Tall Garden Plants

Vertical plants add visual garden excitement

By Steve Piskor ©2014
Penn State Master Gardener &
Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist


Gardeners often choose plants based on flower or foliage color. They may envision placing plants in a garden to create a pretty picture. But plants are three-dimensional. Width and depth give a plant its horizontal interest, while height gives it vertical interest. To add visual excitement to a garden, plants of various heights should always be part of the mix. Taller plants create drama in the garden.

Trees and shrubs represent the “bones” of the garden, providing a living structure all four seasons of the year. However, during the growing season, many shrubs lose their pizzazz. For example, when the yellow flowers of forsythia fade in the spring, the shrub becomes an unexciting green lump. Taller perennials can provide the needed visual accent.

Garden grass
Ornamental Grass

Perennials that reach 3 feet or more in height include grasses, ferns, herbs and other herbaceous ornamental plants. These are soft-tissue, or non-woody, plants that generally die back to the ground during the winter season. During the growing season, these plants add interesting form, texture and color once most of the trees and shrubs have flowered.


Perennials have a range of bloom times, allowing a garden to change color throughout the season. Think of the many gardens in our area whose entire moment of glory comprises rhododendron flowers in spring. This may be followed by a planting of geraniums, dusty miller and petunias in the summer if the gardener is especially motivated.

Red GeraniumDusty Miller

The following list should give a gardener some idea of the diversity and sizes that are available. All of those listed below are deer-resistant:


Arundo donax ‘‍Peppermint Stick’‍ – If one is looking for a very tall grass that can act as a privacy screen or for a tall specimen in a mixed border, this is the plant. It can grow 7 to 12 feet high and 5 to 8 feet wide. The wide, strappy leaves are colored with cream, sage green and dark green stripes; purplish-brown plumes appear in late summer. Grow in average, well-drained soil in full sun (for best performance). This cultivar in not considered to be invasive.

Eupatorium fortunei ‘‍Pink Frost’‍ – an unusual Joe-Pye weed with strongly toothed foliage that is green with a creamy yellow edge. In late summer, small heads of rich pink flowers appear. Grows to 3 feet tall and wide. Does well in average, moist, well-drained soil in full sun. Butterflies love the flowers.

Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘‍Firetail’‍ – an upright perennial that forms dense, bushy, slowly spreading clumps, growing 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. The dark green, arrow-shaped leaves are topped with crimson blossoms up to 6 inches long. It has a very long blooming period, starting in the summer. This persicaria is considered to be a vigorous but noninvasive perennial. Grow it in average, well-drained soil in full sun.

Salvia uliginosa – This salvia forms an airy clump that can grow to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide. In late summer, gorgeous azure-blue flowers with white highlights top the plant. Grow in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. This plant is ideal for the back of a sunny border and attacts butterflies.

Vernonia angustifolia ‘‍Plum Peachy’ – Also called narrow-leaf ironweed, it grows 3 to 4 feet tall with an equal spread. In late summer, the narrow green leaves are topped with 8-inch-wide branched, airy flower heads of dark purple. Grow in average, well-drained soil in full sun. It is a nice, late-blooming perennial for a sunny border.

Veronicastrum virginicum ‘‍Lavender Towers’‍ – This regal perennial grows 4 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Grow in moist, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. In summer, the whorled green foliage is topped with long spikes of pale purple flowers for an extended period of time. Veronicastrum adds a nice vertical structure to the garden.


Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ – Also called bugbane, this beautiful perennial has deep purple-black foliage. In early fall, fragrant cream-colored bottlebrush flowers form on tall, wand-like stems. The plant can reach a height of 3 feet or more with a similar spread. Grow in moist, organically rich soil in partial shade. An underplanting of a groundcover with yellow/gold foliage will add pizzazz to the dark foliage. 

Aruncus dioicus var. kamtschaticus – This goatsbeard is a native of Japan. It produces a stalk of pinnate foliage topped with wispy, white, astilbe-like flower plumes in the summer. The plant can reach a height of 4 feet or more with a similar spread. It does well in partial shade in a moist, well-drained woodland environment. 

Dryopteris x australis – Also known as dixie wood fern, it has sturdy, coarse fronds that form a broad clump with an upright habit. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall with a 2- to 3-foot spread. Grow in moist, organically rich soil. Makes an excellent backdrop for other shade-loving plants.

Ligularia przewalskii – This perennial forms a large clump of palm-like foliage that is topped with dark purple stems bearing golden-yellow blooms in the summer. It can reach a height of 4 to 6 feet with a spread of 2 to 3 feet. Grow in partial shade in a constantly moist, organically rich soil. Provides a stunning effect when clustered in groups of three or five. 

Polygonatum commutatum – Also known as giant Solomon’s seal, it grows 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. Grow in average, moist, well-drained soil in part to full shade. In spring, bell-shaped, greenish-white flowers dangle from underneath the arching stems. This plant slowly spreads by rhizomes to form colonies. A wonderful perennial for a woodland garden. 

Rodgersia aesculifolia – This large perennial grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. It has palmate, wrinkled leaves that can be 2 feet wide. In mid-summer, 2-foot-long, upright flower spikes form with white or pink florets. Grow in humus-rich, consistently moist soil in partial shade. A great perennial for a moist, woodland area. 


Garden Speak

Choice Shrubs

Some newer Hydrangea varieties


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