A dotted line of flagstones or a curving ribbon of gravel may be an invitation to get out and enjoy the garden, but too often a well-worn path ends up ringed with bare dirt. There are, however, plants that withstand stomping nearly as well as Astroturf and can blend hardscape elements into their otherwise lush surroundings: tough, low-growing, creeping perennials that will take root almost anywhere. "Put them around patio pavers, at the base of the mailbox, next to the driveway, or around the edge of a pond," says Fran Hopkins, a horticulturist and the founder of Stepables (stepables.com), a grower of creeping perennials. Some are even tough enough to stand in for paved surfaces. "Plant miniature thyme as your patio floor and just add furniture," says Hopkins. "Or park the car on a carpet of miniature brass buttons."
There are plants suitable for moderate to light foot traffic (twice a day to twice a week traipsings) and even heavy foot traffic (three or more times a day). While most grow just grasshopper high, they may spread anywhere from 2 to 12 inches a year, so match the plant to the space at hand. Some varieties, such as ornamental thyme, with dozens of cultivars that flower pink, white, or yellow, come with an added bonus, releasing a scent when stepped on.
Creeping perennials generally like well-drained soil and a 20-20-20 liquid fertilizer during growing season. Many, such as rupturewort and dianthus, are propagated by dividing the root ball. Others multiply every time they're stepped on and a leaf node breaks off, taking root in the soil.
To help green up your gray (or ground-down) spaces, check out our list of recommendations on the following pages.
For Heavy Foot Traffic
Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis)
Rapid-spreading perennial with blue flowers. Works well around roses, decks, patios, and in rock gardens.
County Park (Pratia pedunculata or Laurentia fluviatilis)
Tough, tight, green-leafed creeper with violet blooms. Good
for patios and walkways.
Creeping Thyme (Thymus praecox 'Elfin')
Tightly matted gray-green foliage forming tufts; pink flowers. Drought-tolerant; good between flagstones.
Green Carpet or Rupturewort (Herniaria glabra)
Indestructible evergreen groundcover with white blooms; turns red in winter. Excellent in walkways.
Miniature Thyme (Thymus serpyllum 'Elfin')
Smaller variety of evergreen thyme with gray-green foliage, pink blooms. Takes well to slopes and stone crevices.
Scabwort (Raoulia australis)
Sturdy groundcover mat of diminutive gray-green leaves; yellow blooms. Excellent for dry, problem areas and pathways.
Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)
Hard-working ornamental groundcover with fuzzy gray-green leaves and pink blooms; clusters as it spreads. Excellent on flagstones and pathways.
Miniature Brass Buttons (Leptinella gruveri)
Indestructible carpet of tiny serrated leaves; white flowers. Can even withstand car traffic.
Double Bird's Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus 'Plenus')
Versatile, hard-working fast grower with dark green leaves; yellow blooms.
Irish Moss (Sagina subulata)
Mosslike groundcover that dislikes extremes of wet and dry; white flowers. Flourishes between stones and in rock gardens.
Miniature Daisy (Bellium minutum)
Diminutive spreading daisies on wiry stems. Good between paving stones or in border areas.
Pink Pussy Toes (Antennaria dioica 'Rubra')
Creeping mat of silver-gray leaves; fuzzy pink blooms. Good for rock gardens and paths.
Spicy Orange Thyme (Thymus x 'Spicy Orange')
An airy ornamental with needlelike leaves; orange fragrance; pink flowers. Attracts butterflies.
Stonecrop (Sedum spurium)
Compact creeping succulent; deep purple flowers. A favorite for rock gardens.
White Mazus (Mazus reptans 'Albus')
Low-growing mat of bright green leaves; white blooms. Ideal for rock gardens and between pavers.
Partial/ Full Shade
Baby Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Tender mat of dense, green-and-white leaves; pink flowers.
Creeping Jenny or Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia)
Vigorous, fast-spreading, low-growing mat of bright, shiny green leaves; yellow flowers.
Creeping Speedwell (Veronica repens)
Tough creeper; white flowers. Works well between pavers or in woodland settings.
Miniature Rush (Eleocharis radicans)
Low-growing, tiny grasslike blades; likes wet conditions. Flourishes around ponds.
Miniature Viola (Viola verecunda 'Yakusimana')
Mounds of tight green leaves with numerous purple-and-white blooms.
New Zealand Brass Buttons (Leptinella squalida)
A fern creeper with yellow button flowers; turns bronze in some climates in fall; very soft underfoot. Good around pavers and conifers.
Pixie Carpet (Hypsela reniformis)
Tight green leaves with lavender-and-white blooms. Likes cool, moist conditions, especially around a fountain or between stones.
Variegated Pennywort (Hydrocotyle sibthorpiodes)
Speedy grower; likes wet conditions; white, green, and yellow flowers. Good around ponds or stepping stones.
Where to Find It:
Valleybrook Gardens Ltd.
Little Prince of Oregon
Garden Gate Nursery
Special thanks to: