When I teach a gardening course, we always do a short introductory round first, when everyone shares a little about how and where they garden and what their wishes for the future are. Every now and then, somebody will say: “I live so close to the sea and there’s so much wind and it’s salty, too, and I can’t grow anything edible at all!”. If that is your problem too, don’t despair, there’s actually quite a lot you can successfully grow! The main principle of ecological garden design is choosing plants that are naturally suited to the conditions in your garden instead of desperately trying to grow plants that are not.
All the plants I am about to tell you about, were photographed mere meters from the coastline at Samphire Hoe, a country park on the English shore, just a stone’s throw from Dover and they all deal happily with salty winds. This, by the way, does not mean that you cannot grow them if you cannot see the ocean from your kitchen window – you can, but they might need a little winter protection. I grow all the three perennial vegetables in my garden, which is more than 100 km away from the sea, in a sheltered position close to a west-facing fence. Sea buckthorn is completely hardy.
Samphire Hoe is a man-made landscape, created where the chalk from Channel Tunnel excavations was dumped. We discovered it the first time we went to England by car and my husband had to drive on the (wrong) left side of the road for the first time in his life. After about four roundabouts (the British seem very fond of roundabouts) he was hyperventilating and demanded an immediate stop to calm down. We stopped and went for a walk at Samphire Hoe Country Park and enjoyed it so much that we stopped there this year too, even though by now Remco is a pro at driving on the left side of the road.
Seakale (Crambe maritima)
According to archeological research, our ancestors were eating sea kale already during the Stone Age. Later, this perennial plant was grown in the walled kitchen gardens of large estates to be blanched for a luxurious early harvest. As soon as the plant starts growing in the spring, it can be covered with an especially made terracotta blanching pot and in a few weeks the crispy, juicy shoots can be harvested. If you don’t have a special blanching pot, then know, that an upside down bucket, though far less elegant, will do the job, too. The flowerheads resemble broccoli and can be eaten as such. Sea kale can be grown from seed but the seed must be fresh, or propagated by root division. The purple tinted leaves and the clusters of white flowers are decorative, too.
Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum)
The plant that gave this country park its name is also both perennial and hardy. The fleshy leaves are rather aromatic – something between a vegetable and a herb. They used to be collected in the wild and pickled, but I enjoy them raw, too. The plants can be grown from (fresh) seed but that is unfortunately difficult to obtain. (For Dutch or Belgian readers: I got a plant from this nursery).
Sea beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima)
Sea beet is a perennial ancestor of both beet and chard. The plants can be grown from seed and are not fussy about soil, as long as it’s well-drained. In mild areas, the leaves can be harvested year round and they can be used in the same way you’d use spinach or chard: lightly steamed, added to omelettes or soups.
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Now, this is a tough shrub if there ever was any. It will grow just about anywhere, as long as the soil is reasonably well-drained. It can be planted as a wind break to protect other plants on exposed sites. The plants are dioecious, which means you need to plant both a female and a male plant to get fruits. One male plant is enough to pollinate about 6 female plants. The bushes grow to about 3 – 4 meters and the bright orange fruits ripen in late summer. The fruits are usually born in profusion, close to the branches, which, unfortunately, are rather thorny. The raw fruits are quite astringent, though they become milder after bletting. They are usually preserved as jam or compote and our health food store also sells a buckthorne syrup, heralded as an immunity booster. The berries are very nutritious and remarkably rich in vitamin C (of which they contain more than almost any other fruit) and E.
(excuse the quality of the last picture: the camera is not as well equipped to deal with salty wind as sea buckthorne is).