Wind-tolerant plants and plantings
Have you ever noticed how plants growing near the coast or on windy hillsides are often small and gnarled? They look as if they’re hanging on with all their roots, trying to keep their branches low and out of the wind. The very same plant growing in a sheltered spot usually stands tall and upright.
If your garden, or even your balcony garden, is exposed to wind it's often difficult to establish plants. On a bad day, the wind may cause broken branches or even blow poorly-established plants out of the ground.
For success in a windy location, take a two-pronged approach: choose wind-resistant plants (see our list below) and create shelter. Importantly, recognise that windy conditions are a problem and avoid planting standards, plants with large or easily-damaged leaves or lots of flowering plants.
My own garden is in a windy area, but it is sheltered on all sides by hedges and windbreaks courtesy of the long-ago planning and planting of previous owners. Some of the hedges are clipped, tall and formal, but others are dense windbreaks featuring a mix of evergreen shrubs and trees including viburnum, pittosporum and photinia along with some deciduous trees such as birches.
To enjoy the view to the south – where the coldest winds blow – we’ve cut into the existing hedge to make ‘windows’. We can see out without too much blowing in. Alongside the surrounding hedges and windbreaks, the garden itself has internal hedges and fences to help create sheltered growing areas. The effect is a series of garden 'rooms'.
It you don’t have the benefit of existing hedges, you can create barriers using fences or even screens of hessian or shadecloth to help shelter an area while a living hedge or windbreak planting grows. These can extend across large areas, or you can customise them around new plantings by using stakes wrapped with plastic tree guards. Even a pile of boulders can provide shelter for plants that are growing on their lee (sheltered) side. As your shelter plants establish and grow, other less robust plants can be tucked in behind them.
On a balcony, creating a bit of a windbreak for plants may mean having a solid balcony rail or placing a screen between an open railing and the plant. Keep in mind that there are often body corporate and safety regulations about what can be done on balconies in apartment blocks. Where screening isn’t a viable option, select tough plants to act as a windbreak for less robust plant choices.
Another option for planting on a wind-exposed site is to go with the flow. Take inspiration from natural, windswept landscapes and plant low shrubs, ground covers and swathes of ornamental grasses that will bend and move in the wind.
Wind-tolerant plants share certain characteristics. They are usually evergreen with small, tough often-leathery leaves and short, stout branches that withstand the wind. Most can be pruned (handy when there’s wind damage to deal with) and most have a multi-branched habit rather than a single main stem.
Those that move with the wind, such as ornamental grasses, are anchored at their base with a dense root system so their foliage may blow about but the plant itself holds firm.
Wind-resistant shrubs include Australian natives such bottlebrush (callistemon and melaleuca), tea tree (leptospermum), shrubby banksias and coastal rosemary (Westringia fruticosa). Non-native options include coprosma, photinia, Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica and cultivars), New Zealand Christmas bush (Metrosideros spp. and cultivars), carissa, rosemary and viburnum along with succulents such as crassula. These plants are also salt-tolerant.
Movement and texture
Plants that go with the flow and bend in the wind include most ornamental grasses, dietes, New Zealand flax, native lilies including lomandra and dianella along with some weeping trees.
Cover the ground around wind-tolerant plantings with ground-hugging plants such as gazania (look for modern, non-weedy cultivars) and African daisy (Oesteospermum cultivars), succulents such as pigface, iceplant and sedum, prostrate conifers such as shore juniper, or trailing natives such as golden guinea flower (Hibbertia scandens). These types of plants act as living mulch (in high-wind areas, loose organic mulches can blow away) and help retain soil moisture.
Once you've selected your plants and identified where to plant them, there are a few things you can do to help them establish and grow...
- Give all new plantings in a wind-exposed area extra attention. They may need staking, tree guards or other barriers. Even large boulders or temporary rows of straw bales (stabilised with stakes) can provide effective protection for new plantings. Another option is to lay down mesh and plant through this.
- Many wind-exposed sites are also dry, so provide regular water to help plants establish. In coastal areas, salt damage can also slow growth, so select salt-tolerant plants. You should also regularly hose down foliage after periods of salt-laden wind.
- Surround plants with an inorganic mulch of small pebbles, gravel or recycled glass. These materials are heavy enough to withstand the wind, but fine enough to look attractive.