Being near the water – the ocean on the South Fork, the sound on the North Fork – has a huge influence on our garden conditions. The closer you live to the water, the greater will be its influence on the climate in your garden. Plants in our gardens contend with wind, sand and salt, which are more intense the closer you are to the water. Gardeners and garden designers here have to understand and consider the growing conditions on each property.
If you live near the water, it’s important to choose plants that can handle the stressful conditions, but you can also take steps to moderate the climate in your garden, to give plants a more hospitable environment and to broaden the range of plants likely to thrive in it. Here are some of the major challenges the seashore environment presents, and how we can work with them in our gardens. When you understand what combination of conditions exists on your property, you can figure out which plants are good candidates for your landscape and garden, and how you can modify the existing conditions to better suit their needs.
Wind: It’s often windy on the East End. Wind can vary from a gentle breeze to a stiff gale to hurricane force of 80mph and up. Summer winds loaded with salt blow out of the south or southwest and winter can bring nor’easters, which are driven by northeast winds. If the southwest corner of a beachfront property, or the northeast corner of a property fronting on Long Island Sound or a north-facing bay is exposed, the wind can bulldoze right through and chew up the landscape.
Wind affects seashore gardens in a number of ways. The wind carries sand and salt with it; windblown sand is abrasive, scouring leaves and blasting stems. Salt blown onto leaves is very drying, drawing out moisture and even burning leaves. The best defense against the wind is a good windbreak. The high privet hedges that provide privacy for so many East End homes also provide a windbreak and protection for plants on the property.
Salt: Salt gets into East End gardens from the air and from floodwaters. Windborne salt can cause serious damage to plants over time. As waves break upon the shore, they throw droplets of seawater into the air. The saltwater droplets travel inland on the wind, and some of the water evaporates along the way, making the salt more concentrated. Eventually it drops down and lands on your plants. A hedge or windbreak between your landscape and the water can protect your plants from the worst effects of wind and salt. If you live near the beach, put the most salt tolerant plants in the most exposed spots. Salt damaged leaves will turn brown and may die off if the damage is severe enough. Plants native to the seashore have developed varying degrees of tolerance to salt. The rugosa roses seen along Meadow Lane and Dune Road in Southampton bloom through much of summer. Some other salt-tolerant plants to consider include shore juniper, Hollywood juniper, creeping juniper and eastern red cedar, Leyland cypress, privet, bayberry and agave.
Sand: Sand is a helpful ingredient in soil; its large particles and loose texture help to lighten and aerate heavy clay soils. But as a main component of soil, sand contains few of the nutrients plants need to grow. It has no organic matter to nourish beneficial soil microbes, and it doesn’t hold water, one of the main vehicles for transporting nutrients from soil to plants via their roots. Sandy seashore soils need additions of compost or other organic matter to create a more hospitable environment for plants. Laying mulch after planting also helps conserve soil moisture. Overhead sprinklers, though less efficient than drip irrigation systems, can help rinse salt deposits from plant leaves. Just be sure they are calibrated to provide thorough, deep watering instead of a quick daily spritz.
Strong Sun: Sunlight near the water is especially intense because it bounces off the water and reflects off light-colored sand. The beating sun heats up the sand on the beach – as you know if you’ve ever tried to walk barefoot on the beach in summer. The sand can be 50 degrees hotter than the air temperature. The same effect, to a lesser degree, occurs away from the beach. Mulching the garden will help moderate soil temperatures for plants.
Given some protection, and a smart choice of plants, your East End garden can be full of color from spring to fall.