E-Letter, Uncategorized, Weeding Gnome

Where Have All the Flowers (I mean tall plants) Gone?

Plant Nouveau GnomeI’ve decided I’m sick and tired of hearing the word short. This new plant is short. This new plant is dwarf. This new plant is compact. OK, so compact shouldn’t really mean short, but the folks breeding and introducing new plants use these words to describe short plants.

Why is it that everyone thinks shorter is better?

I understand that plants need to fit on racks and they need to be a certain size to sell them at the big box stores. Wait a minute…do I understand?

Not really…

Why do perennials have to fit a certain mold? Why are breeders making every perennial and flowering shrub smaller?

Is smaller better for the garden or just for the folks selling them?

I talked previously about Midwestern perennial guru, Roy Diblik, who wisely stated that we choose plants in the US for the big box stores , not for the way they will look in the garden once we plant them?


I’m really starting to get bored with all the short introductions coming out. What will happen to our layered borders and foundation plantings if all the plants are less than 3 feet tall?

Three feet is pretty short. Have you tried to take a picture of a plant that’s less than three feet tall? You have to practically lie on the ground to get a good shot.

You can’t make an attractive, complex landscape with plants that are all less than three feet tall. You might as well just use bedding plants and annuals. Most of them are less than three feet tall.

Have you seen the new hibiscus that are three feet tall? The blooms are still dinner plate-sized. They look silly to me. The branches fall to the ground from the weight of the huge flowers..

I ask you, “Why IS shorter better?”

It isn’t always. Successful gardens require plants in various sizes. Big and small, narrow and wide. They meld together like pieces of a planting puzzle to make the most glorious architecture.

God forbid there be a coneflower over two feet tall these days or a lily that towers over you, dousing you in sweet fragrance. You have to get down on your knees to smell some of these new, short lily selections. Seriously, what’s the use of having coneflowers and lilies so small you have to mass them like impatiens to get any effect?

Whose idea was this anyway?

I know shipping is expensive, so we try to get as many plants on the truck as possible. I also realize taller plants take up more room.

Gardeners, especially newbies who don’t know anything, need to know there’s a diverse world of heights and widths out there. Stop scaring them away from taller plants.

Sell tall perennials like Boltonia (false aster) and Silphium (cup plant)… Let there be height!

I like tall plants. Tall plants that don’t need staking are nirvana. Tall perennials usually grow fast,and that is fun to watch. Tall plants add dimension to gardens. They make great perches for the birds – well above what a dog or cat can reach.

Even short people like tall plants. Who wants to have to lay on the ground or bend over to take a picture? I don’t. Tall plants make wonderful foils for ugly fences and they can even screen out your neighbors too. And like I said above, tall perennials grow fast, so newbies won’t have to wait to screen an ugly view.

Nothing beats a regal lily (Lilium regale) for early summer flowering or formosa lily (Lilium formosanum) for late summer blooming. These tower over most people, but they add so much to a garden’s architecture.

Even small gardens can have taller plants. Taller plants make smaller gardens seem larger. If a small garden is full of petite plants, sure you can fit more, but there’s no dimension and the garden feels open and naked.

Tall plants make great wildlife sanctuaries.

Don’t get me started on mini grasses. What’s the point? If they are so short the wind can’t catch their blades and make that wonderfully relaxing swishing sound, what’s the use of having them?

We may be changing the look of our gardens forever.

Newbies who only shops at box stores, will never encounter a cup plant, boltonia or perennial (Helianthus sp.) sunflowers? Even ICG’s (independent Garden Centers) refrain from carrying tall plants.

They claim they fall over in the wind. I know they do. I remember walking the miles of outdoor greenhouses while I worked at The Conard-Pyle Co. after a storm. We would have to pick up all the tall plants. It wasn’t fun.

It’s time and labor, I know…I know.

How about breeding tall perennials to bloom at a smaller size? Once they are planted, they can grow tall and add glory to any space. Not many new perennials fit this mold.

But they could.

Helianthus x multiflorus ‘Sunshine Daydream’ does. It’s a tall plant, reaching five feet tall each year. The great thing about this new selection is it blooms in a one or two gallon pot at less than two feet tall. It truly is the best of both worlds.

I know there have got to be more breeders working on this.

Echinacea ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Hot Papaya’ from AB-Cultivars, in The Netherlands fit this mold too. These are really nice looking plants in a one gallon. They are bushy, full of blooms and compact, plus they set buds on an 18 inch tall plant. Once they are panted in the garden, they grow to three, yes three feet tall. E-gads, that’s too tall you say?

Plants Nouveau - Echinacea MilkshakeNonsense!

Three feet tall is perfect for a coneflower. That’s normal height for both Echinacea purpurea and E. paradoxa. If they are much shorter, they can’t be planted in the middle of the border, where coneflowers do best. This picture is from Richard Hawke, who says Milkshake has done remarkably well in his trial gardens at The Chicago Botanic Garden.

So, I’ll ask again, “Why are we making everything so dang short?”

We’re ruining garden architecture for the future.

Luckily, no one would make a border simply from new selections, so they’ll surely mix in some taller plants. That is if they buy perennials from places other than big boxes, because lately, the big boxes will only sell perennials that fit into their “mold” and their mold is pretty small. Hostas are the perfect size.

I just hope we don’t look back twenty years from now and regret introducing all of these short plants.

I also hope we keep the tried and true, the wide and tall and the towering perennials as part of the mix…or the landscape will forever be dull and one dimensional.

Happy Weeding!

Angela Treadwell-Palmer

Co-owner Plants Nouveau


  • Reply Maria March 31, 2017 at 11:58 am

    I love this post! Could not agree more. But can I get a recommendation on a nice tall plant that I could plant in a narrow area? I have a thin strip next to my front entryway sidewalk. The sidewalk goes toward my house; on the right is my neighbor’s fence. In between my sidewalk and neighbor’s fence is a very narrow area (about 8″) that I have been trying (and failing) to plant tall flowers. I have tried daisies, gladiolas, and salvia.

    I planted a clematis last year (and got neighbor’s permission), and I am hopeful that it will grow along the fence. The fence is an ugly chain-link fence, so I am doing what I can to beautify the area along that fence! Any other plants I could/should try? I’m in zone 7a.

    • Reply Angela April 14, 2017 at 10:50 am

      Hi Maria,
      There are a few Ilex selections like Sky Pencil, that might give you some year round color.Skinny spaces like that are hard. How about our Schizachyrium ‘Prairie Munchkin’? It grows 3′ tall, but stays 12″ wide. It’s great for poor soils and hot, dry sunny spots too. Good luck with your planting bed.

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