I’m thinking of summer and gardens to be made. At this time of year my fingers long for the feel of soil! If you live where the soil is good, choosing and growing plants is always interesting—and sometimes challenging—but easier than choosing plants for seaside gardens. They have unique conditions that must be carefully considered when planning a garden: hot sun, sandy soil that might have minimal nutrition, salty soil, extreme winds and hot temperatures.
Creating a windbreak for the beds can be done with shrubs or fencing and will probably be needed if your beds are in an exposed area. Next, it’s important that you analyze the soil when starting a new garden. You might discover, for example, sandy soil, which provides excellent drainage but poor nutrition. An analysis can be performed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead. They will tell you what your soil needs and it can be reanalyzed when you have amended it.
You might need to add a good amount of compost and some worm castings. Compost will add nutrients and increase water retention capacity. Worm castings are one of my favorite soil amendments. Fertilizer might be needed to make up for missing nutrients. Be sure to use a completely organic one. Chemicals will destroy the microbes you are trying to add to the soil. Use mulch to continue building the soil and to help retain moisture.
Your plants will like a shower of fresh water now and then to remove salty build-up. An episode of strong wind might contain a lot of salt, which can burn even your salt-tolerant plants and deposit salt onto the soil. If so, plants will need a good wash and the soil might need a good drenching.
Irrigation should be applied at ground level in all garden beds; but plants for seaside gardens should be chosen for drought tolerance.
Because I haven’t had a lot of experience building seaside gardens, I would need to do some experimenting, which is one of the best ways to learn about gardening! If I were going to build one, I would first consider the following: What kinds of plants are growing naturally in similar locations? How close is the intended bed to the ocean? Is there a natural windbreak—dunes, natural shrub borders, even a house or other buildings? Given the location I have chosen, will I need a windbreak?
I would consider a grass bed using plants like panicum virgatum (switch grass), Molinia caerulea (purple moor grass), one of my favorites, with additions of kniphofia (red hot poker), achillea (yarrow), sea lavender (statice) and solidago (goldenrod). A bed of rosa rugosa (beach rose) would be appropriate, maybe with cystus (broom) and perovskia (Russian sage). Other plants to be considered: lavender, woody-stemmed herbs like rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, rue (another favorite), oregano and tansy.
Though I’m usually a “more is more” gardener, I like to leave a seaside garden minimal to emphasize the water. I might add some specimen-type pots simply planted, perhaps with sculptural succulents.
As with all gardens, we must be willing to experiment and make mistakes. Gardening by the seaside has unique challenges, including many microclimates, even at the same location. It might be good to start with one or two beds. Seaside locations can be very sculptural in themselves, so locate the beds to fit into the sculpture.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com