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.
Some that he uses as part of a mixed windbreak include the silvery shrub Ozothamnus "Threave's Seedling"; the aromatic evergreen shrub Leptospermum "Silver Sheen"; and the deciduous ribbonwood tree from New Zealand, Plagainthus betulinus, which would be unfamiliar to many Irish seaside gardeners. Others – Olearia, Ulex, Tamarisk, Corokia, Escallonia, Pinus radiata – less so. Like Naylor, he too stresses the importance of the garden's design respecting the wider landscape.
“There are many different kind of seaside gardens, some with relatively benign microclimates and some where growing conditions are quite extreme, some with heavy peaty soils and others where the soil is light, sandy and extremely free-draining. In all cases, my advice is to keep it as natural as possible”, he says, adding that he wishes that Irish seaside gardeners would be more adventurous in their plant choices. “You see the same small selection being used again and again.”
Some of O’Donnell’s other tips for successful seaside gardening include planting densely (this way, the plants help to protect each other from salt and wind damage); planting only young specimens, including trees no more than 1m high (these establish more quickly and require less staking); using a good quality windbreak-netting when budget permits (position this to filter the prevailing winds, positioning young plants leewards of it); and regularly pruning plants to help prevent root-rock.
For the same reason, he doesn’t regularly feed established plants. “Just a dressing of bonemeal in the spring.”
Naylor’s other useful tips include advising gardeners to be “very slow to chop apparently-dead shrubs down; so often they recover and sprout from the base”.
She also favours deciduous varieties of trees and shrubs, including dogwoods and buddleja, for the reason that their bare branches are less vulnerable to winter storms. Of the evergreen varieties that she uses, Hypericum "Hidcote", Callistemon, Dodonaea, Hippophae rhamnoides, Desfontainea and Osmanthus "Goshiki" are among her favourites, with stalwart grey-leaved shrubs (generally speaking, good candidates for a seaside garden) such as Brachyglottis and Santolina used to fill the gaps.
Once primary windbreaks are established and shelter pockets have been created within the garden, both designers like to use a wide mix of ornamental grasses, perennials and shrubs happy to grow by the sea.
This includes red hot pokers (Kniphofia), day lilies (Hemerocallis), Agapanthus, lime-green Euphorbia, silver-blue sea thistles (Eryngium), Dianthus carthusianorum, Rudbeckia, sedum, Astilbe, Linaria, Verbascum, allium, Erigeron karvinkianus, Alchemilla mollis, the tall Stipa gigantea and the wispy S. tenuissima, sea thrift, statuesque clumps of the New Zealand tussock grass Chionochloa rubra, Calamagrostis "Karl Foerster", restios, Lavandula, Libertia, fiery-coloured Watsonia and Crocosmia, and the graceful Angel's Fishing Rod (Dierama).
In each case, the result is beautiful, generous, sophisticated planting; all of it proof that while coastal gardening in this wild and windswept island of ours is undoubtedly a challenge, it’s one well worth meeting.