Testing the Waves

Two designers meet the challenges of seaside gardening in New England

by NAN BLAKE SINTON and DAVID C. MICHENER photography by RICHARD W. BROWN

SEASIDE GARDENING conjures idyllic images of colorful cottage gardens, grasses swaying in ocean breezes, and lazy summer afternoons. Yet many year-round seaside gardeners contend with the counterbalancing reality of gale-force winds, storm surges of icy seawater, and salt everywhere. Here, on the shore of eastern New England, the Atlantic cools slowly in fall, postponing frost until after Thanksgiving, and warms equally slowly in spring, delaying much growth until June. Yet the chance to practice “zonal denial” is best found close to the shore, luring gardeners to properties that might be considered too difficult by less passionate observers.

The sea view from our property was breathtaking— 180 degrees of ocean bay, with the buildings of downtown Boston rising over the harbor islands to the west. To the east, across a cove, a thickly wooded peninsula formed a living curtain to the rising sun. The century-old, shingled waterfront house was a real estate agent’s dream. But to a gardener with other priorities, the incredible view did not hide the site’s challenges. The triangular, sloping lot was a little more than a quarter acre, 200 feet on its longest face, and dominated by the large house. Facing north and east, it was swept by winter winds and branch-breaking ice storms, though protected from summer hurricanes. At moon tides, the waves sprayed salt water far into the garden. The thin clay soil, courtesy of ancient glaciers, completed the cocktail. Friends laughed when they first saw the lot, incredulous that we would even try to garden here.

HAVE PICKAX, WILL GARDEN

We had decided that we would try to maximize the site, test plants for hardiness and salt tolerance, and attempt to turn the oddly shaped lot into a collection of coherent garden spaces. What we loved in a garden—symmetry, balance, simple architectural shapes, interesting plants, color harmonies—were all singularly lacking here. The house stood parallel to neither the street nor the irregularly curving waterfront. The property offered only a few, standard-issue New England plants—one medium-size forsythia, a struggling Rhododendron maximum, and a collection of mature maples: one nice red maple (Acer rubrum); three 60-foot-plus Norway maples (A. platanoides); and one looming silver maple (A. sac-charinum). Since there is nothing like large old trees for framing an old house, we decided these stalwarts would work for their keep, minus the silver maple. Perhaps sensing our intent, it quickly succumbed to storm damage. The other maples were pruned and the large shrubs moved. With the help of pickaxes and a neighbor with a strong back, we peeled away the blacktop driveway to reclaim the steep slope for garden space. It was a beginning.

Opposite and above: Stone sets a recurring theme, as granite walls and steps define the sea terrace and frame the view. Below: In the winter garden, a cobble path through a box-edged parterre leads to an urn framed by Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’ and Japanese Clethra barbinervis.

THE SINTON GARDEN LAYOUT AND ITS MAJOR FEATURES

1. Cobble entrance garden

2. Winter garden

3. Arches garden

4. Terrace

5. Rose & autumn olive walk

6. Mediterranean garden

7. House

APUZZLE IN THREE DIMENSIONS

Since the house was close to the street and faced the sea, it was difficult to decide which side would become the garden’s back and which its front, or even how to begin developing a hierarchy of spaces and planting concepts. Basic needs, such as a parking area and a way of directing guests to the front door competed with our desires for as much garden space as possible. Doodling plans, making models, and fussing with stakes and flagging became compulsive occupations. Mentor, friend, and longtime guide and inspiration Penelope Hobhouse had taught us the classic forms and principles of the Italian Renaissance garden, and we particularly wanted axial views and structured spaces. Sifting through memories of the many gardens we have both visited throughout the world, we combined our ideas and decided to look for the longest axes that could be drawn on the site. Next, we determined places for framed views both parallel and perpendicular to the back and front of the house. Then, we built what was, in essence, a series of theatrical stage sets for different garden rooms.

THE PROTECTION RACKET

High on our list of goals for the garden was to instill it with year-round interest, but the severe ocean weather meant only the most reliable and renewable plants, like privet, willow, lilac, forsythia, Rosa rugosa, autumn olive, and black locust would survive in such an exposed site. We decided that we needed a combination of both living and constructed forms to control the wind, define the property edges, and form the backbone of the garden rooms. For the full brunt of the sea, our living structure of choice was the wild form of Rosa rugosa, which we planted from bareroot slips and pruned to the ground each year. It was punctuated by tightly clipped blocks of the salt-tolerant, gray-leaved autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

In the adjacent and partly protected “Arches Garden,” the initial problem was simple: in winter, there was no garden. So we made a fantasy space, a series of symbolic free-standing wooden arches, grouped in an arc across the middle distance to draw the eye around and down to a long flower bed reminiscent of a canal. Silver willows (Salix alba ‘Argentea’) coppiced into 20-foot-tall lollipops and tightly clipped masses of 15-foot-tall privet were counterpointed with open-pruned sumacs (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’) to recall memories of boldly architectural plant combinations seen in Mediterranean gardens. A large industrial copper vat (formerly a mixing bowl for the local Schraffts candy factory) was packed with tender plants to mark the steps leading to the gate.

A spiny crocodile plant (Acanthus montanus) in a creamy terra-cotta pot, is backed by the glaucous foliage of bedded-out Melianthus major, Sinton’s favorite evergreens—yews, box, and prunus-combine with stone walls and gravel to form the year-round structure of the Mediterramean garden.

