By Don Eberly and Jennifer Polanz
Senior landscape designer Fred Southard loves incorporating groundcovers and creeping perennials into his commercial and residential landscape projects to reduce noise and maintenance while increasing his customers’ satisfaction.
According to Southard, who works for Green Thumb Landscaping and Maintenance in Salem, Ore., these options reduce the number of annual maintenance visits from 38 with turf-only projects to 12. “The more urban the area, the more this sort of thing comes into play,” he said. “Ultimately, it requires less maintenance and it is less noisy for the site owners.”
Groundcovers and creeping perennials also give a different feel for most any project, changing the height of the landscape and providing more range in hard-to-grow areas. “They can be used in conjunction with turf,” he added. “Creeping perennials also can be used with hardscapes, and provide a much broader palette of texture, color and fragrance.”
Frances Hopkins, founder and CEO of Under A Foot Plant Co., which founded the Stepables line of creeping perennials, said groundcovers and creeping perennials are two different types of plants. Groundcovers typically grow between 12 to 24 inches and do not make for a pleasant walking surface. Creeping perennials, on the other hand, grow to between 2 and 4 inches and can be used around and on pathways and entrances to create a low visual plane typically associated with lawns or turf spaces.
“In addition, creeping perennials are sturdy enough to handle foot traffic,” she explained. “Creeping perennials have thousands of tiny compact root nodes that firmly grasp the soil. As often as you step on them, they will vigorously take root; the more they are walked on, the faster they will creep across the landscape space.”
Initially, though, the cost of using creeping perennials is slightly more. Southard estimates it at about approximately 15 percent more to install groundcovers and creeping perennials, but he has found the site owners recoup that cost with 20 percent less spent in maintenance over the life of the project.
Right plant, right place
For Southard, only 20 percent of his business is commercial — but it accounts for 65 percent of his revenue. So those projects, while limited, are extremely important for the bottom line. He does what he can to make them look perfect, and that includes choosing the ideal plant for each spot. Sometimes that means turf, and sometimes that means a groundcover or creeper.
“I use a lot of groundcovers in front of commercial buildings,” he explained. “The small detail, under 4-inch (plants) are the ones where find you a much broader palette.”
He has options for what he calls an “institutional” groundcover — one that fills in so the ground is completely covered in three years. These are midsize and up to 15-inch groundcovers.
But for entryways, where the plants get noticed far more, he opts for the smaller creeping perennials that attract attention. These include varieties like Elfin thyme, Woolly thyme, dwarf mondo grass for shaded areas, as well as several mosses.
Southard doesn’t just use the smaller varieties for commercial projects, though. He also utilizes them in his residential work, especially in the entryways when the entrance is set back a bit and sees transition from sun to shade. According to Southard, customers like the foliage and bloom options as they serve both form and function purposes.
In the Willamette Valley, where Southard does many of his residential jobs, the lots vary from 3,000 square feet up to 35,000 square feet or more. Once again, the right plant in the right place is the key to an effective landscape project.
“I use an integrated approach,” he said. “If it is in the outlying areas, I switch from using perennial rye grass to turf-type tall fescue to reduce water use by 30 percent and fertilizer by 50 percent. It’s a coarser-bladed, clumping-style grass. I’ll use a combination of turf-type tall fescue; then, closer to the house, I might use bigger types of groundcovers.”
He said he fills in tighter spaces with various creepers to achieve specific style preferences. From there, he often creates beds and borders using creeping perennials as opposed to simply sticking to taller perennial plantings.
In suburban and urban settings, where houses are just feet apart from each other and the chances for dead spots are greater, there is the option of using creepers for the entire lot.
“On either side of a house, it can be quite cramped and those areas don’t lend themselves to growing grass,” he said. “You can get a lot out of using different types of low-growing perennials, including no-mow and low- to no-weeding.” Using plant varieties like these can equate to a complete and easy-to-mange lawn or turf alternative.
“When picking any creeping perennial for landscape application, it is important to consider how fast the desired plant variety may grow,” said Hopkins.
Although one commercial property manager or homeowner may be interested in a rapidly maturing plant, others may prefer the leisurely pace of a slow grower.
When deciding on the correct growth rate of creepers, predetermining goals for the particular space and the desire for immediate gratification will determine the best choices and plan of action.
Don Eberly is president/CEO of Eberly Public Relations, Atlanta, specializing in the home, garden, design and agribusiness Industries. Jen Polanz is a writer with Eberly Public Relations.
To learn more about using creeping perennials in the landscape, visit www.stepables.com.
Creeping Perennial Prep Work
Prepping a landscape for creeping perennial groundcovers is slightly more intensive than turf, but worth it in the long run with less maintenance on the back end. Fred Southard of Green Thumb Landscaping and Maintenance in Salem, Ore., offers the following tips on how to prep properly.
* Create a soil that is free-draining, but still has enough organics to hold onto nutrients and water. Southard recommends a combination of pumice and compost, and incorporate a 10 pound mix of 5-10-10. Keep the pH around 6.2 to 6.5 to help the groundcovers root well in the beginning.
* Watch for weeds 10 to 14 days after mixing the soil, and use weed killer to kill them off before planting.
* Plant groundcovers, and allow them to root in. Always plant creeping perennials and groundcovers even with or just below the soil line — never above it.
* After about three weeks, go into a water and drought cycle. Wait for the plants to show slight stress (they will wilt and lose intensity of color). Then water and repeat.
* Keep it clean and weed-free until it grows together. At this point, the maintenance will be reduced greatly.
* Use a liquid fertilizer, versus a granular fertilizer, on the top of the plants. Granular tends to burn the leaves of groundcovers.
Choosing Plants Wisely
Certain creeping perennials work best with different types of projects. Here are just a few ideas.
* Heat lovers: A variety of sedums, New Zealand scab, veronica and multiple versions of creeping thyme.
* Shade lovers: Leptinella, linaria, lysimachia and multiple mosses.
* Mediterranean look: Mix some Isotoma Blue Star creeper with Woolly thyme, New Zealand scab (Raoulia australis), leptinella and sedum for a true Mediterranean look. Add fountain grass, and use leftover pumice to topdress for a whitish-tan color.
* Japanese garden: Use Scotch moss and Irish moss to cling to rocks alongside ferns and round rock for a coarser look than mulch.