Beside the seaside

Rosa rugosa

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

So tough it will actually grow in just about any open situation, even in sand. Viciously thorny, it has two seasons of glory as it flowers its socks off for most of spring and summer, followed by the plumpest red rose-hips imaginable: apparently great in syrups and cordials although I have to admit trying this last year and it was sickly! (I’m not the greatest of chefs though so don’t take my world for it).

The magenta flowered variety is my favourite but also comes in purest white and a pretty blush-pink, all growing to around 2m. I’ve planted hundreds of these in Cornwall and found the most economical way is to start with bare root whips. They establish quickly if the ground is prepared properly and a good dose of muck added. They make pretty, wildlife-friendly hedges and are an effective security barrier: you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near those thorns unless you’re the unfortunate gardener who needs to prune them and luckily they need little attention – maybe just a quick hair cut in late winter to tidy up the tops and remove old hips.

Nepeta

Catmint

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

There are several forms of this tough perennial but ‘Six Hills Giant’ is my favourite for coastal gardens.

With a blowsy cloud of tiny silver leaves and cornflower blue flowers in late spring and summer, if you cut it back after the first flush it often flowers again later in the year. Commonly known as catmint, the smell of this perennial has the marmite- effect (love it or hate it) and works well either as a path-edge or gap-filler. As the name suggests it can grow up to a metre but there also smaller varieties such as Nepeta faassenii. Don’t be fooled by the name of Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ – this one actually grows to about 60cm but is a very pretty variety.

All Nepeta’s are a magnet to bees and its woody stems are a nifty hiding place for other insects. Often mistaken for Lavender in grand English gardens, it looks great with lime green Alchemilla mollis and with deep purple, upright Salvias behind it.

Erigeron karviskianus

Mexican fleabane

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Often known as the Mexican daisy; I like to call it the Cornish daisy as it sprinkles itself with wild abandon into every nook and cranny around my home county. With finely cut leaves it has the prettiest, daintiness but hardiest of daisy head, in all shades of pink and white. Plant this tough little treasure only if you love it and are happy to see it spread, as it will colonise anything it can get its roots into.

Happiest forming low hummocks in well drained sunny spots it has been known to survive and flower all winter in many southern gardens and a single plant will surprisingly spread up to a metre.

Anemanthele lessoniana

Pheasant's tail grass

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

My young son says this one sounds like a Harry Potter spell and it is pretty magic. My favourite grass: evergreen, happy in sun or shade and a glorious arching plant which although short-lived, will seed happily and can be pulled out where not needed.

Nicknamed the Pheasant’s tail grass, its slim blades glow in jewel-like shades of emerald green, tawny orange and burnt umber. In full sun it bleaches out occasionally but in shade keeps its green lushness. What makes this one extra special is the candyfloss effect of its flowers; in a rosy pink they are almost iridescent and slightly sticky which are best removed gently by hand if you want to reduce self-seeding. Give it room: it can easily fill a good metre of space.

Rosmarinus officinalis

Rosemary

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Although most commonly used in Mediterranean gardens, Rosemary thrives in coastal conditions. Arching varieties such as ‘Severn Seas’ contort themselves around stone walls; sending up low shoots to 60cm as well as cascading down to around 150cm. Whilst ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ forms a low, informal hedge up to 180cm.

The scent is unmistakable and an absolute essential for cooking and barbecuing so plant it close to the kitchen or patio. Although it flowers through the summer months, in warmer climates it will happily continue through winter and its evergreen form makes it indispensable to any garden.

Verbena bonariensis

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

The wiry stems of this hardy perennial might give it a dainty air but don’t be fooled – they are actually incredibly hardy; wind whistles through them with little effect. The flowers are a luminous purple, glowing in the evening light and incredibly long-lived. Birds, bees and butterflies love them – their flat tops the perfect landing pad.

