Trinidad’s Sea Stack Gardens

By: Mary Wilbur
Photo: Ted Pease

Mary Wilbur, a native of Wales, worked in the field of psychiatric care, and has gardened in England and New…

More From This Author
Pewetole Island at dawn, with Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) on its crown; at high tide, Pewetole is an island. Photographs by Ted Pease

Pewetole Island at dawn, with Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) on its crown; at high tide, Pewetole is an island. Photographs by Ted Pease

The stacks are remnants of the past

Marking where the sea cliff was,
But nothing here is made to last.
A cliff retreats; it always does.

from “Sea Stacks of Kerry,” Richard Hayes Phillips, 2001

Sea stack gardens? Aren’t sea stacks those rocks near the coast that stick up out of the ocean? How can they have gardens?

Sea stacks begin as part of a headland or sea cliff. Relentless pounding by ocean waves erodes the softer, weaker parts of the rock first, leaving harder, more resistant rock behind. Sometimes sea arches are formed where waves have hollowed out a line of weakness and created an arched opening; sea stacks can also form when the roof of a sea arch collapses. The Pacific Coast is rich with sea stacks, from California’s Big Sur to Oregon.1

In addition to present-day sea stacks where native plants predominate, there are the sea stacks of sixty thousand years ago (when the sea level was higher), some of which now rest in people’s gardens, more than a hundred feet inland from the current shoreline. A few of these ancient sea stacks have been incorporated into the structure of the house; outdoors, they provide home for both native and non-native plants. Having proven their fortitude by resisting the onslaught of waves that have eroded the coast around them, they now provide a secure and attractive setting for house and garden.

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) backlit by the sun, against a fern covered sea stack

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) backlit by the sun, against a fern covered sea stack

Today’s younger sea stacks at Trinidad, California, stand in the ocean like a family of sentinels guarding the coast. Some are large, some small, and some in between. Like a family, they have names. The largest is Pewetole Island, which looms over the others at a hundred and thirty feet tall, crowned with Sitka spruces (Picea sitchensis); how these trees maintain a foothold on this nearly barren rock is a feat of determined roots. The island, accessible only at low tide, is an adventure to climb, but it is not unknown for the Coast Guard to rescue climbers who have not paid attention to incoming tides.

In the littoral zone closer to shore is Grandmother Rock, named for its shape that is vaguely reminiscent of an imposing woman, some twenty feet tall, looking out to sea. To me, she looks like Queen Victoria wearing a voluminous skirt and surveying her realm. When the wildflowers are blooming in June, they cascade down her back like a colorful, regal pigtail— golden patches of stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) interspersed with clumps of the fringed, pale lavender seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus). Some bare parts of the rock are covered with a rust-colored lichen; off in a corner will be a few isolated yellow monkey flowers (Mimulus guttatus). These flowers would make a wonderful golden crown, but ice plant (Carprobrotus edulis) has taken over Queen Victoria’s head.

Most of the rocks are home to native plants, but invasive plants, like the indefatigable ice plant and pampas grass (Cortaderia jubata), have managed to gain a foothold, too. Studies by Humboldt State University students in 2008 identified over sixty-seven different plants, of which seventy-five percent were native. The most common invasive species was annual bluegrass (Poa annua). Sea stacks that have been incorporated into gardens are usually home to a mixture of native and non-native plants.

The Trump family home on Trinidad Bay, with an ancient sea stack to the right and present-day sea stacks in the distance

The Trump family home on Trinidad Bay, with an ancient sea stack to the right and present-day sea stacks in the distance

Trump Garden

Demonstrating Trinidad’s special seacoast character, the Trump family house and garden merge into the rocky coast as an integral part of the seascape. During heavy storms, ocean spray often beats against the downstairs windows. Developed from a small holiday cabin, the house now encompasses several levels. One room forms a bridge over a stream that cascades down the hill into the ocean, its banks covered in blue lupine (Lupinus littoralis). In another room, the rocks form an integral part of an interior wall. Sea stacks and rocky outcrops have also been worked into the design of the garden.

