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Reach for the Sky

Five reasons to plant tall this spring

As a nursery owner, I am constantly asked for short plants. Perhaps people are just used to petunias and marigolds and other annuals that flower fast, don't bother growing tall, and get thrown out with the trash in the fall, or they may even have homeowners agreements that limit them to short plants. It is almost as if we don't want nature to intrude on the sharp lines of modern life. I guess I will create a collection of short plants to serve some of those needs in the future, but meanwhile, consider what a perennial plant of substance can do for your space, and for your environment.

Did you know we have a whole collection of Plants of Significant Size? These are plants that reach 5 feet or more in height, but don't be daunted; there are few gardens that wouldn't benefit from a bit of height. Here's why:

1. Make a Statement

No matter whether you are trying for the cover of Better Homes and Gardens or reveling in your wild habitat, tall plants attract attention. Standing tall among their peers, they are often the first to be noticed. Tall plants are striving to get their flowers up above the crowd for easy pollination, topping the height with dramatic color, or in the case of grasses, texture. They draw the eye upward and cause the viewer to visually move through the space, taking in the details as they go.

This picture was taken in October at the Green Bay Botanical Garden. This Prairie Dock was massive - probably 10 feet tall and five feet wide with leaves you could use to construct a shelter, or maybe a wardrobe. I don't know; but even in the very late season when most of the blooms were faded, this plant was stunning. Perhaps I'm just a native plant nerd, but of all the plants I saw at the garden, this one had the most visual impact. It definitely caused me to stop, look at the planting, and notice things I would not have otherwise seen.

As native plant gardeners, the conversations we have are almost as important as the plants we plant. People will naturally be curious about plants that are different than the stuff at Lowe's. Think of planting a tall plant as a native plant conversation starter, and take the opportunity to plant a seed of conversation for the native plant movement.

When planting any native plant, but especially tall ones for whom flopping is more of an issue, remember match your selections to your light and moisture conditions. Planting in too much shade (like this Prairie Dock) or too rich soils may promote leaning. For Prairie Dock that stands at attention, place it in full sun like the picture in the top gallery. Also note that native plants have extensive root systems and it may be three or more years before they start putting their energy up top. Once they do, they will turn heads for sure.

2. Frame Your Space

Tall plants can be used to frame a space, break up horizontal lines, and add interest. Planted densely, they can serve as a backdrop to highlight specimen plants or features. Although I think the Bluestem in this picture is a cultivar, Green Bay Botanical Garden used Big Bluestem to frame their walkway and add an enchanting backdrop of color and texture to the benches. To do this with straight-species native grass, consider using Indian Grass or mixing the Big Blue with Switch Grass to keep it contained and standing tall.

A leafy vine draping over a trellis

Best plants for framing and vertical accents: Indian Grass, Big Bluestem, Allegheny Serviceberry, and Marsh Blazing Star.

Need something that arches? Consider Ninebark, which has an arching branch structure, or train a vine like Woodbine, Virgin's Bower, or Wild Grape over a structure.

3. Create Privacy

There is a reason one of the nicknames for Cutleaf Coneflower is "Outhouse Weed". Tall plants can block views that are better left unseen. Whether you are hiding an outhouse, tank, or other structure; tall, clumping-forming flowers and grasses can improve the view while avoiding woody stems that might make future maintenance difficult.

On the other hand, if you are trying to block the view of others into your space, you might want the woody stems for better winter concealment. Shrubs such as Black Elderberry can be encouraged to form a dense thicket and provide some year-round privacy. Ninebark's arching branches also create a protective depth. If you are seeking privacy from above, perhaps from a neighbor's second-floor window, something with a small tree shape like Allegheny Serviceberry might fit the bill.

4. Personal Prairie

There is something about the way tall plants sway in the breeze that captures the essence of summer. Tallgrass Prairie used to be a significant habitat in southern Michigan and Wisconsin and it has a visual impact that is both soothing and entrancing. Although Dry Sand Prairie was more common up here, many of the species will do well in both. Grasses are a major component of such spaces, so make sure to include plenty of Indian Grass, with its tri-colored fall seed heads, and Big Bluestem with towering presence and texture from strong seed heads. Then punctuate your prairie grasses with Cup Plant for strong stems and built-in bird water cups, Tall Coreopsis for swaying clusters of flowers, and Ironweed for a pop of color. Fill out the mid-layer with Prairie Sage, Stiff Goldenrod, Gray Headed Coneflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, Smooth Blue Aster, Rough Blazingstar, Common Milkweed, and Switch Grass. For low plants to fill in near the ground, use Wild Strawberry, Pennsylvania Sedge, Harebell, Gray Goldenrod, and Black-eyed Susan. Tall plants can also create some shade for plants that need it, allowing you to plant a wider array of species. If you have the space, why not play with setting up a personal prairie?

5. Supersize your Habitat

Supersized habitat is my favorite thing about native plants that command space. An ordinary flower bed of short plants contains a limited amount of habitat close to the ground. Add a few tall plants and you are adding significant vertical real-estate for pollinators, birds, and all the diverse insects that make up a healthy habitat. The best way to add vertical habitat is with a tree, preferably an oak, because oaks host more species than anything else and offer the largest habitat resource. But while you are waiting for your tree to fill in, you can turn empty airspace into appealing habitat with a statuesque plant.

Did you know that hummingbirds need spider silk to make their nests both strong and flexible? They even snitch the spiders' lunch from the webs and pluck aphids from flower stems. Around our place, the spiders' favorite plant is Giant Sunflower, which means it is also a favorite of hummingbirds. Because of their size, a tall plant can offer double or even triple the opportunities for nectar, habitat for the insects that birds need to feed their young, leaves to feed butterfly and moth caterpillars, shelter for nesting and wintering, and seeds.

Boldly embrace the native plants of significant size this spring. Make a statement, create privacy, and turn empty airspace into habitat. Your efforts are sure to be noticed.

April is Native Plant month! Celebrate with super-tall, super-fun native plants. Buy six regular price native wildflowers or any kit or flat and get TWO free native plants during the month of April with code "April23" at checkout.

(Minimum order of $48, $12 discount when coupon code is used during checkout.)

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