GARDEN THERAPY: The Slippery Slopes – Part 2 – May 2017

By Mel Bellar

Last month I discussed the challenges of the grade changes that make our Catskill properties so beautiful and yet oh-so-maddening at times. The steeper and larger the slope, the tougher and more costly the solutions, especially when it comes to larger scale situations like house and driveway placement.  However, you may find that less dramatic slopes (those with an incline of less than 25%, give or take) offer wonderful opportunities to create different levels that add interest to an outdoor space.  I like the effect so much that I sometimes create grade changes, just to break up the monotony of a flat plane.

Vertical elements add a special drama in the landscape. That is why, in my humble opinion, the Catskills are so much better than places like Iowa (and Louisiana where I am from). There is something therapeutic and comforting about being able to gaze out or down and to see vertical elements rising in the distance. Recently, I started creating berms (small hills in the landscape) in my designs, to add more interest in a flat terrain. Berms/hills are the vertical equivalent to curvilinear lines in the garden, which you know I love.  But, back to terraces and steps which is where I was going with all of this.

Many of our houses are set on the side of a hill and are graded to sit on a knoll in an attempt to keep water from flowing toward the house and into the basement. These slopes result in some decks presenting the problem of how to hide the (often ugly) underbelly. Or sometimes you end up with large retaining walls in an effort to create a flat space between the house and the uphill side. I like breaking up a tall wall or elevated deck into stepped terraces.  It is an attractive and practical approach to dealing with slopes. Implementing a similar principle, it is user-friendly and visually appealing to break up flights of stairs into smaller groups of steps, with a landing every 4 to 6 steps if possible.


Breaking up a sloped area into 2 levels (or more) with a couple of steps connecting the levels has several advantages. Practically speaking, it can eliminate the need for railings if each drop-off is no more than 18 inches.  I recently designed a deck design that had 3 different levels, with the goal of eliminating the railings, and the effect is really nice. Secondly, if the area is big enough, it is a good idea to break it up into “rooms” (one for the table, one for the grill, hot tub or fire pit). The concept of different “rooms” in the garden can be applied in many ways, but it is always an effective way of making your garden visually interesting. It also creates the impression of a larger space, while each “room” has a cozier feel. Thirdly, such a design is more aesthetically pleasing than leaving a large flat space. When dealing with a deck it reduces the ugly “under the deck” views and they are camouflaged much more easily with plants. In the case of patios, the retaining walls can be of stacked stone or boulders, each of which adds another attractive element to the area.

As I often say, one of the banes of my existence is the ugly slope that is left over from putting in a driveway or siting a house. And I am not alone in this feeling. I get a lot of calls asking me to make the “ugly bank” look better. Well there are many problems with this particular “slippery slope”. It is usually hardpan subsoil; it is a task to keep new soil in place; holding water for the plants is a challenge; it is difficult to get grass to grow and maintaining a slippery slope is demanding work. Terracing is one of the most effective and attractive ways to cope.  If the slope is fairly gentle, small retaining walls placed somewhat far apart will be a pretty easy solution. If it is steep, consider slightly taller walls. It is more difficult, but many short walls closer together will likely look strange.  Retaining walls can be stacked stone, individual large rocks or a variety of other materials. When building walls on a hill, the cut and fill method is used, as in the photo below.

The resulting level area behind each wall will hold soil and some water will drain well, and provides a very good growing environment for many plants.To make your terraced garden extra cool, add some steps to traverse between the levels.  The steps can be simple or fancy, but I think some flatish rocks that can be overlapped moving up the slope work very nicely. They don’t have to be big or expensive.

Here is an example of a design I have been working on for a house on a serious slope with many terraces and steps.~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.