MOST GARDENERS HAVE a rich interior life and a vivid imagination. I know I do.
Making a garden is a creative as well as a physical endeavor that puts us, quite literally, in our place. My place, a modest city lot just-off-but-not-on the shores of Puget Sound, is a fanciful stage set for coastal vibes. Or, as I like to think of it, waterfront property without the taxes.
Along with the salt air and resident seagulls, sandy soil, a sunny exposure and the following key plants reinforce my saltwater fantasy and keep the illusion — or would that be delusion? — going in every season.
● Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis) is a small evergreen conifer with an irregular growth habit and a spiraling twisted form with lustrous deep green foliage and lots of blue-green berrylike cones. No two plants are alike. Even on a perfectly still day, the branches seemingly record maritime gales.
● A familiar landscape feature along regional shorelines, beach rose (Rosa rugosa) hails from coastal regions of northeast Asia but settles comfortably into Pacific Northwest gardens. A mounding shrub with a modest suckering habit, the plant produces deliciously fragrant pink or white blooms in summer against pristine foliage, followed by a showy crop of bright red hips in fall. Unlike its more manicured kin, once established, rugosa roses demand little in the way of feeding or regular water during our seasonal dry months. Tolerant of sandy soil and salt spray, this is a perfect low-maintenance rose.
● Ornamental grasses of all sorts are a botanical barometer, and the closest I’ll ever get to lapping waves in my garden. A mature clump of giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea) anchors the front garden with numerous stems of oatlike flowering panicles that shimmer and wheel in the lightest breeze. A dense mound of narrow evergreen foliage and the standing dried bloom stems hold up to wind and rain to carry the show long after summer is over.
● Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) (formerly Stipa tenuissima) has graceful blond tresses of fine silvery-gold foliage and a naughty seeding habit — once you plant it, you’ll have it for life. However, the plant is lovely, and I find it easy to forgive its errant manners, even as I grub it out of every nook and cranny. Far better behaved, blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) is a warm-season grass with quirky eyelash blooms that wink above finely textured foliage all summer.
● Like beachcombing tidal treasures, tough ground covers add interest and detail to my (imaginary) coastal cottage garden. Like both the common and botanical name suggests, sea thrift (Armeria maritima) thrives in coastal environments. An evergreen perennial with a tidy growth habit, sea thrift is native throughout the Northern Hemisphere, where it can be found populating beach dunes. Lollipop blooms in a range of pink or white are borne on slender stems held above tufts of dark-green grassy foliage; the cultivar ‘Rubrifolia’ is especially beautiful, with dark burgundy foliage and deep pink blooms. Finally, a couple of Northwest native broadleaf stonecrops furnish the garden with evergreen rosettes of succulent foliage. Sedum spathulifolium ‘Cape Blanco’ has silvery gray leaves and produces sprays of chrome yellow flowers in late June. Cultivars ‘Purpureum’ and ‘Carnea’ have the same carpeting growth habit with deep wine to reddish purple foliage and showy silver-gray new growth. If you squint, these stonecrops look like barnacle-encrusted rocks.