Planting Challenging Landscapes: Steep, but Stunning

Planting Challenging Landscapes: Steep, but Stunning
  • Posted August 28, 2015

Is a steep yard getting you down? When homes are built in hilly terrain it involves a 'cut and fill' process — the uphill slope is excavated (the cut), piled on the downhill side (the fill) and graded flat to create a building pad. Typically, this results in a small amount of flat land around the house for parking and playing on with the balance of the property left as steep eroding banks. You can't mow these places, the soil is terrible, rain runs off causing erosion while the soil remains dry and hideous patches of weedy stubble emerge on the inglorious canvas of bare, sun-baked soil.

It's a gardener's nightmare. Here's how to transform it into a stunning “rock garden".

1) Remove the existing vegetation. If the area is too large or too steep to do it by hand, herbicides may be in order.

2) Carve little niches of varying sizes into the slope in a random pattern. Aim to create a network of shallow shelves spaced 2 to 4 feet apart, ranging in size from a football to a doormat. Stockpile the soil that is removed for later use.

3) Spread burlap erosion control fabric across the entire slope, tucking it into the excavated nooks.

4) Place small boulders on top of the burlap so that they rest in the nooks. Spread some of the excavated soil around each one to fill any air space between the stones and the slope behind them. Multiple small boulders can be stacked together to fill the larger niches, using a bit of soil between them like mortar.

5) Plant the area in fall so the plants will have time to get established while the weather is relatively cool and moist. Cut small holes in the erosion control fabric and plant species that are adapted to steep, dry, rocky places such as Wallflower (Erysimum), Sedum, Agave, Echium, Ceanothus and Artemisia. The smallest plants like Sedum can be tucked into the soil around the rocks.

6) Build a low berm of soil above the top of the slope to intercept storm water runoff and prevent future erosion. Over time the plants will spread to hold the soil and the erosion control fabric will decompose in place and disappear.

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.

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