Steep slope in back yard...would love some ideas! (pics included)

juliann74July 11, 2010

Hello! I have been a lurker on here since we built our house 4 years ago, and have used many great ideas to landscape our property and decorate our home. We are 95% do-it-yourself-ers, but have come to complete halt when it comes to our back slope.

The area we are looking to landscape is the area in the photos that isn't mowed in a semi-circular shape.

Some information:

Currently the area is weed-whacked 2x/a summer, because it is VERY difficult to mow (and frankly a big pain to weed-whack!). So, we have ruled out the mowing option.

Our soil is clay and rocks, and I mean all CLAY and large rocks. Many plants that I have tried have failed to grow on this slope, and few of them including cone flowers and butterfly bushes.

There are 6+ springs in the hill, which used to drain down into our small yard. So, last fall we hired a contractor to build the retaining wall and install drainage.

What we would like:

-Something easy to maintain, neat looking, and relatively easy for us to do ourselves and maintain. NEAT looking is my main objective since we sit entertain on our back porch often and look at it everyday.

-The design need not be entirely formal, since we live in a country setting.

Thank you in advance. This is becoming a big issue between my husband and I. It has become such an overwhelming project, it's like we have become paralyzed! We are short on ideas, and would really love some other eyes to help give us ideas.

Coming up driveway:

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    Bookmark   July 11, 2010 at 2:58PM
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It appears that your property is at the base of a drumlin, a geological feature common to western NY where receding glaciers left deposits of clay, sand, gravel and rocks. Question, is the land soft and spongy around the spring areas? If not I have an idea for you.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2010 at 3:21PM
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That is beautiful, ideashare! I will show that to dh. What kind of plantings did you use in the design?

No, nandina, I wouldn't say that the areas around the springs are particularly soft and spongy.... After a really hard rain they get pretty wet, but then it dries back to must moist. Would love to her your idea!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2010 at 3:52PM
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Jeez, I apologize for all the typos! I was posting from my phone... and those darn keys are so tiny. Sorry guys.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2010 at 5:33PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

Low maintenance would be ornamental grasses, shrubs and native plants. Research native plants for your area that require little water/are drought tolerant. New plantings are best done either after the summer heat has broken (September or so), or as soon as possible after your last frost date in the spring. Very few plants will survive being transplanted into a full-sun location with no mulch protection like you have in the middle of the summer heat, even if you are dilligent about watering. You can always add some more colorful annuals or perennials to the area closest to your retaining wall, making it easier to care for and irrigate them. I highly recommend running a drip line hose system for any areas where you plan to try any annuals or non-native perennials, and make sure to mulch around the roots for maximum moisture retention. We have nothing but solid clay here in Kansas, too, but there really shouldn't be any reason that coneflower and butterfly bush wouldn't do well in that spot, despite the clay, so make sure you've read up on proper timing, method and care of anything you plant in future.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 12:25PM
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The suggestions above leave you with a great deal of hand weeding which you indicate is not your first choice. Don't choke on the following suggestion. After a study of your pictures the slope does not appear to be 'that' steep. I have mowed much steeper slopes on a property we used to own. This was done by purchasing the widest mower deck available for our riding mower. The extra length holds a mower on the slope as one cuts across it. Do some investigating. If you think it is feasible, hire a landscape company to install a temporary erosion barrier fence on the upside of your gravel drainage. Weed whack back the growth, spread topsoil over the rock, sow grass seed and turn the whole unkempt area into lawn. I do think this approach is possible for your situation.

If not, then you will have to create a garden on the slope. If I were designing it, to minimize maintenance as much as possible, I would cover and dig into the slope the largest rocks a Bobcat could handle creating a rock garden. Not an inexpensive project. From that point I would plant perennials that tolerate some moisture such as JoePye weed. Perhaps there is a gardening coach in your area who could help with plant/shrub selections that would provide all season color. A well done rock garden on that slope would require mantenance but be attractive. My first choice would be a lawn, even if it means cutting back some of the land at the top of the slope.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 2:47PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

Planting of native grasses would require no more hand-weeding than trying to cultivate a traditional fescue lawn from seed would. Additionally, native grasses would require less water, little or no mowing, no fertilizers or pesticides. Check out the article below for more ideas.

Here is a link that might be useful: native lawn

    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 4:26PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

I agree with nandina: that slope is not too steep to mow.

My house is a few feet below the street. Immediately adjacent to the street is a bank which is significantly steeper than your area. There are other steep areas to either side of the house (walk-out basement), and another steep bank crosses the former horse pasture behind the backyard.

A neighbor's son has a lawn care business. He mows my lawn regularly, and the pasture every 4-6 weeks during warm weather. He uses a heavy professional mower with a deck perhaps 48" wide.

If you're not interested in mowing your bank yourself, perhaps you'd consider hiring a lawn service to mow the steep area. You could have them mow it as often as you mow the rest of the lawn, or you could mow it as often as my pasture is mowed.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 5:05PM
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VERY interesting suggestion to keep it mowed! I actually was not opposed to mowing the slope, and volunteered to do it every few weeks if we could figure out how to do it. I suggested a push mower, but my husband thought that was a terrible idea.... When I do weed whack the hill, our back area opens up so much, and it looks neat. Hiring someone to do it for us could really be an option too!