Needing no staking they are best planted with tall grasses such as Miscanthus where they can weave their stems through the flower heads and be cut down together in Spring ready to shoot up once more to around 1.5m; higher in more sheltered areas. Their strength can also be used to hold up more dainty neighbour’s. This is another thug when happy – in a sunny, well-drained spot- but the seedlings are easy to remove and those left may create wonderful and sometimes surprising combinations.

Phormium

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

The New Zealand flax plant is the toughest of them all. Even if its sword-shaped leaves get ripped to shreds by wind, salt and rain it will survive. This hero of a plant is a pretty common sight in coastal gardens with good reason. The biggest varieties can give wonderful stature to a scheme, growing up to 4m tall and be used either as a stand-alone plant or en masse for a real punch. It comes in a variety of colours, from cool yellow through lipstick red to liquorice black; with pinstripes and in a variety of sizes. Some, such as ‘Evening Glow’, are incredible with the setting sun behind them so place them carefully for maximum effect, and check the eventual size as they are not easy to move once they’ve dug their heels in.

The leaves can be cut back when they get messy and you can even make your own flax baskets! It’s a shame we don’t use the Maori name for this giant– Harakeke – a great name for a coastal hero.

Agapanthus africanus

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

With their gorgeous big blue heads and strappy green leaves these are another standard for warm coastal gardens; their long, thick, fleshy stems surprisingly tough and often grow up to a metre tall.

The emerging flower heads are wrapped in a silky coating, which bursts open in the sunshine to give us a profusion of blues and whites like fizzing sparklers. The flower heads eventually fade but the seed heads they leave make unusual, homespun Christmas decorations when sprayed with gold or silver paint. Their tubular flowers draw in pollen-seekers all summer followed by seed-lovers in Autumn.

Plant them en masse for a real wow-factor or in contemporary pots for a statement. You can often see these either side of front doors in Cornwall as an alternative to boring old box balls!

Euonymus japonica

Spindle

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Almost in total contrast to Elaeagnus, is a bright, shiny green hedging plant. It sometimes takes a while to get started but once established will take a good beating; it is often seen on cliff tops in an amazing array of craggy shapes. There is a freshness to its young spring leaves which make it my ‘hopeful’ plant of choice: heralding a new growing season.

Growing up to 4m Elaeagnus won’t like temperatures below around -5 degrees so best in southern UK gardens.

Eryngium

Sea holly

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

The common name gives the game away: Sea Holly is not a plant to be meddled with and is one of the few precious plants that pesky rabbits (who thrive in coastal areas as they are pretty lazy and find it easy to make their burrows in sand) tend to leave well alone. From indigo blues to palest silver the impressive shapes of the Sea Holly punch holes in soft blowsy planting schemes and stand firm against salty winds.

The fact that they will happily scatter their seed and keep their ghostly forms for much of the winter, combined with a tolerance for drought makes them a star coastal plant. Most varieties grow to around 60cm and they are easy to lift and divide, which is perfect as they look best in large swathes.

Ammophilia

Dune Grass

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

You’ll know this best as Marram grass, is an unsung plant hero for me; often the unnoticed are the best. I bet every visitor to a beach has brushed their hands through these sweeping grasses and probably cut themselves on the sharp blades, yet they are the quintessential element of every sand dune; stabilising this delicate ecosystem with their fibrous roots.

With thin strong blades up to around 60cm and towering flower heads, which resemble barley heads, this has to be one of the hardiest plants on the planet. Able to withstand salt, wind, drought and tourists, our beaches wouldn’t be the same without it.

Crocosmia

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

This grows better than grass in Cornwall and I suspect in most other coastal areas. In fiery shades of yellow to red they are the sparks that are needed in late summer to autumn. What is often forgotten is how vibrant they look as they emerge in Spring; fresh bright shoots that are soft and fast growing, giving a texture and depth of green that comes way before their flowers. The colourful trumpets shoot up to 75cm and last for many weeks, leaving behind interesting seedheads which gradually darken through the winter until finally collapsing in exhaustion. They are a joy to tidy up (says the gardener) as the old stems and leaves loosen themselves from the corms.

