Design help for side-sloping lot

alabamanicole(7b)May 2, 2010

I recently purchased this home, and the prior owners were not much into gardening. I'd like to improve the curb appeal of the house, reduce the "boxiness" of the house (without trying to pretend it's anything other than a rectangular rancher), as well as relieve some pain points when mowing -- there are a couple of nasty slopes.

I'm also trying to do this for a reasonably affordable price and without requiring too much maintenance. I have a tentative plan at the bottom, but I wanted to see if anyone had any other ideas.

Front view. The house faces almost due south. Those are two very large ash trees in front.:

Corner view. Note gas meter on corner where I'd love to have a decorative tree to balance that side of the house, but the underground lines interfere:

Problem area in back. I expect to be replacing the ancient A/C soon as well as the high-tech "pad" it's on:

Dimensions. Sorry for the large size, but otherwise it was unreadable. Yes, the gas line really does run right under that tree. I also own the lot downslope of the house.

Tentative plan --

In the front, I am thinking of long shallow "steps" made with landscaping timbers and a mass planting along the front porch area. In front of the existing shrubs, add day lilies and daffodils, which I have around the property that need to be dug and separated anyway. The existing shrubs have been in place for a long time and are unlikely to get any larger; I would not be against pulling some out and adding something with more height. They are a mix of red and white azaleas and a couple of other evergreens I can't ID.

Along the side, a couple of somewhat shade-tolerant trees -- japanese maples or similar -- with mixed shrubs and flowers. Grass pathway, or maybe pavers in the future.

In the back, same style steps but they would be to be steeper. Patio pavers at the bottom. Cover the worst of the slope with another mass planting and a few things along the fence to make the entrance to the back yard more welcoming.

Any suggestions welcome!

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Just off the cuff, I would suggest larger shrubbery or understory trees. The ones you have now, I'm sure are addding shade and are helpful with utilites, but are not really doing much for the views presented here.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 9:09AM
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alabamanicole said:

:.. relieve some pain points when mowing -- there are a
couple of nasty slopes."

"I am thinking of long shallow "steps" made with landscaping timbers"

These issues of grade modification should be worked out
first, since all that follows will be dependant on it. The use
of a series of timbers in a stepped arrangement will be difficult
to transition to the areas of original grade and would be
very tedious to mow and maintain.

It is the transition of the modified areas to the drive and
house foundation/walls that is the most difficult in this case.
Ordinarily, to lessen a steep slope one lowers the highest
grade and fills the lower grades. But here the highest grade
abuts the drive and a sheer drop at the drive edge would
not be wise. Also grade changes at the house perimeter may
not fit with the foundation footer and brick exterior.

Another consideration of cost is to balance the amount of
soil removed from one area to match the fill in another area.
I suggest you plan the area in back of the house along with
the plans for the front. I think it likely that any plan will
result in extra soil needed for the front and the place to get
it is in the back.

Below is one of perhaps many plans that might satisfy your
goals. It includes a new plant bed in front of the porch and a
retaining wall further out. Note that there is some grade
transition at the west edge of the new planter bed to match
drive grade and little grade transition needed where the
retaining wall nears the drive.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 11:41AM
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rhodium - Thank you for the feedback. Unfortunately, planting under those trees would likely be a painful mistake. One tree sits right on top of the natural gas line and the other is very close to the water line. It's a problem waiting to happen, and I don't want to add to it. Also, those trees are probably 50 years old and nearing the end of their lives. The removal, when it comes, would probably squash the new plantings. There are, however, a large clump of daylilies under one tree that need to be dug up and divided. I may ring the other tree with them as well, if they manage to bloom at that site this spring.

pls8xx -- Yes, I agree that the slope needs to come first. I had tinkered with terracing ideas, but I couldn't come up with anything I liked. I think you came up with a great idea on the first try. I do need to keep the access door under the porch free, but that's just a matter of placing the back wall. Too bad there's absolutely no way to get matching brick - it would like nice if it matched.