A long lane leads down from the road to an imposing sea stack, about twenty feet high, that blocks a view of the ocean. The house snuggles against one side of this sea stack. The stack, itself, is rich with native plants, including the native columbine (Aquilegia formosa), whose muted red and yellow colors can be difficult to see against the grey rock until backlit by the sun. Wild cucumber (Marah oreganus) clambers across the rock surfaces; its modest white flowers develop into fleshy gourds in late summer. Salal (Gaultheria shallon), barely six inches tall, and native ferns, such as five finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum), leather leaf fern (Polypodium scouleri), and western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), form a background for fringecups (Tellima grandifolia), with modest creamy blossoms, and a tall clump of dusky pink, slim-leafed onion (Allium dichlamydeum).

From the ocean side of this entry sea stack, one is swept away by the dramatic view of a rock-strewn ocean, nearly always with a few surfers in the distance. On the flanks of the sea stack and along its base is a bed planted as a traditional perennial garden. This garden is alive with color, from patches of variously colored California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), delphiniums, geraniums, hydrangea, sea pink (Armeria maritima), and more. Beautiful as they are, the exotic garden plants are outnumbered and, some may think, outshone by their more numerous native kin, which seldom flaunt themselves but are seductive in their low-key beauty.

Steps lead down from the perennial garden and across the lawn to a thriving vegetable garden. Close to the cliff’s edge, this garden is protected from the ocean by a low hedge of Escallonia rubra. The richness of the plant life so close to the ocean is hard to believe; even tomatoes have been successfully grown here and watered partly with seawater supplementing the fog-borne drizzle.

A perennial garden at the Trump family home, with sea pinks (Armeria maritima) white Silene maritima, and blue Lithodora diffusa in the foreground, California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and a bright yellow yarrow (Achillea) at the base of the ancient sea stack.

A perennial garden at the Trump family home, with sea pinks (Armeria maritima) white Silene maritima, and blue Lithodora diffusa in the foreground, California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and a bright yellow yarrow (Achillea) at the base of the ancient sea stack.

Burleson Garden

Tall trees and shrubs shade the driveway to the Burleson home, another fine mating of sea stacks and regional design. Closer to the house, the driveway broadens and is edged by lower-growing flowering shrubs, including Mexican mock orange (Choisya ternata) and lace-cap hydrangeas, along with tubs of bamboo, various Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cultivars), and a smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria). The front of the house, reached by a narrow, gated pathway, is away from the ocean but incorporates a fifteen-foot-high sea stack as part of its exterior wall. The stack is topped with salal; clinging to the rock lower down are cranesbill (Geranium), Astilbe, and violas.

Leading away from the house and sea stack, smaller boulders create (with a little human help) a channel for a rushing stream and pond of recycled water that provides a home for goldfish and aquatic plants, including the glistening and elegant white water lily (Nymphaea). The path along the stream is shaded by a variety of shrubs, such as the sweet-smelling bush anemone (Carpenteria californica), star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), and camellias, with clumps of blue wild iris (Iris douglasiana) tucked between the shrubs.

A path on the far side of the house traverses a colorful wilderness of flowering shrubs amidst drifts of the ubiquitous purple and pink toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and trailing golden and orange nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus). At the corner of the house is a small wooden gate overwhelmed by a tall fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) with red and purple flowers. Through the gate and across a stretch of lawn, the ocean lies sparkling and blue (not that common in Humboldt County). In the distance, but not too far from shore, is another towering sea stack.

Sedum spathulifolium, a native succulent, in flower on a sea stack

Sedum spathulifolium, a native succulent, in flower on a sea stack

Facing the ocean is a broad terrace, bordered by a bed of flowering perennials, and edibles. Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) jostle with pink lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Melissa’), and rhubarb (Rheum 5 cultorum) with love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is surrounded by ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and purple-headed chives (Allium schoenoprasum).

The terrace is home to a myriad of pots. Rosa ‘Kathleen’ makes its pink way up a trellis against the side of the house, intertwined with an unnamed creamy moss rose. Other pots hold African daisies (Osteospermum), strawberries (Fragaria), lobelia, fuchsia, and whatever else has caught the owner’s fancy.

Owners of these homes and gardens are wedded to sea stacks as integral parts of the fabric of their daily lives. They enjoy the sight of more sea stacks just offshore. It is as though these mighty rocks are waiting patiently for that distant time when they, too, may become part of someone’s home or garden.

  1. The California Coastal National Monument, established in the year 2000 by presidential proclamation, runs the entire length of California, to a distance of twelve nautical miles off shore. Its purpose is to protect the offshore rocks, pinnacles, and sea stacks and their ecosystems.