Best Seaside Garden Plants: Choosing Plants For A Seaside Garden
By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden
If you’re lucky enough to live on or near the beach, you’ll want great seaside plants and flowers to show off in your great location. Choosing seaside plants and flowers is not difficult, once you learn what to look for when picking out plants for a seaside garden.
How to Choose a Seaside Plant
Many seaside landscape areas are in a full sun location, and shrubs and trees for coastal usage have to be tolerant of sea spray. High winds are common at the beach and soil is sandy, meaning water retention can be a problem with plants for a seaside garden.
There are many plants for a seaside garden that tolerate these elements. Plants are categorized as having low, medium, and high salt and sea spray tolerance. Learn how to choose a seaside plant and learn which plants for a seaside garden offer the best performance. The best seaside garden plants tolerate hot coastal sun, extreme winds, and sandy soil. Following are some of the most commonly used seaside plants and flowers:
Trees and Shrubs for Coast
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) shrubs are widely used on the ocean-facing side of beach gardens, having a high salt tolerance. Both tolerate full sun to light shade, and both are long-lived specimens that get tall enough, 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m.), to form a barrier or privacy hedge.
Larger trees with a high salt tolerance include the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). Combine these with highly salt tolerant grasses, like Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) or Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries), which grow well in the well-draining, sandy soil found in beach areas.
These are some, but by no means all, of the best seaside garden plants for the garden with no barrier to the ocean.
Moderate and Low Tolerant Seaside Plants
Beach gardens that have a barrier, such as a home, fence, or windbreak, between them and the ocean can use moderate or low tolerance salt spray plants. Seaside plants and flowers with moderate salt tolerance are:
- dianthus (Dianthus gratianopolitanus)
- crinum lilies (Crinum species and hybrids)
- Turkscap lilies (Malvaviscus drummondii)
Other flowering plants with medium salt tolerance include:
- Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia)
- seashore mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica)
- purple heart (Setcreasia pallida)
When you are shopping for seaside plants and flowers, have a garden plan and check your plant’s salt tolerance before purchase. Even plants with a low salt tolerance can be plants for a seaside garden by following the steps below:
- Mulch after planting.
- Work in compost to improve soil and help with water retention.
- Man-made fences offer some protection from the salty spray.
- Use overhead irrigation often to remove salt from foliage.
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Hardy coastal plants
O ur pick of hardy plants for a low-maintenance coastal garden
Plants in coastal gardens have to withstand seasonal gale-force winds, resist the damage caused by salt-laden breezes and grow in sandy soils. Plants selected for gardens at holiday homes also need to be able to endure periods with little water. This sounds like a tall order, but there are attractive plants which fit the bill pick the right ones and you’re sure to have success.
Members of the daisy family, like gazanias, dimorphotheca, ursinias and these Didelta carnosa grow in sandy soil, tolerate wind, help stabilise the sand and reduce evaporation.
IDEAL CHARACTERISTICS FOR COASTAL PLANTS:
- Tough, leathery grey leaves that reflect the heat and often have a protective covering of hairs. Some examples of plants with these types of leaves are the camphor bush (Tarchonanthus), coastal silver oak (Brachylaena discolor), mock olive (Buddleia saligna) and the beach salvias.
- Leaves with a shiny or waxy coating that reflect the sun, reduce surface evaporation and deflect salt. Look out for them on plants like the white milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme), coprosmas, the carissas like the num-num and amatungulu plums, and succulents like cotyledons and aloes.
- Tiny needle-like leaves such as those found on buchus, coleonemas (confetti bush) and the fynbos ericas whose leaves roll up to reduce evaporation.
RELIABLE PLANT CHOICES
1. TRAILING GAZANIA (GAZANIA RIGENS)
Gazanias are useful spreading groundcovers for coastal gardens as they are both wind and salt tolerant. Not only do they cover the sand quickly, preventing it from being blown away they help reduce evaporation. Their cheerful bright yellow or orange flowers add colour from midwinter well into summer. Some varieties have dark green leaves, while G. rigens var. uniflora (pictured) has appealing grey leaves.