Be wary – the corms multiply at an impressive rate – if you’ve seen Harry Potter you’ll recall the scene in the Gringott’s dungeon when the 3 intrepid students of witchcraft are trying to retrieve a horcrux: every time they touched another item it would multiply… you are warned. Put them where they can fill the space and give you colour for many years. When they get tired of flowering, dig them up, give some corms to unsuspecting friends and replant.

Libertia grandiflora

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

This evergreen jewel has tough strappy leaves and quirkily shaped rigid stems from which shoot silky white flowers; holding themselves aloft for most of the summer and into autumn. But it doesn’t stop there: the stems are strong enough to last through winter into spring with blackened seed heads which gradually fade to a dusty beige before you chop them to the base.

It’s such an easy customer and will give you lots of free plants. It looks great with grasses and perennials alike with a height and spread of around 60-80cm. It doesn’t particularly like getting its feet wet and will tolerate drought. I love it for its longevity – a real stalwart of the plant world

Tamarisk

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Feeling the need to add a tree I’d chose Tamarisk but this is a plant you have be patient with and prefers warmer coasts. From experience the only plants available are a 40cm twig or 6ft trees. Baring in mind that any plant being introduced to a windy or exposed location needs to get its roots firmly in to feel safe, I’d always suggest planting small. So in go your little twigs and wait you must….. but the passing of time will give you an airy, translucent almost ethereal tree of softest green which you’ll find growing along every sandy path to a beach.

It flowers ‘pretty in pink’ in late summer to autumn (or spring to early summer if you have the French gallica form) and reminds me of candyfloss. Keep it cut to a height where you’ll benefit from its protection and you’ll be rewarded with a tree that can even survive in pure sand.

Leucanthemum vulgare

Ox-eye daisy

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

With coastal gardens the trick is to go with what wants to grow; namby pamby plants just won’t cut it. So the ox-eye daisy goes on my list of top coastal plants because it grows, it flowers and flowers and flowers and then seeds around everywhere – are you seeing a pattern yet?

Plants that seed easily make great coastal survivors. Be warned though, as pretty as these daisies may look they their scent isn’t too everyone’s taste: Chef Jamie Oliver and his lovely family often stayed at one of the properties I maintained and our resident chef picked bunches of daisies for the house. Within a few hours the source of pungent smell was sussed and the flowers assigned to the compost heap!

Leave them in the garden where they’ll quickly develop into a 60cm x 90cm clump and can be easily divided.

Osteospermum

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

I like to call this ‘the sunshine flower’ as it only opens its dual-coloured, silky petals when the sun shines on them. I think this flower closest resembles myself: put it in the shade and it sulks.

Be careful when buying this for a coastal garden as there are many tender and even annual selections. What you need is either a jucundum or ecklonis; equally fabulous names. These will give you a sprawling tangle of stems that should survive light frosts where lesser forms will melt like the wicked witch of the east in Oz. They remind me of Refresher sweets with their different coloured front and back, which give them added interest in a colour scheme.

As an added bonus many of them also have a delicious scent. Put them at the front of a border, along a path or better still tumbling down rocky faces where they can bake for as much of the year as possible; I have seen these flower all year round in Cornwall on a stony south facing slope.

Eleagnus ebbingei

Words: Natalie Ashbee

Pictures: Mark Ashbee

Hedges are vital in coastal gardens for forming the first line of defense against the biting winds. This one is the toughest that I’ve found. With a silver back to its dark green front, it has a hidden secret: in autumn it has tiny creamy-white flowers with the most exquisite scent, just when you least expect it and perhaps most need it. Growing up to 4m by 4m it can be kept clipped and shaped, or left to grow wild and wooly depending on the style of your garden.