||The productive coastal garden
It is quite possible to grow a wide range of fruits and vegetables in containers for siting on the deck or patio, but what about an area of the coastal garden dedicated to food crops? How can a productive kitchen garden be incorporated into a decorative garden, and can it be that productive anyway, bearing in mind the constant wind and salty air?
Gardens a few miles from the sea can generally accommodate a wide range of fruits and vegetables. But most vegetables and soft fruit will grow well only in a light, open, sunny site that is well sheltered from the wind. Top or tree fruits are hardier, but they will not appreciate a garden that is too exposed either.
Wind and salt can also cause serious damage, from which plants may not recover completely, include flagging and discoloured leaves and limp stems, and haphazard flowering with little or no setting. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the swelling of fruits and pods seems to stop. If these types of severe symptoms appear, then it is best not to grow these crops again, but to experiment with alternatives that might be more suitable.
Irrigate the vegetable plot with rainwater or tap water whenever it is required, but when you do make sure that the soil around the roots of the plants is thoroughly soaked, rather than just giving them a daily splash-about.
With regard to watering fruit trees and shrubs, always water in at planting time, and check regularly for dryness for the first year. In the case of bush fruits (blackcurrant, red currant, white currant, and gooseberry), it is usually advised to apply water at around 4 gallons per sq yd (20 litres per m2) every 10 days during dry periods from flowering until harvest time. With cane fruits, keep the water off the canes themselves, to minimize fungal problems.
Seaweed and shells: natural resources
Seaweed makes a good, bulky manure, and there is no doubt that liberal use of this (or well-rotted compost or manure) is an essential feature of kitchen gardening.
Unfortunately seaweed does attract flies, which will invade the house if windows are open, so it is best collected and hauled in winter, when there are fewer flies, and the seaweed itself is more plentiful. Also check with your local authority that seaweed harvesting is permitted.
Once home, it can then be spread on the soil, to be dug in when partially dried. Alternatively, it can be added to the compost heap, mixed with other green material, then covered with lawn clippings to encourage decay without the flies.
On many beaches seaweed comes mixed with broken shells. These contain a high proportion of calcium and, if spread on the soil in quantity, can have the effect of raising the pH level. This is usually most welcome in the vegetable garden, as the pH tends to drop as calcium is leached from the soil through continual cultivation.
Herbs for the coastal garden
Most of the plants we know as culinary (as well as medicinal and cosmetic) herbs originally came from dry areas around the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. In these places, the soils are often very poor or very sandy, or maybe both, so herbs are usually quite a good choice for seaside gardens in temperate countries.
Unfortunately, gardeners living in countries such as Canada and Scandinavia that have low winter temperatures usually have a little more trouble keeping herbs growing outdoors the year round. However, provided that winter temperatures do not fall much below 5°F (-15°C), then perennial culinary herbs are usually successful when grown within a few miles of the sea.
Members of the onion family, such as garlic (Allium sativum) and chives (A. schoenoprasum), do well near the coast. In temperate countries garlic may be left to overwinter in the ground as a perennial. Chives are familiar and useful herb onions, grown for their leaves. Both are drought- resistant and dislike waterlogged soil.
Mint (Mentha spp) is one of the most familiar of herbs, present in most gardens, whether or not there is a dedicated herb-growing area. There are many to choose from, all with subtly different flavours and aromas, and most will be happy close to the sea. Spearmint (M. spicata) is the type commonly used in chewing gum, and it goes well with new potatoes. But so does peppermint (M. x piperita) and applemint (M. suaveolens).
Mints thrive in full sun and ordinary soil, and they are drought-resistant. They can also become somewhat invasive if they are happy where they are, so it is a good idea to keep them from taking over the garden by planting them in containers sunk to their rims in the ground. Repot and thin out the congested pots every two or three years.
There are many forms of tarragon, but to most cooks the best type is the authentic, or French, tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus). It has narrow, elongated glossy leaves which have a subtle, slightly aniseed-like flavour.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is an untidy-looking plant with white or pinkish flowers; a much more attractive form, ‘Aureum’, has golden leaves.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus spp) both adapt well to coastal situations, as do feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis).
Lavender (Lavandula spp), catmint (Nepeta spp), rue (Ruta graveolens) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) all have culinary applications, but are probably best known for their medicinal properties.
These fruits are adversely affected by the wind, so make sure that some shelter is provided. In all but the most exposed of conditions, strawberries grow close enough to the ground to avoid any serious damage occuring to the fruit.
Blackcurrants, gooseberries, blackberries, loganberries and the other so-called hybrid berries (tayberry, sunberry, dewberry and so on) are damaged to some degree by constant winds, and raspberries and red and white currants do not cope at all in windy conditions.
There are two types of raspberry: those that fruit in the summer and those that are ready in the autumn and even into early winter. The summer varieties have quite a short season; however, they do produce high yields. The autumn types, on the other hand, will bear fruits from the end of summer through to the first frosts.
