If there is one landscape type which has had gardeners scratching their heads for centuries it is the best landscaping solutions for slopes. Sloping gardens not only are awkward to navigate they are labour intensive and expensive to develop.
The main disadvantage of sloping gardens is they are much effort to move about in. This makes the space generally unappealing and much more strain than flatter sites. Gardens with significant gradients also have more of a chance of being exposed with more safety hazards than level gardens.
Having said this however these obvious flaws do have some opportunities. There are a few less obvious advantages to slopes. Hence we have listed all of the advantages and disadvantages below.
In this article we will be exploring the options for landscaping sloping sites as well as some great design ideas for gradients.
Disadvantages of slopes
No matter how steep your sloping garden is there will always be a chance of tripping or falling. Sloping gardens have higher instances of slips and falls especially in wet conditions. In gardens with larger gradients falling from height can become a very real concern particularly for children.
The more sloping a garden is the less chance people will find the space appealing. If an excessive amount of physical exertion is needed to access the site it will not be used as often. The various level changes of these gardens are certainly a disadvantage especially for less able people.
It is a sad fact that sloping sites are more prone to soil erosion. This can leave a site with shallow and nutrient poor soil. Such conditions are not the best for gardeners with large landscaping installations needed to re-engineer the ground and soil type. Erosion is particularly a problem where large amounts of vegetation have been cleared.
It is very common for these gardens to be exposed to wind corridors and prevailing winds. With a lack of suitable shelter sloping gardens are less appealing for both plants and people. Windy conditions can make a garden much less attractive for any form of recreational activity.
No level areas
Probably the biggest downfall of steep gardens is the lack of level zones. These are the most favourable for recreation, gardening, and sporting activities in times of fine weather. This is why one of the most common landscaping solutions for slopes is terracing. Having no level areas is the biggest disadvantage of sloping gardens.
Advantages of slopes
Most of the time a sloping garden has a commanding view over the surrounding landscape. This enables the site to take advantage of a feeling of exaggerated space. This is particularly advantageous if the surrounding area has scenic views. Even in very urban settings borrowed landscape can give a sloping garden a much more admirable aesthetic.
Very much in the same way sloping gardens allow for borrowed landscape they also facilitate a commanding view. This is extremely important to give a garden the feeling of spaciousness and freedom. A garden with commanding views has much more visual appeal than one within four walls.
Sloping and hilly gardens usually provide the opportunity to take advantage of micro climate. The most typical example of this is where a hillside provides shelter from cold northerly winds. Slopes which catch the sun’s rays can become lighter and warmer than the surrounding climate. With some clever landscaping this can be exaggerated further to create perfect garden spaces for both plants and people.
Using the force of gravity sloping gardens can utilise the magic of water within the landscape. Whether for an ecological irrigation solution or creating a decorative water fall, slopes are very beneficial for harnessing water within the landscape.
Increased surface area
As uncomfortable as some sloping gardens seem they do hold the advantage of being able to increase the sites surface area. This is especially so if the garden makes use of terracing the slope to create level areas. Walls and surfaces are more numerous than naturally flat gardens.
Wildlife gardens have become much more popular in recent years with ever more environmental awareness. Encouraging wildlife into gardens is a great way to relax and enjoy nature.
Wildlife gardens can be less intensive to maintain with a more laid back approach to maintenance. Such methods can be the best landscaping for slopes and awkward sites. Wildlife gardens have a beauty all of their own and actually encourage interaction through nature study and observation.
Man made burrows
A popular trend in wildlife gardening today is providing suitable nesting and sheltered areas for wildlife. Small mammals such as hedgehogs, voles and otters have become increasing rare due to destruction of habitats.
Creating man made burrows can be as simple as setting an old clay pipe into a slope. More sophisticated burrows can be built by sinking brick boxes into the ground with an entrance. Man made burrows can be perfect places to hide for reptiles, amphibians, mammals and even insects. The vertical nature of slopes make these every easy to create on garden slopes.
Wild flower meadows
Wild flower meadows used to be common across much of the countryside. These meadows were important for the production of storable hay which kept farm animals fed during the winter months. Since the dawn of commercial agriculture a hundred years ago they have slowly disappeared.
This has been catastrophic for wildlife populations especially pollinating insects. Wildflower meadows not only look fantastic they are also a low energy way of maintaining the landscape. This makes wildflower meadows perfect landscaping for sloping gardens which are difficult to mow. Wildflower meadows can be achieved by seeding or buying ready seeded wildflower turf.
Woodland schemes are a great way to make use of sloping gardens and give a boost to wildlife. The roots of trees and shrubs help to secure the soil against erosion and help to add structure to the garden.
