Tall perennials for sun and shade

Tall perennials: Adding height to the garden with bold plants

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I love a layered look in the garden. One that’s filled with different colours and textures. And that means you need different heights, from the tall perennials in the back, to the smaller, mounding plants or groundcover in the front. Picture a public school class photo where you have the smaller kids in the front on chairs, a middle row standing and the tall students in back, maybe up on a bench. The point is you get to see the faces of all the kids, so you want to make sure you see all the plants.

Why choose tall perennials for the garden?

Tall perennials not only add depth and shape to a garden, when included among plants of other heights, they can camouflage things you might want to hide, like a chainlink fence or an air conditioner. They can even add a bit of privacy.

When choosing all of the plants for your garden, no matter what the height, try to select a variety based on bloom time, so there is always something flowering from spring through fall.

Before you get started, besides a sturdy shovel, you may also want to grab a tape measure. A lot of these plants have a sizeable width, too, so you want to make sure you’re leaving adequate space.

Avoiding pitfalls from planting tall perennials

When choosing a tall perennial, consider the size of the garden, the surroundings, and the other plants involved. You want to make sure you achieve balance. Rather than one tall plant sticking out among the shorter-statured plants in the garden, plan your composition. Consider planting in odd-numbered drifts.

Read your plant tags carefully. They’ll indicate both the eventual height and the spread of your plant. Leave space accordingly, even though it may not look great at the time. The key is to be patient for that eventual lush and full look you are trying to achieve. But you’ll have to contend the gaps as you wait for your plants to grow in their designated space.

Be mindful of where the light is coming from, as well as scale. You don’t want to shade out shorter perennials by casting giant shadows with your tall perennials.

Have plant stakes at the ready. Some especially tall plants can flop. Make a plan to hold them up before everything fills in. It’s possible other plants could also fill this role.

My list of some favourite tall perennials

I refrained from including the most successful tall plant in one of my gardens this past summer: goldenrod. One area had a pretty stunning cascade of yellow blooms—covered in bees!

Torch lilies

Height: Up to five feet (1.5 metres) tall
I enjoy the fiery burst of colour at the end of red hot poker (aka torch lily) stems. These low-maintenance perennials are hardy down to USDA zone 6. Apparently the deer and rabbits don’t like them either. Plant them in a sunny spot in well-drained soil—their crowns object to wet soils and can rot. As far as placement, select an area where those torches will really stand out!

Torch lilies are great examples of tall perennials

Torch lilies aka red hot pokers come by their name honestly. Their interesting blooms can be deadheaded to ensure continuous flowering through the fall.

Russian sage

Height: Three to five (.9 to 1.5 metres) tall
Russian sage is one of those plants where the flowers are so small, that all together they look like a lavender cloud floating in the garden. This is an unfussy plant. It’s heat and drought tolerant, doesn’t mind poorer soil, and the blooms last for weeks. It also smells good. Though it won’t spread, some varieties can grow up to two feet in width, so plan accordingly.

Salt and drought tolerant, the fragrant flowers of Russian sage bloom from mid summer to mid fall.

Salt and drought tolerant, the fragrant flowers of Russian sage bloom from mid summer to mid fall. This one is called ‘Denim ‘n Lace’. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners

Crocosmia

Height: Three to four feet (.9 to 1.2 metres) tall
Crocosmia is a summer-blooming bulb with these beautiful, arching, conical bursts of flowers at the end of their long stems (which the pollinators love). They enjoy full sun to partial shade. Planted in the spring, these summer-flowering plants are hardy down to zone 4. Have patience as it can take the plants, which are a member of the iris family, a couple of years to become established.

The showstopping blooms of crocosmia.

The spiky foliage of crocosmia can hold its own when the plant is not in bloom. But when those flowers emerge, this plant is a showstopper.

Bear’s breeches (Acanthus mollis)

Height: Up to three feet (.9 metres) tall
Bear’s breeches is a hefty plant. The flower spires themselves can reach up to three feet tall. Purple bracts shelter white blooms. They are hardy down to USDA zone 6 (or maybe 5 if they’re in a more sheltered location). Plant in full sun to part shade in an area with well-draining soil.

The magnificent flowers of bear's breeches

Mulching around the bear’s breeches plant will help it survive the winter, especially if you live in a lower zone.

Lupins

Height: One to four feet (.3 to 1.2 metres) tall
I first discovered lupins growing all along the side of roadways on Prince Edward Island in my early 20s. In that province, they’re actually considered a weed and invasive species. But now, to me, these are a quintessential English cottage garden flower. They were in several show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show when I went a few years ago, usually planted among some equally stunning, wispy, showy foliage. Plants prefer full to part sun and don’t do well in heavy, wet soil.

A lupin planted at the Chelsea Flower Show

Lupins are the perfect plants to recreate that English garden look. The foliage that’s been planted in the background is actually fennel. This photo was taken in a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, which has provided me with endless inspiration.

Rodgersia

Height: Three to five feet (.9 to 1.5 metres) tall
Rodgersia is one of those plants that has bold leaves and bold blooms. The foliage has a bit of a bronze tinge to it and the leaves are quite thick, almost leathery to the touch. The plant enjoys sunshine, but moister soil. You’ll often see them growing at the edge of a pond or stream. Depending on the variety, flowers can either be white or pinky red. It also spreads out quite wide, so read the plant tag and be mindful of this when you’re planting.

If you're looking for tall perennials that will do well in a wetter area of the garden, Rodgersia is a great choice.

If you’re looking for tall perennials that will do well in a wetter area of the garden, Rodgersia is a great choice.

Goatsbeard

Height: Up to six feet (1.8 metres) tall
Goatsbeard is one of those frothy perennials I love. They just add so much texture to a landscape. The cream-coloured flower spikes look a bit fuzzy from afar. The deer don’t eat this low-maintenance beauty. Plant goatsbeard in a shady spot. It can tolerate a bit of moisture in the soil.

Looking for tall perennials that have interesting textures? Check out goatsbeard with its frothy foliage.

Goatsbeard adds beautiful feathery texture to the garden.

Spotted Joe Pye weed

Height: Four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 metres) tall
When I think of tall plants, Joe Pye weed is usually among the first that comes to mind. It attracts a number of beneficial insects, like butterflies, moths, and bees. Many of the varieties are cultivated forms a native plant that can be found throughout much of North America. Hardy down to USDA zone 4, you want to make sure that because of its exceptional stature, you choose the right spot for it, among your other plants.

Spotted Joe Eye weed at the Lurie Garden in Chicago

This Spotted Joe Eye weed was spotted at the Lurie Garden, a gorgeous, naturalistic garden in Chicago.

False Indigo (Baptisia spp)

Height: Three to four feet (.9 to 1.2 metres) tall
A lot of the plants I’ve chosen have lovely long spires of blooms and this one is no exception. Modern hybrids come in a variety of colours. False or wild indigo are tough plants and pretty impervious to pests and diseases. They’re also drought tolerant. The foliage is sturdy and altogether the stems almost resemble a shrub, the way they stay nice and upright and together. They are hardy down to USDA zone 5.

This Baptisa hybrid from Proven Winners is called 'Cherries Jubilee'.

This False Indigo hybrid from Proven Winners is called ‘Cherries Jubilee’. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners.

Shopping for other interesting perennials? Check out these articles

Tall perennials: Bold choices for the garden

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