This Old House TV: Manchester house project
The scene looks so idyllic. Boats gently bobbing in the southerly breezes, the sun streaming down, generating the rich, warming temperatures in which most plants thrive. That's June in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Now picture January. Roaring north-to-northeast winds whipping up waves and stealing moisture from all the plants in its way. Full sunlight warms plants to above freezing, only to have them quickly freeze as the sun sets. Wind tunnels develop that literally steal leaves off the plants and bend the tops of trees, giving them a bonsai look. This is the dichotomy of seashore planting.

Here at the rear of the McCues' house in Manchester we have such a picturesque — but sometimes treacherous — seaside setting. Planting this area is a real challenge. The first and most important thing you can do to ensure a successful seashore garden is to prepare the soil. Soils in these areas tend to be sandy, and the introduction of organic material (compost) will help with the soil's moisture retention. Plus, you really only get one shot at proper soil preparation, so you want to make sure to do a great job.

But because of the environmental conditions, we have only a small palette of plants to work with. Some of the good, "iron-clad" plants are Rosa rugosa, bayberry, inkberry, heather heath, Japanese black pine, lilac, and shagbark hickory. There are also many published lists of trees and shrubs suitable for seashore locations, which should be helpful. I am also a big believer in visiting sites adjacent to the one I am working on to see what is already growing well there. This helps me choose things that will thrive in this particular area. One plant I found doing extremely well in nearby Manchester property is sassafras. After noting the interesting leaves and growth habit, along with its excellent fall color, I think this is a good tree to use on future seashore planting.

Wind, however, is a constant concern with seaside trees; very seldom do you see large ones by the ocean. The wind essentially "tops" the trees, causing them to be more squat than their protected cousins. The high-wind conditions also cause slower growth rates, and increase both the period of time and the amount of watering seaside trees need in order to become established. The wind can be just as deadly on shrubs. I have had hollies whose leaves were totally burned off during the winter. While they did re-leaf in the spring, they were unsightly for an extended period of time. I've also known a hedge of 4-foot yews to be completely blown over by the force of the wind coming around a house.

Despite the problems, there is hope of having a beautiful garden by the seashore. One simple but important tip is to start with smaller trees and shrubs. Small plants acclimate better and faster than larger plants to the extreme climatic conditions. Also, smaller plants do not need staking for as long as larger trees and shrubs, although you should bear in mind that all trees do need staking for at least a year — and often two — to grow enough roots to keep them from toppling. In addition to the right trees and shrubs, perennials flourish in a seashore setting. Grasses, daylilies, certain hostas, iberis, nepeta, phlox, rudbeckia, santolina, sedum and yucca are among those that do well. Again, stay away from taller varieties of plants to avoid the need for staking.

Another consideration when gardening on the ocean is the effect the ocean has on the seasons themselves. Especially in climates such as New England's, because the water is cold in the spring, the wind coming off the water is also cold. That means the growing season will be two to three weeks behind areas inland. This in turns compacts the spring season, resulting in combinations of plants flowering together that you would not get inland. But as fall sets in, the water is still relatively warm, and warms the wind, extending the growing season. Because of this you can have late-blooming perennials and shrubs flowering into November. It is now late November, and I have annuals on a job just down the street from the Manchester house that still look good.

Seaside gardening is all about choosing the right plant for the right place. Reading a book or two on seashore gardening will give you ideas for selecting plants with season-long color and interest. Visiting nearby gardens will help you find out what plants are likely to do well in your garden. It is a challenge, but with good preparation, good choices and careful tending, you'll be rewarded with outstanding growth from your plants as they mature into a beautiful garden by the sea.

Roger Cook is the landscaping expert for This Old House.
Ask TOH users about Gardening

Contribute to This Story Below