How to get the seaside look in your garden
PUBLISHED: 11:32 22 August 2017
© Anne Green-Armytage 2007
If you can’t get away to the beach this summer, recreate a little piece of seaside at home. Annie Green-Armytage has some ideas to get you started
Childhood days at the seaside are some of my best memories. Buckets and spades, twirly windmills, little paper flags stuck into sandcastles; these were rare times spent as a family just being together and having fun – whatever the British weather threw at us. If you have memories of holidays past, either at home or abroad, why not reconnect with them by building a beach garden?
Hard landscaping is crucial in creating the right atmosphere. The obvious elements are pebbles and sand: these need to come, not from the beach, but from a builder’s merchant or garden centre. Norfolk coastal erosion needs no help from us. Try using different sizes of pebble and shingle to create a more natural and interesting effect, and leave pockets of soil for planting pioneer species such as sea kale (Crambe maritima) and horned poppy (Glaucium flavum). Forget any feeding or soil improving – your growing medium needs to be very free-draining and, well, sandy. Use sharp horticultural sand for best effect – builder’s sand will get claggy.
For an authentic beach scene, your planting choices will be restricted to wind-tolerant, drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant species. These include coastal favourites such as berberis, tamarisk (Tamarix tetranda), and sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), grasses and sedges, particularly wiry varieties such as Festuca glauca and Elymus, and succulents such as sedums (S. spectabile, S. telephium) and sempervivums.
Provided you are not actually next to the sea, you can of course cheat a little and mix in less robust plants to create more visual variety: for example, the large-leafed ornamental rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) or the tender Tetrapanax papyrifer if you have a sheltered spot. These will give you a fertile, lush effect, more Tresco than Dungeness.
For me, Dungeness – by which I mean Derek Jarman’s famous garden at Prospect Cottage, right on the beach – wins out over Tresco for its sparse, stripped-back sculptural effect. This is achieved by restrained planting and by incorporating found objects from the seashore, such as bleached driftwood and rusted iron. These can be stood on end as totems, lashed together into obelisks, or laid horizontally as treads between the shingle. Jarman didn’t subscribe to the more kitsch lobster pot and fishing net look, but it’s your garden, and if that’s your thing, go for it. String up old, washed-up buoys and fishing floats for vertical interest, and enclose pebbles in steel gabions to create retaining walls or just a solid structural presence.
For a more Mediterranean influence, add rosemary, low-growing thymes, and silvery Santolina. Include a pine or two to give you that scented air redolent of sun-baked Greek hillsides; if space is at a premium grow a dwarf variety such as Pinus mugo, or a slow grower like the Japanese black pine P. thunbergii.
Sunny yellow Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are a great coloniser of sandy soil, seeding freely from one year to the next, and to evoke memories of more exotic coastlines add a statuesque palm like Trachycarpus fortunei, which also happens to be bone-hardy.
A beach is, by definition, an open windswept place without obvious edges. There may be an opportunity to flow your planting into surrounding areas, gently modifying the look as you move from beach to border, but your garden landscape may dictate a more enclosed area. If that’s the case, then you can keep boundaries in character by using sympathetic materials: weathered timber or railway sleepers rather than brash red-brick.
Some would say that no seaside garden is complete without a beach hut. Customised sheds are definitely on-trend, and there is certainly something very British in being able to express our idiosyncracies without fear of reproof by the style police. Painted in stripes, on stilts, with comfy sofas, deck chairs, bunting, sparkling fairy lights, or indeed none or all of the above: you can make it as complex or as basic as you choose, and spend according to your budget. A gardening acquaintance of mine managed to cannibalise two old garden sheds to create a substantial French-themed hideaway complete with verandah and beer-fridge (of course) for a fraction of the cost of a new building. But whether it be a grand affair, complete with all mod cons, in which to write your novel, or a simple pergola with shady sitting area, a place to retreat from the rest of the world is too appealing to ignore. Perhaps it’s the minimalism of a beach garden which fits with a meditative mood, making it an ideal space to contemplate life and its passing phases, to relive those childhood memories. Pass the bucket and spade, someone.
Get the Look - Seaside Plants:
Shrubs and Trees:
Tamarisk (Tamarix tetranda)
sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo)
Corsican pine (Pinus nigra var. maritima)
Japanese black pine (P. thunbergii)
Hardy palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
Holm oak (Quercus ilex)
Perennials and Annuals:
Horned poppy (Glaucium flavum)
Eryngium sp. including sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)
Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Sea kale (Crambe maritimum)
Stonecrop (Sedum spectabile, S. telephium)
Sea thrift (Armeria maritima)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and creeping thyme (T. serpyllum)
Cotton thistle Onopordum acanthium (syn. Onopordon acanthium)
Ornamental rhubarb (Rheum palmatum)
Grasses and Sedges:
Pennisetum alopecuroides, P. orientale
blue hair grass (Koeleria glauca)
Miscanthus sinensis cultivars