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The Back Of The Border
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


August 12, 2001

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I am not a rock gardener. I have a hard time relating to plants that spend their lives at ankle level, although I must admit to having had the odd flirtation with alpines and being temporarily seduced by succulents. But my saxifrages eventually gave way to veronicas, my geums went to geum heaven (and were not mourned), tall ostrich ferns ousted the maidenhairs and my sweet purple Rhododendron impeditum now lives with someone who enjoys squatting.
Maybe my desire to stand upright while talking to my plants comes from a crotchety lower back. Or maybe it’s just that their merits are more obvious when seen eye-to-eye, as it were.
So if you’re more basketball than marbles, more giraffe than gopher, here are a dozen statuesque suggestions for the back of the border.
  • Aconitum carmichaealii ‘Wilsonii’- All monkshoods are tall but this September variety can reach 6 feet with helmet-like amethyst flowers on rigid stems. Nice in light shade with pink or white Japanese anemones. Another good late one is ‘Arendsii’. All parts of monkshood are poisonous.
  • Artemesia lactiflora - Unlike most other artemesias featuring silver foliage under knee level, this one reaches about 5 feet, with tapering creamy white flower panicles and elegant dark green foliage. Likes moist rich soil and looks lovely behind pink phlox, purple coneflower and blue globe thistle.
  • Aruncus dioicus - Goatsbeard is almost shrubby in appearance, with lots of branching stems that eventually stretch to 4-6 feet on established plants. Fond of sun or part shade in rich, moist soil, it has astilbe-like foliage topped by bold, feathery white plumes in June and July. A truly architectural perennial.
  • Boltonia asteroides - Another late summer perennial, boltonia has masses of tiny white or pale pink daisies atop 4-5 foot stems. Easy to grow in sun or light shade, but often needs support to keep the numerous slender stems from toppling onto lower plants. To keep plants more compact, you can shear the stems back a little at the very top once or twice in spring, stopping before July 1st. The result will be densely branched plants with shorter stems and a slightly later bloom time.
  • Campanula lactiflora - Not exactly a giant at 4 feet, this lovely early-summer perennial is nonetheless the tallest campanula. Pretty, lavender-blue flower panicles top numerous stems that benefit from gentle staking. Easy to grow in sun and rich, moist soil, but be warned: it hates being moved!
  • Crambe cordifolia - This member of the cabbage family has been compared to a 6-foot tall baby’s breath. An airy cloud of tiny white flowers lights up the sunny June garden at peony time, showing best against a dark green background. In Zone 6 and colder, provide a protective winter mulch around its crown, once the ground has frozen.
  • Cimicifuga racemosa - Black snakeroot (also known as bugbane) is one of my favorite perennials. It’ll take full sun if roots stay moist, but is nice in light shade where it’s 6-foot tall ivory bottlebrushes can light up a July garden at night. A colonizer, you’ll find it popping up afield.
  • Delphinium elatum - The classic blue-flowered perennial for early summer. Use lots of manure to enrich the soil, and tie a slender stake discreetly all the way up the flower stalk to prevent toppling in high wind.
  • Filipendula rubra venusta ‘Martha Washington’ - Although not terribly long-blooming, the frothy pink candyfloss flowers of this tall meadowsweet are lovely, especially near a tall astilbe like ‘Tacquetti Superba’, or with crisp Shasta daisies in front. Somewhat invasive in moist soil.
  • Macleaya cordata - At 8 feet, plume poppy makes a strong impact, not so much for its rather innocuous flowers, but for its beautiful foliage.
  • Rudbeckia nitida - This is one of the most elegant yellow daisies. About 5 feet tall, ‘Herbstonne’ has drooping yellow rays around greenish central disks and flowers from mid-summer through early fall.
  • Thalictrum rochebrunianum - If you have a dark green background, the fluffy lavender flower panicles of this refined meadowrue put on a lovely show at about 4-l/2 feet tall. Typical ferny meadowrue foliage in a nice blue-green. Mid to late-summer.

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