What to plant in a coastal garden…

August 23rd, 2020
Posted In: Gardening know how

Coastal garden plants are beautiful, easy-care and very resilient.

If your garden is dry or windy and has poor soil, then plants which grow naturally in coastal areas will work beautifully for you.

Or you might want to create a complete coastal garden, like this garden in Whitstable designed by Posy Gentles.

Coastal garden designed by Posy Gentles

This coastal garden in Whitstable was designed by Posy Gentles.  It’s a few hundred yards back from the beach itself, so is more sheltered than one which faces the sea. Plants include fennel, gaura, eryngium and verbascum.

What to look for in coastal garden plants

Posy says that you should look for plants that withstand drought well. They also need to cope with wind.

Plants that sway in the wind won’t be permanently flattened by strong winds and storms. They include grasses, gaura and umbellifers, such as fennel. Low growing plants also survive wind well, as do plants with small or narrow leaves.

Grasses are good coastal garden plants

Plants that are good in windy gardens include grasses, such as this Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ in a front garden in Whitstable designed by Posy Gentles.

However, if you live by the sea in a temperate climate, you’re less likely to get frosts, so you may be able to have quite tender plants. ‘That’s why you often see palms or agaves growing in seaside gardens,’ says Posy.

Cordylines for coastal gardens

Cordylines are an exotic looking plant to grow in a sheltered garden near the sea. Coastal areas generally have milder winters and less frost. So if you have a sheltered garden a few hundreds yards back from the sea, you can often grow tender exotics, such as cordylines or palms. This is a mature cordyline and has been in the garden for decades.

These are her picks of seaside garden plants. These plants will also work well in dry or windy gardens, and gardens with poor soil.

Best evergreen coastal garden plants

  1. Escallonia (several types). A classic seaside evergreen for hedges with pretty pink flowers.
  2. Myrtle (Myrtus communis) A small tree or large shrub with pretty white flowers
  3. Pittosporum tobira A slow growing evergreen shrub with scented white/yellow flowers and small leathery leaves.
  4. Lavender – loves dry conditions and poor soils. Evergreen blue-grey foliage.
  5. Rosemary – upright and prostrate. Evergreen dark green needle-type foliage

    Myrtle trees for coastal gardens

    A pretty myrtle tree in flower in Whitstable’s Harbour Street.

Best perennial coastal garden plants

  1. Mullein (Try Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ or Verbascum bombyciferum)
  2. Salvias – there are lots of varieties but most will do well in full sun, poor soil and dry conditions
  3. Fennel – You’ll see wild fennel on beaches. Try bronze fennel in gardens.
  4. Sea kale (Crambe – various). Crambe maritima grows wild on beaches and Crambe cordifolia is a very tall garden perennial (2.5m)
  5. Valerian (Valerian officinalis) An easy perennial with pretty pink or white flowers. Often seen growing wild.
  6. Globe thistle (Echinops – various). Blue or white pom-pom flowers, much loved by pollinators.
  7. Sea holly (Eryngium – various) – spiky architectural white, blue or grey flowers that look a bit like thistles.
  8. Red hot pokers (Kniphofia – various, yellow and orange as well as red). Striking spears of vivid colour.
  9. Gaura (Gaura lindheimerei – various).  Exceptionally long flowering period from midsummer to autumn. Pretty white/pink flowers
  10. Verbena bonariensis. Sometimes considered a self seeding annual, I’ve found that this plant prefers to be growing out of paving cracks rather than planted in a rich herbaceous border.
Pelargoniums for seaside garden pots

This garden was designed by Posy and has verbascum, eryngium, fennel and gaura. The red pelargonium in the pot was added by Amanda, the garden owner, and is a good choice. Pelargoniums grow well in dry conditions and come in hundreds of colours.

White valerian on Whitstable Beach

White valerian growing wild on Whitstable West Beach. Many consider valerian to be a weed, but it has attractive pink or white flowers and is very good in dry, windy conditions or poor soils.

3 good coastal garden shrubs and grasses

  1. Rosa canina or ‘dog rose’ is a wild rose in the UK.  Many other roses can be good in coastal conditions, and rose growers can tell you which varieties. But see ‘What NOT to plant in a coastal garden’ for more about roses and beaches.
  2. Broom (Genista – several types, also Cytisus – various) Spiny shrubs with yellow pea-like flowers. The two plants are both known as ‘broom’ and look very alike, but Genista tolerates lime soils better.
  3. Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’). ‘Many grasses will work well,’ says Posy. ‘But there are a few that need moist conditions, so check on the label or ask the grower.’

