Many of us are nervous about tackling a garden on a slope, but there are ways to make this kind of outdoor space work to your advantage. If you’ve always wanted a stream, then a slope is perfect. And if you have wonderful views, then a sloping garden will help you enjoy them more, as long as you can access the top section easily. Explore these and other inspiring ideas below.
Layer your greens. A well-known garden in England called Iford Manor is built on the side of a steep hill. At the turn of the 19th century, landscape architect Harold Peto transformed the hillside into an Italianate garden with terraces, statues, rockeries, cypress trees and waterfalls, all with magnificent views across the surrounding countryside.
The more accessible trick to steal for your own sloping garden is Peto’s clever use of different kinds of green in the plantings, which disguises the steep sides of the hillside. The eye is led up the winding paths and steps, and you catch glimpses of what lies beyond.
By planting trees and adding different shades of green throughout the planting, with some shrubs clipped and some left loose, a steep slope becomes a mysterious journey through lush growth.
Look after your soil. In addition to being hard for access and planting, a steep garden slope can lead to erosion and water runoff. If you can create steps up and plant the banks with varieties that will anchor the soil with their roots, this will greatly help retain the soil.
For areas where you can easily lay it, attach coarse coconut matting or a similar material to the slope and plant through it. The matting will decay over time, and the roots of the plants should take hold. During the summer months, you may need to add more mulch to help retain water on the slope.
Terrace it. Some sloping gardens lend themselves to having terraced areas that can be made into paved or decked patios for comfy seating or dining alfresco. By creating alternative areas in which to sit and enjoy your garden, you gain different views.
Steps will minimize the severity of the slope, especially if you can have wide steps and create a landing in between to break the run. Having steps will also help connect different areas, making each part distinct, with a different purpose.
Keeping the plantings simple in between the levels means less work, and if you use low hedging, as seen here, this will mimic the steps in the middle, making the whole area look wider.
Work in a retaining wall or two. There are many ways of retaining soil in a sloping garden, as well as numerous choices of materials, and safety always comes first. High walls and steps can be hazardous, just as grassy slopes and gravel can be slippery and dangerous. Good drainage is important so that you don’t end up with a pool of dirty water at the bottom.
The use of retaining walls is a popular way of making the most of the space. Very steep slopes may need specialist structural engineers and railings that comply with safety regulations.
Choosing materials not only will be subject to cost, but also the style you’re trying to create in the garden. For example, Cor-Ten steel, seen here, creates a modern look, while reclaimed railway ties lend a more rustic style. Gabions, which are metal cages filled with stones, can also look very effective, as can locally quarried natural stone. Or you can opt for concrete blocks, which can be rendered and painted.
Add water. A sloping garden is an ideal way to introduce a water feature, such as a stream, into your garden, which will help connect various areas. With a natural slope, there’s no need to shift mounds of soil to create a slope for a pretty babbling brook, and you can make it look natural by using locally quarried natural stone and gravel, softened by planting around it.
The stream will require a pump big enough to push the water up to the top of the outlet pipe, and this means you need electricity. But it’s also an ideal way of having a large or small wildlife pond at the bottom to house the pump. The height and width of the stream will determine the size of the pump required.
Water spouts can also be built into retaining walls on a sloping garden, emptying into either a sump below or a small pond.
Use self-seeders to fill the gaps. A sloping garden that has rocks, steps or retaining walls will bring with it nooks and crannies in which to grow self-seeding plants that will soon start to cascade. Good plants to try include Erigeron karvinskianus, pictured; the compact annual sweet alyssum; creeping thyme and creeping phlox; varieties of sedum and sempervirens; trailing lobelia; and valerian, which grows out of the smallest cracks.
You can also turn a steep slope into a rockery and enjoy small alpine plants that thrive in between the stones and rocks. Choose plants with contrasting foliage and alpines like Saxifraga, Aubrieta deltoidea, rock penstemon, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ and fairy thimbles (Campanula cochlearifolia), to name a few.
Let the inside flow outside. If you have the opportunity to open up the back of your home full-width onto the garden and you use materials cleverly, you will help make your sloping garden feel more manageable.
By extending the indoor flooring to marry up with the decking outside, and then continuing the wood feel by using railroad ties as retaining walls, this steep slope became far less obtrusive.
Once the planting matures in this garden, and there’s more greenery along the fences that reaches the trees to the rear behind the fence, the garden will also feel less boxed in and blend more into the landscape behind.
Mix materials. Sometimes it’s too costly or hard, due to logistics and access, to use the materials you’d like to on a steeply sloping garden. By using a mixture of materials instead, however, you can create something really lovely.
Consider introducing natural stone boulders and railroad ties together, which can be used to anchor portions of a slope and to add natural beauty.
Plant with drought-resistant ground covers and succulents where possible. This will help blend the materials and prevent erosion, which, as already mentioned, is a natural hazard of all gardens on a slope.
Light for drama. Lighting a sloping garden is important if you want to use it in the evenings. It can also look even more spectacular than a flat space. Water features or streams, paved areas, steps, rocks, trees and plants look magical lit up — and a little light goes a long way.
Lighting your steps is essential to reduce tripping, and light fixtures look best recessed into a flanking side wall. Spiked lamps around the garden allow you to change the position of the light according to the seasons and plant growth.
Nocturnal wildlife and insects may be put off by too-bright lighting, and anti-glare lights are available. You can also buy solar lights, which can be more cost-effective and better for areas where it may be hard to install electrical cables.
Consider your way in. With a sloping driveway in your garden, the materials you use will be determined by the steepness of the incline. Gravel is lovely but may not be practical if the drive is too steep and will need constant topping up.
Cobbles or pavers may work well, or there’s now a good selection of colored resin-bound gravel. There are many other products to choose from for driveways these days, including a honeycomb fabric cell membrane that contains gravel or turf.
Make sure you have adequate drainage installed on your drive, especially on a slope, and edge the sides to hold it together and to help direct water. You can plant behind the edging, if you wish, to soften the effect of any hardscaping.
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