The Accidental Gardener: Sweet ’N Salty

Tips for Planning a colorful seaside garden

Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow? For many folks, not very well if you’re on the ocean and enduring constant salt air breezes. And while we all cherish our Spartina grass here in the Lowcountry for its many environmental benefits, it can hardly take the place of a breathtaking garden. And don’t get me started on juniper and grasses. Granted, these hardy little tanks, I mean plants, are salt tolerant and can help prevent erosion but prized for their beauty? Hardly.

Somewhere along the line, determined Lowcountry pioneers decided enough was enough and set out to create gorgeous seaside gardens. They cracked the code and discovered beautiful plants that are not only salt tolerant but will actually thrive along the shoreline. And did you know that some of the prettiest plants love a good ocean view also? We are talking about plants that deserve a place in the all-star hall of fame not only for their beauty and fragrance, but for their ability to survive, well, just about anything.


These little beauties come in a variety of sizes and colors. Importantly, only purchase evergreen or semi-evergreen varieties for planting here in the Lowcountry and plant them high. Furthermore, plant them where irrigation doesn’t hit them and don’t mulch around their base. They can easily take full sun. Remove seed pods and divide every 2-3 years. If you purchase small plants, don’t be discouraged — remember the rhyme — the first years it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.


These evergreen beauties bloom in the late spring with a profusion of blue or white flowers. More and more varieties are being developed but the old standby, Queen of the Nile, will reward you with a breathtaking show every spring. Agapanthus also should be planted high and can take just about any lighting but are happiest with a half day of sun. They like to be root bound so plant them close together or sprinkle some rocks into the planting hole to trick them into thinking they’re pot bound.

African Iris

This tall, spritely evergreen grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. It will tolerate several hours of shade but requires at least 6 hours of bright sun to bloom well. Water plants regularly for the first growing season after planting. Once established, African iris requires little maintenance and rarely needs supplemental watering. If clumps become crowded, don’t hesitate to divide plants in spring. Use a sharp spade to slice the rhizomes apart.


Drift, floribunda, knock-out, tea roses – all perform well not on the sand dunes per se but are able to thrive even with the constant breeze from the ocean. Make sure to water them well in the mornings during the summer months – do not water and leave them wet at night or you’ll invite diseases. Fertilize the first of each month and you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous show-stopping blossoms.


Evergreen fragrant gardenias come in a wide range of varieties – some are repeat bloomers but none of them will be happy in full day sun here. Gardenias grow best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Constant moisture is non-negotiable for gardenias — they’re not drought-tolerant, but they also don’t want soggy roots. It’s essential that you site them in an area with well-drained acidic soil. Organic matter helps retain moisture at the level the shrubs need. Yellow leaves are a sign your plant is anemic. Spray the leaves, front and back, late in the day with liquid chelated iron (make sure to water the base of the plant well before applying the spray). There is a granular form as well but I found it to be not as effective as the liquid.

Society Garlic

One of the toughest little border plants known to man, this plant smells like garlic, repels deer through its fragrance and produces pretty little purple flowers when planted in full sun. Its clumps can be divided every two to three years in the fall or winter. What’s not to like?


Easy to grow and well worth any effort, these showy little shrubs will reward you with beautiful blooms if you plant them in a location protected from afternoon sun in a well-drained soil. If your leaves wilt, add water immediately!


With our mild winters of late, tropical hibiscus are thriving. Ensure plenty of sunlight for the most blooms and remember that hibiscus bloom and rest. If yours isn’t blooming, make sure to feed it (Palm-tone is fabulous). And just remember, dwarf hibiscus are only dwarf for the first year – eventually the compact hibiscus will grow from its chemically induced stupor into its true form.

Canna Lilies

This adaptable plant is pretty much impossible to kill and comes in a variety of colors. Cannas will grow under any lighting but will bloom best with at least 5 hours of sun in a moist but well drained soil. Just be forewarned – these babies spread.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? Why fabulously, thank you! Happy planting!

Ask & Answer

Dear Accidental Gardener,
We recently purchased a home on the ocean in Palmetto Dunes. I’d like to have a formal English garden like the ones I’ve seen in Charleston. Can you recommend a hedge?
— Perplexed in PD

Dear Perplexed,
You’re in luck. Dwarf Podocarpus aka ‘Pringles’ is the perfect shrub for creating a formal Charlestonian Garden. These sturdy little plants are evergreen, salt tolerant and will grow in sun or shade. Best of all they can be trimmed to form neat little borders. Plant them about 2 1/2 feet apart. This shrub is moderately drought-tolerant once established, and grows slowly to about 3 feet tall, though you can keep it somewhat smaller if you like.

Got a question for the Accidental Gardener? Email info@wearelocallife.com

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