What Is Coastal Landscaping?

wildflowers growing along a coast with sand and rocks

Lori Holder-Webb / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Coastal landscaping is designed to emphasize location above all else. Living or vacationing next to the ocean is something many people seek out and even romanticize. The ocean's weather and elemental challenges are second only to its vast beauty and power, so coastal landscaping has some very specific features. Whether the charming villages of Cape Cod, the leisurely beaches of the Mid-Atlantic, the lush seashore communities of Florida, or the lively landscapes of the California coast, coastal landscaping is a well-loved motif and aspect of outdoor life. This article explores the many ways coastal landscaping design can be expressed and achieved.

The History of Coastal Landscaping

As regions of the United States were settled, coastal areas were often used as seaports and points of entry before they became residential towns. Some coastal towns, retain the flavor of their past function as ports for trade or commerce. Some historic towns like Salem, Massachusetts or St. Augustine, Florida, settled in the 17th century, integrate authentic garden designs into the grounds of historic destinations. Some coastal communities over time have become vacation destinations (like Cape Cod or the Florida Keys), while some have all kinds of summer attractions designed for locals (like the Jersey Shore or Delaware's Rehoboth Beach).

As ocean travel to the United States increased in the 18th century and beyond, lighthouses were built to guide boats at night or during foul weather. Some coastal towns still have these lighthouses and they're an iconic part of the landscape. The history of coastal settlements almost always includes a story of weather calamities and the destruction brought by coastal storms: Hurricanes Katrina, Bob, Sandy and others have wrought enormous damage in their respective areas but locals, with the help of federal disaster relief, have done their best to rebuild. In the aftermath of major storms, resident gardeners learn valuable lessons about how to build and plant to lessen future damage.

House of Seven Gables with gardens near Pickering Wharf
The House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, next to the harbor, retains its historic cottage garden look, though raised beds have been added for ease of maintenance.  Alina / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Old house with stone wall and wooden door with iron gate and garden of grasses and vines
St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the United States, and still has many old houses in fine condition, like this one with a charming walled garden. Paul Coultas / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 
Victorian house with lush front garden including oakleaf hydrangea and pink roses
Historic Cape May, New Jersey has many beautiful Victorian houses boasting lush cottage style gardens like this one.  Chris Walton / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Coastal Paving Styles

Having pavers in the garden is useful for soil erosion, which can be an issue with sandy coastal soils. Aesthetically, pavers can be chosen to reflect the local landscaping styles; for example, on Cape Cod, a rustic look is often preferred and salvaged stone or bricks are used for an old world feeling. In Florida, cedar mulch is sometimes used in and around pavers to keep insects at bay during the summer months. Gravel is sometimes used as an alternative to driveway paving in coastal areas, as stones are less vulnerable than asphalt to salt damage.

Stone path in cottage gardens with garden shed
 Amy Bradstreet / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Plants to Include

There are a number of functions plants can fulfill in a coastal landscape. They can prevent wind or water erosion, offer privacy, provide shade, attract wildlife, and provide beauty. Choose plants for their best functions but also consider the usual factors such as hardiness zone or watering needs, and design elements such as color, timing of blooms, and size/scale. Sandy soil conditions, salt air and wind present challenges and should also be considered.

Many coastal locations provide abundant sunshine, so gardens full of sturdy sun-loving perennials, such as sedums, Shasta daisies, salvias, coreopsis and dianthus, can allow even Northern gardeners to indulge with plenty of flowers. Some of the hardiest coastal plants can be invasive (such as purple loosestrife, which spreads rapidly in coastal wetlands), and should not be encouraged to grow. Native plants are otherwise encouraged, such as the abundant fragrant rugosa roses seen growing in the Northeast, commonly called "beach roses."

Sunny perennial garden next to rocky beach
This colorful perennial garden in North Hampton, New Hampshire creates a lovely vista with beach roses in the background next to the water. golforchid / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Beach house with shrubs and wooden fencing
This house on the peninsula in Long Beach, CA uses shrubs to help prevent erosion and also provide privacy and a bucolic landscape setting thinduck42 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Beach house with native plants growing by water including purple loosestrife.
Purple loosestrife, seen growing near this Rhode Island beach house , is a very invasive non-native plant that grows aggressively in wetlands. supa dupa/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Roses tumbling over stone wall in front of beach house
The rocky beaches of Maine present special landscaping challenges. This seaside cottage in Kennebunk has a simple planting of hardy rugosa roses, for beauty and function (protecting the rock wall). Bud / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Rocks

Some beaches have large rocky outcroppings as part of the landscape (like Maine and Oregon). Coastal landscaping often incorporate stone walls and structures that can hold their own against winds and sea water. Stone walls are a common site throughout New England, as they were moved from land to make it easier to grow crops, and the rocks were then stacked into low fences to show property boundaries. In addition to bring useful for structures, rocks are often seen as a desirable aesthetic on their own, also, keeping with the easygoing and natural landscaping elements that many beachfront property owners enjoy.

