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Designs for a sloped yard to make it easier to maintain (and fun to look at!)

HGTV, the internet, and numerous other entertainment and information sources have made people much more aware of what’s possible in the landscape. At this point most people my age have at least seen photos or video of grotto pools with massive waterfalls, backyard putting greens, and outdoor kitchens. All that exposure doesn’t help with a very basic problem a lot of us run into: how to handle a sloped yard.

The problem with sloped yards

Sloped yards can present erosion challenges, with large volumes of water rushing downhill and taking soil with it. They can also be tricky to get around on, and mowing them can be a nightmare. Nothing makes you feel ALIVE! like sliding down a wet, grassy slope on a mower at 8 am. Who needs coffee?

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Image credit:

Designs for sloped yards: retaining walls

Oftentimes the first design solution folks come up with for sloped yards involves retaining walls and terracing. It makes sense. If the problem is the slope, eliminate the slope and you eliminate the problem. That’s true up to a point, but there are a few things to think about.


The cost of a retaining wall

I generally strive to minimize walls in my landscape design projects. The bottom line is that retaining walls add significantly to the cost of a landscape project, but they may not add sex appeal commensurate with their cost. If you need walls to make a space usable, then yes – let’s do walls. But if I can get away without a wall that’s money somewhere else.

Does the wall actually solve the water woes?

If the soil on a hillside is eroding away, then adding a wall will stop that. But have we solved the water issues in general? If the wall is in the middle of a slope, where is the water from above going? Has it been redirected, or will it now rush over the top of the wall and create new, potentially worse, erosion problems? Designing for a sloped yard requires a holistic view of the project.

Designs for sloped yards: plantings

One of the many reasons I’m not a member of the anti-lawn crowd is because grass is darn useful. On slight to moderate slopes grass does a wonderful job of staying where we put it, even allowing some water to percolate into the soil as it goes. In yards where the slopes get too steep for grass, or the flow is a little much, we can look at groundcovers.

This is a mix of cotoneaster, winter jasmine, miscanthus, spiraea, and a whole lot more
This is a mix of cotoneaster, winter jasmine, miscanthus, spiraea, and a whole lot more

Evergreen groundcovers can include cotoneaster (I like ‘Scarlet Leader’), prostrate junipers, and the like. Vigorous deciduous shrubs like winter jasmine can fill in quickly and look good doing it. And of, course, there are perennial groundcovers like ivy, liriope, and pachysandra. The goal is to find something that’s there year-round and has a root system that will help hold the slope.

Designs for sloped yards: slowing the flow

Designs for sloped yards streambeds

Whether you use retaining walls, plantings, or a combination of the two it’s still important to address the volume and speed of the water. If the water is coming down the hill with enough force it’ll wash out anything you put there or undermine your walls. The practical course may be to shape the land to channel the water in a swale or dry streambed that’s lined with stone. The water flow can also be slowed and broken up with strategically placed boulders or timbers. I can’t emphasize this enough: think about the water from before it enters your property to after it leaves your property. It’s the only way to make sure you get everything right.

Unsure what the best solution is for your hillside project? That’s what we’re here for! Contact us today to take the next step in creating a beautiful, functional landscape that you’ll love for years.

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