Beach Gardens: Gardening on the Coast Has Plenty of Challenges-Wind, Sandy Soil, Salt Spray. Here Are Two Seaside Landscapes Designed to Thrive

By Cohoon, Sharon; McCausland, Jim | Sunset, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Beach Gardens: Gardening on the Coast Has Plenty of Challenges-Wind, Sandy Soil, Salt Spray. Here Are Two Seaside Landscapes Designed to Thrive


Cohoon, Sharon, McCausland, Jim, Sunset


ALL THE THINGS you love about the beach are better in a seaside garden. The quality of light, for instance: Whether it's a sunny day, when everything sparkles, or a gently over-cast day, when everything glows, seaside illumination--as every artist knows--flatters plants as much as people. Mild maritime weather also benefits plants by prolonging their bloom season. Wind swirling through tall grasses, ocean views framed by statuesque trees, and the tangy scent of salt are more enjoyable from the vantage point of a garden.

But salt, wind, and sandy or rocky soil make gardening near the coast a challenge as well as a pleasure. The secret, say the landscape designers who regularly face these conditions, is to work with the elements, not against them.

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"Over the top" on Puget Sound

When Peter and Susan Manning hired landscape designer Susan Calhoun to redo their south-facing garden on Bain-bridge Island, Washington, Calhoun asked, "Which direction do you want me to take it?" Peter answered, "Over the top." Despite Calhoun's caution that his request meant "lots of maintenance," the Mannings--he's an architect, she's an artist--told her to press on with a garden that people would remember. The results are shown on pages 114 and 115.

Calhoun started by considering scale. Because the garden would grow between a two-story house and a see-forever view, she chose large plants such as cardoon, big-leaved plants like canna, and, for textural contrast, grasses such as blue oat grass. Then she considered seasonal color, favoring a sunrise-to-sunset theme that blends reds, oranges, and purples (cannas, crocosmia, Persicaria 'Red Dragon', salvia, smoke tree, and coneflowers), as well as sea blues (catmint, Geranium 'Rozanne', lavender, Verbena bonariensis). The plantings, which fringe a central patio and firepit, back up against the house without blocking water views. Nine favorites that stand up to coastal conditions are pictured at left.

Because most of her work is along Puget Sound, Calhoun has learned to think of the wind as an ally, not as a problem. "I want the movement it brings to the garden, so I use large perennials and grasses that sway and shiver in breezes. I tuck plants that don't like the wind--Heuchera 'Marmalade' or 'Frosted Violet', for example--into protected spots behind rocks."

To help the plants adjust to the wind, Calhoun suggests planting the smallest sizes you can find. Younger plants, because they're shorter and more pliable than older ones, are better able to bend (rather than break) in the wind, and to develop a branch structure suited to those conditions. Similarly, because younger plants have spent less time in a nursery container, their roots are usually quicker to spread into surrounding soil, helping to support the top without the need for stakes. If prevailing winds are particularly fierce, however, planting a few trees along the waterfront will break their force and make life easier for plants and people in their lee. Pines do well everywhere and, in California, species like pink melaleuca and New Zealand Christmas tree are also good options.

DESIGN Susan Calhoun, Plantswoman Design, Bainbridge Island, WA (209/842-2453)

Breakwater terrace near Santa Barbara

A sandy path was the inspiration behind the terrace garden pictured at right. "The path was here when we bought the place, and I loved it," says Susan Sullivan, who owns the property in Carpenteria, California, with her husband, Connell Cowan. "To me it's the beckoning road to unknown possibilities. I insisted we keep it."

Sullivan and Cowan, unlike the Mannings, wanted a simple garden that would work well with the architecture of their home and that would not require much maintenance. …

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