Large and plump plants are an increasing trend in home gardens

Large and plump plants are an increasing trend in home gardens

Although landscapes have been fairly buttoned down for the last century or so in terms of plant size, gardens were not always populated primarily by tight little mound-shaped varieties. Historically, they have tended to be more robust affairs.

The average citizen’s 18th- or 19th- century garden was apt to be filled with plants of more ample proportions, for largely practical reasons. Before the lawn mower was invented in 1830 to level off the surrounding field, gardens needed to stand head and shoulders above their scythed or grazed setting. To call a plant “dwarf” in those days was something of an insult, implying that it compared poorly to its bedfellows.

Then somebody shrank the garden. Blame it on the love of lawns, diminishing yard sizes, a desire for a more streamlined aesthetic or the pursuit of an unobstructed view. Regardless of the reason, there was a gradual crusade starting in the mid-20th century to downsize plant dimensions. The shift was grounded in practicality. In terms of freight economics, for example, suppliers can fit larger quantities of small plants in each shipping van.

Now, the trend is inching back toward larger plants. Although transportation issues remain and some plant breeders still strive for smaller varieties, consumers are gravitating toward a beefier look, and a more informal, natural ambiance in their gardens. Larger plants are perfect candidates to screen something best left unseen, such as your neighbor’s shed or your garbage cans. They serve as perennial foundation plantings, standing tall in summer, but opening the view outward in winter. In a modest landscape, it takes fewer plants of hefty dimensions to make a statement, saving gardeners money. In a larger context, small plants are apt to be swallowed up.

The trend toward native plants and the recent movement of converting lawns into gardens and mini-meadows are also feeding into bulkier gardens. Native species tend to be more voluminous than their introduced hybrid counterparts, and gardeners want plants that will make an impression.

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Hans Hansen, director of new plant development at Walters Gardens, a wholesale perennial grower located in Zeeland, Mich., says that larger plants create more impact, especially from the drive-by perspective. “Linear plants give the illusion of larger spaces by drawing the eye upward, and many are more exciting,” he says. And bigger doesn’t have to mean awkward or unsightly; many “graceful” garden favorites such as delphiniums, fennel, gaura and agastache are famed for their tall stature, he added.

Steve Castorani, president of North Creek Nurseries, a wholesale supplier of landscape plugs in southeastern Pennsylvania, has also noticed an increased desire for a “taller, more dynamic landscape,” especially in naturalistic gardens or those serving a specific function such as storm water management or lawn replacement.

For those locations, natives such as Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) are brilliant. Bigger and better cultivars of plants that were downsized are also on the rise, such as a new garden phlox (Phlox paniculata Jeana) that stands 3 to 4 feet tall and draws pollinators. Bee balms (Monarda didyma) are stretching back up with the introduction of Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia and Purple Rooster. There are also several hefty new tickseeds (Coreopsis) available, including Gold Standard, Summer Sunshine and Gilded Lace.

The movement to build better ornamental grasses to accompany these perennials has also gathered steam. North Creek introduced Standing Ovation, a little bluestem that stands tall — 3 to 4 feet — through all four seasons. Golden Sunset Yellow Prairie Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) tops out at 4 to 6 feet and retains its height through the winter.

Retailers complain that plants of ample proportions might not “present well” in containers at the garden center, but Angela Palmer of Plants Nouveau in Mobile, Ala., has a solution. She was trained as a landscape designer before becoming an agent for plant breeders and understands why gardeners are gravitating away from plants shaped like “meatballs.” She urges breeders to work toward options that will shine in containers at the garden center, then grow to a larger stature when planted in the ground.

The Chicago Botanic Garden introduced a false indigo (Baptisia), for example, that embodies this formula. In a container, Baptisia Solar Flare forms a loose dome of blue-green foliage. In the ground, it sends up two-foot spires of glistening, burnished yellow blossoms above the dome. Similarly, the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) known as Black Truffle has dark, chocolate-colored leaves long before 3.5-foot fire engine red flower spikes develop late in the season. Amsonia Blue Behemoth, a new cultivar of another mainstay native, reaches a portly 4 feet tall and is dappled with plentiful clusters of baby blue spring blossoms. It looks like a shrub throughout summer, then in the autumn, it blushes bright yellow before going dormant.

And gardeners aren’t just seeking height; plump plants have also gained traction. Palmer mentioned a lungwort (Pulmonaria) known as Lisa Marie with mammoth 18-inch-long speckled leaves in broad clumps topped by an abundance of flowers.

All of these striking plants give landscape designers plenty of options for creating drama on a grand scale. Nick Fobes, of the Chicago-based landscape architectural firm Hoerr Schaudt, likes to use large plant groupings that are visible from a distance. He layers textures and forms, pairing plants with bodacious, massive leaves with statement shrubs. Bigger might not be everyone’s preference, or it might not work for your available space. But if you want to make a bold statement, it’s good to know that the ingredients are again within easy reach.

Tovah Martin is a gardener and freelance writer in Connecticut. Find her online at