Garden lessons from the coast

30 January 2020
Garden lessons from the coast

After a summer break relaxing on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, OGV's Kate Catterall reflects on what it is that resonates so strongly in coastal landscapes – how ‘nature controls nature’ and how we might scoop up a little of that relaxed holiday feeling and transplant it into our own home gardens.

One of the first things I do when I arrive for my annual break at the beach is shake off the thongs and let the sand crumble and squelch between my toes. Instant connection to nature. Inhale that salt-laden air (a bit less so this year with the heavy smoky haze that drifted from our devastated fire regions) and let the hair get messed up with a drenching in salt water.


Twisted Moonah on Rye foreshore.

There’s a reason we’re drawn to the coast – its vastness of space, horizons and wildness. The relaxed forms of coastal trees and plants urge us to relax too. But on closer examination, I realise that plants on the coast don’t really get the chance to be messy. Nature is very much controlling nature – sculpting and pruning with wind, water, salt and often poor soils. Beauty is not unbridled – rather it appears in the patterns made by a limited plant palette that is layered and reinforced with the predictability of repetition.

Cushion Bush (Leucophyta brownii) pruned and sculpted by ocean winds.

We don’t all want (or need) a coastal-styled garden, but perhaps there are some garden lessons that can be learned about why we feel so well connected in these places and how we might re-create this feeling back at home?

Pattern and repetition at Sorrento back beach.

Walks along the Mornington Peninsula ocean-side clifftops always amaze. Despite the buffering of Bass Straight winds, plants like the burnt-honey-scented Cushion Bush (Leucophyta brownii) cling to crevices in rock faces, while Coastal Tea Tree, wattle and Sea Box (Alyxia buxifolia) are ‘air-pruned’ by the salt and the wind into lumpy shapes that show the direction of the prevailing weather. Here, you can actually see the curious movement of the wind as it ripples through the golden heads of Coast Spear Grass (Austrostipa stipoides) causing them to heave and quiver. This is an invigorating landscape!

Cushion Bush (Leucophyta brownii) contrasting with grasses.
A restricted palette of plants still provides textural contrast.

Translated into a garden setting, perhaps this ‘controlled wildness’ and repetition of a restrained palette of plants is partly what puts us at ease. Just like a good routine, we humans can relax when we know what’s coming next!

Shrubs are shaped and moulded by ocean winds pushing up and over the cliff tops.

Venture into the nearby remnant bush of the Mornington Peninsula National Park – as we did for the first time this year – and you’ll experience a different palette, from twisted Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) trees, to ferny gullies and undergrowth studded rhythmically with the contrasting form of local grass trees (Xanthorrhoea species). These can be found right throughout Victoria’s coastal hinterlands, from the Otways to Gippsland – an amazing plant to witness in the wild.

Grass Trees beneath local eucalyptus in the Mornington Peninsula National Park.

Back to the gentler, protected beaches of Port Phillip Bay and Westernport, soft sandy paths wind through narrow archways of Coastal Tea Tree and Moonah, then suddenly open out to expansive views. 

Beach paths are full of mystery. 
A mixture of natural, exotic and revegetated foreshores shows the natural layering and beautiful textural effects of frontline sand dune species such as native Pig Face growing in pure sand, before swaying (introduced) Marram Grass gives way to the knobbly forms of Coastal Banksia (Banksia integrifolia) pushing through the mounded undergrowth of tea tree and wattle.
Layered dune planting at Westernport.
Pig Face is a frontline coastal dune survivor.

I love the idea of reducing reliance on paved hard surfaces and giving in to more permeable, relaxed gravels and toppings. Gravels allow the rain to penetrate and drain through to the soil beneath and permit self-seeding plants to pop up and soften the edges. And instantly, you gain that superb element of sound – the crunching of gravel underfoot.

The growth habit of grasses and shrubs dictates the direction of this sandy path.

Speaking of sound, there is nothing like the sound of the wind through one of the local coastal she-oaks (Allocasuarina species). My own garden has an existing she-oak and the sound of the wind whistling through its needles on a windy night transports me straight to a holiday by the beach.

