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Oh, my aching muscles...

Creeping Perennials are Ornamental, Low-Maintenance Substitutes for Traditional Turf Lawns

By Sally Credille, Leslie Kirk and Don Eberly

A lush, green lawn is something to be proud of, but the challenges of maintaining such a lawn can be tough for the greenest thumb. Where traditional turf fails in the landscape, creeping perennials are ornamental and functional alternatives. “Almost every homeowner has an area in the landscape where grass just won’t grow,” says Frances Hopkins, founder and CEO of Under A Foot Plant Company. “Creeping perennials provide the solution for these problem areas.”

Creeping perennials should not be likened to groundcovers, though it is easy to confuse the two. “The difference is definitive,” Hopkins says. “Groundcovers grow much larger at 12 to 24 inches and do not make for a pleasant walking surface. Creepers will grow around two to four inches tall, creating a pleasant, low visual plane typically associated with a lawn—plus they are sturdy enough to handle foot traffic.”

“Creeping perennials have thousands of tiny root nodes that firmly grasp the soil,” Hopkins says. “As often as you step on them with the soles of your feet, they will vigorously take root; the more they are walked on, the faster they will creep across the landscape space.”

 Picking a Creeper

First, it’s important to decide how you are going to use the planted area. “Foot traffic and function are among the most important considerations when selecting lawn replacement alternatives,” Hopkins says. This is why she has categorized Stepables perennials into three usage groups:  for light, moderate and heavy foot traffic areas. Light foot traffic means someone will be walking on the creeping perennials one to two times per week; moderate is one to two times per day, and heavy is three or more times per day. A good rule of thumb is the denser the plant is, the more traffic it will take.

To make the switch from grass to creeping perennials, take the time to assess the expected levels of foot traffic. Curb appeal is another important consideration related to improving a home’s landscape and overall appearance. “Think about the elements of décor—brick, slate, concrete, paint color, and color scheme,” Hopkins says. “Make plant choices that work well with the surroundings.”

With these considerations in mind, the next step is choosing the right plants for the environmental conditions. Hopkins says the most important thing to look for is sun to shade ratio and soil type. Take a soil sample to a local garden center for analysis, where employees can suggest a soil amendment that will ensure adequate moisture retention AND drainage. Proper drainage provides adequate water for a plant’s needs, while permitting excess water to flow away from the plant’s roots. Excess soil moisture can cause creeping perennials to suffer from rot or other ailments.

The Turf Transition: Planning

Once you choose the proper plant for the area, make sure it is available, in the quantities you need, from the local garden center. Then, determine the density of the plants. Spacing them 12 inches apart, for example, will require fewer plants—but they may take a year or more to fill in. Plus, you will need to weed in between the plants until they do. Spacing plants just two inches apart will require more plants and will cost more. So, deciding how densely to plant creeping perennials depends on how much money is in the budget and if instant gratification is a priority.

The next step is removing the sod and tilling and amending the soil with the amendments chosen to enhance drainage. Once the soil is prepared, consider placing a slow-release fertilizer at root level. “Do not place fertilizer directly on the plant because this will burn the foliage,” Hopkins says. To avoid having to do a lot of hand weeding, homeowners may opt to apply a ground cloth or mulch, though creeping perennials naturally inhibit weeds. For best results, plant creeping perennials even with or just above the soil line, but never below. Planting below the soil line can cause water to collect around the crown of the plants which will cause them to rot, Hopkins says.

The final step is just that—gently step on each plant to set it firmly in place. “Believe it or not, gently stepping on each new plant brings the roots into contact with the soil. In a few days, little roots will emerge from the nodes,” Hopkins says. The more care that is put into installing creeping perennials, the more they will pay off in the end with the long-term benefit of a beautiful, functional landscape with far less maintenance and more time to simply enjoy it.  NWGN

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