A palette of garden grasses

Ornamental grasses add movement to otherwise ordinary landscaping.

Photo by David McDonald
GRACEFUL: In the West Seattle garden of Steven Antonow, ornamental grass is grouped with similar and different plants to create echoes and star bursts of color and form.

Taking that first step in landscaping with ornamental grasses is kind of like going barefoot.

Maybe you’re a little timid at first. You may stumble on a few rough patches at the outset. But you know that once you sally forward, the rewards of such close encounters of the grass kind are nearly boundless.

Steven Antonow, an extremely savvy plantsman, was renowned for the garden compositions in his Seattle garden. Here’s how he showed grasses to their best advantage in both comparative and contrasting modes – or echoes and star bursts.

The ornamental grass here is purple maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’), which has a graceful, fairly upright silhouette.

The blue-gray Melianthus fronds in the background to the left are the doppelgänger for the grass.

The ‘Autumn Joy’ Sedum in front and the tall black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia ‘Herbstonne’) in the background are the little explosions.

Lesson learned: When gardening with grasses, integrate a similar form and then give the scene a visual blast or two of something strikingly dissimilar. Russian sage, surprise lilies, or purple Angelica might be similar companions.

Then add, discordantly, something like dahlias, ‘Star of Persia’ ornamental onion, or ‘Lime Green’ flowering tobacco.

An aside: The variety of Melianthis pictured here was named ‘Antonow’s Blue’ by plant explorer Dan Hinkley for its striking color. It was discovered not in the highlands of China, but in this very garden.

Besides its impressive architectural form, it has an odd scent. Rub your fingers on the leaves and you smell ... peanut butter.

There is, however, one thing a photo can’t capture about the appeal of ornamental grasses. They are lithe and lank, allowing themselves to bend and billow in the wind. They tumble out of their beds. They mingle with present company. They shoot toward the moon.

In other words: They give movement to your garden. Toss off your shoes and join them.

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