Home Plants suitable for gardens at the coast

Plants suitable for gardens at the coast

Wind and salt-tolerant shrubs, trees, annuals and perennials

Living on the coast can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the sea is warmer than the land in winter, so very hard frosts won’t be as severe.

Berberis atropurpurea (purple barberry) and Acanthus mollis (bear's breeches)
Berberis atropurpurea (purple barberry) and Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches) will tolerate a coastal environment

On the other, offshore breezes cool in summer, bringing mists. In winter, bitter easterly/north-easterly winds bring snow showers in from the North Sea on the East coast – and the threat of floods.

On the West, you have the perpetual battering of storms coming in off the Atlantic. All coasts have the dreaded curse of salt.

There are not many plants that relish a saline environment.

Don’t fight it – go with it. As a general rule, succulent or small greyish leaves are a decent indicator of salt tolerance. In the following recommendations, I’ve assumed a free-draining, sandy soil, with an east-facing exposed garden.

All plants are hardy. Check other members of the plant’s family – there are hundreds of varieties of aster or heather, for example.


Annuals, biennials and tender perennials

False bishop’s weed (Ammi majus): fern-like, divided leaves and large, branched umbels of small creamy-white flowers, 0.5-1 metres.

Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare): erect, bristly biennial to 75cm, with lance-shaped, hairy leaves and dense cylindrical spikes of bell-shaped violet-blue flowers in early summer.

Californian poppy (Eschscholzia): annual, dissected, blue-green foliage and single or semi-double flowers, in cream, yellow, orange, pink and red; prolific self-seeders, see featured picture above.

Rose campion (Lychnis coronaria): biennial, with silvery-grey felted leaves and lax sprays of long-stalked, vivid rose-purple flowers.

Think of your Mediterranean or Canary Island holidays – Pelargoniums (geraniums), hardy palms, Hibiscus, etc, all will tolerate salt-laden winds but go for the dwarf varieties. Check out my post on the planting in Funchal’s Municipal Garden in Madeira for some great ideas.


Herbaceous perennials

Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis): glossy, lobed foliage and tall white/purple flower spikes, 1-1.5 metres. Also A. spinosa, with spiky foliage and similar flowers, A. spinosa alba, with white flowers. A relatively new introduction is Acanthus mollis Tasmanian Angel, with large patches of cream variegation.

Yarrow (Achillea filipendulina): many varieties, eg Cloth of Gold grows to 1.8m, with large, flattened heads of bright yellow flowers.

Anenome (A. blanda var. rosea) Pink Shades: bronze-tinged lobed leaves, flowers 3cm wide have 9-14 narrow pale pink petals, 0.1-0.5m. A. nemorosa also suitable.

Sicilian chamomile (Anthemis punctata subsp. cupaniana): woody-based, evergreen perennial forming a loose mat to 30cm tall, with finely cut silvery foliage and yellow-centred white daisies.

Italian aster (Aster amellus): King George is a bushy, upright herbaceous perennial to 60cm, with dark green, oval leaves and yellow-centred, violet-blue daisies.

Thrift (Armeria maritima): mat-forming evergreen perennial with dense, needle-like leaves and erect flower stems to 15cm, bearing clusters of cup-shaped pink flowers.

Tussock bellflower (Campanula carpatica): clump-forming perennial to 30cm, with violet-blue or white flowers.

Eryngium (sea holly): steely blue thistle-like flower structures of dwarf The Hobbit (30cm) or pale grey of Miss Willmott’s Ghost, a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll (up to 1m).

Echinops (globe thistle): Metallic blue orbs, cobwebby much-divided leaves, flowers beloved of insects, up to 120cm.


Shrubs and small trees

Japanese laurel (Aucuba) Golden King: large glossy leaves blotched with gold, dark purple flowers in spring, 1.5-2.5 metres. (Any of the laurel cultivars are very resistant to salt and air pollution, which is why they’re a common feature in the urban landscape.)

Purple Japanese barberry (B. thunbergii f. atropurpurea): rounded, deep reddish-purple leaves which become deep red in autumn; small red-tinged pale yellow flowers followed by glossy red berries, 1-1.5 metres.

Heather (Calluna or Erica species): compact evergreen with red-brown foliage, becoming bright orange-red in winter. Flowers purplish-pink, in spikes.

Red-barked dogwood (Cornus spaethii): deciduous, suckering shrub with stems bright red in winter, variegated leaves, flowers cream in flattish clusters, berries white, 2.5-4 metres.

Four-stamen tamarisk (Tamarix tetrandra): lax, deciduous shrub/small tree with arching, almost black branches, minute green scale-like leaves and large plumes of light pink flowers in late spring, 2.5-4 metres.