Large quantities of salt in the soil do not mix well with the plants that you would like to grow in that soil. An excess of salt prevents the plants from absorbing water properly. A salty spray carried on the winds only exacerbates the problem for would-be gardeners in seaside communities. But salt is also a problem for Northern homeowners who grow gardens along roadsides where the town uses salt to melt ice during the winter.
The sandy soils found near beach areas retain less water and nutrients than less porous soils, so plants growing in the sand are especially susceptible to salt damage. If you are lucky, salt damage may manifest itself only in leaf burn; but the worst cases progress from leaf drop to death. The solution to this problem is to select salt-tolerant plants. Happily, a variety of such selections is available, ranging from annuals and perennials to shrubs and trees.
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Salt-Tolerant Flowers and Foliage
Include some short plants and some medium-sized plants in your salt-tolerant plant selection to ensure having some knockout flower beds. These will generally be perennials, annuals, or tender plants treated as annuals. Aim for a mix of great flowering plants and foliage plants.
Bee balm (zones 4 to 9) is more than just an ornamental with red or light-purple flowers. It is also an herb used to make tea and treat bee stings. Standing 3 feet tall, it grows in full sun to partial shade.
Stella de Oro (Hemerocallis 'Stella de Oro') is an example of a daylily. It is a reliable perennial for zones 3 to 9. Grow it in full sun for best results. It reaches 12 inches tall and puts out golden flowers.
If you want a short plant for shade, miniature coleus is a great choice, reaching just a few inches tall. Tender and treated as an annual in the North, it is a popular foliage plant.
Both ivy geraniums and Lantana come in a variety of colors and should be grown in full sun. Both are tender plants and commonly used in annual hanging baskets in the North. By contrast, prickly pear cactus looks like it should be tender, but it's not. Hardy to zone 2, this perennial produces yellow flowers, is deer-resistant, and becomes 6 to 18 inches tall. This full-sun plant is a great choice for rock gardens along roadsides or near the seashore.
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Salt-Tolerant Groundcovers and Vines
Ground covers can help lower your landscape maintenance. Some are viny ground-huggers, like creeping juniper. Others are meant to grow up a structure, such as Virginia creeper.
The Bar Harbor juniper (zones 3 to 9) is one of the creeping junipers. It becomes just 1 foot tall but spreads 5 feet. Grow this evergreen in full sun.
English ivy (zones 4 to 9), also evergreen, is a bigger plant (6 to 8 inches tall, with a spread of 15 feet) that likes partial shade best. But it is an invasive plant in some areas. In such areas, substitute lilyturf (zones 4 to 10) for it to cover ground in partial shade. Grass-like, lilyturf becomes 9 to 18 tall and spreads 12 to 24 inches.
For a different look altogether in a salt-tolerant ground cover, try wall germander (5 to 9). This is a broadleaf, evergreen subshrub that becomes just 1 foot tall. Grow it in full sun.
Virginia creeper (zones 4 to 9) is aggressive but indigenous to North America. It is one of the best vines for fall color (the leaves become reddish). Grow it in full sun for the best color. This vine can become 30 to 50 feet long.
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Salt-Tolerant Shrubs and Subshrubs
Shrubs help give your landscape design structure. Chosen properly, they lend interest to the yard for a longer portion of the year than do flowers. If you live in the North, it is especially important to select shrubs that provide fall and winter interest.
Rosa rugosa is so salt-tolerant that it is called the "beach rose." Grow it in zones 5 to 9 in full sun. Standing 4 to 6 feet tall, this easy-to-grow rose puts out flowers in pink or white.
Sumac has colorful fall foliage. There are different types, including staghorn sumac (zones 4 to 8, full sun, 18 to 35 feet).
Winterberry holly, despite its name, is really showier in autumn in cold climates. That's when its red berries look nicest. In winter, they wrinkle up in cold weather. Grow it in full sun (zones 3 to 9) for best berry production. It becomes 3 to 15 feet tall.
Bayberry shrubs, famous for the candles made from their berries, are best grown in zones 3 through 7 in full sun. They become 10 feet tall if not pruned. The berries hold up better in freezing temperatures than do those on winterberry shrubs.
Adam's needle is another of those plants that looks like it belongs more in the Southwest than in cold regions such as New England. But this broadleaf evergreen with spiky leaves and tall stalks with white flowers grows in zones 5 to 10. A subshrub, it stands 2 to 3 feet tall in winter but about twice that when in bloom. Grow it in full sun for maximum flowering.
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Because of the height they can reach, trees perform certain services in the landscape that other plants can't, such as furnishing shade. Not that the biggest tree is always the best: You may want a more modest tree to plant near a patio, for example.
Several sun-loving oaks are salt-tolerant. Pin oaks (zones 4 to 8) have deep-red foliage in fall and can attain a height of up to 70 feet. White oaks don't have as spectacular a fall color (reddish-brown) and get taller (80 feet). Red oaks are similar to pin oaks but get bigger (75 feet or more).
Sunburst honey locusts (full sun, zones 4 to 9) are tough trees that tolerate a number of challenging conditions, including salt, pollution, dry soil, and compacted soil. This makes them classic street trees. Their new leaves are yellow. They lose a lot of that yellow in summer, but it returns with a bang in fall.
Juniperus virginiana (zones 2 to 9, full sun) gives you a choice for an evergreen tree. It is fragrant, columnar (commonly 30 feet tall and just 8 feet wide), has reddish-brown bark, and sports bluish, berry-like cones eaten by wild birds.
Canary Island date palms are one of the types of palm trees that tolerate salt very well. Growing 40 to 50 feet tall, they are cold-hardy to 18 Fahrenheit. Grow them in full sun.