The downside is that retaining wall and brick materials are atrociously expensive -- I'd say a minimum of $2k in stone alone for that project, which is just beyond my budget for now. I am unlikely to have much if any extra soil from the back, but topsoil, at least, is cheap here.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 1:45PM
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alabamanicole said:

"The downside is that retaining wall and brick materials are
atrociously expensive -- I'd say a minimum of $2k in stone
alone for that project,"

Yep, if you call the concrete fellows, get a tight grip on your
billfold. You would think they use gold to build walls.

But as a DIY project, you do have a couple of advantages; a
warm climate where deep footers are not needed and space
to get a concrete truck to the wall location. Poured concrete
walls up to 3 ft high with a stone veneer can be a DIY
project. I have a lot with slopes a bit steeper than yours and
I wanted the whole property fixed; about 400 lf of wall with
4 step locations.

If it were me, I would want to do about 50 ft of wall in back
for a flat patio area out the back door. The excess soil from
the cut in back would be moved to the fill in front. Say 100
ft of wall for front plus back. Ballpark cost $1100 concrete,
$200 steel, $250 for forming materials and supplies. Maybe
add a bit of backhoe time for excavation and rough grading.

Maybe wait to do the stone veneer later. Looks like a thin
stone can be found near Oneonta, Alabama for around $115
a ton, with 2 to 4 tons needed depending on final wall
details. Not sure what a delivery fee would be to your

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 4:45PM
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I hadn't thought of concrete; I was thinking stone + mortar. Concrete would probably be about the same price DIY but stronger. I went out and eyeballed it and I think 2 3' walls would be enough in front. Forms and stain might be cheaper than stone veneer. Of course, being in experienced in concrete and stone work, either one might look awful when I'm done!

In back, though, 3' wouldn't work. The retaining wall around the back door itself is over 3'. I wonder if it would be safe to have a 3' wall "floating" on the slope, and then a second wall down below, with a planter in between? Like so:

I like your idea, though -- I have no need for a patio out the basement door, but it can't hurt and the square is simple but functional. Most importantly, it doesn't cut too close to the septic system.

You are correct -- we really have no frost line at all to worry about. But Oneonta is a bit far. I do have a Mom & Pop place up the street that mostly does pavers and retaining wall blocks, but they seem like they'd be happy to order whatever I want. They have good prices, too.

A concrete truck out back might be problematic. I'd probably need a pump truck, too.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 7:20PM
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Should you decide to do the poured concrete, the two most often disasters experienced by homeowners are one, underestimating the force of wet concrete on forms resulting in a blow-out, and two, underestimating the force of retained soil on the wall resulting in wall failure. Concrete walls donÂt require a lot of skill, it ainÂt rocket science. But you do need to know what you are doing.

As a general rule, stepped walls (one above the other) should be separated by a distance equal to the total height of both walls. Even then consideration should be made to beef up the lower wall footing and wall reinforcement. Homeowners should avoid placing the upper wall, or any wall for that matter, on fill material. The footer should rest on undisturbed subsoil.

I find it strange that your house does not have a first floor door to the back yard. If a flat area by the lower door is not of benefit and your only goal for the backyard is to moderate the steep slope, then you might consider a wall arrangement as shown below. A 2ft wall at the end of the brick wall coupled with a 3ft wall at position 1,2 or 3 appears to give a manageable slope. Note that changing the location of the 3ft wall produces less or more excess soil for use in the front yard project.

I think you will find it valuable to the design of any wall system if you gather vertical data and place accurate ground elevations on your base map.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2010 at 9:56AM
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The house does have a door form the main level to the back yard. It's upslope at the other back corner of the house.

The back yard slope is definitely the more difficult and problematic of the two. It might be wise for me to postpone that project until I get a bit more experience in the front yard.

Thanks for your input. Since my ancient AC died yesterday -- which is what I get for mentioning that it would -- I will be tackling that project first of all, including a new concrete pad for it to sit on.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2010 at 12:10PM
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