The wonders DOWN UNDER
These top picks for walking on are guaranteed to put a little bounce in your step.
LOW CREEPING FLOWERS HAVE LONG BEEN USED TO SOFTEN THE HARD EDGES OF STONE PATHWAYS, BUT THESE SAME PLANTS ARE OFTEN BADLY DAMAGED
when a careless visitor’s size-nines give them an accidental squash. But never mind: There’s a range of groundcover plants that can put up with a little foot traffic, be it once a week or several times a day. And if you’re fed up with fescues and want to change up your lawn, these groundcovers can serve double-duty as turfgrass alternatives – providing you don’t plan on hosting any weekend rugby matches. Tough low-growing perennials are easy to tuck between walkway pavers, and if you want a traditional thyme or chamomile lawn, it’s best to switch over from turf to flowers in sections. We’ve selected our picks based on three categories: light traffic areas where plants tolerate being stepped on once or twice a week, moderate traffic areas where one or two times a day is usual and heavy traffic areas where plants may be trodden on up to four times a day.
Native to the Carpathian Mountains in Central Europe, pussytoes are drought tolerant once established and grow best in gritty, fast-draining soil in a full sun location. Spreading 30-centimetre-wide “mats” bear four-centimetre-tall leaves that are silvery grey-green and soft to the touch. In early summer, pussytoes produce corymbs of everlasting white flowers that can be cut for dried arrangements. Deer-resistant pussytoes spread by stolons; divide mature clumps in spring. Hardy to Zone 3 and tolerant of moderate foot traffic, they look best when planted between pavers or as a turfgrass alternative (spent flowers can be mowed back). Where foot traffic is light, and taller pink flowers are preferred, our native rosy pussytoes (A. rosea, Zone 2) fit the bill nicely.
(chamaemelum nobile AND cvs.)
Ideal as a turfgrass substitute or between flagstones, Roman chamomile grows 10 centimetres tall by 30 centimetres wide and is hardy to Zone 5. Tolerant of moderate foot traffic, it roots where its stems touch soil; divide sprawling clumps in spring or early autumn. In summer, its aromatic thread-like leaves give way to “daisy” flowers, which can be dried for chamomile tea; after flowering, plants should be mowed back to six centimetres to maintain a dense, compact habit.
Site deer-resistant Roman chamomile in a full sun to part shade location in average, well-drained garden soil; ‘Flore Pleno’ has double flowers while non-flowering ‘Treneague’ (Zone 6) is perfect for a classic chamomile lawn.
(lotus corniculatus AND cvs.)
A native of Eurasia – and not to be confused with water lotus (Nelumbo spp.) – bird’s-foot trefoil requires a sunny site in poor to average garden loam that drains well. A member of the Fabaceae (Pea) family, its roots fix atmospheric nitrogen, and farmers often use it as a green manure (like alfalfa or clover) to improve soil tilth and fertility. Hardy to Zone 3 and tolerant of heavy foot traffic, bird’s-foot trefoil grows eight centimetres tall by 50 centimetres wide; large clumps can be divided in spring or early autumn. From late spring to summer, it produces racemes of scented bright yellow flowers that attract bees and butterflies; double-flowered ‘Plenus’ is especially choice.
Creeping mazus forms a 40-centimetrewide mat of deep green foliage adorned from late spring to summer with racemes of eight-centimetre-tall lavender-blue flowers. Hardy to Zone 5, it prefers a full sun to part shade location in moist (not waterlogged) soil that drains efficiently. Native to the Himalayas and widely grown as a groundcover in Europe, Mazus reptans is tolerant of moderate foot traffic and can be divided before or after flowering. As perennial expert Dr. Allan Armitage writes, “I like these plants growing in and around my flagstone walk; not quite as tough as turf, but you don’t have to get the Lawn-boy out either.” M. r. ‘Albus’ bears white flowers.
DWARF ALPINE POTENTILLA
(potentilla neumanniana ‘NANA’)
Native to Europe and hardy to Zone 4, deer-resistant dwarf alpine potentilla grows eight centimetres tall by 25 centimetres wide. Like strawberries, vigorous ‘Nana’ spreads by runners, which can either be removed or encouraged depending on the area to be covered. Bearing cymes of two-centimetre-wide bright yellow flowers from late spring to midsummer and tolerant of heavy foot traffic, its shiny green leaves give off a spicy scent when walked on. Dwarf alpine potentilla can be planted between pavers or used as a turfgrass substitute; it prefers welldrained garden loam in a full sun to part shade location. Plants may be mowed back to six centimetres after flowering to encourage dense growth.
(thymus serpyllum AND cvs.)
All but the shrubby, upright forms of thyme are suitable for planting between flagstones or en masse as a thyme lawn, yet deer-resistant Eurasian Thymus serpyllum (a.k.a. wild thyme, Zone 4) tolerates moderate foot traffic better than the culinary types (T. vulgaris cvs.). Prized by butterflies and honeybees, most thyme cultivars bear nectar-rich pink or purple blooms from early to late summer. All thymes prefer a full sun location in average garden loam that drains fast; wet soils cause rot. Rejuvenate mature plants by pruning out the oldest, woodiest stems after flowering. We especially love the extra low-growing mother-ofthymes with pink flowers, such as the tiny leaved aromatic ‘Elfin’ and ‘Minor’ (both 3 x 15 centimetres).