Scott Beuerlein is a horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. He also has International Society of Arboriculture and Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association certifications.

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The Great Tall Plant Rebellion
by Scott Beuerlein    

This prairie-inspired garden demonstrates the riot of summer colors and textures possible with tall perennials. Although the majority of tall plants stand well on their own, planting them together almost ensures they do not flop.

Sometimes you have to ‘go big or go home.’ Here are several reasons why you should add grand, tall plants to your garden design palette.

There’s a battle raging for the heart and soul of horticulture. Admittedly, this is a little below most people’s radar, but it is real nonetheless. Virtually every new plant that breeders and nurseries bring to market is a downsized version of its former self. For their purpose, which is retailing, these smaller new plants (each with a trademarked name evoking candies or cakes) are perfect. They neatly fit on shelves, scream for attention with their hyper-tinted foliage and flowers, and there is not one shopper entering a garden center who hasn’t got room somewhere in their garden for at least one. But there is a fly in the ointment here. Despite each of these plants being a triumph of skill, despite their breathtaking appeal, and despite the fact that I have allowed breeding company marketers to buy me more than just a few drinks at trade shows, I’ve just got to say it: A garden filled with nothing but compact caricatures of once free-roaming wild plants can only be described as a red hot mess! It’s unnatural. It’s too contrived. It feels weird. It doesn’t work.

Here is where the insurrection rears its head. In complete contradiction to the direction of retailers is the path that many – maybe most – top designers and virtually every public garden is taking. That path is gardens that are chest high in bold sweeps of massed or creatively paired plantings of big, bold perennials and grasses. “Blueberry Caramel Cream Tart heucherella,” if it exists, need not apply.

The inspiration comes from natural landscapes, usually the richness of the American woodlands and prairies, and it is a response to the environmental issues of our day. These plantings are composed largely of close-to-species cultivars or pure species plants – often native but not always – to create communities of flora that fill space with diverse tapestries of foliage, texture and bloom. The resulting gardens not only provide a full menu of environmental services, such as mitigating storm water runoff, reduced irrigation and less mowing and maintenance, they also provide for a diversity of wildlife. Equally important, they are connecting people to nature far more directly than gardens ever have before. And people – even non-gardeners, maybe especially non-gardeners – love it!

Blooms that are at eye level is but one of the many great benefits of tall plants.

Perhaps the best example of this style is the High Line in the meatpacking district of New York City. More than a million people a year, New Yorkers and tourists alike, walk the 1.5 miles of raised railroad beds now converted to garden. The engagement of people to nature is palpable every step of the way. This Piet Oudolf design is not all wild and wooly. There may actually be a handful of “Blueberry Caramel Cream Tart heucherella,” if it exists, littered about along with some vignettes of woodland, but it is the mass plantings of sunny forbs and grasses that dominate. Here, surrounded by skyscrapers and the din of the world’s greatest city, these plantings literally buzz with the activity of insects and birds. Ironically, the visitors who parade through are somewhat hushed with reverence, as though visiting a museum. Nevertheless, most visitors simply cannot resist the impulse to caress a grass, sniff a flower, take a photograph, ponder and perhaps change. This is a garden that impacts people’s lives! And it has economic impact, too. This part of Manhattan was something of a backwater until the High Line was made. Now, it is busy with the construction of new apartments and refurbished office spaces. Wonderfully, copycat gardens are appearing on the rooftops and balconies of many adjacent buildings.

High Line Park is a 1.45 mile-long linear park in Manhattan located on a retired section of elevated railway. You can take a virtual stroll through the park with Google street-view.
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns  CC BY 2.0

The High Line, of course, is not mining this vein alone. Most other public gardens are right there with them. Many have legacies of formal gardens they admirably maintain and honor. But almost without exception their new efforts are aimed squarely at creating gardens that mix the richness and beauty of natural plants growing in natural spaces. Longwood Gardens, near Philadelphia, is one of our oldest and most prominent of public gardens, and it is a perfect example. Nearby Chanticleer is much younger, but their approach is the same. In these two gardens, letter-perfect formal gardens of the old estates are reverently maintained, but new projects on the outer grounds are brilliant examples of new horticulture. The Meadow Garden at Longwood is something everybody needs to see. Chanticleer’s mastery of plants and spaces in a host of natural settings is awe inspiring.

This new direction of design isn’t solely for public gardens. Many college and corporate campuses are trying their hand as well, and even dirt-poor municipal and county parks are also taking up the mantle. It is, after all, more cost effective to cover ground with plugs or even seed in great sweeps of tall, sometimes aggressive, perennials and grasses than in almost any other manner. Plus, there is the net gain from all those environmental “services.” A growing number of homeowners are jumping on board as well.

True, these gardens are quite different from our traditional view of gardening, and it might be something of an acquired taste. The same is said about two very popular things: coffee and beer. I don’t know anybody who enjoyed the first taste of beer. I didn’t. But I really, really like beer now, and so do most of the people I know. So visit some of these gardens. Try some tall plants. Before long, I guarantee the natural beauty of big plantings of big perennials will turn you into a revolutionary!

Witness how these billowing grasses and perennials at Cincinnati’s Ault Park soften what could be an otherwise runway-like pathway, transforming it from merely a means of getting from here to there into an enjoyable stroll of the senses.

Try This At Home

It’s easy to work tall perennials into the home landscape. Sure, an abundance of space makes using tall plants easier, but it is not a necessity. Tall herbaceous plants look fine planted against a screen or structure of any sort – shrubs or fencing for example. A foreground of midheight perennials such as Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) or ‘Purple Smoke’ false indigo (Baptisia‘Purple Smoke’) will make the design look more natural, and might help support their taller friends and hide their legs. Some tall perennials don’t need support or their legs obscured. Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) are two good examples. Neither flops, and both have photogenic legs. Pull them forward, if you’re feeling liberated. If your border needs to eat more turf to accommodate bigger plants, so be it! More plants, less turf! This should be every gardener’s mantra.

Great coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) is a favorite tall perennial. From powder blue foliage erupts stems that hold bright yellow flowers 6-8 feet above the ground.

Every garden should have an 8-foot clump of Lilium superbum pumping heady fragrance into the twilight garden in early summer.

12 Favorite Tall Perennials

•  Aster tataricus‘Jindai’
•  ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum‘Gateway’)
•  ‘Gold Lace’ swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
•  Prairie gayfeather (Liatris spicata)
•  Regal lily (Lilium regale)
•  Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
•  Great coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima)
•  ‘Henry Eilers’ sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia tomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’)
•  ‘Herbstonne’ shining coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida ‘Herbstonne’)
•  Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
•  Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
•  ‘Fascination’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’)

Aster tatarica ‘Jindai’ explodes with an incredible display of bright blue flowers extremely late in the season. Pollinators also love it for the vital energy that will carry them through the winter. 

Any of the Silphium species add height, texture, color and enormous interest to any garden bed.

Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’ and many other tall perennials not only produce amazing flowers that can be enjoyed during the growing season, but their spent seedheads remain through fall and sometimes well into winter providing beauty and forage for birds.

Don’t be afraid to toss in the occasional tall annual. Plants like Tithonia speciosa, Verbena bonariensis, Cosmos spp. and others provide a very long season of bloom and nectar for pollinators as they stretch towards the sun.

From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2015. Photography by Scott Beuerlein unless otherwise noted.


Posted: 03/12/18   RSS | Print


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