It's the Plants, Darling

Stepables as Lawn Replacement

Thyme2350Last fall I reported receiving 10 different ground covers from Stepables to try out as lawn replacement, so it's about time to reveal how they've performed.

  • Some look good but have barely spread at all (Muehlenbeckia Creeping Wire Vine, Sedum Baby Tears).
  • Some look so-so and have barely spread at all (Archer's Gold Thyme, White Creeping and Red Creeping Thyme).
  • The best performers (Herniaria Green Carpet and Bressingham thyme) have spread or grown by 4-6 inches in every direction.

Potentilla Nana spreads well but isn't dense enough to prevent run-off on my hillside, and may not be evergreen. (The website says it's evergreen in "temperate climates," which presumably is a misstatement because that would mean everywhere between the tropics and the Poles.)

  • Two died almost immediately (Azorella Emerald Cushion and Leptinella Platt's Black).

THE COST FACTOR
Replacing very small lawns with low creeping perennials seems entirely doable, but most lawns are large enough to require a sizable budget to cover the damn thing within a year – and even that timeline would test the patience of many homeowners.  On hillsides where erosion prevention is key, lawn-replacement plants must either fill in extremely quickly or be packed tightly.

Now the Stepables price tag ranges from $9.50 each for 6 to $5.50 each for 72 of them.  Their growth rates range from 2-4" a year for "slow" to 8-12 inches a year for "fast," according to their website, but my test plants didn't grow nearly that fast, even with a little feeding.  So question number one is: How many of them does it really take to fill up a space?

We gardeners are naturally reluctant to invest big bucks in plants unless we know they'll thrive where we plant them.  So before shelling out $1-2,000 to replace your lawn with thyme, for example, I suggest experimenting with a few for a year and making the bulk purchase based on the results.

CHEAPER OPTIONS
There's nothing like replacing lawn to make you appreciate how cheap lawn really is, which is why to cover both my front and back former lawns I've resorted mainly to using weeds, but another option for the budget-conscious is to use giveaways.  Because the very plants you  need to fill up large spaces spread vigorously, gardeners generally have lots of it to give away. Examples are sedum acre, creeping Jenny and Mazus, all of which can take a bit of foot traffic, though not children- or dog-type wear and tear.

THE DISTANCE FACTOR
Here's another objection to Stepables I've seen and heard: Why not buy local?  It's cheaper, the plants will probably perform better, et cetera.  I DO know of a Virginia grower that supplies plants for Stepables, so their plants may be more local than we assume from the fact that it's a national company (out of Oregon).  And when the Stepables home office sent me my samples I have to say they were packed awfully well.

YOUR REVIEWS?
Stepables seem to be everywhere in nurseries nowadays, so has anybody else tried them?  And how'd they work out for you?

Posted by on September 16, 2008 at 3:48 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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26 Responses to “Stepables as Lawn Replacement”

  1. Brie says:

    I have tried thymus archer’s gold from stebables and for me it grew very quickly and looked fantastic. But I wasn’t doing a very large area. It was a very small area, in fact. But the first time I tried it, the plot flooded immediately after I planted it from weeks of successive rains, killing most of the new plants. I tried again with far more success, and the plants more than tripled in size within the first year.

    And as for Leptinella Platt’s Black, I’ve had zero luck (skill…) with that plant. Very disappointing.

  2. Layanee says:

    Ditto on that interesting Leptinella. I will have to pay more attention to any others I have planted but this is a good, informative overview so, thanks!

  3. My Leptinella Platt’s Black which was planted last spring, is still doing fine, although not spreading much. Unfortunately, its almost exactly the same color as the leaf mulch around it, so its nearly invisible.

    I’ve had good luck with their Leptinella gruveri ‘Miniature Brass Buttons’ as a filler between stepping stones. It spreads by about 5 inches over the season, and by dividing it fairly aggressively (even a 1 inch section can establish itself), I’ve gotten a lot of plant material from a single pot. Its too small to make much of a lawn, however.

    I also have sedum dwarf stonecrop, which has survived but not grown much.

