A few days ago, a friend texted me a gardening question. We still aren’t comfortable with meeting face-to-face yet, so texting seems to be the easiest way to communicate. Anyway, she has a spot in her Netarts yard that looks onto a neighbor’s yard and while most of it is planted as a privacy break, there is one spot that is open. “What should I get to put in there as a screen?” she asked.
My first thought was that July isn’t the best time to be shopping for and planting shrubs. Spring is good, but fall is even better because the ground will be warmed from the summer sun and Mother Nature will do most of the watering of a new plant. Besides, many nurseries will have good fall sales of shrubs so they don’t have to be tended in the winter months. So I told her she should wait a couple of months before dealing with that spot. But that gives us lots of time to ponder all the vagaries of coastal plants.
As with many questions that have multiple answers, we should start with what we know we don’t want, just to narrow the field. First on my list of “nos” would be Bay Laurel which becomes much too invasive in a garden. Although it is a fast grower and would fill her empty spot nicely in a short amount of time. I will also put salal in that category. Salal is a native but it, too, can easily and quickly take over a garden, spreading by runners under the ground.
As much as I love Daphne odora and Sarcacocca, I wouldn’t use them as screens in a coastal garden. Daphne is too finicky and doesn’t like strong winds. Sarcacocca doesn’t get as tall as I would want as a screen, although it does spread nicely.
But we still have many, many choices. At the top of my list of “yeses” would be Escallonia. It is a quick grower but can be easily kept to manageable size by pruning in late summer. It doesn’t mind wind or salt air and the pretty little pink flower clusters are a lovely complement to the shiny evergreen leaves. Because this is a bloomer in June and July, I wouldn’t prune it until it is done blooming for the best show.
Second on my list would be Euonymous. This is another nice shrub that grows quickly and doesn’t mind the coastal conditions. Mine has a variegated green and yellow-green leaf and is pretty all year. But in late June and early July, it puts on a real show of fragrant white flower clusters. This, too, is easy to keep in check after it blooms or left to grow to heights and spreads of up to 12 or 15 feet. Even if you needed to prune it before it blooms, it is pretty enough to stand on its own as an evergreen shrub.
The last two on my list are native plants and so will do well in coastal areas. First is the Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica californica). This is a great plant for use along the coast. If sheltered even a little from the wind it can grow to heights of 30 feet, although I rarely see it that tall. The books tell you it likes full sun, but I have seen in growing in county parks to ten feet in mostly shade. It has long, toothed, glossy leaves that are dark green above and paler below. It also puts out a purplish “nutlet” that will attract native birds. A very pretty plant for almost every situation. A light pruning in the late fall will keep it to a manageable size.
My second native plant is the Twinberry (Lonicera involucrate). Also known as the bearberry or black honeysuckle, this distant relative of the Japanese honeysuckle is not the vines we see climbing over everything in sight. Instead, it is a well-behaved deciduous shrub that grows up to about 10 feet. It has pretty yellow-green leaves, elliptically-shaped like a lance. Small, tubular yellow flowers grow in pairs and attract hummingbirds. The flowers are surrounded by bracts that turn from green to a deep red as the fruit ripens in late summer. The fruits are small, black berries that attract birds but are not edible for humans. Some Native American tribes used the black fruits as hair dye and the bark and leaves for a variety of gynecological, dermatological, and digestive problems. I wouldn’t recommend it for more than a pretty addition to the garden.
Probably the best thing when looking for shrubs is to do is take a walk in a neighborhood with shrubs and plants you are drawn to. Seeing them in position can often times make a difference in whether or not you would like them in your garden.