With an understanding of the natural coastal systems and the plant species that tolerate their rigorous conditions, you will be better equipped to plant a successful seaside landscape. To ensure success, you should also consider the following guidelines for:

General Landscaping

Your general approach to landscaping a coastal property can improve your property's value, provide environmental benefits, and prevent erosion. Here are some basic principles to consider:

  • Be sure to check with your local authorities to determine if any public or private right-of-way or easement crosses or abuts your property. Plantings should not obstruct rights-of-way or easements or infringe on public property or adjacent private property without permission.
  • Plant a buffer area of native trees, shrubs, and deep-rooted grasses between maintained areas of your yard and the shore to help stop and slow shoreline erosion, to filter sediments and pollutants, and to beautify the yard. Do not mow right up to the edge of the dune, bank, beach, or marsh, and keep the lawn area as small as possible.
  • Grade property to direct stormwater away from the shoreline and toward planted areas (such as rain gardens) to reduce erosion of banks, dunes, and beaches, and to prevent contaminants from entering bays, harbors, and the ocean.
  • In areas that are frequently inundated with water, plant coastal “rain garden” species that can tolerate both wet and dry conditions:
  • Plant an area around your driveway with plants to slow stormwater and trap sediments and pollutants (see rain garden plant species above for plant selection). While you're at it, replace or install driveways with pervious material (crushed stone, shells, gravel) to allow water to infiltrate slowly into the ground. See the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Smart Growth/Smart Energy Toolkit for more information on low impact development strategies for controlling stormwater.
  • On steep slopes where erosion is threatening property, biodegradable erosion fabric, such as coconut fiber or coir mesh, may be used as a temporary erosion control effort, before plants take root.
  • To protect dune and bank vegetation, limit pedestrian access to the shoreline by using one designated access path or walkway.

Planting Plans

Plants should be installed in areas that are most suitable for their needs. Your landscape design should therefore take into account the conditions of the site, including wind, light, slopes, and hydrology. The following are a few suggestions:

  • Hardier trees and shrubs can be placed so as to provide a wind screen for less wind-tolerant plants.
  • Sun-loving plants can provide shade for plants that do not thrive in the direct sun.
  • Deep-rooting shrubs and grasses can be placed on steep slopes, so as to provide stability and uptake of stormwater and groundwater flows.
  • A diversity of plants can be used to enhance wildlife habitat and reduce the potential for loss to disease or pests.

Digging Holes for Plants

Give your plants the best possible start by following these tips:

  • On dunes, beaches, and other very sandy areas, you typically plug plants directly into the sand. But in heavier soils, be sure to dig a proper hole for your new plants. Measure the depth of the hole to be sure that it is as deep as the height of the root ball. If the hole is too deep, the stem will be smothered; if it’s not deep enough, the plant will be blown over or water will run off the surface and not get to the roots. Once the plant is placed in the hole, the base of its stem or trunk should be level with the surrounding ground. The width of the hole should be approximately three times the diameter of the root ball to allow enough space for the roots to expand into loose soils.
  • Space plants according to the specifications on the plant's label.

Adding Compost to Soils

Augment sandy soils with compost material during initial planting, since even species that are tolerant of well-drained, sandy soils will require more moisture and nutrients when trying to gain a foothold and spread their roots. Compost material is decomposed organic matter that can include grass clippings, fallen leaves, vegetable scraps, and even animal manure. Thoroughly decomposed compost is beneficial for returning nutrients and organic material to the soils and feeding your plants.

Watering

For good plant establishment, newly planted vegetation will need approximately 1 inch of water per week during the growing season from April through October. If nature does not provide the 1 inch, temporary irrigation (such as drip tubing on a timer) may be used for initial plant establishment. Permanent irrigation systems adjacent to a dune or bank generally worsen erosion problems and should not be used.

