Gardening by the seaside
Wind-blown and salty – coastal gardens are challenging, so take advice from two experts
Verney Naylor-designed garden and boathouse at the West Cork home of Lord and Lady Puttnam
Vast, golden beaches, salty summer breezes, anemone-filled rock pools and sand in your toes: what would summer be without at least one trip to the seaside? And yet every time I head for the coast, I’m struck afresh by just how difficult it is to garden by the sea. Even the sight of a few wind-stunted trees is a reminder that, come winter, those soft summer breezes will be replaced by fierce, oceanic storms that can rattle a plant’s rootball out of the soil and gales so salty that only the toughest evergreens seem to survive.
Gardening friends and family living along Ireland’s Atlantic coastlines also share horror stories; of trees snapped in half, shrubs plucked from the ground, and polytunnels so buffeted by mighty winds that their curving steel supports crumpled like tin cans. Seaside gardening, I’ve been led to believe, is not for the faint of heart. And yet the upsides – those wonderful ocean views, a much longer growing season with fewer frost days, that special, limpid quality of the light – are such that they make it a challenge worth taking on.
Two Irish garden designers, Verney Naylor and Seamus O’Donnell, do so with particular aplomb. The fact that both live by the sea, Naylor in west Cork and O’Donnell along the wind-slapped coastline of north-west Donegal, means that both have first-hand knowledge and experience of the capricious nature of coastal gardening.
“The more I have learned about the subject, the more it proves me wrong,” says Naylor, one of Ireland’s most respected garden designers, whose work includes the beautiful west Cork garden of Lord and Lady Puttnam.
One of the greatest challenges for seaside gardeners is balancing the need for shelter against the need for light and the desire to preserve views. But as tempting as it is to maintain those panoramic sea views in their entirety, Naylor says this is a mistake. “My advice is to break up the view so you don’t see it all at once. This gives you opportunity to create sheltered corners for sitting.”
A trained geologist, she also likes to use hard landscaping materials that echo the wild, coastal Irish landscape. “I use a lot of boulders, cobbles and pebbles in my design, partly because I am a geologist but mainly because they don’t turn up their toes and die on you after a rough winter. And of course, they relate a little to the local rocky shore.”
Above all else, both designers stress the importance of careful plant selection, especially when it comes to establishing the all-important primary windbreaks around the perimeter of the garden, which should be designed so they filter out the worst of winter storms and salty-damaging winds.
In O’ Donnell’s case, his choice is shaped by the fact that not only is he a garden designer but also the owner of Cluain na dTor, the small Irish nursery that specialises in a wide variety of plants capable of withstanding the most fierce and saltiest sea gales.