How Do You Create a Garden -on or off the coast?

Gardens located on the coast are obviously ‘coastal’, but gardens that imitate the characteristics and style of the coast may also be called coastal.  Whether designing for a coastal site, or elsewhere, you can create this style of garden either way.

One of the great features of this type of garden is that it is more hardy and drought resistant than many other garden styles.  Consequently, most coastal gardens are comparatively low maintenance.  

Conditions on or near the coast are very different to inland. With the sun, the sand and salt water, living by the beach can be fabulous. Unfortunately these conditions can make it difficult for plants. Nevertheless, there are many wonderful plants adapted to these situations.  

If you understand what is unique about coastal places, then set about duplicating that in your garden design, you can create a coastal garden anywhere.  This can be achieved with coastal plants and features, fine sand as mulch, a Polynesian style gazebo, and edge pathways with thick rope strung between chunky timber posts. This sort of approach can make your garden feel very much like the beach, even if the beach is hundreds of miles away.

Try incorporating some of the following elements into a garden, and in doing so you can move thew style toward a coastal one.

  • An informal design (not symmetrical)
  • Hardy and often dwarfed plants
  • Open sunny spots in the garden
  • Bright colours
  • Polynesian architecture, sculpture and other features (eg. bamboo or thatched walls, thatched roofing)
  • Sand
  • Thick, lush lawn
  • Coastal artifacts as features (eg. an old boat, anchor, crayfish pot, shells, driftwood, thick marine ropes, fishing nets)
  • Beach or summer outdoor furniture (eg. brightly coloured beach umbrella, deck chairs)
  • Traditional coastal plants such as palms.

If you are actually creating a garden on the coast; you need to do more than just create the impression of being coastal.
Coastal gardens have to be designed to protect plants and other garden elements from the harmful effects of weather and climate.  There are a number of techniques for establishing gardens in coastal situations:

  • Build wind barriers such as hedges, fences and walls.
  • Install shade cloth to protect more sensitive plants.  Install tree guards.
  • Stake plants that are exposed to strong winds.
  • Treat metal surfaces for rust (on metal gates, wire fences, etc.)
  • Grow salt and wind tolerant plants, especially in areas directly exposed to sea breezes.
  • Grow plants in raised beds so that salt can be leached out of the root zone.  

One great benefit of gardening by the ocean is that temperatures are more stable. Daytime temperatures are often moderated by a coastal breeze, and overnight temperatures don’t drop as low at night and there is much less chance of frost.  Many coastal sites survive a night without frost, while places only a few kilometres further inland, or at higher altitudes are covered in a layer of white. Although this makes it impractical to grow plants such as tulips and fruit trees that need cold temperatures to initiate flowering, it is possible to grow many plants at higher altitudes than would otherwise be the case.

With so much water nearby, beach side areas often become very humid, particularly on hot days and in sheltered areas that don’t catch the breeze. Humid conditions can encourage fungal diseases to flourish, damaging the growth of many plants.  

Wind And Windbreaks
Sea winds can place great stress on plants. Plants growing right on the water’s edge will often grow on an angle as this serves to protect them from the wind. Plants with a strong root system or those that can bend with the wind will do best by the coast.

Coastal winds damage plants in several ways:

  • Causing physical damage to limbs, especially in storms.
  • Causing stunting (shortened limbs and small leaves), as a result of long-term exposure.
  • Carrying salt deposits that accumulate on foliage, poisoning the leaves.
  • Carrying sand that abrades leaf tissues, resulting in leaf drop and shoot die back (often called wind pruning).
  • Carrying salt deposits that accumulate in the soil.
  • Causing erosion of soil that exposes plant roots to salt winds and reduces their nutrient uptake resulting ultimately in death.

A barrier that prevents or slows down the prevailing wind, therefore, is paramount in a coastal garden. A good windbreak greatly enhances the variety of plants that can be grown in the garden.

Salty air and soil can damage and even kill many types of plants. Salt is carried by wind and is deposited on the plants and onto the soil. It can cause severe leaf burn and defoliation; over time the plants become stunted and fail to thrive, especially those growing on the seaward side. The problem is compounded as salt accumulates in the soil.

Choosing salt-hardy plants and blocking the passage of salt-laden wind are the best strategies. Generally speaking, plants with glossy green leaves are less likely to suffer from salt poisoning.

It is a good idea to hose down plants once a week to prevent the build-up of salt on their foliage deposited by wind and rain.

Coastal soil is usually sandy. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Sandy soil has excellent drainage, but it can dry out quickly and tends to be low in nutrients.  Plants that like free draining conditions will flourish, but plants that need moist, fertile conditions are unlikely to thrive.

Because coral and sea shells can cause a rise in soil pH, coastal soil is often (but not always) alkaline. This means that many plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen and iron, are not readily available to plants. If the pH is too high, many plants will not be able to survive.

Mulching is a good idea in the coastal garden and indeed the seaside provides an excellent source of mulch in seaweed.