||COASTAL GARDEN STYLE
Stylish living is what many of us strive for, and this usually manifests itself in the way we decorate and furnish our homes. But our gardens can also be incredibly stylish, and how we create and maintain them can say a great deal about us as individuals.
It takes a brave person to start a garden just a few metres from the sea’s edge. We have already learned that the wind, sand and strong saline conditions can cause havoc in such situations. If these are overcome, however, the rewards (and the views) can be well worth the effort.
Gardening by the sea
Wind straight off the sea damages plants in several ways. Of course there is the obvious matter of branches falling from trees and, in severe instances, the trees themselves toppling over. But in the long term, wind and salt cause plants to be stunted, with smaller foliage and shortened branches. Tender shoots and buds emerging in spring are frequently ‘burnt’ by
wind and salt, but extreme sunlight can also
take its toll on these.
The strategy to deal with these conditions is to:
• Put up planted windbreaks or artificial screens/fences
• Choose plants that are tough and suited to such conditions.
If the garden is situated to the rear of a sandy beach, then there is another element that must be considered: planting in sand.
Soils of sand
Those who have to plant in sandy soil undeniably face greater gardening obstacles than almost anyone else. The main problem with a soil that is mostly sand is that it drains instantly and retains very little moisture, so plants growing in it must be highly drought-tolerant.
A secondary problem with sand is that it gets hot; the relentless summer sun can make it burning to the touch, so plants growing in it must also tolerate extreme heat. Foggy or rainy days at the beach may be loathed by holiday-makers, but they are essential for these plants – even if these cooler conditions give only short-term respite.
In conventional gardening the rule is always that, before plants are planted, the soil should be prepared – dug, weeded and, if the soil is ‘hungry’, well-rotted compost or manure should be incorporated into it. In thin, sandy, fast-draining soils, organic matter like this helps to retain essential moisture. Luckily, those living near to the sea have a ready source of organic matter – seaweed (see page 94).
Interestingly, planting in the dry sandy dunes set back from the water’s edge is more difficult than right at the shoreline because the groundwater level at the dunes is much deeper and therefore less accessible to plant roots.
At the water’s edge the groundwater is somewhat higher and the air is damp with spray. However, planting here is suitable only for those plants that are extremely tolerant of salt-laden
spray and groundwater.
The importance of fresh water
Trees and shrubs are, without doubt, the thirstiest
of a seashore garden’s network of permanent plants. Just think about how much water a mature 60ft (18m) tree needs to absorb to fill all of its growing cells – every day. The good news is that a tree of this size will usually be able to look after itself; its roots will penetrate far and deep, and will tap in to the water table.
The most crucial period for a tree to be given supplementary water is during the first few years after planting. Watering – with fresh water, never sea water – at planting time settles the sand or soil particles around the roots, enabling newly developed root hairs to take up water.
But new roots will take time to develop and search out water, so adequate supply needs to be on hand as the leaf canopy develops and the tree demands increasingly more water.
Smaller perennial and bedding plants will usually appreciate quite a bit of supplementary watering during hot weather – the bedding plants usually showing signs of dehydration before the perennials. If the area is densely planted, a sprinkler may be employed to good effect, but make sure that the water spray does not land on uncultivated ground for this would be a serious waste of water.
Bulbous plants tend to have their own reserves of moisture stored within the bulb. The few fleshy roots that emit from the base of the bulbs are there to absorb supplementary soil moisture when the bulbs start to get dry.
Rules of planting
Part of the success in establishing plants in these hostile conditions is in planting them whilst they are small. They are easier to plant when small, they are more likely to survive and, because they are cheaper, you can choose more of them.
If you are planting an area that is devoid of plants, and you have a ‘blank canvas’, it is a good idea to set out the plants whilst they are still in their pots. This will give you an idea of what the eventual display will look like (although you will need a little imagination to visualize them when fully grown). Most plant labels give dimensions of height and spread when the plants are fully grown, and it is important to take note of these.
You can then improve the spacings and placings accordingly. It is all too easy to set out plants too close to each other, which can encourage weak and spindly growth. Conversely, in aesthetic terms, gardeners often space the plants too far apart, and the border, or dune, can look sparse.
Just before you put any of these plants in the ground, apply a dressing of bonemeal fertilizer over the area at the rate of 2oz per sq yd (65g per sq m). Work it into the surface of the sandy soil, using a hoe or rake, tread the area until firm, then rake it until it is level.
In many sheltered gardens, it is not always absolutely necessary to stake trees (although gardening books always tell you to). However, because a garden on the shoreline is so exposed,
a stake should always be used to support small trees. It should be driven into the hole before planting the tree, so as to avoid damaging the tree’s roots. The top of the stake should come up just to the base of the first outward branches, to avoid unnecessary rubbing.
Where to source plants
Finding places that sell these hardcore maritime plants is not always easy, but we do list a few international suppliers at the back of this book. Even as recently as 1990, it was almost impossible to find specialists in salt-, wind- and sand-tolerant plants, and you are even today unlikely to find them for sale in traditional garden centres.
However, gardening tastes have changed considerably over the past few decades, and the current fashions for natural, wild and wildlife-friendly gardens have allowed more of our desirable seaside plants to become available. Also, as we will discover later in the book, many conventional garden plants, somewhat surprisingly, are able to cope admirably with the conditions found at the shoreline.