The needles of she-oaks create the signature sounds of the beach.

Perhaps we can also embrace the contribution that some of our native trees can add to our gardens with a little canopy lifting and shaping to expose the sculptural habit of their multiple trunks – tea tree, wattle, bottlebrush and many more are all capable of being treated this way, encouraging an arching habit to enclose a space and bringing extra light so you can see beyond what might otherwise be a dense shrubby habit.

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Ancient Moonah at the West End Garden opening at Portsea with Open Gardens Victoria on 15 & 16 February 2020.

Over the past year, Open Gardens Victoria has had the pleasure of opening brilliant examples of coastal gardens such as the legendary creations of landscape designer Fiona Brockhoff at Sorrento and Flinders in January 2019. Perhaps more than any other designer, Fiona has mastered the art of understated coastal style – celebrating modest plants such as coastal Moonah (Melaleuca lanceolata) by pruning and revealing their beautiful twisted and sculptural trunks and clipping and ‘torturing’ coastal toughies such as westringia, correa and alyxia into tight spheres – echoing the natural pruning exerted by harsh salt-laden winds that howl across the local clifftops.

Shrubs are sculpted and combined with grasses to great effect with sandy toppings underfoot at Fiona Brockhoff's Karkalla garden in Sorrento.


For more inspiration, take a look at the most recent series of the ABC’s Dream Gardens program, where Michael McCoy follows the development of one of Fiona’s garden designs at Portsea. This is a great episode to look at for Michael’s dissection of coastal gardens and the landscapes that inspire Fiona Brockhoff. Watch here for the full episode.

OGV’s most recent coastal garden opening in January 2020 at Peter and Simone Shaw’s Anglesea garden, Sunnymeade, displayed just how effective this contrast between clipped native shrubs and grasses can be. At Sunnymeade, the Shaws have harnessed relaxed coastal elements into a family-oriented garden that is welcoming and playful, framed by a beautiful stand of local Messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) that can be found growing along this coastline and into the hinterland where another naturalistic garden ‘Minter Drive Gully’ opened on the same weekend.

The lumpy lawn beneath twisted Messmate at Sunnymeade. Photo: Caitlin Mills for the Design Files.

And then there’s the grasses. Native grasses are an immensely untapped species in our home gardens – we’ve embraced the pennisetums and some of the poas – but there are so many with beautiful habits and seed-heads to be explored. I count myself as having my head in the sand about native grasses and am eager to try more. The meditative quality of beachy grasses waving in the breeze is something every garden can benefit from!

Introduced Marram Grass is common on Mornington Peninsula foreshores.
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The relaxed coastal garden at L'Oceane. Photo supplied by garden owners.

At L’Oceane, a garden OGV opened at Rye in November 2019, all of these things come together into a garden that feels like a holiday. There is a mix of chaos and control, repetition and patterns. Marine artefacts have been used to reinforce the sense of place amongst twisted tea tree, soft sandy paths and clipped coastal shrubs interspersed with those wavy grasses. When it’s all working, you just feel it.

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The Mediterranean garden at Point King Road Sorrento opening 15 & 16 February with OGV. Photo: Annabel Reid.

Looking ahead, this February OGV will open four gardens at Portsea and Sorrento, which all approach the coastal aesthetic in different ways. For some it’s the use of ancient Sorrento limestone and the retention and preservation of local trees. For another it’s the use of tough Mediterranean plants such as olives, bay and rosemary that have succeeded so well in the conditions and still provide that feeling of the coast. Find more information about this special open gardens event at Multi-garden discount passes can be pre-purchased for $30 via TryBooking.


And maybe, make a weekend of it and visit some of the rugged local coastline while you’re at it. You’ll come home feeling like you’ve had a mini holiday and perhaps be inspired to bring some relaxed coastal atmosphere to your own garden.

Kate Catterall
Open Gardens Victoria

*All photos by Kate Catterall unless noted otherwise.

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