Dungeness State Park, WA - one of our favorite places to relax

There’s something about being at the ocean. Stress seems to get swept away on the sea breeze, and time moves at a slower pace allowing us to savor that novel we’ve been meaning to read. Suddenly ‘sitting’ seems like an activity rather than a luxury and nothing seems quite as important as it did before.

We‘re not all fortunate enough to enjoy waterfront property, but even if we’re landlocked there are ways to capture that carefree ‘beach style’ in our garden.

I’m not suggesting having a truck load of sand dumped at your home to create buggy-worthy dunes, nor adding a proliferation of nautical themed accessories – fishing lure styled mail boxes or geranium filled row boats in the flower beds. (If you like that stuff, go for it! Not my style though).

Take your cue from Nature itself. It doesn’t need dressing up. It simply is.


This path was created by filling a 6" deep channel with sand - how easy is that? Photo credit; Bruce Botnick, Sunset magazine

I love those beaches where you approach along a sandy trail, turn the final corner and suddenly come across an expansive view to take your breath away. Recreate that path with crushed rock – decomposed granite is a favorite, or a simple wooden boardwalk. If your pathway leads through a heavily planted area a simple mulch make look right. Create a sense of anticipation and be sure to sweep the path around a curve or a large shrub.

Plant palette

Nature inspired design at its best. A simple winding pathway through stands of grasses and low growing perennials. Design and photo credit; Lankford Associates, WA

Think what grows naturally in those windswept locations with fast draining soil – that will give you some ideas as to what will look ‘right’. Grasses are an easy choice and the Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) is the perfect height and form to give that beach feel at just 18” tall and wide. It thrives in full sun and doesn’t need rich soil. It also self-seeds freely which helps to avoid looking overly ‘designed’. For something taller the stiffly upright ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) is sturdy enough to withstand strong winds yet still moves nicely in the breeze, whispering like the marram grass on the dunes.

To add flowers into this mix consider the low growing forms of pinks (Dianthus) e.g. ‘Firewitch’, thrift (Armeria sp.) and fleabane (Erigeron sp.).  These look perfect in a beachscape. Taller perennials could include Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) or catmint (Nepeta sp.). Sculptural forms of pine can also look wonderful and are native to many coastal regions.

If your garden is shadier don’t despair. Many beaches are reached after first walking through a shaded forest, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Native flowering shrubs such as wild roses and oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) lend height and sedges (Carex sp.) can substitute for the sun loving grasses.

No garden? No problem. Capture the essence of coastal garden design with simple planters. Photo and design credit; Lankford Asssociates, WA

If your soil seems unsuitable you can always use containers to create your beach garden. Use wide, low planters in neutral colors to keep the focus on the plants. Adding extra perlite to the mix and/or using a potting medium which is low in organic content will enable you to grow those plants which prefer fast draining, low fertility soils.

Boulders, rocks and pebbles

A few well-placed boulders can really help set the scene, especially if plants are nestled up to them. Arrange river rocks and small stones around the boulders in such a fashion as to suggest erosion, with the smallest pebbles spilling over onto the patio to achieve a more natural look.


The grassy boardwalk leading to the waters edge invites guests to explore at a leisurely pace. Well placed boulders provide additional seating for enjoying the firepit

So you’ve walked a short trail past boulders and plants – don’t let the destination be an anti-climax! An open vista is of course ideal but not always possible, so focus on keeping the destination simple. Remember that Nature is our inspiration and the beach is not a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flowers. Keep the sitting area uncluttered with minimal planting consisting of just one or two species. Add seating – weathered Adirondack chairs look perfect or simple canvas  deck chairs. Perhaps you have room for a fire pit to toast marshmallows as the stars come out?

Now sit back, close your eyes and listen for the rhythmic whoosh of the waves as your cares are washed away.



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  1. debsgarden on August 13, 2012 at 7:06 am

    You make me long for the beach! In fact, My family will be gathering for a trip to the Gulf this fall. I can't wait! This past weekend I was at a friend's house in Tennessee. She has an area adjacent to her patio where different sized rocks spill over the edge and create a kind of rock garden. Amongst the rocks are the many sea shells her family members have gathered over the years. We had fun examining them all!

    • Karen Chapman on August 16, 2012 at 8:09 pm

      I love the idea of incorporating special shells into the rocks. Every garden should have 'memory' elements in them! Sounds like you had a wonderful time and I'm sure the Gulf will be fabulous.

  2. Carolyn on August 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    There's something about the air at the beach that causes me to instantly relax. I need to incorporate some of that into my garden.

    • Karen Chapman on August 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      As soon as this post was published we took off to the Oregon coast for a couple of days – heaven. Sea breeze, sand between the toes – total relaxation. It's so hard to find that at home.

  3. Christina Salwitz on August 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    A very inspired idea for a post. Good on you!

    • Karen Chapman on August 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      Thanks Christina! Hard to walk away from work completely but still a much needed reprieve

  4. Foxglove Lane on August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am

    So true, I think my favourite is the sandy path! Imagine just walking on your own piece of beach with naked feet….bliss!

    • Karen Chapman on August 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      I loved that path too. Practicality might be an issue but if it wasn't too close to the house – and you don't have cats – it could be wonderful!

  5. Jennifer on August 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Your post is making me homesick, Karen. LOL I grew up on the east coast of Canada and the ocean was always within sight of where I lived. I miss those summer trips to the beach at this time of year.
    This was a very interesting post. I like the idea of being inspired by an ocean shoreline and creating a destination. My favourite shot is the one with the purple flowers. The wavy line of the pathway really brings to mind the lines that ocean waves make as they wash ashore.

    • Karen Chapman on August 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      So glad this took you on a brief trip down memory lane Jennifer!