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 why one day, I found myself at my local garden center 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 I’d come to the right place.
Three years later, I have the lush and wild garden I always wanted. In fact, I spent this past weekend hacking it all back (ahem, I mean delicately pruning). Yes, I now 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-resistant, sandy-soil-loving, wind-tolerant, easy-peasy perennials for the successful seaside garden.
Photography by Justine Hand, except where noted.
If you live right on the beach, don’t despair. There are a few plants for you, like Beach Peas. With a cheery purple or pink face, the beach pea, or Lathyrus japonicus, is one of the few plants that can actually survive on a dune.
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. I tried those 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 a packet of 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. The 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; throughout the summer, I snip any unruly bits and take them inside as a fragrant accent in the bedroom or bath.
Note: If you want berries to make bayberry candles, you’ll need a male pollinator and a female plant. Northern Bayberry is readily available at most garden centers or at Home Depot, where a 3-gallon pot is $35.49.
I’ve had great luck with Globe Thistle (Echinops bannaticus). It may not be an instant hit like some of my other plants, but last year my globe thistle finally reached dramatic proportions. All it took was a little fertilizer a couple of times per season and water during the worst droughts. Available online at Digging Dog Nursery; $7.25 per plant.
I mix Rosa rugosa with bayberry as my garden backdrop. Though it’s actually native to Japan, it does quite well in most northern coastal climes. (Sometimes too well; Rosa rugosa is considered invasive in parts of Europe.)
With suckers that are prone to spreading, Rosa rugosa is good for covering a large area. It’s especially beautiful in early and late summer, when it’s blanketed in fragrant blooms. The white or magenta flowers against lime-colored leaves make it perfect for both colorful and more neutral gardens. And in fall, of course, you have wonderfully bright persimmon-colored rose hips. One further note: If you’re picking the aromatic blooms for a bouquet, wear gloves, as they are extremely thorny. You can buy varieties of Rosa rugosa at most nurseries and at Nature Hill Gardens, where a Rosa Rugosa F. J. Grootendorst Hybrid is $44.95.
Above: Grass provides wonderful texture and subtle tones to the garden. It’s beautiful when planted in meadows or in large swaths as borders. Undulating grasses mimic the rolling sea. My favorite varieties: Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), spiky blue grass, switch grasses, fountain grass, and simple beach grass, which can be found at Plant Delights Nursery, along with a long list of salt-tolerant plants. For a complete guide to grass gardening, you can’t do better than Dutch designer Piet Oudolf’s Planting, a New Perspective at Amazon; $26.45.
New Dawn Rose
Above: Traditional roses by the sea are hard. My neighbor has struggled with hers for as long as I’ve owned my seaside house. She’s constantly drenching 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 one. All I do to achieve the profusion shown here is to fertilize my New Dawn once in the spring, and water only in the worst droughts. (Note: I inherited this old rose when I purchased the house. But still, they do grow fast.) New Dawn is available from Antique Rose Emporium; $18.95.
As well as it works in arid climates, English lavender also thrives by the coast, particularly when tucked into a warm, sunny, southern-facing nook. But lavender dislikes being crowded by other plants, so give it plenty of room to grow. Munstead English Lavender is available at Home Depot; $17.99.
For color in the front of my garden, I planted a couple of yarrow (achillea) plants. It’s drought-resistant, but it doesn’t thrive on neglect like Rosa rugosa or bayberry (i.e., some water is necessary). My one frustration is that most places on Cape Cod only 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; $9.95.
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. Since it grows to about chest height, beach plum also makes an effective privacy screen. Beach Plum is available at Stark Bros; $12.99 per tree.
Above: Don’t forget some winter color. Tall silver branches festooned with jolly red Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are one of my favorite holiday traditions. (I took this shot from the marsh walk at Coast Guard Beach on Thanksgiving.) As with bayberry, you’ll need to buy the male pollinator in order to get 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 plants: sweet Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), $5.95 from the Grower’s Exchange (pictured above with popcorn daylilies); Buttered Popcorn Daylilies, which bloom all summer and are $14.95 from Oakes Daylilies; and feathery Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia ($12.45 from White Flower Farm), which is disease- and pest-resistant. I do 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 doesn’t fit my concept of a wild, windswept coastal garden, so I don’t have a lot of experience with them. I’ll 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.
For gardening ideas on a more exotic coast, take a tour of Carol Chadwick’s inspired Aegean garden.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.
N.B.: This is an update of a post originally published June 19, 2013.