Please Tread On Them


'Stepable' Plant Varieties Are Colorful, Varied And Thrive On Being Underfoot

July 02, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,

At the place where two gardening admonitions meet - "Keep off the grass" and "Stop and smell the roses"- there are plants that you can step on and find yourself rewarded with a burst of fragrance.

They are "Stepables," and they are ideal for planting around pavers in a path or patio, as ground cover or even as a lawn substitute.

They are the brainchild of Frances Hopkins, owner of Under A Foot Plant Co. in Salem, Ore. At 5 feet 2, she says, she was never going to grow big garden elements, so she focused on short, close-to-the-ground perennials.

"A landscaper came to me and asked for something tough enough to walk on for a project he had," said Hopkins. She offered him red creeping thyme, but he wasn't convinced it was durable enough.

"So I started jumping up and down on the plant, and he shouted, 'They're steppable!' I went out the next day and trademarked the name."

That was in 1999. Since then, Hopkins has signed up regional growers to produce some of the 170 varieties she's developed. Each region has its own climate demands, but each region has a variety of colors and blooms.

And each plant has its own degree of "step-ability." On the back of each plant tag, there is a light, medium or dark footprint to let the purchaser know how much traffic the plant can tolerate.

"We look at it like outdoor carpeting," said Hopkins, who estimates that more than 5 million Stepables were sold last year.

One of Hopkins' growers is Sandy McDougle of Sandy's Plants in Mechanicsville, Va., who is growing 70 varieties. She was sold on Stepables when she planted them at home.

Her husband responded to her request for a path by putting down crushed rock. She hated it.

"I knew if I complained, he would never do anything for me again. So I planted it with Stepables, and it turned out really well," she said.

The plants are colorful, versatile and some put out their tiny blooms for as long as eight months. In planters or under roses or peonies, they can reduce the need for water. Under fences, around ponds or on banks, they can reduce erosion. Some send out runners at such speed that you can cover a significant area in one growing season. And they are ideal for the whimsy of small topiaries.

Different from traditional ground cover, which can grow 12 to 24 inches high, Stepables grow only 2 to 4 inches high. Unlike ground cover such as pachysandra, which can break underfoot, Stepable roots take hold better when the plant is stepped on. Hopkins prefers to call them "creeping perennials."

Isotoma "Blue Star Creeper" is the top-selling variety, which blooms from spring to frost. Pratia angulata "White Star Creeper" puts out a profusion of starry white flowers in spring, followed by globular, reddish purple fruit in autumn, attracting birds.

The colors range from the turquoise of Aceana Blue Haze to the red of Trifolium Bronze Dutch Clover. And the thyme and mint varieties are especially fragrant when ... well, when you step on them.

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