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Treadwells, Stepables and Perennial Ground Covers in General

Sedum surrounds stepping stones at a private garden in Saint Louis

There are some places that lawn grasses just don’t do well in.  If you’ve planted (and replanted, and maybe replanted again) grass into an area with little success, you might consider a perennial ground cover.  There are perennials for dry sunny areas, including thyme and sedum; dry shady areas (barrenwort), and plenty for just average sun and soils–maybe mazus.

Some premium groundcovers like the barrenwort are available only in larger pots; and of course we have the standard pachysandra and liriope for large scale plantings in the shade.  If you want to play around a little, we offer  two lines of perennial ground covers–Stepables and Treadwells–they offer lots of possibilities to end the spotty lawn blues; especially for small scale plantings.

My view on perennial ground covers is that they are going to be best in limited traffic areas—between flagstones, in rock walls, in containers, but not where the kids are playing football every weekend.  Try them in a limited area to start, and see how you like them. You can always expand the area later on if you are happy with the results. Heck, they’re ground covers–you may be able to dig out divots and expand the area from your own initial planting after the first season.  Remember that especially in the first season, they will need to be weeded and watered so that they establish and spread.

Mazus at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Saint Louis


Also consider that if they are really happy, many ground covers can be very aggressive and spread into lawns and flower beds.  Another reason to try a dozen in a limited area to see how they perform over the season before ripping up the entire lawn.  Ajuga and lysimachia, for example are notorious for moving into lawns and also are on lists of invasive species.

Ajuga and sedum between stepping stones at a private garden in Saint Louis

I have seen some terrific  plantings of Stepables and Treadwells, and when done well, they definitely are more interesting than turfgrass.  They are especially nice when setting off a bench, birdbath, statuary or some other garden fixture for example.  Remember that even shade-tolerant ground covers need light to live and grow thickly.  You are never going to get a lush ground cover under a spruce or pine tree that casts a year round, dense shadow.

Remember, too, that the ground covers can be used in your mixed container plantings.  Mixed containers need elements: a “Thriller”—the focal point, often with a vertical aspect;  a “Filler”, something for the mid-level; and a “Spiller,” to cascade over the edge of the pot.  Successful container plantings often resemble exuberant raised fountains, with the thriller being the jet of water; the filler the area where the water splashes to the container; and the spiller being the water cascading down the sides.

Shady groundcovers: woodland creeping phlox and Epimedium at the author’s home

Many of the ground covers, like the above mentioned lysimachia (moneywort), English Ivy (a container is the only place it should be planted), wirevine (Muhlenbeckia), or mazus being types that you might try as “spillers.”

In addition to the Treadwells and Stepables, we have other ground covers available periodically, including barrenwort (Epimedium) and hayscented fern for example; plants  that for one reason or another (either cost or production issues)  keep them from being included in the above programs.

Behnke’s also has the standard ground covers, the usual boring liriope, pachysandra and vinca. So boring, we relegate them to the woody plants department instead of perennials.  We have a mystique to protect, after all.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. For the difficult spots under the Spruce or Pine try out an Epimedium (common name barrenwort) of some sort for ground cover. Not to be walked on, well you can if you want but it will damage the plant. They are great for dry shade and their roots grow strong so the trees don’t steal all of their water source.

  2. Great advice on the Epimedium. Starts out slow but not aggressive and long-lived. I have some patches that are 25 years old, under oaks.
    Here in Maryland, they are evergreen but the foliage burns some over the winter. Late in March I cut them to the ground with a battery powered hedge shear, which gives me a nice show from the flowers in mid-April. The foliage fills in right after bloom.

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