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.

DSC_0577 front garden summer
Our front garden: 8/2015

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.

2014-08-02 12.08.40 yellow coneflower
Yellow coneflower with joe pye weed in the background.

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.
2014-07-18 08.13.18 sidewalk border
A view of the Sidewalk Border.

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.

2014-08-09 17.53.05 path between island bed and sidewalk border
Grassy path in the Front Garden

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.

DSC_0752 butterflyweed

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.

Cup Plant, Silphium perfoliatum
Cup Plant. Hello up there!

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?

50 Comments on “That’s Where the Tall Plants Grow”

  1. I love tall plants, and I think they’re wonderful in a garden. A friend planted a ‘tall garden’ at her condo this year, and it was stunning: varieties of sunflowers, Texas coneflowers, some Silphium, and a few things I don’t know, all combined with some gorgeous grasses. Your first photo’s especially pleasing — your gardens make me wish I lived in your neighborhood, so I could admire them every day.

    As for your title… Well, I am Iowa born and bred, and it took me about a nano second to remember singing about the land where the tall corn grows. It was fun to have it brought back to mind.

    • We know many Iowans who have moved here to Chicago. Truly, some of our best friends are from Iowa. Did you ever hear the one about the Iowan who went to a cocktail party in Manhattan. When he told someone that he was from Iowa, the person said: “Oh, how quaint! But here we pronounce it ‘Ohio’.”

  2. I’m jealous. I would love a beautiful front garden. I spent some time today digging up my chewed hostas and moving them to the fenced back yard. Our library just spent a small fortune of our tax dollars relandscaping their grounds that have been destroyed by deer. Woe is me.

  3. I am not so fond of grasses in the garden. I love tall plants. I just planted that tall coneflower. I hope it takes and shoots up next year. Your garden is a perfect blend. You have layers. You have a tall house that makes all flowers, even the tall ones, look in scale. I just hate it when people start telling you what you should and shouldn’t do in your own garden. I know they mean well but hey, I don’t see things the way others see them. I say plant what you want for goodness sakes.

  4. Tall plants can look stunning. However, I recently received a phone call (from someone who’d found my name in connection with local gardens). She wanted to tell me about having her neighbor call code enforcement to complain about her native plantings. I haven’t seen this garden, so don’t know how “native/wild” it is! Obviously not everyone’s cup of tea.

  5. Since the words prairie and wind fit together nicely in my mind I wonder if the author is concerned that taller plants are more apt to be blown over.
    Pesonally I think your gardens are beautiful, tall or not, and I especially like the taller plants on either side of the grassy path because that’s a lot of what I see in nature.

  6. Your photo of the front garden in 2015 shows a fabulous garden! It’s layered so that the tall plants look comfortable and the tallest are airy and so don’t overwhelm the other plants. I love it!
    PS I also like Benjamin Vogt, even if sometimes (too often?) he makes me feel incredibly guilty. But that’s my problem, not his.

  7. I agree that a very neat edging makes an enormous difference to how a wild garden is perceived. One can (usually) get away with a tall and blowsy prairie planting if it is neatly contained in something, anything really, if it is obviously carefully designed and maintained. Doesn’t matter if it is cut granite paving or obsessively trimmed boxwood or manicured lawn, the neighbours understand your oversized effect is intentional and not just neglect. I love tall plants in smallish city gardens. They are lush and exciting.

  8. I would find a garden with just 18-24 inch plants stultifyingly boring. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a patch of Joe-Pye weed flowering in my neighbor’s garden, or the time I saw enormous cardoons in a perennial border at Van Dusen gardens in Vancouver, B.C. They were both electrifying experiences.

  9. A garden is a canvas painted upon by the gardener so no two are alike but both are lovely. I never judge, just enjoy. 🙂 I bought several butterfly weed plants this year and all were eaten down to the ground by milkweed tussock caterpillars. I may have to leave those to you with the tulips. 🙂 How do you edge your beds? They look nice.

  10. I definitely disagree (and I think many pollinators would also!). Layering in taller plants (as you mentioned at the back or middle of an island bed) is far more interesting and pleasing to the eye than a sea of knee-high plants. But then again, I’m not one for an orderly, manicured garden so that would definitely colour my views 🙂

  11. The 2015 photo says it all. Sometimes the gardener is deliberate and sometimes the whole thing is an accident ! If you layer the plants the height is ok in my book. And consider Scott Webers’ garden in Portland-not only does he have tall plants, they are terraced up from the sidewalk and it is pulled off beautifully.

  12. Your photo of the grassy path in the front garden shows how to do it right! Beautiful! I am a huge proponent of layering. I think a garden where everything is about the same height is ultimately boring, even if individual plants are lovely.

  13. Too tall? That’s the main problem (supposedly)? I sort of find that to be a problem for most landscapes anyway, but would not say that it is the main problem. I think that particular problem is really because so-called maintenance ‘gardeners’ neglect many plants that should be pruned more aggressively. Of course, for us, not many natives should be pruned aggressively, so must max out at the right height.
    We have a different set of problems. For natives, the main problem is that so-called ‘designers’ put too much in the landscape, and then prescribe drip irrigation to ‘save water’. Of course it does not save water because the so-called ‘gardeners’ have it come on daily until the native plants rot. Those that survive become a fire hazard and then die in a few years because that is what most natives here do.

  14. Count me as another proponent of some tall plants in the garden. There is a hillside at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens where a tall perennial sunflower and Joe Pye Weed bloom together, and the combination always makes we swoon. Tall plants are also good as architectural anchors in a perennial garden. I have used both Amsonia tabernaemontana and Baptisia australis in this way (both in the 3-4′ range). My favorite tall flower is Rudbeckia x ‘Herbstsonne’ which blooms at the back of my Blue and Yellow Border and needs to be big to stand out against the woods behind it.

  15. I think use of bold planting is a mark of skilled gardeners like yourself and that uniform low planting is more a mark of those tidy householders who want easy maintenance.
    For the unskilled gardener with a lot of land at least big plants fill up the space and still look good

  16. I love tall plants, whatever size the bed is. I think I would plant more smaller plants if restricted by shrubs or trees, but height is drama and varying heights more interesting, even if the occasional plant gets hidden behind a neighbour! So I’m with you Jason!

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