They are easy to grow from slips or rooted cuttings. At the seaside, they should be planted closer together than usual. Height: 20–30cm.
2. NATAL WILD BANANA OR CRANE FLOWER (STRELITZIA NICOLAI AND S. ALBA)
Strelitzia’s height and structure add an architectural element to the garden. They can tolerate a fair amount of wind especially as one plant protects the next. Their succulent roots help them survive dry periods and stabilise the soil, while birds are attracted to the nectar which drips from their ice blue and white flowers. They’re particularly good for the warmer East Coast gardens. Height: 1,5–5m.
3. WILD CAMPHOR BUSH (TARCHONANTHUS CAMPHORATUS)
Although the leathery foliage of the camphor bush may appear to be a dull olive green, the tree comes to life when the wind flips the leaves to reveal their silvery underside. It has a wonderful aroma of camphor and the creamy white sprays of flowers are followed by fluffy, cottonwool-like seed heads which birds collect to line their nests.
Camphor bushes like sun and can be clipped into a hedge or trained as a shrub or tree. Height: 3–5m.
No 1 seaside garden tip – no lawn
Immaculate green grass and seaside gardens don’t go together. Chuck out your lawnmower and lay down gravel, decking or shingle instead. You can even buy seashell mulch, which is a byproduct of the seafood industry. We have used it for our garden path, although you need to order it online as you are unlikely to find it in garden centres.
Whitstable beach is shingle, and here you also see piles of oyster shells from the Whitstable Oyster Company.
At 5 Clare Road, Janet Maxwell and Phil Smith say that their triangular garden was originally just lawn flanked by large conifers. They replaced the lawn with shingle and decking. And there’s a bonus. ‘We really don’t get many weeds either,’ Janet adds.
5 Clare Road replaced lawn with shingle and decking.
The garden at The Guinea, a converted pub in Whitstable.
At The Guinea, a converted pub, Sheila and David’s garden was just lawn and a drive. They changed it into gravel, with lots of pots and planting, plus a stone terrace.
If you do have grass, think dunes.
How do you plant a seaside garden? Planting for coastal conditions
Any gardeners familiar with gardens in coastal situations will notice that they are either barren plots with a few struggling shrubs or gentle, billowing oases of foliage and flowers. The proximity of the sea is a mixed blessing. The winter is warmer than it is inland and in milder areas frost and snow may be rare. Light levels are high and there are few trees to influence the growing conditions. The natural flora of sea cliffs demonstrates how plants survive: they stay close to the ground and are adapted to the environment. Salt laden winds can play havoc with less resistant subjects many plant object by shedding leaves, getting scorched or just refusing to grow.
Soil is often stony, sandy and well-drained conditions can be dry in winter or summer a benefit to well adapted subjects but an additional stress to the vulnerable. A shrub with waxy or silver leaves has more resistance to both salt and drought. The simple solution to success when planting a beach garden is to choose plants that thrive, rather than those that struggle to survive.
Seaside gardens have a certain character and atmosphere. If you do not live by the coast but yearn for this type of planting don’t despair. You can create the impression of a coastal garden in any open sunny position with the help of a few well-positioned timbers, gravel, pebbles and maybe some thick rope or other seaside accessories. This type of scheme suits contemporary properties and sunny courtyards. It could also be used on a balcony or deck using suitable containers: maybe with a sea-green glaze or rusted metal.
Plants for coastal conditions
In any seaside scheme I would start with silver foliage. Its shining reflective quality just captures the spirit of the sea and gives a great basis to build upon. Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ is a tough shrub that will grow anywhere. Its broad, rounded silver backed leaves and felted stems stand up to the toughest conditions. Regular pruning maintains a neat, bushy, mounded plant. Prune when the grey flower buds appear in spring. The brash yellow flowers are not pleasing and are best removed before they open.
Flowers for a saline environment
The cotton lavender, Santolins chamaecyparissus is altogether softer and gentler in appearance. It too is best cut back before flowering unless you grow one of the pale-flowered forms. Santolina rosmarinifolia ‘Primrose Gem’ has greener foliage and soft creamy yellow flowers. It is far more attractive in bloom, particularly alongside any of the lavenders.
