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Seaside Sanctuaries

You may like to "be beside the seaside", but how about gardening in this windy, salty environment? Stephen Anderton considers some commonsense solutions.

Before you start dreaming about living beside the sea, before you start having visions of a garden full of tender plants and a climate that never freezes, remember there are two cruel lessons that every seaside gardener has to learn. The first is that the air is salty, and many plants cannot survive it. The second - and perhaps the most important - is that it is windy by the sea. Wind is the killer. Wind is what you have to learn to deal with by the sea. Think back to those shots of idyllic tropical beaches fringed with coconut palms. Have you not seen as many shots of them in a typhoon, with the trees bent double, and houses blowing about? Oh yes. Forgot about that.

Now we may not get too many typhoons in Britain, but the seaside can still be viciously windy. Nature has two ways of protecting plants from those winds. It can either give them small, leathery, wind-resisting leaves, or it can make them grow only in sheltered valleys leading down to the sea. These sheltered valleys are the history of Cornish gardening. Cornwall is a county narrow enough to have salt-depositing winds flung over its whole area from the sea on both sides. But if you happened to have an estate, a Heligan or a Trebah, with a narrow valley where the wind mostly whistles over the top, then you could garden till the blood comes. These are the places to be growing tree ferns and the big triffid-like echiums, and luscious great hydrangeas.

But take yourself off to a less favoured seaside position, somewhere normal, somewhere the usual sea winds sweep in off the beach, and it's a very different story. Here the hydrangeas grow but they look shabby. The long leathery, strappy leaves of phormiums thrive but they carry more split ends than a hairdresser's wheelie bin. Even tough old sycamores look fried alive by the end of the summer. The answer here, if you want to look good, is to have plants with small leaves.

Look at the way nature copes with the wind. See how the wind-pruned mounds of cliff-top gorse or sea buckthorn stand firm, and actually look right in that climate. Take a leaf out of nature's book and imitate that look. Clip them yourself, into mounding bastions of vegetation, which will then give you shelter behind to grow less tough characters. Try clipping hebes and pittosporums, olearias and escallonias and small-leaved hollies and bush ivies. Do it little and often, as the wind would, perhaps with a pause to let things flower when they show inclination. You will be pleasantly surprised at the variety of colours and textures you can produce.

Isn't it better to produce a garden that looks at home in the reality of your climate, than to plant a garden full of flapping exotics and see them suffer? A garden full of war-zone plants, plants that are just getting by, is not a recipe for a relaxing garden, visually or physically.

I remember a visit to southern Ireland a couple of years ago, and in particular to the garden island of Garinish. On the far side of the island, in the bay looking out to the Atlantic, was a lorry-sized lump of rock. Two lumps in fact, or one split in half down the centre. A cleavage of stone. And there jammed in its cleavage - the only vegetation on the whole thing - was a clump of New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, which had somehow managed to put itself there. And it was surviving, thriving even, clinging to that almost dry land with every ounce of its strength. It was heroic and sad at the same time. And it was definitely not the sort of performance you want to see in a garden. Don't make your garden a war zone. Make it a sanctuary.

Articles reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com



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