Beachfront living is tough if you’re a plant. Salt spray, searing sun, erosion, drought and hurricane-force winds exclude all but the toughest plants from coastal gardens, but luckily they are also some of the most spectacular.
If you live in a warm climate, but your favorite landlubbing plants are having a hard time getting their sea legs, follow these tips for a resilient and undemanding beachfront escape.
Use native plants. The best rule of thumb for gardening on the beach is to use plants that belong there in the first place. If you’re unsure of what natives will thrive on your beach, enjoy a walk in the closest beachfront nature preserve and take some photos to show the staff at your garden center.
Native coastal plants are an asset to your property because they stabilize the dunes by growing right up to the high-tide line and holding the sand in place with their specialized roots and stems. Of course, the term “native” is relative depending on where you live, so learn what beachside plants are native to your area before planting.
Choose salt-tolerant plants. Salt spray presents the biggest challenge to those looking to create a beachside garden, as many plants become burned or outright killed by salty breezes. Worse yet, storms sometimes inundate gardens with a dangerous storm surge of pure saltwater. Native plants are the best candidates for the space closest to the water’s edge, but beyond that there are colorful and architectural exotic plants that will also thrive.
The bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spectabilis, zones 9 to 11) shown here is one of the better vines for beachfront plantings, due to its flamboyant, vivid colors and great resistance to salt, drought and winds.
Shrubs like the dwarf bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis ‘Little John’, zones 8b to 11) are essential for beachside gardens, because they diffuse salty winds, protecting plants and making the garden more livable.
Some plants can take more salt than others, so plant the toughest ones closest to the shore and plant the more sensitive ones in the shelter of a building, dunes or tall shrubs. Some of the most tolerant choices include sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa, zones 8 to 11), spider lily (Hymenocallis latifolia, zones 9 to 11), natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa, zones 9b to 11) and firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis, zones 9 to 11).
Use local materials. Using locally sourced landscaping materials is not only environmentally friendly, but it will save you money and look a lot more natural. Why work against your landscape, especially when so many excellent materials are right under your nose?
Native stones can also be used to create stone pavers, statuary and stucco. In Pacific coast areas, volcanic stones such as basalt are a useful and workable addition to gardens.
Native plants are useful even in their afterlife, lending regional flavor via hardwoods for building, palm fronds for thatching and leaves and needles for mulching.
Create drama. Coastal gardeners might have a smaller selection of plants than most gardeners, but there are still so many opportunities for impact. This drought-tolerant cabbage tree (Cordyline australis, zones 8b to 11) becomes a focal point amid the simplified shapes and muted colors of dwarf pittosporum (Pittosporum crassifolium ‘Compactum’, zones 8 to 11) and foxtail agave (Agave attenuata, zones 10 to 11).
Naturally occurring beach landscapes are visually pleasing because they contain only the few plants that can handle the demanding seaside conditions, creating the appearance of a well-tended and salt-pruned garden. Take a page from Mother Nature’s book and plant masses of proven and beautiful plants. Alternate fine-foliaged (small-leaved) plants with course (large-leaved) ones to keep the scene interesting, and arrange them in naturalistic curving swaths to imitate the beach and surrounding landscape.
Use drought-tolerant plants. It’s highly likely that your coastal soil is mostly sand, so forgo thirsty turfgasses and finicky plants whenever possible and opt for a water-wise alternative.