The butterfly lavenders, Lavandula stoechas varieties are less hardy than the English lavenders. So in the dried, milder conditions of a coastal garden they are more likely to succeed for a number of seasons. Like many plants that resist desiccation these have highly aromatic foliage laden with oils. Brush the leaves and you will find their fragrance is of lavender laced with menthol and eucalyptus.
The silky silver leaves of Convolvulus cneorum are perfect surrounded by gravel or in a glazed container. The hair-like filaments that cover the leaf surfaces are wonderfully reflective making the foliage shine brilliantly in strong sunshine. The pure white, purple-pink backed flowers are equally dazzling. Although this is not the hardiest of subjects it is surprisingly tough on well-drained soil in a sheltered spot.
Planting a Mild Coastal Garden
In exceptionally mild areas the lovely Convolvulus mauritanicus is a must for any coastal garden. Sheltering at the base of a sunny wall or cascading from a terracotta pot its profuse sky blue flowers carried on slender trailing stems are an uplifting sight. In colder areas grow it as a seasonal container plant or protect it in winter. It seems to bring a little of the Mediterranean to cooler shores.
Hebes thrive in coastal gardens. The larger leaved varieties that often succumb to disease inland remain healthy by the sea as salt air chases away those fungal spores. The small-leaved varieties are nonetheless hardier and tougher and cope in more exposed situations. Those with steely grey-green leaves combine will with the softer leaves of silver foliage plants. Hebe albicans is a good example: a compact little plant forming a tight dome spangled with pure white flowers in summer. The tiny single flowers of hebes are laden with nectar and very attractive to bees and pollinators.
Although usually thought of as a woodland plant the common honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum is really successful in coastal gardens. You often find its fragrant blooms amongst the cliff top vegetation in Cornwall, south-west England. This climber will grow as a sprawling, scrambling shrub and like the hebe its fragrant blooms will be a magnet for bees and pollinating insects.
Shrubs for a Coastal Garden
When it comes to larger shrubs, in positions sheltered from salt spry the large flowered lacecap and mophead hydrangeas excel. At the valley garden of Trebah, Cornwall four acres of hydrangeas colour the summer in shades of blue, indigo and purple. They seem to reflect the tones of the sea in the cove below the garden: deep, dramatic and changeable.
For those of us living inland a layer of gravel and pebbles over the soil surface keep winter wet away from the plants and help to reflect light and warmth. Not only can a garden of this kind bring a little seaside magic closer to home, it can also provide a more favoured growing environment for these sun-loving subjects.
. Read more Andy McIndoe is our Chief Blogger, and teaches five courses on the site. Andy has over thirty years experience as a practical horticulturist and consultant. He has designed and advised on gardens of all sizes and was responsible for the Hillier Gold Medal winning exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower for 25 years. A regular contributor to magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio, Andy lectures widely at home and abroad. Special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs, wildlife and garden design he has authored books on all of these subjects. A keen gardener Andy and his wife Ros have a two acre garden in Hampshire, U.K. that is open to groups by appointment. Started from scratch fifteen years ago, the garden is naturalistic in style, with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting. The emphasis is on foliage to provide colour and texture. W W . Read more
As gardener in a seaside community you need to always consider your choice of plants based on their saline-resistance. Not just salty soil, but especially salt-laden winds can wreak havoc with your beautiful plantings. Fortunately there are a number of plants that are eminently salt-resistant. Because of my location I will concentrate here on plants that grow in the beach areas of Florida.
The problem with salt
As we all know, salt attracts water. An excess of salt in the soil or air will prevent a plant from absorbing water properly and will actually cause the plant to secrete water, a process known as exosmosis. Leaf burn, leaf drop and eventually death of the plant will result with any plant that has no proven tolerance to high levels of salinity. In addition, a plant in our coastal areas will also have to withstand high winds, and airborne salty spray.