  4. I have not tried stepables but have a number of thymes as well as bearberry growing next to stepping stone paths that get a little foot traffic. But we have no kids or pets so pretty gentle traffic as you can imagine.

    The problem is that there is virtually no alternative that will take what grass will. I got rid of my lawn and replaced it with cranesbill geraniums and ginger. So it is higher and not like a lawn but they grown under sugar and silver maples like crazy.

    I think (at least for me) it is about making a big eco and design step — not the tiny step of pretend grass. That’s like eating tofu bacon.

  5. trey says:

    I don’t see Stepables out here in northern California. Maybe it’s because we have more regional suppliers that provide these plants. The pricing is crazy. We receive our 4″ perennials from Blooms in Glen Ellen. We sell the ground covers like thyme, moss, blue star creeper, and the rest for $3.99 ea.! You paid $5.50 to 9.50? Ouch.

  6. I’ve often picked up the Steppables, looked at the price and put them back! Of course, our home owners association (HOA), like so many others would never allow the replacement of grass. We have a 2 acre meadow out front that I would LOVE to have look like a REAL MEADOW with wildflowers and ornamental grasses. However, our HOA rules require that the grass be kept mowed like a lawn! Now…there’s a rant for you…HOAs! I’ve been told by a neighbor that I have “too many flowers”. That’s like saying the sky is too blue! I love your blog!

  7. John says:

    I don’t remember how steep your slope is but none of these plants sound deep rooted enough to really do much for erosion control. Even turf grasses only have roots measured in inches whereas tall clumping grasses have roots measured in feet (15ft +). But they only do well in certain situations.

    I have had good luck with wire vine Muehlenbeckia but it took a few years – and its completely winter hardy for me so I get year round green.

    I also have an unknown sedum with large paddle shaped leaves that makes a great ground cover for shady areas. It does a great job of choking out weeds.

  8. Old Kim says:

    4 years ago I planted one herniaria. It’s now about 4 ft wide and from a distance looks like green turf. It rarely receives summer water and is so thick that it’s a great weed blocker.
    The red creeping thyme hasn’t grown as fast but is satisfactory with colorful flowers.
    It’s best to shop at local nurseries for ground cover. Just because they’re branded Stepables doesn’t make them better.
    Here in WA we sell 4 inch ground cover plants at $2.99 each or 10 for $2.49.

  9. rainymountain says:

    I’ve had no problem growing Leptinella Brass Buttons but as one of your correspondents says it does not show up well. All of my thymes grow steadily, the wooly thyme is particularly good. From a small sprig from a parent plant, the wooly thyme has grown into a patch about 6″ in diameter this summer. It is a ground hugger with dense, soft grey tiny leaves, very pretty. I think it is also known as fairy thymne, Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’.
    I am surprised that you fed these plants, I believe that most of the these grow under less than perfect conditions. Mine are mostly planted in unimproved sandy soil and don’t get any special attention.
    As to the price of Stepables, we can get them here in Canada and at my local outlet none of them are as highly priced as yours.

  10. Amy Stewart says:

    I think that the way to make these lawn replacements affordable is to do them in stages. Start with the area closest to the house, or closest to the street, or hell, start in the middle, creating a little no-lawn island. Every year, expand it a little, taking divisions from the more mature plants for your expansion.

    and Susan, I certainly agree–best to buy a few plants and experiment before investing in dozens of them. Or even better–find a good no-lawn garden in your neighborhood and ask if they can spare a few starter plants!

  11. susan harris says:

    Great comments; keep ‘em coming.

    I gave them a light feeding because the website tells us to and I wanted to give the plants a fair trial, esp since they were free samples.

  12. Whoof. I buy ground covers in six-packs or 1/2 flats. Stepables aren’t unique and exciting enough to get around the fact that they’re probably not any better suited for my area and for that price they might have to sing me love songs too. But I’m not using them to replace a lawn, just to keep SOMETHING from digging in my beds.

