Height Challenged



It’s not that I’m not grateful that my Black Beauty lilies have so outstripped the three-to-six-foot range cited by my reference book that they now hunch over the seven-foot stakes I’ve tied them to. It’s just that I look a little foolish at present for having planted lilium regale behind them: three-and-a-half feet tall in their second year, nowhere near the six feet cited in the same reference as a sure thing. I look even more foolish for planting cimicifuga ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ way in the back row, since they are not even close to the five to seven feet cited in my books and can hardly be glimpsed behind the whole lily show. And the hostas sitting way down at my lilies’ ankles are just embarrassing. My garden now looks like my wedding photos, where the Goodells–six-feet plus and broad-shouldered–meet the Owens clan–everybody under five-feet six, most of them way under and a high percentage of small-boned couch potatoes in the group.

Elsewhere in the garden, I am enraged by a yellow baptisia that has been struggling along for two years at just 18 inches, sitting directly behind a coneflower that has shocked the entire family by growing as tall as my ten year-olds. On the other hand, I have a pair of purple and yellow baptisias that are as tall as my echinacea–and are blocking my view of one of my tree peonies, which despite dozens of books on my shelves that reliably inform me that the plant will reach five feet, has not yet heard the news. My tree peonies spread out at around two feet.

In theory, my many height-related problems are all correctable with a shovel. However, this kind of mass transplantation is best done in spring in my part of the world. Right now it’s too hot. Later in fall, the plants won’t have enough time to root in before the frost shoves them out of the ground.

By spring, however, I’ll have forgotten all about what’s blocking my view of what. And even if I do remember, I’m sure that as soon as I move the laggards, they’ll discover some hidden vigor and triple in size, forcing me to do the whole thing over again.

It often seems to me that perennial gardens have one very important purpose: making the gardener feel like an ass.


  1. I garden in approximately your neck of the woods (West Hebron), and I figure that I can move things around if (1) I’m willing to endure their looking wilty for a week or so and (2) I move them with a big enough shovelful of soil around them to minimize the shock. Of course, that’s only for emergency mid-summer situations (currently I have a juvenile Panicum virgatum “Shenandoah” that is floudering behind a much larger baptisia; it’s on the docket for the weekend). I’ve got some big plant-moving plans slated for early September, which I figure will give the moved ones plenty of time to settle in before winter.

    When I was younger, I moved things around willy-nilly. I lost that fearlessness somewhere along the line, but I’m trying to reagain it in my 40s!

  2. I am laughing, but I can agree with you. Nature has a way of making herself known. Right now she is sending moles to make create tunnels and to destroy hostas and daylilies…Gardening can be so much fun….

  3. We have all been in this position. At least you can look up into the blooms of the lilies. LOL at the ‘wedding photo’ comment. My 6’3″ son married a 4’11” daughter in law. The wedding photos look just as you described. Man plans, nature laughs.

  4. Well, I feel better now about the supposedly 18-24″ cosmos which are at least 48″ and completely obscuring a daylily, liatris and tradescantia. The only way I can see them is to go off to one side and peek!

    I just know next year, when I put them in the back of another bed, they will then be the stated 18-24″ and be obscured by whatever is in front!

  5. Gosh, the only way I am ever able to make height work in the perennial beds is to crowd the hell out of things and let them duke it out. That only works for a year or so then everyone is so root-bound that they’re all gasping for nutrients…or so I imagine. I swear though the best places I have ever gotten height to work were places I couldn’t see them: behind the garage in the alley, say, or behind a barn I don’t normally amble around. But anywhere I have intentionally thought I was controlling things? Exactly what happened with your lilies and coneflower!

    That said, I am a huge fan of my hedge clippers to even things out. Wouldn’t work with those lilies though.

  6. But perennials come back… and come back…and come back… That’s important for us lazy gardeners:)

    Easy solution to height problems? Put paths on both sides of beds:)

  7. I have had similar experiences. In my case, often it’s the result of growing native wildflowers in fairly rich garden soil. I remember some boltonia growing up to 6′. I told my wife that the catalogue said they were only supposed to grow 2-4′. Her response: “Are you sure they know that?”

  8. You know, when you move those lilies they’ll reach their advertised height just to spite you. Then you’ll have to move them all over again.

    Like Jared, I’ll spontaneously move something without consideration to conditions – sometimes all is well and sometimes the plants will pout for a while, but I rarely lose any. My husband tells me over and over again, “they’re plants, not furniture”.

    And your tree peony? Must be related to mine which stands at 30″ and reliably gives me two blooms a year. For seven years now. Grrr.

  9. Leslie Woodriff, the hybridizer of that ‘Black Beauty’ lily, is surely smiling out there somewhere. I can’t remember if I told this story in Flower Confidential or not–and I’m too lazy to go look it up–but he brought a single stalk of ‘Black Beauty’ on board a plane in the fifties to take it to the North American Lily Society show. The pilot said he couldn’t bring that crazy thing on the plane, a struggle ensued, and the pilot grabbed it and threw it on the runway. Woodriff salvaged what he could of it and still managed to win a medal with what remained. It is a crazy thing, almost like a lily shrub, when it’s allowed to reach its full potential.

  10. Black Beauty is a cheap hussy. Very affordable and after seeing your photo I’m searching my garden for a good place to plant a grouping of them. Your garden pic looks grand!

  11. Ha, Amy! Glad Leslie won that fistfight!

    I have loads of spectacular lilies in my garden–the Casa Blancas in front are no slouches–but Black Beauty is the most spectacular, in part because of its unusual color: peachy-white with a dark red-brown. There is not a hint of pink in it.

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