WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
By the beach, pick plants tough enough to take the salt, sun and wind
Plant explorer Dan Hinkley's new garden, high on a south-facing bluff, is exposed to the harshest of seaside situations. Silvery Yucca rostrata, along with miscanthus and sweeps of agapanthus, flourishes in the hot, dry, windswept conditions.
AMONG THE MANY great charms of Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast are the public trails that run between the houses and the beach. There's nothing I love more than peeking into other people's gardens, and these pathways offer tantalizing glimpses of luscious plantings. The weathered-gray shingle cottages are perfect backdrops to extravagant perennial gardens, or more naturalistic sweeps of grasses and windblown pines. How to make such glorious gardens when the plants are exposed to burning salt spray, intense sunlight and gale-force winds?
After looking carefully at their design and planting, and chatting with several designers on Orcas Island, it appears the answer lies in choosing tough plants well-adapted to such conditions, and using hedging as windbreaks to protect the more fragile plants.
People from the Episcopal Church in Eastsound, on Orcas, recruited designer Robin Kucklick to help with their memorial waterfront garden. The little old white church has a prime location on Eastsound's main street, and the public is invited to wander through the gardens. The church property lies along a low bluff above the beach, fully exposed to sun and salt spray, so it presented quite a challenge for Kucklick. "I've tested a few plants there," he says with a chuckle. Some plantings have proved wildly successful, including rugosa roses, flowery lavateras skirted with lavender, wallflowers and the red-bladed ornamental grass Panicum virgatum 'Haense Herms.' Rosa 'The Fairy' and R. 'Bonica' have prospered, too.
Rugosa roses were mentioned more than any other plant as ideal for the seaside. Handsome shrubs with crinkled leaves, fragrant flowers and showy fall fruit, rugosas spread to form thick hedges, come in a variety of sizes and show off blooms from purest white to strong magenta. Suzanne Verrier has written an entire book on rugosas, which is not only a celebration of their beauty but also a guide to choosing the best type for specific conditions ("Rosa Rugosa," Capability's Books, $22.95).
Kucklick also recommends Escallonia rubra 'Pygmaea,' whose small, shiny green leaves stay completely spotless in the salt spray. He also uses Euphorbia rigida and E. polychroma and little species tulips ("so short they don't get blown over") for spring bloom, and rock roses (Cistus species) for summer flowers and woolly, evergreen foliage.
Doug Bayley gardens in dry, rocky soil on Orcas and claims he neglects his plants, but still has had good luck with euphorbia, Corsican hellebores (H. argutifolius), sages, thyme, lavender and santolina. He's also had luck with showier plants such as peonies and honeysuckle, as well as barberry and bergenia.
Marguerite Greening, another Orcas garden designer, has developed quite a list of plants that will flourish by the sea. California and oriental poppies, shasta daisies, irises, Corsican hellebores, miscanthus, blue fescue and yarrows all do well despite wind and salt spray. She plants ginkos, hornbeams, artichokes, strawberries, rosemary and oreganos in these difficult situations, as well as low, dense conifers such as mugo and shore pines (P. contorta). Greening points out that even conifers fail in dry, salty conditions with intense sunlight. Salt spray can burn trees and shrubs, leaving them yellow, dry and desiccated. Washing plants frequently with sprays from the hose, and keeping them well watered until thoroughly established can help, but some plants just aren't cut out for the challenge.
To find more plants that are, you might explore Northwest natives adapted over centuries to growing along the beach. "Native Plants In the Coastal Garden," by April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo (Timber Press, $19.95) is a great source of information on shoreline plant communities. The most complete list I could find of plants ideal for seacoast gardens is in — you guessed it — the tried and true "Sunset Western Garden Book" (Sunset Publishing, $36.95).
Several of the designers I spoke with pointed out that key to finding the right plants for any condition is paying attention to what has thrived in the area for decades. Bayley noted that big, old clumps of peonies are still growing around early settlers' cabins in the San Juan Islands. Marguerite Greening included apple, pear and plum trees in her list of plants because "you see lots of old orchards that go right down to the water."
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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