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Facing the Challenges of Salt Spray Sea Air

First of Two Parts * Coming next week: Coast-friendly plants that can stand up to salt spray and windy conditions.

September 30, 2000|U.C. MASTER GARDENERS

Question: I have gardened inland for years but recently moved near the beach. I've tried growing some plants here that I grew without any problem inland, like tomatoes, but I haven't had much luck.

Can you give me some pointers about coastal gardening?

S.T., Huntington Beach

Answer: Gardening along the coast is unlike gardening anywhere else. And although you aren't able to grow everything you grew inland, you'll be glad to know that gardening near the seashore can be much more pleasant.

Near the ocean you won't find the temperature extremes commonly found inland. Areas such as Orange and Fullerton hit the 90s and even 100s in the summer months, which makes gardening uncomfortable and can kill certain plants.

Seacoast weather generally stays in the 70s and 80s, making gardening enjoyable.

Weather is also milder in winter on Orange County shores. All of this creates a subtropical environment where many sometimes-sensitive plants thrive. Banana, bougainvillea, ferns, hibiscus, begonia, fuchsia and impatiens are just a few of the plants that love coastal weather.

Coastal gardening does have its share of challenges, however, such as the one you mentioned.

Growing certain plants that like high heat, such as tomatoes, can be difficult and sometimes impossible. In some instances, you will have to avoid certain plants or be very careful about the varieties you grow.

Although you can't grow large beefsteak types of tomatoes on the coast, you can successfully cultivate smaller varieties, such as Early Girl and cherry tomatoes.

In the case of citrus, it is hard to grow just about every variety, except for Meyer lemon, which actually does best along the coast.

Proper selection of other fruit trees, such as peaches and apples, is also important. These need a certain number of chill hours in the winter to produce well, so it's important to choose varieties that require few chill hours.

Some fruits and vegetables, such as cantaloupe and eggplant, won't grow well, if at all, along the coast, but there are many other vegetables to choose from. Try zucchini, artichoke, pea, all leaf crops, all root crops, broccoli, cauliflower, culinary herbs, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.

Many roses mildew and rust along the coast, but certain varieties will do well, as long as you pay careful attention to planting location. An iceberg rosebush will thrive in a sunny area next to a fence or shrub that gives it wind protection.

Other troubles common at the beach include salt spray and windy conditions, which can both wreak havoc on plants. Wind is a dehydrator and salt can cause poisoning, which entails browning at the end of leaves and a resulting dieback.

To protect plants from wind and the accompanying salt spray, create walls and canopies using plants that make good windbreaks, such as Acacia redolens, Myoporum laetum, Melaleuca nesophila and Australian tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum).

Windbreaks are most effective if designed in a tier fashion. Small ground cover plants, such as native grasses, should be put closest to the ocean, with medium-height plants such as shrubs and larger trees closest to the garden.

Such a setup will cause wind to sweep up and over the landscape, rather than hitting it vertically.

To minimize the effects of salt spray on plants, use spray irrigation for delicate plants to rinse the salts off.

Mulching and building the soil with a lot of organic material is also recommended as it creates air for the roots and will encourage healthy plants. Organic material also adds fertility and bulk to sandy soil found near the beach.

University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which answers specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to

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