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Best Plants for the Coast

January 27, 2017

Written by Dave G.

Gardening in sight of the sea presents special challenges. Most plants are sensitive to salt, which draws water from the leaves and roots by the process of osmosis. However, as the saying goes, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, and numerous plants have evolved mechanisms that protect them, and allow them to grow in areas where nothing otherwise would grow.

Not only are plants in coastal areas subject to salt in the wind, they can also be drenched directly with sea water during strong winds and storms. The soil is often sandy and low in both nutrients and water. Hurricanes may uproot them, or tear off branches. Gardening in these conditions has its own special problems, but with knowledge and planning they can be overcome.

Create Shelter with a Windbreak

Since the number of plants that will grow directly in the spray from the sea is limited, it makes sense to use those plants to create shelter. By planting them on the ocean side of a property, a lot of the salt will be trapped by them, leaving a much friendlier environment on the lea side, where many ordinary garden plants can then be grown. Putting in a shelter belt or windbreak is an important first step, and the plants chosen should be ones especially resistant to salt.

A screen to protect from salt spray and storms should have several rows, if space allows. On the ocean side it should begin with a row of tough, dense shrubs that will filter the wind at ground level, and trap salt. In the center there should be one or even two rows of taller trees, to slow down the wind higher up, and create a calm spot behind them. Additional rows can be added, and the details of creating windbreaks have been treated in our earlier blog ‘How to Create a Windbreak’. The principles remain the same for coastal areas, only the choice of plants will need changing.

Choose Salt-resistant Plants

The plants for a windbreak should be salt-resistant, and if you choose not to have a screen, but simply plant shrubs and trees on your property, then all of them should of course be resistant to salt too. So what plants are good choices?

Wax Myrtle

This tough plant should be in every coastal garden. Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera, is a native shrub that naturally grows in sandy, wind-swept coastal areas, so it is ideal for a garden by the sea. With its glossy, leathery leaves it can take a lot, yet it always looks attractive. It can grow as much as 5 feet a year when young, and rapidly reach 15 feet tall, or more, and 10 feet wide. Its dense, bushy growth makes an ideal screen from salt spray, and it can be trimmed as needed to keep it extra bushy and dense. Besides the rich-dark green of its foliage to please you, it also offers Bayberries – clusters of small seeds with a thick wax coating that has a strong, spicy aroma. These were made into candles for the holiday season by early settlers, and bayberry candles are still available at considerable cost, while now you will be able to make your own.

Japanese Holly

For a smaller shrub, or part of a mixed planting, Japanese Holly, Ilex crenata, is another broad-leaf evergreen suitable for a coastal garden. The Compact Japanese Holly has rounded leaves a little like boxwood, and grows over 5 feet tall and up to 9 feet wide. Its naturally-dense form will slow the wind, and resist storms, salt, drought and heat. It can also be easily trimmed into neat forms to grow on either side of your door, or as a specimen in the lawn. Wherever and however you use it, this is an easily grown plant that is sure to please. For more height – up to 10 feet tall, but narrower – choose Steeds Upright Japanese Holly, a form that will create a perfect hedge, as well as resisting salt and drought.

Southern Magnolia

It comes as a surprise to many that such a handsome plant as the Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is salt resistant. With its large, glossy leaves in a rich green, accented by the dense brown ‘fur’ on the underside, this tree is a real stand-out in any garden. The gorgeous scented white flowers that dot it all summer are icing on the cake, but a gorgeous icing they are. Yet such beauty will stand up to storms and salt spray, and can be planted in any coastal garden. Once established these trees are also very drought resistant. If you need a smaller tree, then the Little Gem Southern Magnolia only grows to a modest 25 feet and is ideal for a smaller garden, or an informal screen.

Sweetbay Magnolia

This magnolia, Magnolia virginiana, is closely related to the southern magnolia, and has the same salt-resistance. It also has the benefit of growing in wet ground, which can be common if you garden near the mouth of a river, or on a bayou. It differs from the southern magnolia in having a silvery surface under the leaf, creating beautiful ripples when a breeze passes through. It has the same beautiful, scented flowers as its southern cousin.

Crape Myrtle

For summer flower color, nothing beats crape myrtles, and with so many to choose from, in a wide range of colors, you can’t go wrong with these beach beauties. Although they lose their leaves in winter, from early summer to the end of fall they make up for it with a profusion of flowers, in large clusters. Different varieties are available in many sizes, from small shrubs to small trees, so there is sure to be something that works perfectly in your particular coastal garden.

Finally . . .

We have just touched on the possibilities for plants that will tolerate salty conditions, but this list will surely give you hope that even gardening on the coast can be rewarding and varied. While a few old favorites may have to be left out, you will discover lots of new plants that will help you create a beautiful garden, even in what seems at first glance to be a pretty hostile environment. Isn’t nature wonderful?