My mother's small garden at Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex is a simple affair. A rectangular patio (I prefer the word terrace but this is too grand a claim) and the rest laid to gravel where a mix of grasses, a couple of trees and a few perennials create a pleasant enough view come mid-summer. I built it before I really considered myself a designer, and at a time when there seemed to be more time for family and friends, who (as most garden designers will tell you) can be very useful guinea pigs.
The trouble is that now, every time I look at it, I know I could have done better. The proportions of the patio could have been more generous if I'd taken the trouble to remove a defunct concrete coalbunker, but it had been built as an integral part of the neighbouring wall and the whole lot would have needed replacing. I fudged around the issue suggesting that the bunker might be adapted to make a barbecue. It has yet to see its first charred veggieburger, but is much appreciated as a food station by the local bird population, including vagabond seagulls that are quick to finish off any snails that have the misfortune to be roaming its surface.
Aside from the fact that my knees are too creaky to do such things myself anymore it somehow doesn't warrant a full makeover. A new gate at the back wouldn't go amiss and the threadbare stem of a cypress tree (denuded due to its close proximity to an apple tree) looks ugly and could be replaced. Originally, a green backdrop of elder in the road behind accentuated the garden's intimacy, but these were removed by the council in one go, catching the garden with its pants down and leaving it exposed to a row of cottages. I tried creating a diversion by way of a shed. A tall one with elm weatherboard and a sedum roof. It worked to a point and, due to its tall, thin shape and dark colour, it also added a coastal flavour, much like the quirky fish-net drying sheds on Hastings beach. A mile or so from the sea itself, it can't really be classified as a seaside garden. Housing and fencing give it more than enough shelter from salty, drying winds. All the same it seems to resonate well enough with what you'd expect in a coastal town.
Salty sea-dogs have their work cut out in the garden if they follow the rule book that tells them to create shelter first. Trees (tamarix, hippophae, whitebeam) or hedging such as griselinia (a fine hedge anywhere), escallonia, euonymous or eleagnus. These will act as a buffer and allow you to indulge in shrubs and perennials that may struggle if left on their own. This is all well and good. Gardens like Inverewe, slap bang on the west coast of Scotland, have thick buffers of pine allowing a wonderful range of half hardy and even tender exotic plants to be grown.
Many gardens, however, don't have this luxury. Derek Jarman's garden at Prospect Cottage near Dungeness on the Kent coast is a classic example of planting that has been chosen because of its resilience to the lack of shelter. Put yourself in the plant's place and imagine the sort of protection you'll need from the harsh conditions. Grey foliage (eleagnus, rosemary, sage) to reflect the sun; thick, fleshy leaves or glossy foliage (yucca, hebe, euonymous, griselinia) to protect the plant from salt spray, as will slender, tough shoots (kniphofia, spartium, genista); small leaves or stunted form (armeria, sedum and alpines) that hug the ground to evade the worst of the weather.
If you do need shelter then stick with hedging if you can, rather than solid fencing, as this can make conditions even more tricky with the wind cavorting and vortexing its way over the solid obstacle and ripping through plants like a tornado. Some shelter might be necessary for the hedging in the first year or two. Fine mesh that wind can penetrate is best. Unsightly, yes, but only temporary - and much better than wasting time and money on plants that don't even make it through the first winter.
A useful book for coastal gardeners struggling on dry windy soil is 'The Seaside Gardener' by Richard Mortimer, priced around 10