  13. There is no reason to purchase common and readily available plants from a company that is out of state if your local nursery and local nursery suppliers are growing the same plants.
    It makes poor sustainable sense.
    If you live in east bumfork and have no garden nurseries to shop at then perhaps it may be worth it, but otherwise shop local and your plants will acclimate far better than a plant that has been shipped in a dark cardboard box.

    Replacing a large lawn with a non turf grass ground cover is a challenge. It makes you think outside the box.
    I have several projects on the drafting table that requires turf lawn removal and renovation.
    On one project we will use artificial turf, on another a combination of dry lay flatstone and creeping ground covers such as sedums and echiverias.
    On another project we will install a red fescue ‘rough’ ( that shaggy long prostrate grass you see on golf courses)
    For my own small front lawn , it is a mowed mix of crabgrass, alyssum, oxalis and white clover.
    I’ll be reseeding more clover and alyssum this winter.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I planted Cerastium Alpine Mouse Ear, Mentha Mint, and Alyssum Madwort this spring. The mint spread like CRAZY (as mint is wont to do…) but the other, not so much. But they didn’t die either.

    Some of the varieties are awfully cute, and I am willing to pay extra for cute. I would like to do “fairy garden” next year and will consider a few of these plants.

  15. Robin says:

    The best steppable lawns I’ve installed have been ones that have a lot of diversity. Planting groups of Scotch Moss, Irish Moss, Brass Buttons, Elfin and Wooly Thymes, and others, allowing them to mass and then mass together seems to work out best. They do take some weeding diligence to get the masses to come together, but once they’re set, they’re set…Diversity!

    One I’ll never use again — Sheep’s Burr (Acaena sp.)It’s beautiful and spreads well, but when those burrs knit a toy poodle’s mouth shut and then pricked me like mad when I pulled them out, I knew I’d never use it again.

    I love masses and carpets of sedums and use these regularly. I don’t find that they do well as steppables. Same for the wire vine. Here, it eventually ends up getting long and humped up — an ankle twister.

  16. Robin says:

    uh..can’t edit my last comment, but to clarify…steppable non-lawn groundcovers, not lawns ;)

  17. Michele Owens says:

    Great post, Susan. People need to send us (you) more plants to review!

    I just want to put in a good word for sweet woodruff as a particularly delicate and appealing ground-cover for shade. I love the fact it smothers weed seedlings without choking out the perennials I’ve planted in it. I step on mine when I need to, though I don’t think it’s particularly steppable.

  18. Gail says:

    I love sedges and native grasses…they can be mowed and look great. My recent purchase is Carex appalacia and it sounds like it might be what I want for my semi shade lawn substitute~

  19. Linda says:

    I’ve planted 3 larger elfin thyme plants between my blueberries – and maybe I’ll get some for beside the stone wall that my daughter wants to climb :).

    Steppable – perfect for this area that I currently have cocoa bean shells that will be turning into mulch.

    I’m also in Canada and couldn’t find much other thyme that was that small.

  20. SJ says:

    I got into the steppables craze about 4 seasons ago for my own place and for clients.

    In the Chicago region I found the ‘Bressingham’ Thyme and both the green & golden Creeping Jenny were the lead runners. They outpaced everything else I tried.

    The Herniaria did well although I found it to be short lived (you get about 1 or 2 seasons out of it here with the wet winters) but it does readily self-seed and it makes such a thick carpet within one season. I found this to be the case also with the Labrador Violet – short lived but where established it readily self-seeds – love the leaves especially.

    The miniature sedges Carex humilis also have worked out well are spreading at a nice easy clip.

    Most of the sedums (with the exception of the purple leaved varieties which tanked) have been fairly successful with our wet cold winters.

    Middling sucess: Euonymus kewensis & Miniature Veronica Speedwell have been so very slow growing it’s almost painful to watch.

    Complete failures included: the Acorus (Sweet Flag), Anacylus
    (Silver Kisses), Leptinella, Mazus reptens (both colors), Lotus plenus – what irritates me is that they indicate zone 4 or 5 but definately do not make it through our winters. Part of this I’m convinced is due to the lack of sharp drainage. This is a critical point that needs to be better underscored by the company – many of these are alpine plants and they are not going to make it in heavy wet soil.

