Having a "place at the beach" has been popular for many years. Some of the advantages are the boundless beauty of the sea, fewer plant allergens and milder temperatures.
However, many with second homes on the ocean just don't know what to plant. I regularly receive requests for information about tough plants for the shore. This requires an ornamental plant palette to fit a specific set of circumstances. They must be halophytic (tolerant of salt), love sandy soil, sun and wind. Drought tolerance is a plus.
Whether you live at the beach full time or visit on weekends, an attractive garden is a good investment. Not only does it enhance your own enjoyment of the scene, but it also can provide privacy and will add to the property's value.
R. Marilyn Schmidt has been researching seashore horticulture by gardening along the coast for more than 30 years. She is author of "Gardening on the Eastern Seashore" and "East Coast Seashore Gardening with Native Plants" (Pine Barrens Press, 2005). An avid gardener on Long Beach Island, a barrier island off the New Jersey coast, Schmidt had searched for information about seashore plants and found little. Data were slim on what she calls "salt-resistant plants and plants that thrive under coastal conditions." Since then, she has become a resident expert on how plants perform along the ocean, especially in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 8. This accounts for most of the East Coast, with the exception of southern Florida and northern New England.
One of her discoveries is that no hardiness zone rating is completely accurate. "The wisest approach to selecting plants for seaside garden use is to see what is succeeding for your neighbors," she said.
Most neighbors with great gardens have already gone through some trial and error and might know a landscaper who is well-versed in ornamental plant material. For landscape design ideas, look around; you can find many examples of beautiful gardens.
Look at residential and municipal plantings and botanical gardens or nature preserves near the ocean. You can learn much just by walking, biking or driving around. Talk to as many people as you can. Most gardeners are eager to share stories and provide advice. Of course, use the Internet to search seashore plants.
As is true of any kind of gardening, the first thing you need to do is learn if your soil is acid or alkaline. This is measured by pH, a measure of the acidity or alkalinity on a scale from zero to 14, where 7 is neutral, greater than 7 basic and less than 7 acidic. Schmidt suggests the soil at the shore might be alkaline because of seashell decomposition. Although many vegetables and shrubs, such as lilacs and boxwoods, like slightly more alkaline conditions, many plants prefer slightly acidic soil. You can buy kits at garden centers for testing, or contact your county or municipal Cooperative Extension Service. (Find them under county listings in the phone book or online at www.csrees.usda.gov.)
Almost all soils benefit from supplements. Composted manure, garden clippings and homemade compost can improve nutrients and water retention capability in sandy soil. It can be tilled into the soil if you are not disturbing critical roots. Mulching with two inches of organic material also helps retain moisture in sandy soil and windy conditions. Materials that are good in coastal communities are salt hay, shredded pine needles and wood chips.
Schmidt recommends seaweed mulch; one type is eel grass. The salt doesn't harm most plants, and it is an excellent management practice to improve the soil as much as possible for your seaside garden.
Schmidt also recommends plants that will survive in almost pure sand, the most challenging of environments, such as downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), blue star (Amsonia) and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Other suggestions from her books are crape myrtle, gray birch, heath and heather, Siberian pea tree, trumpet vine, hydrangea, Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), loblolly pine, Eastern white pine, mugo pine, almost all junipers, southern magnolia, white oak, live oak, scarlet oak, and about 400 other plants that stand up against wind and salt.
Some of the hardiest flowers for the shore that Schmidt recommends are phlox, lupine, blanket flower (gaillardia), chrysanthemum, rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), dusty miller, goldenrod, lavender and sweet alyssum to stand against the surf. Spring and summer flowering bulbs love to have sand at their feet. Daffodil, crocus, hyacinth, scilla, tulip, spider lily (lycoris squamigera), tuberous begonia, dahlia, gladiolus and lily, among others, seem to be partial to sand and salt air. Herbs prefer a fenced sunny area out of the way of wind and will thrive unfertilized provided they are kept free of weeds.
Beach gardeners advise using younger plant material when starting gardens, because that allows plants time to grow so they can establish a strong root system to help them face the wind. New trees might need to be staked for as long as two years -- a year longer than inland plantings.
If your property is not protected from the wind and salt spray, you may want to establish a combination of fences and hedges to shield inner plantings. Fences and hedges also provide privacy, through they may impede views. Japanese black pine is a plant that can provide privacy and protection for other less wind-tolerant trees. They perform well at the ocean and already grow with a windblown "bonsai" habit, meet the criteria for thriving in the nutritionally poor sand and tolerate salty conditions.
Because of her interest in historic preservation, conservation and the plants of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Schmidt is partial to native plants. When it comes to choosing plants, seashore conditions make a superb case for going native, as they are already adapted to local conditions. Many of the plants suggested above are natives.
Grasses, such as American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata), sea oats (Uniola paniculata), switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium(ital) scoparium) are excellent choices. So are grassy-looking (but not related to true grasses) plants such as blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium).
The New England Wild Flower Society at www.newfs.org/nps.htm links to native plant societies in the United States and Canada. Collectively, they offer tremendous plant resource information.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.