Large boulders stacked by stone wall near beach house.
This Rhode Island cottage on the coast has its own stone wall and a large boulder sculpture by its entrance, creating a striking landscape design. mbgrigby / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Large boulder surrounded by flowers in front of Cape Cod house
This large boulder serves as the anchor for this garden full of native plants in Bourne, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.  Dennis Weeks / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Rock garden next to cottage with spring flowering shrubs
This Cape Cod cottage garden uses naturally occurring rocks to build a wall supporting this assortment of flowering shrubs, perennials and ivy.  Dick Landeen / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Large stones used for stairs and driftwood fence near beach
This inventive and attractive rustic arrangement of stones on a beach in Maine provides sturdy steps and a helpful railing made of driftwood for hikers.  Steve / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Garden Decor

There's something endearing about the kinds of decor one finds in coastal gardens. Sometimes it's nautical (anchors, buoys), sometimes local (lobster traps, flamingoes), sometimes invoking wildlife (egrets or seagulls), sometimes just generally quirky. There may be collections on display: seashells, sea glass or other found beach objects, or sculptures along a theme. This kind of personalized decor goes hand in hand with the idea that coastal landscaping often defines a place where fond memories are made and savored. Many coastal villages are home to artists' communities (like Provincetown, with its Fine Arts Work Center), and all that creativity is often reflected in garden decorations.

Rock garden with colorful annuals and seagull sculpture
This colorful rock garden in Dillon Beach, CA has a sculpture of a seagull in flight, honoring the seabirds seen in the area.  momboleum / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Colorful buoys on a fence in Provincetown
These colorful buoys and floats on a fence in Provincetown capture the village's artsy vibe.  two cavies / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Beachside garden with statues of egret and pelican, stone pillars and native grasses
This charming beachside garden has statues of pelicans and egrets to honor (and beckon?) the nearby wildlife  ladybugdiscovery / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Tidy rock garden with sculptures along a commercial street
The sculptures in this street side garden in Provincetown captures the artistic spirit of this community which is home to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Dave Shevett / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

Water Features

It may seem strange to have a water feature in a garden near the ocean. But having a fresh water pool or pond can be a welcome respite from all the salt water at the beach. In hotter coastal climates, swimming pools are considered almost necessary to help keep cool during sweltering summers. Surrounding water features with plants gives them a sense of place in the garden landscape, and using container plantings allows for flexibility of design, as well as allowing easier movement of plants to protect them in coastal storms.

Pond and waterfall surrounded by tropical trees and succulents and flagstone patio
This luxurious water feature in Miami Beach features a gorgeous flagstone patio, rock waterfall, and colorful succulent plants surrounded by palm trees. docdesdinin2010 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Fencing

Fencing is a fact of life for coastal landscaping. Some fencing is designed to prevent erosion or protect from wind, while other types of fencing act as safety structures for walkways or stairways. Some beaches have dense housing and fences also provide privacy. Fences are often built of teak wood which is impervious to salt and water and weathers to a pleasant patina. Fences also provide a vertical landscaping option in tight spaces, and a place to display climbing roses or flowering vines.

Weathered wood fencing and arbor gateway at beach cottage
This fabulous garden entrance to a cottage in Rockaway Beach combines a rugged rock edge and weathered wood fencing and arbor.  Linda L. Johnson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
weathered fence in front of beach cottage with perennials
The weathered fence by this beach cottage in Oregon is a nice backdrop for the small perennial border. Meggs / Flickr /  CC BY 2.0
Weathered wood fence and arbor gate with shrubs
The weathered wood on this fence and arbor gate in Barnstable, Massachusetts lends old world charm to this slightly hidden garden.  Lesley Wilson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
open air fencing made of driftwood on the beach.
This whimsical fence made of found tree limbs and driftwood in Provincetown is both sturdy and sustainable; what a brilliant use of salvaged materials!  mahler9 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other Elements to Include

Seaside landscapes are for enjoying scenery and relaxing. Benches and chairs are therefore an important part of these landscapes. One often sees benches and chairs provided in public parks and along walkways by the sea in many coastal towns, so that visitors can rest and take in the scenic vistas and enjoy the sea air.

Bright orange Adirondack chairs in a shady garden
These bright orange Adirondack chairs add a whimsical touch to this otherwise traditional garden setting in Provincetown.  Paul Jarvie / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Bench with low growing pink-flowering plants by the shore in California under a partly cloudy blue sky
This idyllic spot called "Lover's Point" in Pacific Grove, California is surrounded with beds of ice plant (delosperma), a non-native plant which has proved somewhat invasive, but which brings joy to those lucky visitors who can take a seat and enjoy the ocean views and colorful blooms.  Branden Frederick / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Teak wood benches in shady tropical garden with brick walls
This shady oasis in Key West Florida has comfy teak furniture that's perfect for the hot humid climate. Yarnim / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 
Wooden chairs with bright orange cushions by a stone path with potted plants on tables and benches
Well, sometimes relaxing is more important than gardening. This street in Chatham, Massachusetts offers comfy chairs and benches for weary walkers, and a few potted annuals to please the eye. Who needs grass?  PJD-DigiPic / Flickr / CC BY 2.0