    I know there are so many more out there to try but they are a bit expensive at $4 for 2.5 inch pot that may prove to be iffy here in Chi Town and it’s a bit of a hard sell to clients used to gallon sized containers for $10 or 12 bucks each.

    Would like to try more of the other varieties of thymes – I suspect they will be one of the more successful picks.

  21. Buffalo says:

    I’ve got a “checkerboard” pattern (turned 45 degrees) of alternating Steppables and 18″ stone tiles in a roughly 12′x12′ area of my garden.

    I’d have to go look up each of the grasses I planted two years ago to give a thorough report – but I have noticed that the different grasses seem to come like bamboo (another grass) in clumping form and spreading through roots form. And for my purposes the grasses that grow in clumps are not filling in their squares enough. The spreading grasses are not growing fast enough (I’m impatient), but they are filling in better than the clumpers.

  22. Terry says:

    Gail hit the nail on the head – sedges (the genus Carex, of which there are somewhere between one and two thousand species native to practically every corner and habitat around the world) are an option for low traffic areas where a mowed turf isn’t needed. In New York State alone there are several hundred native species, all just waiting for someone to start exploring their ornamental potential.

    SJ also makes a very good point in that many “groundcovers” are alpine plants that require extremely well-drained soils and do not tolerate hot, humid summer weather, saturated soils during the winter months, nor much shade, if any.

    A couple of quick reads regarding sedges can be found at:

    http://www.bbg.org/gar2/topics/sustainable/handbooks/lawns/5.html

    http://www.smgrowers.com/info/grassman.asp

  23. Rachel says:

    It’s interesting to hear how everyone has such amazingly different success rates on all these groundcovers. Here in Seattle, wire vine (Muehlenbeckia) is a real thug, spreading quickly everywhere, and as Robin said, a real ankle twister. And yes, weeding through Acaena is a real pain. Everything else grows great, as long as they’re put in the right location. Elfin thyme is still my favorite dense steppable groundcover, though. But nothing completely keeps out the weeds, unfortunately, no matter what!
    And it’s funny to me that Steppables are considered expensive, since they’re sold at Fred Meyer around here, which is one of our local discount stores.

  24. Loree says:

    I can’t believe the price you quoted! I’ve bought all my Stepables at Fred Meyer here in Portland for $2.49 – $2.99. I have had excellent results with Corsican Mint. It has spread about 4-5″ in just 4 months. The roughest wear it has had to endure was when my niece and nephews were visiting (3 of them ranging in age from 3 to 8) and I showed them how good it smelled when you stepped on it. Over their 3 day visit they they enjoyed it so much that the bare dirt was showing thru. It took a couple of weeks and some healthy watering but it made a full recovery. I have also had luck with the Scotch Moss in shady areas, although a huge patch up and died last year.

  25. I have had really good luck with the “Brass Buttons” Leptinella, but golden creeping Jenny does not spread quite as much as I’d like.

    When looking for groundcovers, though, I admit that I mostly stay away from the Stepables and instead go to the herb section. Corsican mint, creeping thyme, golden lemon thyme, golden oregano… all of these can be found in the herb section, and can usually be found on sale at the end of the season to boot.

    And then I compound my number of plants by cutting even the little pints with a sharp steak knife so I have more of them to plant… kind of like buying pints and turning them into plugs.

  26. tesslynn says:

    I have tried them all out in the backyard on mostly amended sand in colorado springs out on the east prairie. Herniaria green carpet does nicely in the shade, tanked in the hot summer sun here. Spreading..very slowly. All varieties of the Mazus replens shriveled up. Great success with wooly thyme in full sun, and elfin thyme does ok, but takes forever to spread. Creeping potentilla, thrives and spreads. I like Stepables…pricey but good. I have had surprizing success with a half dead clearance pkg of Hardy Boy stone trekkers mcclintock. It has withstood very little water, and constant laying on by our Sheltie..she likes the way it feels I guess and she likes to roll on it. The small patch has choked out the weeds and now is spreading very nicely. Have never found more of this but would plant more again gladly.

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