall, bushy wildflowers with a deep golden hue bloom from mid-summer until fall. Plant them in large masses in sun or part-shade for high-impact in the garden.
Left unchecked, though, they can become invasive. Control them each season by digging out stragglers.
Daylilies seem to thrive in just about any condition. I’ve left entire clumps of them on the ground all winter long after dividing and they still settle happily back into the ground come spring.
My own stands of daylilies on Kent Island have quickly grown into thick, healthy clumps with strong leafy swords and mounds of flowers that bloom for most of the summer. Best of all, daylilies come in a wide variety of colors, from deepest purples to pinks, reds, yellows and even creamy white, meaning there’s something for everyone.
Hydrangeas are almost synonymous with coastal living: it’s hard not to conjure up an image of a seaside garden without first envisioning masses of blue and pink flowering shrubs encircling a weathered grey cottage. My own hydrangeas love their seaside home in a protected area alongside my house, faithfully pushing forth a wealth of new blooms from June to August.
Unlike most of the other perennials listed here, though, hydrangeas are not fans of drought. You’ll need to provide them with a steady stream of water throughout the hot summer months.
At home, lamb’s ear needs constant maintenance to look its best. When it receives too much water, its large, velvety leaves quickly become sodden and decay. At the seaside, however, lamb’s ear takes on a whole new demeanor, forming compact mounds of upright, silvery-grey clusters.
In mid June, lamb’s ear pushes up tall furry spikes of blue-grey flowers. They’re not to everyone’s liking, and many people trim them off. At the seashore, I leave them be so I can watch them sway in the ocean breezes.
This plant is perfectly suited to a seaside garden. Lavender loves lots of sun and once established, thrives in near drought conditions. I’m constantly having to beat back my own lavender Hidcote to keep it in bounds in the border. Click here for great tips from Soleado Lavender Farm on the best species and how to keep the blooms coming all summer long.
This hardy, drought-resistant herbaceous perennial slightly resembles lavender, but has a softer, more delicate appearance. Grey purple-blue flower stalks rise up in May/June from above grey-green clumps of fine-textured foliage. I trim my nepeta back hard after its first flowering and enjoy a slightly smaller bloom in July. Nepeta’s soft grey-green foliage looks great paired with bright yellow daylilies and almost anything red or orange.
A low, creeping annual with succulent-looking stems and foliage, portulaca thrives in near drought conditions. It’s also a perfect plant for salty soils. Use it in the front of a border, trailing over a wall or in hanging baskets. Its bright colored blooms come in a range of shades from orange, red and yellow to bright white.
Red-Hot Poker (Torch Lily)
I love this striking plant with a clumping habit that sends up bright yellow-orange poker-shaped flowers on stems up to 3 feet tall. Drought resistant and attractive to bees, butterflies and birds, red hot poker likes lots of sun and isn’t picky about soil. Blooms mid-summer. Remove spent flowers to encourage it to keep on blooming.
A perfect plant for seaside gardens, verbena’s large clusters of lavender-purple flowers and deep green foliage look good all summer long. Homestead Purple, a cultivar introduced in the early 1990’s, helped popularize this vigorous plant. Verbena is known to have some of the deepest purple blooms. Today you can find blue, pink, red and white flowering varieties that grow from 6″ to 3 feet tall.
Also known as Speedwell, this long-blooming perennial with tall flower spikes is the perfect addition to a sunny seaside border. Best known for its intense, violet-blue flowers, it also comes in pink, rose and white. My favorite variety is the mid-sized Ulster Blue Dwarf, one of the truest blue perennials. Veronica is also a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies.
I love this elegant plant with flat-topped golden yellow flowers borne high atop asparagus-fern like foliage. Yarrow is especially captivating in seaside gardens where it sways softly in seaside breezes almost as if a hand were brushing through it.
Yarrow blooms from mid-summer to fall and in addition to the traditional yellow, come in shades of orange, red, pink and white. It also makes a long-lasting and sturdy cut flower.
REMEMBER: Drought tolerant doesn’t mean water-free
While most of these plants are drought-tolerant, they’ll still need watering from time to time. Give your plants a healthy start by improving the soil first with compost or other organic matter before planting. Mulch well to hold in moisture and use overhead irrigation whenever possible to wash off salt from the foliage. And avoid watering your plants during the hottest hours of the day to avoid burning the foliage.