Gardening on an Exposed Site

Gardens at high elevations and on exposed sites can be challenging to keep hydrated. Choosing the right plants and protecting from wind damage is essential.
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Hilltop Gardens are Exposed to Weather and Wind

Hilltop Gardens are Exposed to Weather and Wind

Gardens that are located at the top of a hill are very exposed to weather conditions, especially drying and high winds. Choose plants that are tolerant to those special conditions.

Photo by: DK - Learn to Garden © 2008 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - Learn to Garden , 2008 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Gardens that are located at the top of a hill are very exposed to weather conditions, especially drying and high winds. Choose plants that are tolerant to those special conditions.

Like humans, plants are predominantly composed of water. This makes them prone to dehydration—a constant threat in an exposed garden, whether by the coast, inland, or at high altitude. Wind can test plants to the limit, and only those species that are adapted to resist its drying effects—either by storing water in their leaves or roots, or reducing the loss of water through their leaves—stand a chance. On the positive side, exposed gardens usually have high light levels and excellent air circulation, reducing fungal disease. But strong sun can also fade subtle flower colors, and good air circulation can quickly turn into an eddying wind that damages plants. 

Wind Damage and Stunting 

Exposure causes slow, stunted growth—a tree in an exposed garden can be as little as half the size of one of the same age and species in a sheltered garden. Trees and shrubs can also be “pruned” by the prevailing wind. In an exposed inland garden, very cold winds are usually the main enemy. If you garden on the coast, you should benefit from a mainly frost-free climate because sea temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and thus keep the winds coming over them warm. On the down side, salt spray borne on the breeze can “fry” leaves and often kills plants as effectively as frost. 

Using Plants for Shelter 

Minimize the effects of wind by using a shelter belt of plants. Unlike solid walls and fences, which can cause wind to accelerate and eddy through a garden, plants slow it down gently. A shelter belt can be anything from a hedge to a dense planting of trees and shrubs. One of the best hedging plants for seaside gardens is salt-tolerant Griselinia littoralis, while hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) makes a good, dense hedge for exposed inland gardens. You can also use synthetic windbreak materials. These usually take the form of a closely woven fabric mesh, which can be attached to regularly spaced posts. A double layer will provide greater protection. A windbreak like this will slow the wind considerably over a short distance. The mesh can be removed as soon as the plants are settled—between three and five years. Individual plants can be cosseted in a similar way with a “cage” of mesh netting on posts, and trees or shrubs planted as small “whips” (usually one to two years old) can be given a head start if surrounded by a biodegradable plastic guard to create a warm and sheltered microclimate. 

Try These Plants

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Beautiful Butterfly Bush

Butterfly bushes are large, fast growing, deciduous shrubs whose lilac pink flowers are irresistible to butterflies.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Blackthorn Tree

Prunus spinosa, Purpurea or Blackthorn, is a rare purple-leafed form with masses of pretty spring flowers and leaves that are an attractive bronze purple green color.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Sea Kale

Sea kale, Crambe maritima, is a clump-forming perennial growing about 3 feet high and wide. The plant's gray-blue foliage is much like true kale, but the flowers are white and produced in large masses. Its stems can be eaten.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Juniper Shrub

Juniperus squamata, Meyeri, is an upright, bushy female cultivar. It is noted for its attractive steel blue foliage. It is tolerant of extreme weather.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Othonna Shrub

Othonna cheirifolia produces tight mats whose foliage resembles tiny upright silver blue spoons and are topped by yellow daisies in late spring. Suited for hot sun, a well-drained rock garden or a drought-prone seasonal container.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Groundcover Rose

Hertfordshire is a groundcover rose, with large clusters of flat carmine pink blooms, freely produced from summer to fall.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Curry Plant

Curry plant looks very similar to a lavender in its leaf stage but totally different in bloom. It likes warm, dry conditions and thrives on sunny slopes where it attracts beneficial insects to its unusual flowers.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Griselinia Hedge

Griselinia is a dense evergreen with soft, glossy apple green leaves on soft green stems. It does well when trimmed to shape and quickly establishes a mature hedge. It prefers full sun and is suitable for seaside gardens.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Sea Worthy

Tamarisk is a graceful hardy shrub, remarkably distinct in its feathery growth and pale pink flowers. It withstands winds and sea spray along the coast.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Ruby Red

Cinquefoil is a large genus, including a number of shrubby plants with foliage and flowers. It is a sprawling plant best seen as a border edging plant or in the rock garden. They bloom in summer with mahogany red flowers.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Pineapple Broom

Cytisus battandieri, Argyrocytisus, the Pineapple Broom is a rare but desirable small tree. The foliage is velvety in texture with lemon yellow flowers produced in summer which have an amazingly rich pineapple scent.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Blue Fescue

Blue fescue is tufted evergreen grass with spikelets of blue green flowers in summer.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Yellow Horned Poppy

Yellow horned poppy, or Glaucium flavum, has leaves covered in a waxy coating to protect it from salt spray and reduce water loss. Its taproot penetrates deep into shingle in search of water beneath. It blooms through most of the summer.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Sea Buckthorn

Sea buckthorn produces small, tart berries that appear in abundance in late summer. Citrus flavored fruit matures in early fall and is wonderful in tea, jams, jellies and as a juice. Silvery green foliage makes this an ideal ornamental.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Rosemary Shrub

Rosemary is best known as a kitchen herb but can grow into large resilient shrubs, tolerant of poor soil.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Corn Cockle

Corn cockle grows on thin, narrow foliage and slender, wiry flower stems. Flower color is a rich, plummy pink. It requires full sun and poor soil making it good for exposed areas.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Plants for Exposed Gardens 

Successful seaside gardens often take a cue from nature by using native plants that proliferate on the shoreline. These can provide a backdrop for more exotic ornamentals. Alternatively, provide shelter for plants that don’t cope so well with exposure to the elements. Thick wind-reducing plantings on the boundaries of the garden, and a series of “garden rooms” surrounded by more hedges within, create very sheltered areas. In a mild coastal climate, this will enable you to grow tender, exotic plants. 

The Royal Horticultural Society garden at Hyde Hall is an example of an exposed inland garden, perched on top of a hill among the rolling, arable landscape of mid-Essex, England. Throughout summer, the prevailing wind is a hot, dry southwesterly that can desiccate plants in no time, while in winter a cold northeasterly can cause significant wind chill. Despite this, the garden is bursting with plants, the majority of which have been selected because of their tolerance to exposure.

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