Tree planting can provide nesting and feeding opportunities to birds and insects. Creating areas of mulch and log piles under the trees can provide cool places to relax on hot summer days. Bird and boxes can be put up providing nature watching opportunities, perfect for children!
The great thing about sloping gardens is they can allow a commanding view. This can be very useful in a wildlife garden setting giving the perfect positioning for wildlife watching. Feeding stations can be created in good view of hidden hides or seating areas.
This allows wildlife to feed boldly in good view so we can enjoy wildlife close up. Feeding stations can range from a simple bowl at the edge of a lawn to a raised wooden platform for feeding local birdlife.
A commonly underrated advantage of sloping gardens is the ability to make use of local hydrology. With the help of gravity surface run off can be collected and channelled for irrigation or water features. With very modest changes in level water can become a very interesting natural element to work with in landscape design.
Retention ponds can be a great way to retain runoff water on site. This has an ecological function of slowing flash flooding further down river in times of heavy rain. This retained water can serve a multitude of functions both aesthetic and resourceful. Retention ponds can become scenic landscape features with colourful planting and decorative landscaping.
These can also become wildlife ponds, or used to raise fish for show or even food production. Typically these ponds will require a robust retaining edge to the lower side of a gradient. This is generally constructed with in-situ concrete construction within formwork.
Retention ponds can also be built in succession down a slope to allow for oxygenation of the water and irrigation purposes during hot, dry summers.
Waterfalls at first thought can seem a rather over the top landscaping idea for a sloping garden but they are easy in principle. Soil can be excavated and mounded up to create a bank with a higher and lower pond system.
Water can then be pumped from the higher pond to the lower one via a rocky outcrop. There are some very impressive examples of manmade waterfalls and they are perfect for landscaping for sloping gardens. With these it is essential to use the correct size pump and minimise water escaping from the cycle. Consult a landscape architect or experienced landscaper to engineer an effective waterfall.
Rain gardens are landscaped installations which divert and harvest excessive water flow in times of heavy rain. Very commonly these are associated with ecological drainage solutions but can become garden features. A great example of this would be diverting the guttering system of your home into a planned garden. This could be a decorative river bed feature with gravels and wetland planting with boulders.
Rain gardens can then feed into wildlife ponds and allow storm water to absorb into the landscape naturally. This takes pressure off the wider drainage network reducing urban flooding. Sloping gardens lend themselves very well to rain gardens utilising the natural forces of gravity to transport rain water.
Food production is typically thought of as a practice for flat areas and neat and tidy allotment plots. However sloping ground does give some rather extraordinary opportunities to grow food. With today’s greater ecological awareness combined with a lust for more locally produced, healthy vegetables, food production can become a huge opportunity within any garden.
Sloping gardens instantly disqualify themselves from typical forms of garden recreation such as football and croquet. With some imagination planning and landscaping gardens of gradient can become paces of abundant food growing at any time of year.
Terraced vegetable beds
If your fancy takes you to more traditional vegetable growing then terracing a sloping site is the way forward. In this scenario retaining walls can double up as a series of raised beds going downhill. This is best realised on a south facing slope (in the northern hemisphere) to take advantage of full sun.
With the added value of heat from the microclimate created from such landscaping the productive results can be exceptional. Terraced vegetable beds going downhill are also extremely effective at absorbing water for irrigation in a very sustainable way.
One good thing about sloping gardens is they can be used for more permanent food production installations. Even though steep slopes are generally bad for most other things they can actually help when growing an orchard. Slopes can create a warm and well drained environment for growing nuts and fruit.
The gradients can also aid harvesting on higher branches as sloping ground can give access to crowns easier. In a garden setting a variety of fruits and nuts can be produced providing a wide arrange of produce for drying, pickling or even wine making.
Not thought of as a typical way to landscape a slope but vineyards are very hardy and can look very appealing. Especially in larger sloping gardens vineyards can be the perfect way to make use of a sunny site.
Weather you enjoy making wine or just like grapes vineyards are a great novelty to show off to guests. You may wish to do some research on your conditions and consider what grapes will grow well in your area. Vineyards although nice are perfect for well drained sloping gardens.
Permaculture is a design system based on self sufficient principles and ethics. It teaches a philosophy that says that people should ever take more from nature that they put back in.
One of the most fundamental concepts of permaculture is to produce all the food and daily needs from the land you occupy. Utilising a combination of sustainable landscape design, perennial food crops and food forests maximum food is produced with minimum energy.
This practice can be implemented almost everywhere and in any climate. It is the flexibility of permaculture to respond to the strengths of any site that makes it ideal for awkward or challenging sites. Some of the best landscaping for slopes can be realised from a wholesome understanding of permaculture. Why not read this fantastic book on the subject here.
