Gardens Illustrated
Hunkered down behind the sea wall and surrounded with a weathered timber palisade fence, the garden is protected from the elements with a sunny seating area to the left and shaded corner to the right. A stone path leads to a gate and steps over the sea wall to the beach beyond.

Planting for a seaside garden

Published: November 17, 2021 at 9:37 am

Jo Thompson has transformed this coastal plot using planting and materials that reflect the maritime location. Words Francine Raymond. Photographs Rachel Warne.

KEY ELEMENTS

What Coastal garden. Where East Sussex coast. Size 13.6m x 14.3m. Soil Sandy. Aspect South-facing. Special features Privacy with uninterrupted views. Designed by Jo Thompson (jothompson-garden-design.co.uk).

The house and terrace, fronted by hummocks of pine, grasses and evergreens, have uninterrupted views to the sea;
The house and terrace, fronted by hummocks of pine, grasses and evergreens, have uninterrupted views to the sea

Imagine a garden built by a pop impresario with a penchant for 1980s Italian design, with harsh, white rendered walls, slippery decking and artificial turf. No wonder the current owners’ brief was for a comfortable spot, somewhere to protect them as they hunkered down from the elements that blow in from the beach just 20 metres away.

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They needed a design that acknowledged the local topography with plants that were natural, hardy and didn’t require endless attention: bun- shaped dwarf pine (Pinus mugo), scattered Erigeron karvinskianus and fragrant rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), plus nooks and crannies to show off found objects from their beachcombing forays.

The sea-worn fence changes colour with the weather, providing contrast and shelter for the pines, grasses and the self-seeded fleabane Erigeron karvinskianus
The sea-worn fence changes colour with the weather, providing contrast and shelter for the pines, grasses and the self-seeded fleabane Erigeron karvinskianus

So they called in designer Jo Thompson, who explains: “They wanted grass, not a bowling green, but somewhere to spread a picnic rug; they wanted storage, hidden away under the terrace, and they wanted to maximise the
view and be linked with the landscape, but still have their privacy.”

Her aim was to create a sense of movement round the garden rather than just a static view from the terrace and house; somewhere with a sense of fun. A path conjuring the shape of an octopus with tentacles reaching out over the sea wall to the beach – just over the horizon a shingle paradise dotted with hummocks of yellow horned poppies between breakwaters. The perfect spot for the owners, who like to swim in all weathers nd then nip back to the convenience of an outdoor shower.

Shelter is provided by boarded fences: an outer and an inner protective boundary, worn and roughened by marine invertebrates and reclaimed from a derelict pier further down the coast, reflecting the groins that stretch out along the beach. The castellations are carefully and strategically placed to offer privacy to sit in sunny spots, while shade is provided by the giant fig tree, with its bounteous crop of delicious fruit (and attendant swarms of late-summer wasps).

he curved border backed by the timber palisade shields the outdoor showering and storage area under the terrace
The curved border backed by the timber palisade shields the outdoor showering and storage area under the terrace

Easy, hardy shrubs and sub-shrubs, Ceanothus arboreus and C. azureus ‘Concha’, English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Cistus x hybridus are pierced with grasses: electric-blue dune grass Leymus arenarius, orange-tipped Anemanthele lessoniana and clumps of Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’. Beach plants Eryngium maritimum, sea kale (Crambe maritima), Armeria maritima ‘In the Red’ and sea campion (Silene uniflora) have slipped over the sea wall and feel at home.

Texture comes from the weathered timber and stone, from dried grasses, from evergreen and coniferous foliage and from tiny thymes and Sedum album ‘Coral Carpet’ growing between the cracks in paths. The limited colour is translated from the natural landscape, from the sandy yellow of the beach, the blue of the horizon and the sea on a summer’s day, in the green of the local countryside, and reflected close-up in the small flowers, the umbellifers, poppies and daisies that grow in this garden.

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The owners are so pleased, they have bought the house next door and Jo will extend the garden. “This is something all designers love: the chance to go back and look at the design again.

Evergreens, conifers, herbs and grasses nestle against the inner curved fence;
Evergreens, conifers, herbs and grasses nestle against the inner curved fence

Coastal hard-landscaping details

This coastal area is often bombarded with winter winds of 90mph that scour glass, rust metals and rot wood, so outdoor materials must be chosen carefully if they are to last more than a season.

  • Although weather-beaten timber is highly fashionable, for wood to last it has to be hardwood. Ashwell Timber supplied the reclaimed tropical hardwood used in this design, sourced from derelict jetties, docks and lock gates, that can be reimagined as fencing, garden furniture and plant containers.
  • Jo Thompson has used DesignBoard composite decking, made of PVC and rice husk fibre on the stainless steel-framed, semi-circular deck for a low-maintenance and algae-proof alternative to timber decking.
  • The Purbeck stone paths have a textured finish to ensure that they are non-slip, long-lasting and will weather beautifully. Boulders from the same material are used as seating and low walls. The stone varies in colour and has a high fossil content.
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