"Fences make good neighbors," insists the rural neighbor whose tradition is questioned by the protagonist/narrator in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” Modern urban and suburban fences, especially in front yards, are more decorative than practical, and many serve as backdrops for perennial borders. Liatris (Liatris spp.) with species hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 3 to zone 9, can provide a striking accent against your fence.
Variously called blazing star or gay feather with modifiers such as rough, tall, or spike, one or more species of the genus Liatris are native to just about every region of eastern North America and the Great Plains. The plant is a member of the aster family and grows from corms. Feathery spikes of purple, white or mauve flowers form atop stalks 1 1/2 to 4 feet tall with grass-like leaves. Blazing star (Liatris spicata), hardy from USDA zone 3 through 9, is commonly found in garden centers, catalogs and native plant distributors. Drought-tolerant, woodland and wetland cultivars for sunny through partly shaded exposures guarantee a plant for almost any garden.
Borders planted along fences soften the edge defined by the fence and the back of the border, nearest the fence, gives you a great place to put tall, dramatic plants. Fences, as Robert Frost's protagonist noted, albeit in a metaphorical sense, also can present problems. If the fence has posts sunk in concrete, leaching can make the surrounding soil more alkaline than the rest of the border. A solid stockade fence reflects heat, making its own little heat island that dries soil and broils the backsides of plants. Split-rail fences allow plants to grow through openings and drop seeds or runners in the neighbor’s yard. Or a fence might sit along a bed of gravel or fill-soil hidden from the gardener by a few inches of sod.
Liatris meets many of the requirements of a fence flower. For a north and south facing stockage fence, choose cultivars that are drought and heat-resistant for southern exposure and shade-tolerant plants for northern exposure. Liatris grows up to 4 feet tall, a good height to stand against a fence. Its flower spikes grow to 20 inches tall, enough height to stand out against any foliage. Plants contribute green foliage as spring and early summer plants bloom and bloom from July through September when many perennials take time off. Their mauve tones are easy to match with chrysanthemums (Dendranthema spp.), hardy from USDA zones 5 through 9, and dahlias (Dahlia spp.), hardy from USDA zones 7 through 10, both of which are often planted as annuals in drifts along the front of borders.
Liatris thrives on neglect and tolerates slight alkalinity in soil, two characteristics that make its varieties suitable backbenchers in a border. Native to much of the United States, Liatris reproduces easily by seed or division answering one hope of perennial gardeners, who know the price of nursery-raised stock. The plants are not greedy, however, and don’t become invasive. They are also compact, an advantage when they’re planted against picket or split-rail fences that border a sidewalk.