Wind, salt spray and dry sandy soil – creating a beach garden on the coast is challenging, says Adrienne Wild
To make your beach garden lush and colourful you need to look for plants with tough or waxy leaves or hairy foliage to block salty winds.
Slim grassy leaves and the broader swords of phormiums and cordylines will also shrug off stiff coastal breezes and ornamental grasses will add wonderful movement as well as texture and colour to your planting schemes.
Do your homework before you shop for plants, making sure that the ones you like are suitable for maritime conditions and, if you have a south-facing plot, can withstand the sun.
For ideas and inspiration, visit or at least research, some of the many coastal conditions found in beach gardens around Britain.
A good starting point is Prospect Cottage at Dungeness in Kent. This beach garden was created by the late film director Derek Jarman, who created an interesting garden on a bleak and barren landscape.
There, plants grow in the most hostile conditions, on shingle and calcareous soil that is parched by sun and salt-laden drying winds in summer, with no shade to be had for miles.
In the winter, sea storms rage and Siberian winds bite but the sea kale (Crambe maritima), horned poppies and valerian remain unscathed. Other plants include Californian poppies, lavender and santolina, which can tolerate fine sandy soil.
Plants that thrive
Jarman also used washed-up driftwood, metal, rope and pebbles and flint stones to create patterns, border edges and sculptural focal points to form the beach garden’s backbone.
There is a rich selection of other herbaceous perennials that will thrive in poor dry soil conditions and salt-laden winds. These include asters, agapanthus, centaurea, crocosmia, pinks and poppies, eryngium, iris, red hot pokers and fleshy-leaved sedums.
There’s also a good selection of grasses and shrubs, like cotoneaster, elaeagnus, hebe, hydrangea and tamarix among others that like to live by the sea.
A number of these tough plants, including escallonia, fuchsias and griselinia can also be used as decorative hedges as they will filter harsh winds.
For these plants to thrive, always plant well, adding plenty of organic matter such as compost or farmyard manure to help the soil retain some of the vitamins and minerals and moisture at the roots. And to give a seaside finish, topdress borders and containers with a seashell mulch or aquamarine-coloured glass aggregate.
Some parts of Britain’s coast are situated in the currents of the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, enabling beach gardens to grow a range of sub-tropical, exotic-looking plants.
One of the Scilly Isles, Tresco, boasts Abbey Garden, a sub-tropical garden containing more than 20,000 plants, most of which are non-indigenous, but which, nevertheless, thrive in this unique microclimate.
The warm air coming from the south west brings mild, wet weather to many Cornish (and even Scottish) gardens. In the valley bottoms, where the air hangs still, plants grow lush and it’s not unusual to find Dicksonia tree ferns, chusan palms, bamboos and the Brazilian giant rhubarb, Gunnera manicata.
Mature and rare trees and woodlands of wild flowers and studded with rhododendrons are a feature of the Cornish gardens that are protected from coastal winds. Caerhays Castle Garden, near St Austell, is a first-class example with 35 record-breaking trees.
It also boasts an one of the earliest camellia plants to reach our shores, from plant-hunting expeditions to China in the 19th century, and is home to the National Collection of Magnolias.
Plants thrive here due to the garden’s microclimate. Sea mists bathe the woodland in moisture, which is similar to the Chinese mountain habitats from which so many magnolias and rhododendrons originate. In addition, the acidic soil is ideal for growing ericaceous plants.
You can give a sheltered part of your garden the ‘lush look’. Use bold-leaved hostas, ferns and phormiums alongside architectural stalwarts such as cordylines, Trachycarpus fortunei and Chamaerops humilis – palm-like plants that don’t seem to mind the British climate. Plants can be grown in pots and grouped together to create a humid microclimate.
For inspiration, pay a visit to Will Giles’ exotic Norfolk garden in Norwich, featuring brugmansia (Angel’s trumpets) and different varieties of hedychiums and alpinias (gingers) and bananas.
Cold winds and salt cause plants to be stunted, so choose plants that are suited to the conditions, and plant them while they are small and easier to establish or shelter them from the prevailing wind.
At East Ruston Gardens, close to the North Sea in Norfolk, you will see how hedgerows, shelter belts of pines, alder and eucalyptus and sculpted banks provide shelter for borders filled with plants including grasses and wild flowers. It’s a beach garden that proves that with the right know-how, anything is possible!