What NOT to plant in a coastal garden

Plants that do well on beaches are easy care and resilient. This makes them more likely to become invasive, especially when they out-compete native plants. On UK beaches, Rosa rugosa has been identified as invasive. You ‘must not plant in the wild or cause to grow in the wild’ certain non-native species, listed . You can be fined or sent to prison.

Rosa rugosa is still widely for sale. When I originally researched this post, I included Rosa rugosa , checking it on the RHS website and a number of others. I saw that it was widely recommended for ‘coastal gardens.’

When the post was published, however, I was informed on Twitter that it was listed under Schedule 9 of the UK Wildlife & Countryside Act as an ‘invasive non-native species’. This doesn’t stop it being sold and you can plant it in your garden.

But you must control it and must not allow it to spread outside your garden. If you live very close to the beach, it would be unwise to plant it as you are unlikely to be able to control its spread.

Other common garden plants also on this list include Rhododendron ponticum and Cotoneaster horizontalis. They are still all sold, including on the RHS website. See the full list on the RHS website here.

Information on this topic generally appears confusing and contradictory for gardeners, especially as so many of the plants on Schedule 9 are for sale on highly respected websites.

Rosa rugosa on Whitstable Beach

Rosa rugosa on Whitstable West Beach. It’s a good rose for dry windy conditions and poor soils, but is a forbidden plant under the Wildlife & Countryside Act as it spreads easily and has become invasive on many beaches. However many companies still sell it or recommend it for coastal gardens.

Broom plants growing on the beach

Broom pops up on beaches everywhere. There are several types of shrub commonly called ‘broom’ – Genista and Cytisus are the two best known.

Are you directly on the beach or relatively sheltered?

There is also a difference between having a garden that directly faces the seafront and a garden that is a couple of streets further back.

If your garden is actually on the sea, you’ll need plants that can cope with strong winds and some salt spray.

But if you are even just a few hundred yards back, then you can enjoy some shelter and will still benefit from the milder coastal temperatures by the sea. Plants such as cordylines and palms can be added to your list, as in these gardens below, both designed by Posy.

Gaura lindheimeri

You can see the reflection of the cordyline in the window glass. The pretty pink-white flowers are gaura (Gaura Lindheimeri).

Plants for dry windy gardens

This stylish front garden is owned by Marie-Claire, who has two shops in Whitstable: an art gallery called Frank and Vita Stores, a plastic free, zero waste general stores. The tall yellow plants are yellow kniphofia, usually called ‘Red Hot Pokers.’

More about coastal garden style

As well as plants, the beach garden look is often based around vintage or salvaged objects and bright colours. Find out more about seaside garden style here, and how to bring a beach feel to your garden.

The Best Windy Garden Plants and Solutions features good coastal garden plants, too. And there are more ideas on plants that can cope with drought in this post on the Beth Chatto Gardens, How to Make a Dry Garden.

The RHS has a Find a Plant page on its website. Under ‘garden type’, you can pick ‘coastal’. And the Beth Chatto Gardens website has a useful list of dry garden plants, too.

coastal garden plants

More views of Amanda’s coastal garden, designed by Posy.

See more of Posy Gentles’ garden designs in her own garden here, where she talks about small garden planting that really works. Or visit www.posygentles.co.uk.

Wild fennel on Whitstable West Beach

This is either hog fennel, a rare fennel which grows nearby on Tankerton slopes or one of the Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum.

A group of gardens in Whitstable open once a year for the National Garden Scheme. The gardens vary from year to year, but you can get a flavour of what they are like in Escape to the Beach with Whitstable Open Gardens. It has some clever ideas and tips in it.

See more of the gardens (and Whitstable West Beach) on video

Shop my favourite garden tools, books and products

I’m often asked for recommendations so I have pulled together the garden tools, books and products I use on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate so I may get a small fee if you buy, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. And I only list things I use myself.

For example, this is my list of Good Books on Plants, which includes Drought-resistant Planting by Beth Chatto and the RHS What Plant When, both of which would be useful in planting a coastal garden.

Pin to remember best coastal garden plants

And do join us every Sunday morning for more tips, ideas and inspiration for your garden. See how here.

4 comments on "What to plant in a coastal garden…"

  1. Becky says:

    Where can I see more pics of Mary Clare’s house and garden? I’ve scoured Posy Gentles’ site but cannot find any more.

    1. I’ve only ever taken a few photos, but I’ve always meant to go back and interview her and Posy about the whole garden, so I will do that.

  2. Anne Leo says:

    LOVE the red dress on you………..

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