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Gardening on a Windy Site: Best Plants and Practices

Wind can be a problem in gardens because it can dry out the soil, break delicate plants and, if consistent, stunt growth or produce deformed, leaning, lopsided shapes. A garden open to frequent breezes presents a unique advantage, however. It’s the chance to add motion via flexible plants that can cope with wind in a very graceful way.

Movement is an important garden element because it calls attention. The fluttering or swaying of leaves and stems catch the eye and cause one to focus in on that area of the garden. Certain plants add sound as they move, too.

Flexible plants provide flexibility in placement. These tall but wispy plants can be placed toward the front of the bed or border without the fear that they’ll block views of smaller plants behind them. In fact, this placement adds mystery to the scene as we catches glimpses of other plants each time the foreground plant moves. Indeed, many plants that add motion to the garden are also lauded as “see-through plants” by garden designers.

Choosing and using plants that sway

The best choices will be tall, because they can be caught by the wind and they will give the biggest movement. Good options typically have tall, thin, flexible flowering stems extending from a ground-hugging clump of foliage. This low growth gives the plant a sturdy base that the wind does not affect.

When adding movement to your garden with plants, use only one or two kinds in an area, especially when placing them in front of shorter plants. Otherwise they may compete for visual attention or make the garden look cluttered and tangled. If possible, leave your swaying plants standing through the fall and winter so they can continue to add interest and motion throughout those seasons. Often these tall-stemmed plants will also provide seeds for small birds like American goldfinches, which provide even further color and movement to the garden as they alight upon the swaying stems of black-eyed Susans, for instance. 

Outwitting the wind

You can make certain plants less susceptible to wind damage by performing the same technique that’s used to avoid the need to stake them. “The Chelsea chop,” so named because it’s done just after the Chelsea Flower Show in England, is an appropriate strategy for tall sedums, border phlox, coneflowers, tickseed and goldenrod, to name a few. Simply cut a third to a half of each stem off in late spring. The plants will flower later, but they’ll also remain shorter and bushier, with more flower buds to boot. If the Chelsea chop seems a bit drastic, you might try it on just a few plants within a grouping this year, to see how they do, or try it just on those plants that stand in windy spots.

Another way to beat the wind is to block it with sturdy fencing or a hedge. To determine how much space a structure, tree or shrub protects, multiply its height by two and then picture that measurement stretching out from the base of the windbreak. Anything planted within that limit will be protected from the wind. Junipers, pines and spruces can be effective and durable choices for an evergreen windbreak, while shrubby dogwoods, native cherries, crabapples, serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) and elderberries (Sambucus) are some options for a deciduous windbreak of small trees and large shrubs.

Shrubs and mounding perennials offer another solution to wind that can be a very effective design element. Just as you might train a climbing rose or clematis to grow through a shrub, rather than using a trellis or other conventional support, you can plant delicate, tall-stemmed flowering perennials or annuals where they will grow through sturdier plants. For example, plant alliums beneath peonies so that their stems will thread up through the peony foliage, or scatter tall-stemmed coneflowers in a sea of ornamental grasses so that their blossoms will ride the waves when the wind blows.

6 plants for breezy spots

1. New York ironweed

Vernonia noveboracensis. Native to much of eastern North America, this species of ironweed can grow up to seven feet tall. In gardens, though, a size of four to six feet is more typical. It grows as a clump of stems lined with long, narrow leaves and topped with clusters of tiny, vivid purple flowers in late summer. Though the stems are thick and sturdy, they will sway in the wind. New York ironweed grows in moist thickets, marshes and streambanks in the wild, so allow it plenty of water in the garden. Full sun. USDA Zones 5–8.

New York ironweed

New York ironweed

2. Beardstongue

Penstemon. The genus Penstemon includes dozens of species native to various parts of North America, as well as numerous selections bred for gardens. For the most part they’re drought-tolerant perennials, with many hailing from the western United States. Beardstongues form a basal rosette of leaves, from which rise tall, hollow stems bearing tubular flowers. Sizes vary, but tall species include P. palmeri (three to six feet), P. parryi (three to four feet) and P. spectabilis (four to five feet). Hardiness varies across species, too, but a penstemon can be found for nearly every zone. Good drainage is a must.

Penstemon palmeri

Penstemon palmeri

3. Ornamental grasses

Ornamental grasses make up a huge category of garden plants, with species and cultivars to suit any site. Grasses are often lauded for their ease of care, fine texture, upright or mounded habit, fall color and winter interest. Add graceful motion to that list! Tall varieties are particularly useful in breezy spots where they can bend and rustle. ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis xacutiflora 'Karl Foerster’) is one popular option, or try a native species like switch grass (Panicum virgatum) and its many colorful selections.

'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass

'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass

4. Lindheimer’s beeblossom

Gaura lindheimeri. Also called white gaura and butterfly gaura, this plant is a perennial wildflower native to prairies, pond edges and pinelands of Louisiana and Texas. It forms a basal rosette of foliage from which come tall, thin stems of delicate flowers. There are a number of named cultivars of this graceful perennial, including ‘Whirling Butterflies’, ‘Siskiyou Pink’, ‘The Bride’, ‘Pink Cloud’ and ‘Summer Breeze’, one of the tallest at four feet. Generally, they all like lean soil, good drainage and sun and they can take winters as cold as those in Zone 5 or 6.

Lindheimer's beeblossom

Lindheimer's beeblossom

5. Angel’s fishing rod

Dierama. If ever there was a plant with a perfectly descriptive common name, it’s the genus Dierama, known as angel’s fishing rod and fairy wand flower. These grassy plants from South Africa bear bell-shape pink flowers that dangle from stems as tall as four to five feet. Dieramas need good drainage and full sun. They are typically hardy to Zone 7, but in colder areas they can be grown in containers and then stored dormant in a cool, dry indoor space. They grow from bulb-like corms.

Dierama igneum

Dierama igneum

6. False indigo

Baptisia australis. Because of its size and shape, false indigo seems more like a shrub than a perennial—at least in summer, since by winter it has died back to the ground. Its bulky growth habit may make it a surprising choice for a breezy spot; at first glance it makes a better door than a window. Yet it will really move with the air, with stems swaying and clean blue-green eucalyptus-like leaves fluttering. Fall winds will make its black seed pods rattle. This eastern-US native takes full sun or part shade and puts up with drought once it is established. Zones 3–9.

False indigo

False indigo

Ironweed credit: rockerBOO/CC BY-SA 2.0

Penstemon credit: Jeff Moser/CC BY-SA 2.0

Reed grass credit: daryl_mitchell/CC BY-SA 2.0

Guara credit: Anne Reeves/CC BY-SA 2.0

Dierama credit: organum/CC BY-SA 2.0

Baptisia credit: Sarah J. Poe/CC BY-SA 2.0