Problems associated with coastal gardens and raspberries are that these fruits do not like light, dry soils (they need a really moisture-retentive soil packed full of goodness, from well-rotted manure to garden compost), and they can be prone to greymould disease, which is often worse in damp seaside conditions.
Loganberries and strawberries are also prone to greymould. In the case of the latter it is therefore better to choose a variety, such as ‘Pantagruella’, which has smaller leaves and where the fruits stand well above them. In general they prefer a warm, sunny, sheltered position; this kind of position usually guarantees the best-flavoured berries.
Any of the fruits mentioned below can be grown successfully, but they are likely to have reduced crops as compared to similar trees growing inland. Yet again it is the wind that causes most problems.
New fruit trees should be planted as young as possible, as older or larger trees often have great difficulty in producing an adequate root system to hold the head of branches, leaves and – hopefully – heavy fruit crops in windy conditions. Regardless of age, good staking is crucial in the formative years. It is important also to make sure that the ties are secure to prevent chafing of the stem or trunk in the consistently windy weather.
Shelter, facilitated by windbreaks or fences, is the key to success. If flowering coincides with strong winds, the flight of pollinating insects will be reduced and less fruit will be the result. Similarly, if autumn gales come before ripening and picking (as they invariably do with the later-maturing varieties of apples and pears), windfalls will be more plentiful and storable crops will be diminished.
Even earlier in the summer, the developing fruits may be bruised by being banged against each other. Even the rasp of leaves can damage the skins of some fruits (including members of the plum, cherry and peach family).
Finally, there is the problem of scab and canker diseases, which are worse in the humid atmosphere near the sea. Scab attacks leaves and branches, and spoils the appearance of the fruit; canker kills twigs and branches, and even whole trees if left to spread. Both diseases can be controlled by spraying, but it must be thorough and, in moist conditions, more frequent as well – six or seven sprays during the year may be required; so if you prefer to grow your food organically, this may not be for you.
If you are prepared to go without ornamental climbers on your house or boundary walls, you may like to consider trained forms of fruit. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and plums can all be very successful when grown against wires. If grown facing the sun they will certainly be warm, and usually sheltered from the wind too, but you will probably need to pay attention to watering during the warmer months.
In general, vegetables grown in a coastal garden are likely to be far more successful than fruiting crops. With a little attention to detail, there is no reason why you should not have a full and productive vegetable garden. There are, however, a few points to bear in mind with certain crops.
The ‘pod and seed’ vegetables can roughly be divided into those that produce edible seeds (peas and broad beans) and those that are grown for their edible pods (runner beans and mangetout). The pods of French or dwarf beans can be eaten, or just the seeds from within them.
Runner beans need to be well staked and tied, otherwise they can be brought down swiftly in a windy garden. Dwarf varieties are especially suited to coastal gardens, as they are less affected by wind than the taller climbers. An alternative is not to stake the beans at all, but to allow them to run along the ground. The crops are just as heavy, but the beans are not straight, and picking them by working your way through and between plants can become tiresome.
Planning ahead is the key to getting a good runner bean crop, as the soil should be prepared several months beforehand, with masses of well-rotted compost or manure dug deeply.
Similarly, dwarf garden peas can be grown along the ground. They are often described as round or wrinkled – not a precise description of the shape of the pea, but more as a way of classifying them as hardy (round for autumn sowing) or tender (wrinkled for spring sowing).
Mangetout and sugar snap peas are bred to be eaten whole, pod and all. Mangetout (French for ‘eat all’) are ready when the pods are flat, before the peas inside have developed. Sugar snaps should be eaten once the peas are fully developed and the pods have rounded out.
These include such luminaries as cabbage (spring, summer, autumn and winter varieties), cauliflower, broccoli and calabrese, Brussels sprouts, kale, turnips and Swedes. Being root crops, and therefore very different in habit and shape to their ‘green’ cousins, the last two are not usually thought of as brassicas. But they are, and therefore just as susceptible to all of the foibles and weaknesses of the main members of the family – such as vulnerability to the fungal disease clubroot and being prone to attack by birds.
It is often desirable to earth up the taller winter brassicas, such as sprouting and winter broccoli and Brussels sprouts. At planting time the young plants should be set in a shallow drill drawn by a hoe. They are supported as the soil is levelled around them and in subsequent hoeing.
After this they are further supported by earthing up, as you would do with potatoes. The shallow ridge and furrow created against and next to the plants creates not only support for the stems, but also a certain amount of drainage.
Vegetables over winter
Winter lettuce, winter spinach, autumn-sown broad beans and peas, and spring onions can all be blown to pieces where strong winds sweep across exposed gardens. Shelter belts, windbreaks and fences can all save crops from devastation, but you may also wish to make use of garden frames, cloches or even polytunnels (if you have the space) to protect your plants.