Skip to content

This Seaside Cape Town Garden is the Quintessentially Coastal

Discover the wonders of this sea-facing garden with meandering paths and a slew of colour

Bookmark article to read later

By Heidi Bertish  | December 14, 2023 | Gardens

What really goes into having a garden by the sea - and what's to stop those of us living away from the coast drawing on a palette of plants adapted to the reality of challenging coastal conditions? We take notes from a quintessential seaside garden by landscape designer Franchesea Watson.

Oscularia deltoides (sandsteenvygie). Photography by Heidi Bertish.

Lazing in a garden against a backdrop of blue sea and sky, hammock slung from trees, love nest perched above oceans of bright foliage and a white washed fire pit prepped for golden hour, is standard stock for how things roll through summer in Cape Town. But what really goes into having a garden by the sea - and what's to stop those of us living away from the coast to draw on a palette of plants adapted to the reality of poor coastal soils and a hammering from salty winds? Absolutely nothing.

The firepit is whitewashed for coastal charm is glimpsed through Euclea natalensis (Natal Guarrie) - a dense, hardy coastal tree that can be grown in all areas of South Africa. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

Stretches of white sands and large boulders that dip into the sea are so different from the multitude of inland microclimates across South Africa that one wouldn't think such places had much relevance for landlocked gardens. Not so. Many gardens, both rural and suburban, share more than a passing resemblance to the conditions along the shoreline. We're thinking of sandy soils from which water and nutrients disappear at a rate of knots; of gravelly soil full of stones; of hot, dry beds where plants bake in the afternoon sun. Or even of shallow soils with rock just beneath the surface.

Pink-flowering Indian Hawthorn. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

Gardeners who face such conditions, whether across their garden or in isolated pockets (for example, at the bottom of a wall where soil is often poor) can learn much from the shoreline and what grows there.

The Mediterranean-style planting in the entrance garden takes colour inspiration from the ocean side surroundings: The sky, sand, and natural elements. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

Conditions beside the sea are harsh (however, frost is rare) and plants have developed all kinds of ways to survive. As well as protecting themselves from salt-laden winds, they have to contend with exposure to baking sun and soils with little capacity to hold on to water. The problem of finding water and nourishment - and then conserving it - has led to a host of clever adaptations that allow coastal plants to thrive in a variety of challenging garden settings.

Views from the sheltered front garden are over a vibrant palette of spiny Kei-apple, wild banana, blush-coloured cone bushes and geranium hybrids to the calm azure of the Indian Ocean. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

Tough trees and large shrubs bring privacy and buffer from the wind - no matter where we garden, that's always a priority. Here, a layered planting of drought and wind-tolerant evergreens and retaining walls create pockets of shelter, as well as level areas for entertainment and access to the home. The backbone of stalwarts doing the job are wild olive trees, coastal silver oaks (which do equally well when clipped to form a dense windbreak or hedge) and Cape beech trees.

Flame-coloured geranium hybrid. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

While often associated solely with coastal areas, in both summer and winter rainfall areas, wild olives and Cape beech trees are forgiving of punishing conditions throughout most of South Africa and will even tolerate some light frost inland.

Like all trees, and particularly when planting in a challenging environment, be sure to plant them young; larger specimens will be more susceptible to wind shake and shredding before they've had a chance to find their feet.

stairs lead one to the coast through a shaded tumble of wild olive trees, wormwood (Artemisia afra) and aromatic beach sage (Salvia aured). Photography by Heidi Bertish.

The meandering pathways and stairs connecting the various levels are fringed with species whose delicate appearance belies their resilience: pink, scented Indian hawthorn and blush-coloured conebushes. Bright geraniums, purple coastal daisies and carpeting ground covers like Dymondia margaretae and low-growing, pink vygies that delight when brushing past them on the path to the front door.

“I wanted smaller plants and more detail on this side of the house, as it's the garden one walks through to get to the entrance of the home,” says Franchesca.

A protected slope in the lee of the house allows for the planting of big leaves and bold shapes such as wild banana trees (Strelitzia nicolai) and bright strappy-leafed crocosmia. Photography by Heidi Bertish.

The sea-facing side of the garden is positioned in the lee of the house, making it shadier and more protected with the added benefit of already established trees. As luck would have it, many of the plants best suited to these conditions create a wonderful change of mood, not dissimilar to the smaller microclimates found in so many of our gardens.

A more sheltered position is ripe for a dense palette of varieties with bigger leaves and bold shapes such as wild bananas with oversized arching leaves, strappy-leafed crocosmia (grown far larger than is common due to its protected, shady environment) and tall geranium hybrids with bright, fiery coloured blooms.