That’s Where the Tall Plants Grow
I have a lot of admiration for writer and landscape designer Benjamin Vogt. His blog, newsletter, and other writings make very useful reading for anyone interested in the intersection between gardening and ecology.
However, I have to issue a partial dissent to his recent post, The Top Mistake Native Plant Gardeners Make. Because, in his view, the number one mistake is “using plants that get too tall”.
Vogt’s work is based in Nebraska, and so he is focused on a palette of prairie plants, as am I. He argues that a plant like Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) looks weird in a conventional garden bed surrounded by mulch and shorter plants. Hard to disagree with that.
You can combine Yellow Coneflower with other tall plants, but Vogt warns that “then you’ve created a garden of 4-6′ tall plants.” This is a problem because it “will look overgrown to a lot of people”.
Now, when I hear of a garden of 4-6′ plants, my first response is: just 4-6′? What about my Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum – up to 10′) and Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum – up to 8′), and some other lofty favorites? But I will concede that Vogt’s advice is sensible UNLESS all or most of the following applies:
- The gardener is a native plant fanatic (if you are a native plant gardener then there is a good chance you are a fanatic);
- The gardener is willing and able to devote substantial time to edging, staking, deadheading, and cutting back;
- The gardener lives in a community with a higher tolerance for “wild” landscapes.
For myself, all 3 of these conditions apply, despite the fact that we live on less than 1/4 acre. Plus, I love tall plants. Their height implies a wildness that is exciting and provides a sense of enchantment and mystery. Remember Jack’s giant beanstalk?
At the same time, tall plants don’t necessarily make a garden look neglected. Using layers, with the tallest plants at the back, helps. (Though I confess my plant placement as to height has gotten a bit random over the years.) So does the aforementioned staking, cutting back, etc. – I simply refuse to let plants lounge about in their beds and borders. Finally, clearly defined edges of pavers or trenches can make an enormous difference.
I get lots of feedback from passersby about our garden, and that feedback is overwhelmingly positive. For many neighbors, the tall plants are part of the appeal. The same may not be true if I lived in a more conservative community. Even so, I think there is a growing acceptance of more informal and ecologically-minded front yards.
Vogt recommends a palette of plants in the 18-24″ range: grasses and sedges, but also flowers like Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Wine Cups (Callirhoe involucrata). For drama, he would dot these plantings with a few taller forbs.
A selection of 18-24″ plants could make a fine garden – for hobbits. No, just kidding. As I said earlier, Vogt’s approach is good advice for most native plant gardeners, just not all of them.
As for Vogt’s emphasis on covering the ground with plants that intermingle – I enthusiastically agree. Still working on achieving that goal, though, and relying more on low-growing forbs and much less on grasses and sedges.
What do you think? Can small gardens be home to lots of tall prairie plants? Or do big plants mostly belong in really big and wild landscapes?