Hammock time
  Prepare a coastal landscape you can relax in and enjoy

June 23, 2005
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Ah, warm tropical breezes, swaying palm trees, the sound of lapping waves, the feel of salt spray on your face, but wait - trouble in paradise? Is your new fern bed not looking too lush?

Are the small pots of begonias you left only a week ago all dried up?

A little more planning will help you attain your tropical garden, whether you live on the coast or have a vacation home where you might live part time.

A frequent question asked local nursery professionals and master gardeners concerns specific requirements for coastal landscaping and low-maintenance ideas for people with vacation homes on the coast. Although the coast is only an hour from Victoria, it is in Zone 10 versus Zone 9 like Victoria.

This allows for growing tropicals and other plants that will not survive Victoria's cooler climate, minimizing some of the work needed in freeze protection and essentially minimizing losses due to freezes which makes many plants much easier to grow. The troublesome aspects of this tropical paradise setting, though, are much more wind and the added problem of salt.

Of course, we will begin with the things master gardeners always stress - good bed preparation, smart plant selection and location, location, location. If all of these decisions are made correctly, the maintenance part will be much easier and you will have more time for lying in the hammock, sipping your favorite cool beverage in a glass with a little tiny umbrella.

If you live directly on the beach you may want to incorporate windbreaks on your property. These can be live (rows of grasses or hedges), natural (sand dunes), or man-made (fences).

The sandy soil on the coast will require amending with more organic matter such as peat, rice hulls or compost than traditional soils.

Topsoil should also be incorporated in your bed preparation by making a gradual transition from sand to loam by mixing the first layers of topsoil with sand.

Planting farther away from the water or on a subdivision canal is easier, but you still need to contend with the wind and, of course, salt spray.

According to local nurseryman John Fossati of Four Seasons Garden Center, many plants that thrive in the Victoria area will be even more outstanding closer to the coast.

John is an expert on plumerias and is especially excited to see the huge specimens growing in the Rockport area. Because of the more temperate climate, the plumerias stay in the ground during the winter and are taller and more lush than those grown in Victoria.

Other plants such as bougainvilleas, cape honeysuckles, oleander and hibiscus grow to huge heights, are drought tolerant and hold up to the wind and salt. Many also come in dwarf varieties if your space is limited.

Other suggestions John made were the large white bird of paradise, as well as the smaller blue and orange bird of paradise and the colorful ixora. The ixora is an especially good choice because its leaves are thick and hold more water and the tight cluster of blossoms and strong branches stand up against the wind.

More suggestions include blue plumbago, fire cracker fern, jatropha, Indian hawthorne, crown of thorns, salvias, angelonia, pintas, butterfly milkweed (a host and nectaring plant for the monarch butterfly), and of course the palms.

There are many varieties of palms, all of which do well on the coast and require very little water once they are established. An especially interesting one to plant close to the house is the soft, feathery Pigmy date palm. The Mexican fan palm and the Texas sabal palm are often used on the coast, but some different varieties might include the queen palm, the fox tail palm and the Christmas palm.

Among the many trees that seem especially happy along the coastal area are the live oak, the ornamental Mexican olive and the cypress.

The Rockport-Fulton area of the coast is famous for its beautiful live oaks that have adapted to the wind by just growing the way the wind blows. The graceful limbs of these oaks all stretch to the north in an almost bonsai-like silhouette.

One of the largest oak trees in Texas is located on Goose Island near Rockport. This magnificent specimen has survived centuries of hurricanes, droughts and tourists.

The ornamental Mexican olive tree is an excellent choice for a tropical landscape. Its gray gnarly branches, lush green leaves and beautiful white flowers really stand out. It is especially attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies and since it blooms almost year round it is a constant source of nectar.

The cypress tree is used often as a windbreak in the coastal areas. It is an evergreen that is hardy but adds a different texture and shape to the landscape.

Ornamental grasses should also be considered as a landscape element. Not only are there many varieties native to the coastal area, which makes them especially easy to care for, but they also add movement to the landscape as they gently sway with the wind. Sea oats are wonderful not only as a valuable native and as a soil and dune stabilizer but this ornamental grass can be dried and used in arrangements - a way of bringing the seashore indoors.

The best turfgrass for coastal sites, according to Joe Janak, Victoria County Extension Agent, is seashore paspalum. He has seen Extension research plots as well as actual coastal sites that really look great with this grass. It is a dark green grass that is coarser than bermudagrass but finer than St. Augustine grass, is low-maintenance, very salt-tolerant and performs best when mowed 1-inch tall or less.

You will occasionally have to get out of the hammock to water, especially during the first year or two after planting. A sprinkler irrigation system is especially useful for lawns, groundcover and low-growing shrubs since accumulated salt spray can be washed off the plant leaves. A drip irrigation system is an excellent way to keep up the watering and keep down the work. An effective way to have showy pot plants when you aren't around to keep them watered is to add drip irrigation emitters to all of your large pots. Limiting the container grown plants to a few very large pots with masses of flowers, palms, etc., in each one makes a statement without the need for lots of small plants that need continual watering because they dry out so quickly.

Keeping your beds mulched with shredded non-floating mulch is important for your maintenance free yard, keeping in the moisture and keeping out the weeds. Careful use of a slow-release or organic fertilizer in the spring will help your plants along. Always be careful to read all directions and not to overuse fertilizers or pesticides when you live on or near the water to prevent water pollution.

By following these proven tips, you will have more time to enjoy your coastal landscape from the hammock.