Although I think Dh is really wanting a landscaped area, you have given us a lot to think about.....

    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 8:52PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I am not opposed to lawn if you can stop the other stuff from growing, but there is another option, though not a walkable one, really. One word: Junipers. I actually just drove by a neighbourhood where the houses were above the road with sloping front yards similar to your slope, and all had some junipers, though some had the wrong juniper, the one that ends up with a canopy up on stilts. You want the kind that grows either flat to the ground (blue rug, motherlode, etc) or the one the mounds a bit but basically still carpets the ground. Until I started typing I remembered the cultivar name... it'll come to me. NOT Blue Star either.

Juniper is good because it smothers weeds as it grows. You do have to weed until it covers, of course. And you could make pathways through swaths of juniper too.

Cotoneaster is another plant that can do this, and look fabulous doing it.


    Bookmark   July 12, 2010 at 9:59PM
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Juniper is a great suggestion. If I plant perennials and small trees on the slope, I plan to definitely include juniper. I have some growing in my foundations plantings and it is doing well.

Questions for if we decide to garden the slope:

-How does one go about coming up with a plan or drawing for the hill? Is there a free program we can use, or is it just as easy as graph paper? My problem is I just don't have a 'vision' and I don't even know where to begin to know how to lay out a huge area like this.

- Would you use weed cloth? Would you mulch?

    Bookmark   July 13, 2010 at 7:56AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Graph paper works fine.

I use Windows Paint for some planning (Programs -- Accessories -- Paint in my old XP). I make graph paper in Paint (View -- Zoom -- then set Custom for a large size; then View -- Zoom -- Show Grid lets you see the individual pixels in a Zoomed drawing). Be sure to clone your finished graph paper so you don't have to do it again from scratch.

When I planted crocuses in the front lawn, I simply cloned a Paint diagram of the front yard, then marked the areas where I put the crocuses, also noting the number planted in each area.

Sometimes I'll print a plan of a particular area and work on it on paper, then later enter the changes into the computer document.

A similar (non-Microsoft) program, -- apparently with more features -- is available here for free (Windows only, not Mac):

Paint can also be used to alter photographs or drawings.

Apparently there's a difficulty with pasting pictures of plants into a photograph. The final picture may look beautiful, but unless you really know your plants, the scale can be out of whack. So it looks good, but you don't realize that ten daylilies won't fit into a 6' x 12" bed (you didn't realize the daylily pics were at half the scale of the other plants).

Even if the plants are to the correct scale, it's very easy to get the depth out of whack. This seems to be the main problem with this type of photo manipulation: the picture of the 10' deep bed looks wonderful, but the layers of plants in the photo would actually require a bed 25' deep.

You might enjoy these threads. Some are about making a scale plan, others are about designing a landscape in general:

    Bookmark   July 13, 2010 at 11:08AM
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Have you considered a wildflower garden on that slope? Takes a bit of work to establish properly but is relatively low care and very decorative. Would look even better with some large rocks added. Could be mixed or monoculture - both occur in natural settings.

When I think of junipers I think of an unpleasant odor altho there must be some that don't stink.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 12:47PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think the juniper cultivar I have in mind is Tamarisk, or Tamarix, or Tamariscifolia - do an image search for Juniperus horizontalis Tamarix, and the general idea should come up. There are several that should do.

Nandina's other idea of the rock garden can be integrated with the use of ground covering shrubbery; I visualize it being a lot of weeding work with just perennials (I have a rock garden with perennials on my hell strip and it's, well, hell). Other than junipers (the smell might be a matter of taste) there are ground-cover varieties of blue spruce, deodar cedar, hemlock, and other conifers.

Either way, if you decide against lawn and want something else, you could start by planning a network of pathways with rock stairs, unless you plan to use boulders as Nandina suggested, in which case boulders would be placed first. You could put a couple of places to sit at the top of the slope as destinations for your pathways, but the basic purpose would be to get into the planting area to weed, water, and clip as necessary.


    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 7:04PM
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Thank you luckygal! I think a wildflower garden would really look nice, and fit our rural surroundings!

I just don't even know where to begin... I have been scouring the internet looking for examples of what would look good, so that I could have an idea of where to start.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 8:12PM
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Another thread referenced this Be sure to check out their hillside garden with a water feature that abuts a swimming pool - very similar slope as yours.
They have lots of inspirational photos. I think you have a fabulous oppourtunity to add visual interest, mystery and WOW to your view. Use the juniper for ground cover but also plan a few areas where you have scooped out a bowl area with the edges held from falling down the slope by large boulders. Fill the bowls with nice soil and treat them as small gardens within your bigger garden. Imagine joining them with a pathway that climbs/winds to a hidden area around the top edge - tuck a bench whose view is partially obstructed when you are viewing from the yard or porch below. Perhaps a dry meandering brook falling from the top and ending at a water feature could be incorporated.
Your stone wall is low enough that a portion of it could be the second step of the stairway walkway that winds and or curves to the top. Building the first step into your lawn area with blending plant materials beside it will soften the transition from the hill side to your lawn area. Use natural lines and native plants - visit a naturally occuring ravine and note natures lines for more inspiration. Good Luck!! This could be really amazing!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 10:05PM
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kts2, your idea is wonderful. I would love to see pictures as inspiration... but I am not able to go to that website for some reason!

