Not all tall plants should be relegated to the back row

Erin Schanen

    One of the highest compliments bestowed upon a plant is that it is “compact.” Gardeners equate compact with dense, well-behaved plants, with no chance of flopping. So desirable is this compactness that a few years ago an entire book was written on such plants and breeders continue to focus on plants that, we are led to believe, fit better in a small garden.
    Although this plant shrinkage can be helpful, especially for native shrubs that can be way too big for some gardens, it can lead to the general dwarfing of the garden as well. It’s time to bring tall plants back to our gardens.
    Any traditional garden design course will start with arranging plants in triangles, generally grouped tall, medium and short, with the tallest in the back and shortest in the front so that everything is layered, much like a third-grade class on risers for a Christmas concert.
    It’s a basic principle of design because it works. But what it offers in practicality, it lacks in excitement. Imagine the tall, gangly kid in the back row at that concert jumping forward to steal the show. Now that’s exciting.
    Tall plants can feel overwhelming, especially since we’ve been busy shrinking our gardens for years. The trick to not feeling like your plants are planning to sneak up and eat you from above is to look for plants that can serve as a screen, not a door. Tall plants that grow densely — one British plantsman who extolls the virtues of tall plants calls them “amorphous blobs” — are perfect for that back-of-the-border spot, but skinnier plants, especially those that show a little stem, can be invited right up front.
    Not only do they break up the riser effect, they also ever so slightly obscure the view, not distractingly, but in a way that makes you want to keep walking through the garden to see what lies beyond.
    Tall Thalictrum (meadow rue) cultivars such as ‘Elin’ or ‘Anne,’ which can reach past 8 feet tall, are perfect for part sun to part shade areas in need of see-through height.
    Molinia ‘Transparent’ is a perfect grass for growing right along the edge of a path. Mine grows to about 6 feet tall but its skinny stems add interest without blocking the view.
    Even Eupatorium (Joe pye weed), which can form a huge clump if left to its own devices, can be brought toward the front of the garden so long as you’re resigned to keep after it every couple of years so that it isn’t allowed to become a wall. In late summer, this native perennial will be covered with monarch butterflies.
    If you’re hesitant about bringing some height to perfectly arranged borders, Verbena bonariensis is a great gateway plant. This annual has skinny stems that hold lavender lollipop-like flowers at 4 or 5 feet high. Although it will reseed, in our zone it rarely gets aggressive about it and unwanted seedlings are easy to scuff out. It will never obscure what lies beyond, but it can shake things up just enough to get a little excitement back in the garden.
    So let that tall kid at the back jump up front and sing awhile.  



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