Mulch

Follow these tips for mulching near the coast:

  • Mulch should not be used on a sand dune or a bank face with loose sediments. While it is acceptable to install plants in these areas to provide overall stability, the sediments themselves should be maintained in as natural a state as possible to ensure that the erosion process that supplies sediment to other coastal areas is not impeded.
  • Where mulch is appropriate, mulch the root zones of newly planted trees and shrubs to a depth of approximately 2-2 ½ inches. Mulching materials may include shredded leaves, wood chips, bark mulch, and seed mixtures of grasses and forbs.

Fertilizer

Follow these tips for fertilizing new plants:

  • For most plant species, fertilizer should generally not be applied at the time of planting to avoid burning the vulnerable roots of the plants. If the plant type requires fertilizing in the first year (as specified on the label), use only the minimum amount necessary and use slow-release fertilizers composed of water in-soluble materials that depend on a certain level of soil moisture, temperature, or microbial activity to release nutrients. These fertilizers are readily available at garden centers.
  • Once the plants become well established, little to no fertilizer is required.
  • For beachgrass, apply fertilizer 30 days after planting, but not before April 1. Split the fertilizer applications: one in spring and another in the late summer or early fall. Apply no more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in a single application. Once the stand is established, the rate of fertilizer can be reduced by half or applied only when the stand appears to be weakening.

Time of Planting

Beachgrass is the one species that is planted in late fall through winter and into spring (except in areas exposed to strong wind or waves, where it should be limited to being planted in the spring to reduce the likelihood of being washed or blown away in winter storms). Other grasses, groundcovers, shrubs, and trees are usually best planted or transplanted in the spring or fall, when rainwater is more available, lower temperatures maintain soil moisture, and heat stress is less likely.

For additional guidance on planting beachgrass, see:

Coastal Dune Protection and Restoration—Using 'Cape' American Beachgrass and Fencing, a bulletin of the Woods Hole Sea Grant and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Program.

American Beachgrass Planting Guide, a bulletin of the New York Sea Grant and Cornell Cooperative Extension Program.

Removal of Invasive Species

On a case-by-case basis, the homeowner (as well as Conservation Commissions) will need to consider whether the overall benefits of ridding nuisance vegetation (that may be competing with beneficial native species) outweigh the detriments of disturbing the vegetation and possibly undermining or destabilizing a bank or dune. Often times, a short-term loss must be taken for a future gain.

Lawns

If you intend to keep, restore, or plant a lawn (remember, grass is extremely difficult to maintain), it is recommended that you follow these guidelines. For more detailed information about low-impact lawn care, visit the Greenscapes Program.

  • Use a mix of grass species to help maintain diversity and create a resistance to different diseases and insects.
  • Choose fescue grasses (such as chewings, hard, creeping red, and sheep) that are more drought tolerant and insect resistant, and will survive in sunny or shady areas with varying types of soils. Because they require less water, fertilizers, and pesticides, they are easier to maintain and make for a healthier natural ecosystem. Avoid using bluegrass, which is the most common but most fragile lawn grass.
  • After mowing, leave grass clippings on the lawn as fertilizer, since they will break down and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. However, if additional nutrients are necessary to supplement the soil and feed the lawn, choose an organic, slow-release, water-insoluble fertilizer and use sparingly.

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife Habitat

Because vegetation can alter habitat, care must be taken with vegetation projects in endangered and threatened wildlife habitat. Selecting appropriate types of vegetation (e.g., grass vs. shrubs) and increasing the spacing between plantings can reduce impacts to these species. Detailed guidance is available from the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Where to Get Plants

While the best coastal landscaping mimics the natural environment, please never take plants from the wild. Digging up or even picking and cutting local plants can cause big problems—it diminishes local populations of native plants, interferes with seed and fruit production, contributes to coastal erosion, and reduces food, shelter, and nesting habitat for wildlife. So please get your plants from appropriate sources, such as garden centers, nurseries, online commercial or wholesale dealers, or even from a friend's yard. See Where to Purchase Native Plants for additional information.