When I bought my Cape Cod cottage by the bay, I dreamed of an English country-style garden, all lush and wild. And so for years I fertilized and watered, and replanted, and fertilized and watered some more, only to wind up with a few scraggly scraps of green. Which is how I found myself at my local garden center one day for a presentation on "How to Plant a Native Garden."
I remember the expert saying as he recommended beach plum, "This plant loves neglect. The more salt spray and sandy soil the better. Don't water it. Do not fertilize it. In fact, swear at it if you can." I knew, then, that I was in the right place.
Three years later, I have the lush and wild garden that I always wanted. In fact, I just spent this past weekend hacking (ahem, I mean delicately pruning) it all back. It's such a success that now I have to thin my garden. No matter, that's a problem I can live with.
And so here are my own tried and true recommendations for the most drought-and-pest-resistance, sandy-soil-loving, wind tolerant, easy-peasy perennials for the success seaside garden.
Photographs by Justine Hand except where noted.
Above: Photograph by Brian Parsons via Flickr.
If you live right on the beach, don't despair, because there are still a few plants for you, like Beach Peas. With a cheery purple or pink face, beach peas or Lathyrus japonicus is one of the few plants that can actually survive in dunes.
Plant them along your beach path for a rambling border, or in your sandiest garden soil. (Note, these are not the same as annual sweet peas, which I tried to plant in my garden one year only to find that bunnies think they are very yummy.) You can collect dried beach pea seeds following this handy how-to by Sea Bean Guide or buy Beach Pea Seeds from Smart Seeds via Etsy; $2.99 for 25.
Above: In my own garden, I planted a mix of Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) and Rosa rugosa. The lush, vibrant green leaves of bayberry not only look lovely against my gray siding, they also provide a substantial backdrop for smaller, more colorful plantings in front. Fast growing, bayberry is also excellent as a quick hedge, as long as you like the informal look. (Too much trimming otherwise.) I just give my bushes a good pruning in the late fall, and throughout the summer, any unruly bits I snip and take them inside as a fragrant accent in the bedroom or bath.
Note: if you want the berries from which you can make bayberry candles, you'll need a male pollinator and a female plant. Northern Bayberry is readily available at most local garden centers or at Home Depot; $8.99.
Above: Photograph via Prairie Hill Farm.
I've had great luck with Globe Thistle (Echinops bannaticus). Although it's not the instant hit like some of the other plants in my garden, this year with little more care than general fertilizer a couple times a season and water during the worst droughts, my globe thistle has finally reach dramatic proportions. Available online at High Country Gardens; $6.75 per plant.
Above: Photograph of Kalmus Beach, Cape Cod, by Bruce Christopher.
Intermixed with bayberry as my garden backdrop is Rosa rugosa. Though it is actually native to Japan, it does quite well in almost all northern coastal climes. (Sometimes, too well, as Rosa rugosa is considered invasive in some parts of Europe.)
With suckers that are prone to spreading, Rosa rugosa is better for covering a larger area and is especially beautiful in the early and late summer when blanketed in fragrant blooms. With white or magenta flowers against lime-colored leaves, it is perfect for both colorful and more neutral gardens. And then of course, in fall you have wonderfully bright persimmon rose hips. One further note: if you pick these aromatic blooms for indoor bouquets, as I do, wear gloves, as they are extremely thorny. You can buy varieties of Rosa rugosa at most local nurseries and at Heirloom Roses.
Above: Grass, of course. Beautiful when planted in large swaths as borders or in meadows, such as in this garden in Brittany by Cao Perrot, undulating grasses mimic the rolling sea. Grass also provides wonderful texture and subtle tones to the garden. My favorite varieties include: Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), spiky blue grass, switch grasses, fountain grass, and simple beach grass, which can be found, along with a long list of salt tolerant plants at Plant Delights Nursery. For a complete guide to grass gardening, you can't do better than Dutch designer Piet Oudolf's Planting, a New Perspective at Amazon; $25.95.
Above: Roses by the sea are really hard. My neighbor has been struggling with hers for as long as I've owned my seaside home. She is constantly dowsing them with toxic chemicals and finally resorted to putting chicken wire around each plant. But there are pest-resistant roses that love bad soil and almost no water: Dorothy Perkins, Memorial Rose, or my favorite: New Dawn. I wanted a rose-covered cottage, and I got it. All I do to achieve the profusion above is fertilize my New Dawn once in the spring and water only in the worst droughts. (Note: I did not put this rose in three years ago like the rest of the garden. This is an old rose which I inherited when I purchased the house. But still, they do grow fast.) New Dawn is available from Antique Rose Emporium; $18.95.
Above: Photograph by Boise Daily Garden Shot.
As well as it works in arid climates, English lavender also thrives by the coast. It particularly likes to be tucked into warm, sunny southern-facing nooks. But lavender needs its breathing space and doesn't like to be crowded by other plants, so give it plenty of room to grow. Munstead English Lavender is available at Home Depot; $17.99.
Above: Photograph via Wild Ginger Farm.
For some color in the front of my garden, I planted a couple of yarrow (achillea) plants. It is very drought resistant, but doesn't thrive on neglect like Rosa rugosa or bayberry. (Aka: some water is necessary.) My one frustration with yarrow is that most places (on Cape Cod at least) stock the really bright hues, which are too garish for my soft garden palette. Instead I look for the pale yellow petals and silver leaves of King Edward Yarrow, or the soft pinks of Appleblossom or Apricot Delight. You can buy King Edward Yarrow at Bluestone Perennials; $8.95.
Above: Photograph by Bob Cunningham.
Every year, my Grandmother and I used to harvest Beach Plum (Prunus maritima) for her special jelly. So this coastal fruit tree has a special place in my heart. From its lovely little white flowers that bloom in the early spring to the edible fruit in fall, this native gives all year round. Growing to about chest height, beach plum also makes an effective privacy screen. Beach Plum is available at Miller Nurseries; $10.85 per tree.
Above: Don't forget some winter color. Tall silver branches festooned with jolly red Winter Berries (Ilex verticillata) are one of my favorite holiday traditions. (I took this shot from the marsh walk at Coast Guard Beach last Thanksgiving.) Like with bayberry, be sure to buy the male pollinator, or you won't get the berries. Ilex Berry Nice Winterberry And Jim Dandy are available together at Greenwood Nursery; $44.95.
Above: I've also had a lot of success in my sunny seaside garden with the following: sweet Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) pictured above with popcorn daylilies; Buttered Popcorn Daylilies, which bloom all summer; as well as feathery Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), which is disease and pest resistant. I do also love cone flower (echineachia) and rudbeckia, but before they can flower, mine are always eaten by the bunnies that I choose not to battle. You may note the conspicuous absence of hydrangeas. That's because this ubiquitous blue flower does not fit my personal concept of a wild, wind swept coastal garden, so I do not have a lot of personal experience with them. I will leave it to Michelle to write that post.
Do you have any other favorite foolproof plants for the seaside garden? Please share. It's a harsh world out there, and we coastal gardeners have to stick together.
N.B.: For gardening ideas on a more exotic coasts, take a tour of Carol Chadwick's inspired Aegean garden.