To make matters worse, the soil near the sea is generally sandy, lacking in organic matter, and therefore it retains less water and carries fewer nutrients than less porous soils. This makes plants growing in this area even more susceptible to salt damage
There is also the immediate risk of plants being submerged in salt water after a flood such as frequently occurs with hurricane force winds. During the especially active 2005 Hurricane season, the beautiful Key West Garden Club which is located in the historic Martello Tower in Key West had a 6-foot tidal wave rip through its grounds which left standing salt water for days afterwards. Nearly all trees in the beautiful gardens were either severely damaged or destroyed. but you wouldn't know it today. Visit their website for a look at how far they've come, and be sure to visit the gardens themselves if you're ever in Key West !
There are several grades of salt tolerance - some plants will thrive even on the sandy beaches, directly exposed to the salty air, others will require some protection and are frequently seen in medians and gardens in the vicinity of the sea.
Salt tolerant plants
Among the most salt-tolerant are the following. I am happy to see my beloved Plumeria trees included in this category! sea grape ( Coccoloba uvifera ) , pin oak ( Quercus palustris ) , white ash (Fraxinus americana ), red cedar (Juniperus silicicola) and the (in our area) ubiquitous saw palmetto ( Serenoa repens ) are all highly salt tolerant trees. Of course no beach scene is complete without a coconut palm ( Cocos nucifera) and these are also excellent choices for planting anywhere near the sea, as are true date palms (Phoenix dactylifera).
Filling in the spaces between these should be the following shrubs: Florida privet ( Forestiera segregata) , Natal plum ( Carissa macrocarpa), Bougainvillea ( Bougainvillea spectabilis ), Confederate jasmine ( Trachelospermum jasminoides) and oleander (Nerium oldeander) . Pomegranates (Punica granatum) are said to perform well in salty conditions too.
For accents reach for: English ivy (Hedera helix), Virginia creeper ( Parthenocissus quinquefolia ) can beinvasive. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.), coleus ( Coleus blumei) , juniper (Juniperus) and winterberry holly ( Ilex verticillata) as well as many succulents. For color use the following: beach rose (Rusa rugosa), ivy geraniums ( Pelargonium peltatum ) will do well in hanging baskets, Lantanas, Periwinkle ( Vinca minor) , morning glory ( Ipomoea ) , Kalanchoe (perennials in Florida ), the aptly named beach sunflower ( Helianthus debilis ) and some varieties of daylilies.
Moderately salt-tolerant plants
Go back 100 to 200 feet from the beach and gardening becomes easier. But still, there is a great deal of airborne salinity that plants should be able to withstand. Some Hoyas are pretty salt tolerant (H. halophila and H. diversifolia). Macadamia nut trees ( Macadamia integrifolia ) can take some degree of salt air, as do most citrus plants and figs. Most varieties of gardenia will accept salty air as does Erica. Honeysuckle ( Lonicera) , crabapple, and lilacs further north are all good choices.
As another solution to the salinity problem, you have the option of using plants in pots which can be sheltered when conditions are extreme, and after any exposure to direct salt water, such as after a hurricane, the pots can easily be flushed with fresh water to remove excess salinity.
All in all, there are plenty of choices for the beachside gardener!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 6, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Coastal gardens work well with a relaxed, uncultivated vibe. Photo: Armelle Habib / bauersyndication.com.au
- Coastal shrubs
Coastal rosemary (Westringia fruticosa), woolly bush (Adenanthos sericeus), diosma (Coleonema) and hebe are all great bushy shrubs that enjoy coastal areas, and will act well as fillers in your garden.
A range of succulents such as pigface (Carpobrotus), blue chalk sticks (Senecio serpens) and agave are all perfect for a coastal landscape.
- Grass varieties
Succulents are great when planted in contrast to grass varieties such as coast tussock grass (Poa poiformis), orange sedge (Carex testacea) or fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum).
By grouping your plantings closely together it will give them extra protection from coastal elements.
The Coastal banksia is a great textural plant option that will protect other plants from strong winds. Photo: Getty Images