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Coastal Gardening In The New York Region

The landscapes and gardens on or near our coast are challenged by harsh environmental conditions. The Atlantic coast of the New York metropolitan area is known as the Coastal Plain, where there are numerous plant habitats ranging from sandy beaches with and without dunes, saltwater bays, tidal salt marshes and upland marshes. In these environments, high winds, temperature extremes, storm flooding, salt spray, glaring sun and poor salty soils wreak havoc on native ecosystems and ornamental plantings alike.

Dunes and back dunes are the most fragile ecosystems of all, subject to severe environmental conditions, and they need to be left undisturbed. Beach grass (Ammophila brevilgulata), sea rocket (Cakile edentula), beach pinwheel (Lechea maritima) and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) work simultaneously to stabilize the ever-shifting sand. On the back dunes, hair grass (Deschmsia flexuosa), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), northern bayberry (Morella pensylvanica), switch grass (Panicum virgatum), pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and beach plum (Prunus maritima) help to establish and maintain this community.

Both the low salt marsh and the high salt marsh are dominated by the genus Spartina with salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) found growing where high tides flood twice daily and salt hay or salt-meadow grass (Spartina patens) growing where flooding occurs only at very high tides. Native plants of the salt marshes include groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), spike grass (Distichlis spicata), marsh-elder (Iva frutescens) and sea lavender (Limonium carolinianum).

The coastal gardener's challenge is salt damage. Plants are vulnerable in several ways, such as through root absorption and salt spray on the foliage. As salt-sensitive root hairs absorb water from soil, excess salts eventually destroy their cells. While salt accumulations challenge roots, salt spray damages foliage, producing symptoms of scorching or burning. Dune plants are the most salt-tolerant. Beyond 1/8 mile from the sea, salt tolerance becomes far less of an issue.

When planting on the coast, use design solutions and maintenance techniques to create a more successful growing environment, which will also prevent the spread of invasive alien species.

  • Avoid disturbance of natural areas, especially dunes and native vegetation, which are critical to protecting both the natural and constructed coastal environment
  • Encourage and maintain naturally occurring buffer zones and stabilize with sand-binding natives as warranted
  • Plant salt-tolerant natives and non-invasive ornamentals wherever possible, as they are adapted to the climate and soils and have co-evolved with pollinators, wildlife and fungi
  • Establish windbreaks with walls, fences and hedge plantings and underplant hedges with deciduous shrubs and forbs (herbaceous plant that is not a grass, sedge or rush)
  • Choose plants with tough, waxy leaves and gray and/or woolly foliage
  • Utilize late-flowering species, as spring arrives later and autumn lasts longer
  • Manage any invasive exotics to prevent flowering and seed dispersal
  • Rinse plants occasionally during the growing season to remove salt residue and avoid the possibility of scorching
  • Apply two to four inches of organic mulch to reduce temperatures and conserve soil moisture
  • Improve sandy garden soils by incorporating organic matter

Invasive species tend to crowd out native species, disturbing and decreasing biodiversity. As gardeners, our role as responsible stewards of these changing coastal areas will help to restore balance. Below is a list of coastal tolerant plants.    

Windbreak Plants

Chamaecyparis obtusa            Hinoki false cypress          
Juniperus virginiana* eastern red cedar
Morella (Myrica) pensylvanica* northern bayberry
Pinus mugo mugo pine
Pinus rigida* pitch pine
Prunus maritima* beach plum
Rosa virginiana* Virginia rose


Trees & Shrubs

Amelanchier arborea*       serviceberry                      
Aronia arbutifolia*                 red chokeberry 
Buddleja davidii butterfly bush
Ceanothus americanus* New Jersey tea
Clethra alnifolia* summersweet 
Cornus racemosa* red-panicled dogwood
Ilex glabra* inkberry holly 
Ilex opaca* American holly 
Ilex verticillata* winterberry holly 
Juniperus virginiana* eastern red cedar
Morella (Myrica) pensylvanica* northern bayberry 
Pinus strobus* eastern white pine 
Prunus maritima* beach plum 
Rhus copallina* shining sumac 
Rhus glabra* winged sumac 
Rhus typhina* staghorn sumac 
Rosa carolina* pasture rose 
Rosa virginiana* Virginia rose 
Vaccinium corymbosum* high bush blueberry 
Viburnum cassinoides* withered viburnum 
Vitex agnus-castus chaste tree 


Ornamental Grasses & Groundcovers

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi*          bearberry
Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass
Distichlis x spicata* saltgrass
Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue' blue fescue 'Elijah Blue'
Juncus gerardii* black grass
Juniperus conferta* shore juniper
Juniperus horizontalis* creeping juniper
Panicum virgatum* broom sedge
Pennisetum alopecuroides fountain grass
Scirpus spicata* spike grass, saltgrass



Achillea filipendula yarrow                               
Asclepias incarnata*               swamp milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa* butterfly weed
Aster tenuifolius* salt-marsh aster
Calendula officinalis pot marigold
Coreopsis spp. tickseed, coreopsis
Echinacea purpurea* coneflower
Gaillardia spp. blanket flower
Hemerocallis spp. daylily
Heuchera micrantha* hybrid coral bells
Hibiscus mosheutos* swamp rose mallow
Limonium carolinianum* sea lavender
Opuntia humifusa* prickly pear cactus
Nipponanthemum nipponicum  Montauk daisy
Sedum spectabile stonecrop, sedum
Solidago elliottii* swamp goldenrod
Solidago sempervirens* seaside goldenrod
Stachys byzantina lamb's ears

(* = native to New York region)

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