We’re just back from a seaside holiday, this year perfectly timed for two weeks of perfect summer, when simmering in London is not the connoisseur’s choice.
The temperature on the Solent, with a steady westerly breeze over Christchurch Bay, was five Celsius degrees lower than on the commons of the New Forest five miles inland. I am discovering the pleasures of a seaside garden – not, I’m glad to say, one totally exposed to wind and spray on a beach, but walled and sheltered by the little house, with the sea over the saltmarshes at high tide only sixty yards away. The air is heady with the scents of seaweed and saltgrass and tidal mud, and luminous with ocean light.
There is such a rewarding template for seaside gardening that there seems no point in being original. What’s wrong with hydrangeas and montbretia, and fuchsias and thrift? But drought can be a serious worry; the soil is basically sand and gravel and shingle and rain often seems to skip the beach to fall inland.
When we arrived I had the deep joy of watering a parched garden. I turned the rusty tap on the water butt and heard the jangling of stored life and energy that had only been breeding mosquitos as it filled my can. As I watered I was cutting down the top hamper of everything that had flowered and withered. Water and fertilizer would bring a second flowering – of some things. Or at least a fresh covering of leaves.
The garden is about 40 feet square, two-thirds paved, more dedicated to sunbathing and guzzling seafood than to horticulture. It has a campsis-choked pergola but otherwise no shade; apart from one raised bed the planting has almost all been low-growing. The house wall supports a climbing hydrangea; there are capabilities here.
At first I thought of a tree, maybe a pine, in the central brick-edged bed. Then I remembered a plant I was given by Cedric Morris in Suffolk many years ago; almost the only woody plant, as I remember, in his great open iris beds, a shrub growing perhaps seven feet high with a propensity to sucker – could this be why he gave it away so freely? It is Elaeagnus commutata or silverberry, a North American native used for its nitrogen-fixing abilities in dreadful soil.
In the narrow garden facing the sea, between house and road, I have planted agapanthus and Hydrangea quercifolia – a favourite in my daughter’s Riviera garden where it grows huge, flowers wonderfully and colours like a furnace in autumn. I don’t expect such a performance in Hampshire. It drank the water from the butt like a desert traveller, though.