Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
August, 2011
Regional Report

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Palms are a tough bunch for beach gardens and street side, like these in New Orleans.

Sand, Salt and Gardens

When you live on the Coast, plant choices and gardening practices may hinge on the distinction between beach-front and leeward. The difference is as important to gardeners as that between public and private space.

Tree Strengths
Although the Atlantic Coast is windier than the Gulf Coast, the same challenges mark both sites. Breezes that become gales, salt spray, and bright sun do not accommodate plants with brittle stems and leaves that are easily shredded or sunburned. Even in shady spots under trees, there can be enough reflected sunlight to turn green leaves to ugly bronze. The classic "bend, don't break" description of willow trees sets the trend everywhere in the landscape. Trees planted with rigid guide wires or tied too closely to a stake will be less able to adapt to windy conditions once the ties are unbound and may never adapt. Start with sturdy trees like palms that do not need staking at planting time, and remove staking of any sort after one year. Especially on the beach-front in sandy soils, choose the largest specimen you can afford to transplant. In these trying conditions, small young trees often succumb before they can get established. Besides palms, trees that tolerate coastal conditions include live and myrtle oaks, American holly, southern red cedar and sweet bay laurel.

Salt Damage
Many popular landscape plants develop unsightly spots or pecks on their leaves when salt pelts them. Though the damage may not kill the plant outright, such a constant assault on leaf surfaces unprepared for it eventually slows growth and can affect flowering. Poor growth is one thing, but leaves and flowers unsuited to the locale simply look terrible even if they survive the damage.

Fortunately, beautiful, salt-tolerant alternatives, both native and exotic, are abundant, from pittosporum to flame of the woods (Ixora). Better choices on the beachfront mean longer life with less maintenance. Forget azaleas and plant oleander or Indian hawthorn for spring flowering shrubs as full size specimens or dwarf jewels. Select century plant and yucca instead of canna lily for broad-leafed texture. Plant wax myrtle or yaupon as a sturdy hedge with an edge of coastal rosemary or shore juniper for good looks in tough conditions. Other shrubs with good tolerance for salt spray include chaste tree, bottlebrush, and hollies such as needlepoint and carissa.

Design Positives
Leeward or inland from the beach is the place for vegetables, herbs, and other plants unable to tolerate salt spray and wind exposure. If water must be channeled away to enable such a garden where drainage is important, do so with low walls. Let them direct the water towards the beach or rear bay if there is one, then plant the top of the wall, too, with durable flowers like blue daze and pentas. Let the beach side of your garden shine with hardy shrubs and trees that can take salt spray and wind such as these palms: jelly palm, Washington palm, and the state tree of Florida, cabbage palmetto. Use royal and coconut palms in the Tropics. Include grasses such as blue dune and muhlygrass to wave in the breeze without wavering.

If you put in a lawn, seriously consider St. Augustine. Of all the southern lawn grasses, it is best able to take on the challenges of life at the beach.

Spectacular flowers for the seashore include many favorites for gardens throughout our regions. Gerber daisies and bush daisies go with anything and act as living mulch to hold soils in place around other perennials like African iris, Nile lily, firebush, and the spectacular shell ginger.

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