Plants growing beside paths and steps serve the same role in the garden that cushions do on the living room sofa. They soften hash lines, introduce colour and texture and also offer a welcome to visitors.
If they have scented flowers or foliage, plants enhance the journey along a pathway or up and down the steps.
But looking good and smelling good aren't all there is to consider when selecting plants to grow beside the path or steps. They have to be well behaved (for example no awkward thorns), evergreen for a year-round edge, low growing (under 30cm high) and manageable with pruning so that they don't invade the walking space.
Beside the Path
Small, dense clumping plants are ideal beside a path. Choose plants that spread a little way onto the path to soften the edge but that are easy to maintain and low enough so they don't block out plants growing behind them.
Top suggestions include dianthus (varieties such as carnations, pinks and sweet William), thyme, lambs ears (Stachys byzantina), catmint (including Nepeta x faassenii 'Six Hills Giant') and thrift (Armeria maritima). All are sprawling, sun lovers that creep out onto the path.
For a shaded path use Australian native violet (Viola hederacea) or the very pretty variegated lamium (Lamium maculatum).
Any of these can be grown as an informal edge, planting just one species/variety or combining several. For year-round interest, select a plant or planting combination with silver or variegated leaves.
Alternatively clumping, grass-like plants may fit the bill. Try dwarf agapanthus, mondo grass, liriope or dianella. These can be grown as a ribbon beside a path. They are soft but add a formal edge. One tried and true planting combination is a row of dwarf green mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana') immediately beside the path with a taller row of variegated liriope (Liriope muscari) planted behind.
Where there is room for a tall growing plant beside a path tall bearded iris, agapanthus or clivia make excellent border plants. Iris and agapanthus perform best in sun while clivia grows well in a shaded position.
Where a more formal look is demanded, a low hedge may be what's needed. This could be achieved with a box dwarf hedge (Buxus sempervirens 'Suffruticosa'), a clipped silver foliage plant such as dwarf lavender or artemisia, or the new release Alternanthera dentata Little Ruby, which has deep red leaves year round.
Flowering annuals can also be planted as a border beside a path. Nasturtium (select a compact dwarf variety), petunia (best grown spring to summer) and pansy (best grown autumn to early spring) all suit a sunny spot. All can be grown from seed or planted as seedlings.
Beside the Steps
Trailing plants grow well beside steps or stairs, however the taller border plants mentioned above can also be used. Top trailing options include erigeron daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), variegated star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Tricolor'), ivy geranium and trailing nasturtium.