Creating electricity from your garden to power the home may seem like a strange idea but it is good for the planet and your pocket. Many homes have benefited from the investment in renewable energy within their home in recent years. A good example of this is solar panels which can be fixed to roofs. With modern technology and some innovative products you can now create energy from your garden spaces. Sloping gardens in particular lend themselves to this type of installation.
If you have a sunny garden solar panels can allow you to turn the sun’s light into energy. Gardens with steep south facing slopes are at a good angle to take advantage of this technology. Investing in solar panels for gardens is expensive but can pay off in the long run. Solar panels can block out the suns light from the ground preventing weeds from taking hold. Although not really thought of a landscaping solution, solar panels can be integrated into garden design and save you money at the same time. The Solar Centre stock many solar panels which can be used in garden environments.
Sloping gardens usually are exposed to prevailing winds and strong gusts. These are not favourable for an afternoon barbecue but they are useful for powering wind turbines. Wind turbines can generate electricity with their built in generator and store it for use in the home. These turbines can be mounted on tall poles perfect for gardens with an ecological, modern theme.
Sloping gardens may not be the perfect venue for football pitches, croquet badminton but that does not mean they are not fun. There are many ways you can use your gardens gradient to have a great time. This is regardless of if you are a large kid or a real one. Sloping gardens have many opportunities to install some fun and excitement for the whole family. We have described some of the best of these below.
When you have sloping ground it is possible to create level timber decks which can help you navigate the site. This can be particularly useful in very steep gardens. A series of raised deck walkways can become interconnected leading to tree houses and adventure playgrounds.
In accompaniment to raised decked walkways tree houses are another opportunity for steep gardens. Combined with clever landscaping and planting these can become secluded play houses, nature dens or even yoga gyms. Tree house structures can range from large raised decks to smaller wildlife watching hides.
If you really want to make good use of your sloping garden with a bang why not install a zip line? These can offer literally hours of fun for the whole family. Typically these are connected to large trees but robust timber posts can also be installed. There are many zip line products now on the market which can be adapted to fit any site.
There are a number of tree swings on the market which can be great fun in sloping gardens. Most of the time you will need an established tree to hang them from or a large timber frame.
Natural climbing frames
Natural climbing frames have become ever more popular in recent times. With fewer people living in the countryside these natural frames can bring the forest to the town. With their random shapes and configurations these climbing frames are perfect for awkward sites.
Grottos are effectively a man made cave usually crafted to look as natural as possible in the landscape. Grottos are typically built into the side of a hill so their man made structure can be built underground. Entrances are often formed with boulders and made to look as natural as possible.
Mosses, ferns and grasses are planted to make the structure blend into the landscape. These are surprisingly easy to build in sloping gardens with some excavation and concrete construction. Grottos can provide hours of fun of kids or become great overflow storage space.
Dry gardens are well drained, landscaped, sunny areas to accommodate dry loving plants. These gardens are usually designed in a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern theme to reflect their climates. Dry gardens are typically built with light coloured gravels, boulders and dry stone walls.
Succulents and architectural plants can be grown to give a desert like feel. Being well drained by nature sloping sites are perfect for landscaping dry gardens which need little maintenance, look amazing and are little maintenance. Dry gardens are a great idea for sloping gardens which are to be terraced. This is especially so if they are on a south facing slope.
Rockeries are a garden consisting of a landscaped mound with rocks and boulders. These are commonly formed to replicate natural rock formations and can be extremely aesthetically pleasing. Their mounded nature means they suit sloping gardens perfectly.
It is common to incorporate watercourses and fountains into them to oxygenate garden ponds. This can create some rather exceptional focal points including cascading waterfalls. Rockeries are a great way to take advantage of a sloping site.
When it comes to making sloping gardens as habitable as possible it usually comes down to terracing. Terracing is creating a series of level spaces with steeper transitions in-between in the form of steps. This is the ultimate and most thorough way of dealing with sloping sites. It is important to add it is also the most expensive and logistically difficult.
In order to terrace a slope you need to excavate large amounts of soil or bring in large amounts of building up material. Both of these options require large machinery and labour costs. Terracing requires robust, retaining structures built to the correct specification to prevent the risk of subsidence and failure.
For more information of terracing see our article on 'how to make your garden level here'
Retaining large volumes of soil requires strong foundations and effective drainage to be effective. It is important to hire a competent landscape contractor and be prepared for some expense.
Terracing can be done by yourself if you are prepared to do it slower over time. One of the biggest problems I have seen with DIY terracing is insufficient foundations and retaining wall thickness for the mass of soil.
