Seaside gardening recommendations

Credit: Courtesy Carolyn Jones

Q: Are california lilacs suitable for an oceanside garden? I am starting a garden on the beach near Qualicum Bay and would like to plant an evergreen hedge to mark the beachside corners of the property. Thank you for any suggestions. 

Some California lilacs (Ceanothus) are adapted to coastal conditions, but I would be cautious using these shrubs as hedge plants because they are not easy to prune. They do best when left to their own devices, making a free-growing shrub. Or, they can be tipped a bit to encourage bushiness, but if pruned into old wood, they won’t leaf out again.

The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs has a good plant list at the back for seaside areas. Among their suggestions are some possible choices:

1. Mexican mock orange (Choisya ternata) makes a good hedge, and it responds well to pruning (with hand pruners rather than shears, as the leaves are large). It is evergreen with white flowers in May. It is reliably hardy in our climate. The only drawback is that this shrub only gets to about 4-5 feet tall.

2. Escallonia makes a handsome shrub as well, with pink flowers in summer. It might get some foliage damage in an extremely cold winter but would recover with good care. It could be sheared as the leaves are small, and the bees love it.

3. Most species of Cotoneaster are good for the seaside, and some of these get quite large. They seem to be out of style these days, but if you see one of the larger-growing species, consider it. They are handsome evergreen shrubs with white flowers and red fruits.

4. Pyracantha don’t mind growing by the sea, if you want a prickly hedge/barrier.

5. If it were my garden, I’d pick the evergreen Viburnum tinus. If you want a tall hedge, look for the selection Viburnum tinus ‘Robustum’. I know that Monrovia nursery grows it, and many garden centres buy plants from Monrovia. Or if you want a smaller hedge, look for Viburnum tinus ‘Compactum’ or ‘Spring Bouquet.’ Like the Choisya, you’ll have to prune this one with clippers if you don’t want the leaves to tear. But even if you use shears, the new growth will soon cover any damaged leaves.

While I’m on the subject of pruning broadleaf evergreen shrubs, the best time to do this is May. This is when they are just putting out new growth, so they will soon recover from the pruning. Don’t forget a layer of mulch, some extra fertilizer and regular water during summer dry spells. I’ve cut overgrown Choisya shrubs to 8 inches above ground level as they were too large and wide. They filled in and covered the cuts in about a month, and now, two years later, they are beautiful rounded shrubs 2-3 feet tall. I tip them to keep them in check now, so I won’t have to give them a severe pruning again.