Working on the principle that big furniture dramatizes small rooms, we selected sturdy, large-scale plants to further enclose the garden. Eupatorium purpureum ‘Gateway’, white Phlox particulata ‘David’, purple-stemmed Thalictrum rochebruneanumm ‘Lavender Mist’, blue Aster ‘Little Carlow’, white summer hyacinth (Galtonia candicans), Euphorbia longifolia, and perennial geraniums worked with tender aci-dantheras and salvias, while a cast of phormiums, cannas, and dahlias added seasonal spice. The drama of these plants came from their combination of heights, from ground level to over six feet, and foliage, from the lacy-leaved thalictrum to the massive-leaved cannas, and from a restricted color palette of whites, silvers, and blue to maroon.

To create protected garden rooms in places where hedges would not survive, we designed a high, spaced-board fence with gaps in it to let the winds blow through (see”Fencing Lessons,” opposite), and a long wisteria pergola with lattice along one side. The most protected garden rooms were in the lee of these windbreaks and the house. Here, we based the living structure on tall yews (Taxus spp.) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) clipped into drums and hedges, and groups of rhododendrons. To finish the enclosure, we planted a dense privet hedge to form the garden backdrop along the street. Kept eight feet tall, it seemed to thrive on benign neglect, despite seasonal pruning from errant snowplows and eager beach visitors desperate for parking.

JUST KEEP MOVING

Over the years, we carried out a series of experiments in planting schemes, color themes, focal plants, path alignments, and bench locations, changing virtually everything except the shape of the garden rooms themselves. In other words, we played with plants, our real reason for gardening. Each room offered a different exposure, soil type (though we improved much of it), and level of drought tolerance, since no irrigation system was installed. These rooms let us experiment with tender plants and new design combinations, working with what thrived in the site, and moving those that didn’t to what we thought was a better microsite, or to the compost pile.

Although Boston is in USDA Zone 6, on the very edge of the water we were able to grow plants hardy to Zone 7 and even 8. Around the gravel garden on the southern, and lee, side of the house, a European gardener, visiting one chilly February, expressed astonishment at the improbably happy collection of broad-leaved evergreens, hellebores, and bulbs. Unusual plants that proved to be hardy in specific mi-crosites included Euphorbia wulfenii, Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’, Bergenia ciliata, Aster carolinianus, Codonopsis clematidea, Fuchsia magel-lanica, Hesperaloe parviflora, Rohdea japonica, and a wide range of carexes. We tried these, some several times, before finding both the right microsite and pleasing companion plantings—for example, the vining codonopsis, with its pendant green and maroon bells, complemented the pale white flowers of Akebia quinata ‘Alba, while on the adjacent arch, the pale blue flowers of the vining Aster carolinianus brought the sky’s color into the foliage of the companion red-flowered trumpet honeysuckle that flowered earlier in the summer.

Unexpected failures came, in fact, from many old reliables. Junipers failed repeatedly, regardless of species or selection, no doubt because of the partial shade made by the maples, and the cold, clayey soil. Likewise, all pines failed because of salt spray, extreme exposure, and lack of sunlight. And except in the protected mi-crosites, all the broad-leaved evergreens died. Other failures came from winter-hardy plants too common to deserve the best wind-protected sites, and whose exuberant growth was shattered into ugly messes by gales. Tall ornamental grasses, such as miscan-thus, panicum, and calamagrostis, grown in open beds, collapsed this way (not so those grown among shrubs), as did most of the taller sedums, like ‘Autumn Joy’. Surprisingly, Elaeagnus angustifolia, a reputedly tough small tree, grew quickly, but was regularly uprooted by late winter storms.

We collected plants everywhere, even in winter, when they had to be kept indoors until planting time. The garden seemed to shrink with every new season. Then, one day, we had a reality check when a good friend said, “You’ve maxed out this place,” and we finally admitted it. Now we are beginning our new adventure in New England gardening, this time in a coastal woodland protected from winter storms and sea water. Here, a half zone warmer, the possibilities are enormous. Best of all, there is space for many new plants and design experiments.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ forms a ribbon down the central planted rill of the arches garden to the pink cascades of Kolkwitzia amabilis.

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For more on seaside gardening, visit www.hortmag.com/features.

ONE WAY TO WINDPROOF A FENCE

Sturdy boards slow the wind but still allow it to pass through.

A lattice overlay provides an additional baffle layer.

The result is a sturdy, handsome wind barrier that also supports annual vines.

Fencing Lessons

We knew from experience that typical and extreme winds were the enemy. We tamed them with tall wooden fences, hedges, a pergola, and a garden house. Our major wind-baffle fence was eight feet tall and ran from the house to the property line. To slow the wind and allow vines to grow, the vertical fence boards in each panel were set 3/4 of an inch apart and sandwiched between wood lattice on both sides. To prevent it from toppling in the wind (like its predecessor), the posts were extra large, and buttressed with additional panels of latticed fence on the side of the fence opposite the prevailing wind.

This structure never shifted. Its footprint provided alternating shallow and deep planting areas on both sides, perfect for two distinctly different garden designs, each with its own interplay of shrubs, vines, ornamental pots, benches, and swathes of perennials and groundcovers with only their vines in common.

N.B.S. & D.C.M.

NAN BLAKE SINTON, director of programs, leads tours all over the world for Horticulture.

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