Aiming high: the benefits of tall plants in the garden

Rather than confining a view, tall plants frame one, drawing your eye up into space

What is it about summer meadows? About lying on one’s back watching the waving of grasses, the sway of flowers, lithe stems bending on a breeze?

Perhaps it’s ancestral, staring up at the sky through plants, as if we are called back to the savannahs where we first stood upright as a species, moved from four legs to two, collected seeds and later sowed them…

I’m here to sing the praises of tall plants. Plants that might screen a neighbour, dwarf us, and put us in our place. I’ll start with some of my favourites:

Cephalaria gigantea, a towering perennial, achieves 10 feet in one season and has disk-shaped pale yellow flowers on long clean stems. Simple to grow and deer-proof, it slowly spreads to a nice clump. Start off with a triangle of three.

Ammi magus: This is an annual that is too late to grow this year, but it’s a relative of Queen Anne’s lace, shooting up to seven feet in a season. It’s from a category of plants called Umbellifers which look like upturned umbrellas, and bear their tiny flowers on a flat ‘head’. Architectural, simple to grow, their range includes the Angelicas (to six feet) and the Ferulas, relatives of fennel. All grow almost too well in our climate, self-seeding easily.

For privacy, I grow the grass Molina caerulea ‘Karl Foerester’ as a summer screen, it’s purple-tinged flower heads reaching about five feet. Behind this, I grow Eupatorium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed) which is partial to damp soil and tolerates clay. Mine reach over seven feet, bearing dusty rose blooms in late summer, but they also provide a great show with dark stems and bright green foliage throughout the summer. Standing in the middle of what is my front yard surrounded by such giants makes me feel wonderfully small and secret, as if being enclosed in a tiny garden room, deep in green.

I also use Maclaeya cordata with the Eupatorium, which is similarly deer-resistant. It rises to six or seven feet, has lovely grey green leaves and easily paired blooms of apricot/buff.

For serious impact, try growing Echium pininana. In the 1600 block of Foul Bay Road a set of these towering Dr. Seuss-like ‘rockets’ blasted up in the front yard of a bungalow this spring. Native to the Canary Islands, these giants like warm conditions, but I’ve seen them growing in Scotland and I’m guessing our now mild winters mean they are worth a try.

If you like yellow there are a number of tall perennials to choose from. The Rudbeckias (‘Herbstonne’ is common here), Inula (the herb Elcampane), and the genus Helianthus to which sunflowers belong. I grow the rather odd Helianthus salicifolius which snakes upwards to 10 feet and the tidy Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ which bears a profusion of pale yellow flowers from July through September.

There are so many more wonderful monsters to mention, but I’ll have to stop here. (An excellent book on this topic is Tall Perennials: Larger Than Life Plants for Gardens of All Sizes by Roger Turner.)

I’ve never regretted planting one of my tall perennials (the Macleaya can be invasive, but only slowly so), so resist the urge to go small in a small space – you’ll be staring at the ground. Aim high. Rather than confining a view, tall plants frame one, drawing your eye up into space.

Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid gardener.