How to make your shoreside garden grow

People love living by the water, but plants must learn to adapt

This time of year, many people dream of living beside a lake, a river, or the ocean. But a perfect location for people may not always be ideal for plants. Challenges await in every garden, but there are particular issues for flowers, shrubs, and trees that have a large body of water at their doorstep. One challenge is that the lake or ocean can moderate the temperature of the surroundings, increase the humidity, and often turn a breeze into a gale.

So plants growing along a lake, river, or the sea must be chosen for their natural tolerance of the conditions or their ability to adapt to them.

Just as the houses and other structures along Lake Caroline's 835 acres in Madison County, Miss., are constructed to withstand the demands of the area's temperature, humidity, wind, and abundant sunlight, so are the gardens.

The landscapes are also designed for the attitude that lakeside living engenders. Lake Caroline is a casual, unpretentiously elegant place, where neighbors know one other and visit often by boat and bicycle, as well as SUV.

The outdoor lifestyle features a variety of garden rooms, decks, weatherproof seating, and other vantage points for enjoying the view and the breeze.

It also includes garden spots - from ponds to vegetable gardens - and emphasizes peaceful coexistence with the environment.

Landscape design here leans strongly toward low maintenance. Neat blankets of mulch keep garden beds looking tidy and hold soil in place to prevent erosion. Broadleaf evergreen plants dominate, requiring little more than annual fertilizer and pruning. Many of them flower and then berry, adding landscape interest for months without much thought or effort from gardeners.

The word for most landscapes near water is "bright." Because sunlight reflects off the water and the sky is wide, it takes bold colors and combinations to keep pace. In such sunny gardens, near a lake or not, gardeners generally are advised to choose colors that are assertive enough to call attention to themselves and provide a contrast with all that blue sky and bright light.

Pastel flowers seem to pale in such circumstances, but primary colors and tones that might appear garish elsewhere hold their own. Bright pink flowers (and, occasionally, even plastic flamingoes for fun), shrubs with yellow variegation, and water features themselves are used to soften the strong line between ground and water.

Giving man-made waterfalls, fountains, or small ponds a place in lakeside landscapes may seem like bringing the proverbial "coals to Newcastle," but in fact, they add unity to the overall design.

By echoing the lake's water in the landscape, repeating a rock ledge on the water feature elsewhere in your garden, and by using the same plants in several beds, the comfortable quality of repetition unifies any outdoor space.

Gardens near water teach many important lessons about living in harmony with the natural world. First and foremost, keeping water quality pristine is paramount to these Mississippi gardeners, so most employ organic practices and products to prevent discharging harmful or persistent chemicals into the water.

Flower beds are gently sloped and usually edged with a clumping ground cover or sturdy metal or plastic edging to control erosion.

To make them more pleasant for people, these gardens are neatly tended, reducing cover for snakes and mosquitoes.

Some tips from Lake Caroline can help waterside gardeners in other parts of the country, too:

• When lakes are created by dredging rather than by nature, the soil on lakeside lots may have been trucked in or dug up, and a soil test is advised to determine which, if any, amendments are needed before planting a lawn or garden.

• Does the lake or river ever flood? If so, plants that grow close to the water must be chosen carefully, since they should be species that can survive occasional "wet feet."

• Ask a professional arborist in the area about staking newly planted trees. In regular landscapes it's avoided because staked trees cannot learn to bend while young and can break easily once stakes are removed. But sometimes if winds are consistently strong - as along a lake or the sea - staking for the first year may be necessary.

• Compact flowering plants and low-growing shrubs with thick leaves will stand up to wind and will accent, rather than block, the view.

• If you live at the seashore, get a list of salt-tolerant plants from the local Agricultural Extension Service office. Also check to see if there are regulations about what can be planted along the beach or dunes. (There may also be regulations that govern removing plantings already in place.)

• Consider making pergolas and gazebos part of the landscape. They add an architectural element that draws the eye, and they are interesting year-round, not just in moderate weather.

• Don't overlook the possibility of planting shrubs, perennial flowers, vines, and ornamental grasses around boathouses. Often a boathouse is the first view of the property by someone approaching from the water, so it's good to make it look attractive and welcoming.

Tour of water gardens

The weekend of July 9 and 10 will be a particularly wet one, predicts the North American Water Garden Society (NAWGS). That's when the organization launches its first Pond Tour North America. A thousand or more private water gardens across the US and Canada will be open to visitors. It's an opportunity to admire and get design ideas from all types and sizes of waterfalls, streams, and ponds. A few communities will even hold moonlight pond tours.

The locales and schedules of the water garden tours are listed on the NAWGS website, www.nawgs.org.

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