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 9:56AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)
    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 11:22AM
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Thank you! What a great website. I am going to go and read the "what to plant" section now- thank you so much.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2010 at 12:55PM
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Myself, I would have some topsoil brought in, plant some grass and add a few trees:

Or You could just put in some fir trees:

Or you could add some stones and plant some trees, shrubs, flowers:

I'm no landscaper but these are some ideas I came up with. Maybe they aren't even possible.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2010 at 6:09PM
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Juliann, I'll post a site from the UK that has pictures of various types of gardens. This link goes to their Cottage Garden which they say is "contrived to look uncontrived". There are many other types of gardens there that might provide inspiration.

Which plants you choose depends on which climate zone you are in. I'm in zone 3 so am somewhat limited in what I can grow. I'll post a pic of what I call my wild bird garden. It's an area in my large garden that has the birdfeeder and birdbath. I allow the flowers to go to seed for the birds so they self-seed. This area has changed over many years altho I initially seeded shasta daisies (the butterflies love them) and yarrow and planted a few established perennials. The yarrow seeds I planted were a mix of red, pink, and white, but the white resembles the wild yarrow we have so we pull it out and it's mostly now only tones of pinks and red. There are also Lamb's Ears because they seed all over my garden but I leave them in this wild area (the bees love them). There are a few other plants, a pink mallow that's 'weedy' but it fills the space and is quite pretty and we also have several lilacs here.

Near that area there is also a drift of common old irises which we've allowed to spread. They are in the lower part of the rockery and I will eventually weed some of them out as the bloom time is not very long.

If I were deliberately planting a wildflower garden I would not buy a wildflower mix as there could be invasive plants in it. I planted a mix about 14 years ago and still have Dame Hesperis (Dame's Rocket) altho pull out many every year and try to dead-head them ASAP before they seed. It's quite a weed in warmer climates. I would choose seeds of plants I like that are hardy but not invasive and mix them together.

Another option is to plant in swaths with various plants and grasses hardy to your area. Keep in mind the moisture requirements of the plants as you decide. The area where I have shastas, mallow, and yarrow needs little watering and only a spring weeding so is easy care.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Garden House

    Bookmark   July 23, 2010 at 1:41AM
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Did you want a low-maintenance ground cover, or a landscaped garden?

I had a very good experience in an impossible area with hypericum hidcote (St.John's wort). It is fast-growing, overtakes any weeds and has prolific yellow flowers during summer months. The only maintenance was tidying the edges each spring to keep them neat. It's listed as hardy to zone 5 but checking with your local nursery to be certain is always a good idea.

Here is a link that might be useful: Hypericum Hidcote

    Bookmark   July 25, 2010 at 2:11PM
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I just wandered in, but I'm enjoying this thread a lot so I thought I'd add my two cents. :)

My favorites of the above ideas are junipers, wildflowers, and trees. You could do all three. With boulders!

I just wanted to point out that what you might be viewing as a negative could turn into a huge, huge positive for you! I love the idea of gardening on a slight slope, because the ground is "turned up" towards you, so you will be better able to see all the plantings (as opposed to viewing a flat landscape).

    Bookmark   July 29, 2010 at 3:27PM
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You know, when I first saw your pics of your blank-slate backyard it kind of flicked a switch in my head. Besides belonging to tons of gardening forums, I also join photo forums as well. Lots of times there will be great landscape's a good one too.

Anyway, when I saw your back yard and the size, and the way it sort of swooshs around and rises in an ampitheatre-effect way, it reminded me of this image:

This is a botanical garden posted by a member.

I was thinking, if you don't want the pergola look, in its place you could have a big, wide set of stone stairs that gradually access the upper area...with large, wide, squarish boulders that border the stone stairs.

Just something I thought I'd throw out there.


    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 2:11AM
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I grew up in a house on a hill steeper than that... my dad didn't give it a second thought---mowed it himself every week :)

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 8:33AM
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I love all your ideas!!! I would really like a look of trees, rocks, flowers, evergreens and ground cover (a mix of all your suggestions).

I will let you know what we decide. To do this ourselves, we are realizing, is a huge undertaking.

Actually, I am leaning toward saving up over the winter, and hiring someone to help us out next spring. I just don't even know where to start, or how to plan the design. It is just such a large space.

As for mowing, I am still trying to convince Dh! He just is so against it for some reason, and I am not going to push it. I personally think it would be the cheapest and neatest solution.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2010 at 11:28PM
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