All retaining walls require a ‘minimum’ thickness of 200mm. Foundations should have a flat base, a wide spread and have a substantial mass in proportion to the wall itself.
When terracing any garden slope success will depend on the suitability of your retaining structures. It is important to realise that doing this cheaply or insufficiency at the beginning will cost you more in the long run. The specification of retaining structure will depend of the size of your project, soil type and steepness of slope.
It is important to recognise that all retaining walls need a free draining layer behind the structure. Weep holes in the wall should allow water to drain from the mass of soil behind. This prevents excess weight building up and frost, freeze and thaw action on the integrity of the structure.
In-situ concrete is a process of laying wet concrete on site into formwork, shuttering or voids to create a solid concrete mass. This can either be pumped in from ready mix or mixed by hand using ballast and cement. The advantage of working with concrete is it can be worked into any shape or form.
The disadvantage is it requires very skilled labour to work. This is especially so for large quantities of shuttering and concrete.
Retaining concrete surfaces also require ‘making good’ visually after shuttering has been removed. This can be done with rendering or cladding of some kind. This will add to the work and expense of the structure.
Concrete blocks are a quick and manageable way to build large structures. These will require some skill to lay level and plumb so a brick layer should be sought.
Remember to keep at least 200mm thickness for retaining walls so lay them on their side for added thickness. Alternatively you can purchase concrete hollow blocks and fill them with concrete afterwards.. Concrete walls need to be rendered or clad to look their best.
Brick is a very aesthetically pleasing material to work with when building retaining walls. They require more attention to detail than concrete block as they can stain and need jointing. Bricks come in a wide range of colours and materials but must also be laid in double thickness.
Retaining brick walls benefit from an interlocking brick bond such as a Flemish, monk or English garden wall bond. Building retaining walls out of brick is timely and expensive so get quotes from competent contractors.
Natural stone is a beautiful material to work with and perfect for building robust and naturalistic retaining walls. Building good quality walls however with this takes some skill. The irregular nature of this material lends itself to a rustic look.
Walls can be built with a course sand mortar mix but pointing can be tricky to make look neat. A great way to work with stone is build dry stone walls. These are typical of south west England and can be very effective.
You will need relatively consistent unit sizes and some practice to get them right. To make up from a lack of mortar dry stone retaining walls are often thicker and laid at a backward angle.
Sleepers are a popular choice when it comes to building retaining walls and also look very effective. Sleepers can easily be cut and laid vertically as well as horizontally. Sleepers still require some form of robust foundation. This can either be a consistent horizontal foundation or concrete pads with adjoining posts.
I always say proceed with caution when it comes to sleepers. In very damp conditions they will eventually rot. For very big infrastructure work be warned that after 15 years they generally start to fall apart.
Banks are not usually thought of when creating level areas to sloping gardens. They are not particularly neat and tidy or amazingly stable but banks can be a cost effective solution for terraces. Do not expect any prizes for landscape design but banked soil can be made to look more acceptable.
Banks can be made into rockeries or planted with decorative trees and shrubs. This can help stabilise the soil and add some colour and interest. Banks are probably not a good solution in very small gardens or where space is limited.
A Useful video on the best landscaping ideas for sloping gardens
Sloping gardens can provide a challenge for landscaping but they do also have some advantages. When considering the best landscaping for slopes the three main determining factors are construction cost, accessibility and function.
If you really want flat areas terracing with robust retaining structures is the only option. This is the most expensive but effective solution. If you have a very steep gradient landscaping which gives you safe and easy access is the most desirable.
The best landscaping for sloping gardens mitigates accessibility issues but also utilises opportunities slopes provide. Enhancing good views, opportunities for play, recreation, wildlife, terraced patios, dramatic planting and food production are just some effective examples of effective landscaping ideas for slopes.
If you require a landscaper, landscape gardening or garden design services why not contact Paul and his team. Our landscape gardening teams serve Buckinghamshire and the Chiltern region.
Some of our typical project locations include; Amersham, Aylesbury, Beaconsfield, Berkhamsted, Chalfont, Chesham, Gerard's Cross, Great Missenden, High Wycombe, Princes Risborough and Wendover.
Paul Nicolaides has over 30 years of recreational gardening and 20 years of professional landscaping experience. He has worked for landscape contractors including design and build practices across London and the South East. In 2006 he qualified with a BA Hons degree and post graduate diploma in Landscape Architecture. In 2009 he founded Ecospaces an ecological landscaping practice which aims to improve social cohesion and reduce climate change through landscaping. In 2016 he founded Buckinghamshire Landscape Gardeners which designs and builds gardens across Buckinghamshire and the South East. This blog aims to provide easy problem solving information to its audience and encourage others to take up the joy of landscaping and gardening.