Grow Seaside Wildflowers

Most gardeners, even those who are not naturally inclined towards gardening in an environmentally friendly way, now appreciate that cultivating a few wildflowers can bring huge benefits to the wildlife in and around our gardens.  Amongst the large number of wildflowers now available in garden centres and nurseries, foxgloves, scabious, primroses, poppies and knapweed are voted as the nation’s favourites, but the British flora provides us with a huge selection of wonderful flowers that can enhance any garden, providing we chose those that are happy in our conditions.  Even I tend to grow my particular favourites (I like to fill my garden with field scabious and meadow cranesbill in particular) and sometimes ignore the less obvious candidates, but my eyes were opened while visiting the South Coast some years ago.  A gentle stroll along a sea front promenade took me past a small garden with a ‘meadow’ of seaside flowers – thrift and sea campion interspersed with birdsfoot trefoil and wild thyme.  The garden itself was not that appealing but the flowers were extraordinary and started me thinking about where I could grow these beautiful plants in my own garden.

Our native seaside plants are varied and versatile.  They may grow on cliff tops, sand dunes or even on the beach itself and some will only grow in rather extreme conditions.  Salt marshes – those bleak and desolate areas of mud flats dissected by tidal creeks – do have their own special flora, much of it very attractive in late spring and early summer.  Some species such as sea lavender and sea aster will only thrive in areas that are intermittently very wet, and they also need a high level of salt in the water around them.  In the wild they have adapted to conditions where many plants would perish but these true specialists would struggle in the average garden border.  But there are other seaside treasures that can fit beautifully into garden situations and may be just right for that difficult spot where few other things will thrive.

What conditions do seaside species need?  Surprisingly, unlike the sea aster and lavender already mentioned, most of the prettiest seaside wildflowers do not need the damp, salty conditions you might expect.  Many, including thrift,  sea campion, yellow stonecrop and wild thyme are often found together with wild carrot on cliff tops.  These species are able to cling on in tiny pockets of soil in rock crevices. where the soil is sparse and well drained.  Cliffs are an example of a pretty extreme habitat so you would expect these plants to be hardy and able to cope with difficult situations in the garden and indeed this is the case.  I grow some of these plants on the south facing roof of my log store where they happily resist a range of conditions in my garden in the South Shropshire Hills, including fierce westerly winds, plenty of rain and the occasional sun baked drought interlude.

Make a small wildflower scree garden  It is worth thinking creatively about our seaside species and if you like the idea of bringing a little bit of the coast to your  garden you may want to make a special area for them.  One attractive idea would be to create a small scree garden, preferably in a south facing border, and combine seaside plants with other wildflowers of well drained habitats – harebell, pasque flower, small scabious, rock rose and quaking grass for example.  These plants prefer short grassland above chalk or limestone soils, and mix well with thrift and thyme, creating a wonderful blend of colours and flower shapes.  Start your scree garden in an area of bare weed-free soil and prepare the soil for planting in the usual way.  These wildflower species will require no fertiliser in the soil but you may want to add grit or small gravel to make sure the drainage is good.  These plants in the wild tend to grow mingled randomly together rather than in swathes of one species, but mix and match them as you like.  Once I have planted my wildflowers I always mulch an area such as this with fine pea grit to continue the seaside theme, and add some flat stones for interest.  If you don’t have space in your garden for a scree area such as this, you could create a seaside container using suitable small plants.  After planting mulch the surface of the container with pea grit and make sure you keep the plants tidy throughout the summer to prevent them taking over the small space.  You could also grow some of these plants on the roof of a small garden shed or store as long as the pitch is not too great.  You would need to make a planting bed at least 8 to 10 cms in depth by creating a wooden edge around the roof to contain a mixture of light soil and grit, plus you would need to make sure the soil could drain freely.  All the plants recommended would cope with the varying conditions that occur on roof tops and could create an extra wildlife habitat for your garden as well as look wonderful!

Growing wildflowers of any kind will benefit the wildlife in your garden, as they not only provide nectar and pollen for a range of insects, but also support the life cycle of many invertebrates.  Thyme will encourage small tortoiseshell butterflies, sea campion is visited by moths at dusk, sea holly is a great bee plant, bird’s foot trefoil is the food plant of the common blue butterfly and thrift attracts masses of tiny black pollen beetles.   

Six of the best seaside flowers for the garden

Sea campion Silene uniflora.  This seaside relative of the better known red campion (which grows in hedgerows everywhere), is a great little plant for containers, scree gardens or living roofs.  The waxy, jade-green foliage makes a neat mound and in spring and summer is covered with tumbling white bells which are large for the size of the plant.  There is a double flowered variety called Robin Whitebreast with larger flowers.  Sea campion – like all campions - is simple to grow from seed sown in the spring.  It is not too fussy about the conditions it will thrive in and is robust and easy to grow plus it flowers over a long period.

Thrift Armeria maritima  Thrift was commonly grown in the past as an edging plant for more formal garden arrangements.  Its tufty leaves and pink (or sometimes white) flowers are familiar to anyone who loves the coast – the plants grow on cliffs and in salt marshes.  It also rather strangely grows inland in some upland locations.  Thrift (also called sea pink) can be found in the alpine section of any garden centre or is relatively easy to grow from fresh seed in the spring.  The plants can also be divided after flowering in late spring.

Sea holly Eryngium maritimum  All the sea hollies are fantastic garden plants, attracting a wide range of bee species.  Our native sea holly is now a rather rare plant but can be found in specialist nurseries.  It is a devil to germinate from seed (in my experience!) possibly because it needs to be soaked in sea water before it will spring into life.  In the wild its metallic blue flowers and glaucous, prickly leaves can be seen in sand dunes and sometimes even on the beach, so it thrives in poor well drained soils.  In the garden it provides interest over a long period as even when the flowers have finished their remains glisten and retain their blue colour.

Bird’s Foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus  Everyone knows this leguminous species as it thrives in many situations, not just maritime ones.  The yellow flowers appear in May and will continue to flower, on and off, through the summer.  This creeping plant is ideal for a living roof and in containers as it can survive all sorts of neglect while still attracting a wide range of insects.  Rub the seeds between two pieces of sandpaper before sowing for better germination.

Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus  This familiar plant can be grown in several locations in the garden as long as it is in a hot and sunny position – a south facing roof top is ideal.  There are several native wild thymes but this creeping species is the best for a project such as this.  Don’t expect to harvest too much for the kitchen, but you will be rewarded with rose pink flowers in early summer which will be covered with bees and butterflies.

Yellow stonecrop  Sedum acre Yellow stonecrop or biting stonecrop (on account of its peppery taste) grows on dunes and amongst shingle in seaside locations as well as along the tops of walls and on house roofs around the country.  It can also sometimes be seen on motorway verges where it tolerates the lack of soil and salt deposits.  The bright yellow starry flowers appear in June and July but the whole plant is evergreen.

Other seaside plants to try – alexanders, centaury, sand crocus, yellow horned poppy, wild pansy, sea pea, wild carrot and restharrow.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017