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How To: Landscaping on a Hill or Slope

Tackling a great landscape design can be challenging even on relatively flat or even ground. Landscaping on a hill or sloped yard is a whole new beast. The challenges presented by a sloping space mean there is more for homeowners and designers to keep in mind during the design process. What it does not mean is that your hilly property is doomed to lack front curb appeal, or backyard functionality. 

Don’t let a sloping backyard keep you from creating your dream outdoor living space. By keeping the challenges of a slope in mind, you should be able to create a space that both functional and beautiful. Here’s how know-how and some help from a team of professionals, can help you conquer any hill.

Key Challenges of Landscaping in a Sloping Yard

The reason landscaping on a hill is so challenging has less to do with the incline itself, and more to do with factors related to the incline. The effect that a steep grade has on the ground and soil can make planting difficult. But knowing what you’re up against before you begin will help you avoid these problems before they occur.

Erosion

Over all else, a sloped landscape means one thing in the landscaping world: erosion. Due to the natural forces of gravity, erosion on a hillside is an inevitability. That is, unless measures are taken to prevent it. If you fail to take action to prevent erosion, you will see any design work being displaced and disrupted over time as more of the hillside begins to erode.

The steeper the slope you are working with, the more erosion you will see. Steeper grades tend to erode more quickly as well. Get ahead of the issues by confronting the problem in the design rather than trying to work around it. With some creativity and effort, you can minimize the effect erosion will have in your space.

Run Off

After erosion, the second greatest challenge for landscaping on a hill is run off. As we discussed in our talk on hillside pool installation, hilly yards can quickly become an opportunity for hazardous runoff. 

Not only will runoff collect at the bottom of the hillside after larger rainfalls, but it will only contribute to the speed of erosion. When water flows downhill, it works on the soil beneath it. Eventually, it will carry away small rocks, soil, and take plants with it.

Because of this, homeowners should form a plan to create good drainage solutions in their backyard. Or, design your sloping space in a way that gives the would-be run-off a place to absorb before damage is done.

Poor Soil Quality

Pair erosion and the forces of run-off rainwater together and what do you get? Poor quality soil! If you’ve ever been on a drive and noted the landscape of steep slopes, you have seen this phenomenon at work without even realizing it.

In uncontrolled settings, natural forces such as gravity and water work to pull away rich topsoil. Over time, this leaves only larger particulates such as stones and rocks exposed, anchored to nutrient-poor soil. In the natural world, this can lead to rich, top soil filled valleys below. While beautiful, this not exactly a phenomenon you want at play in your own backyard. 

Thankfully, there are creative design solutions you can employ to help keep topsoil in place and prevent the entire project from going downhill, so to speak. 

Sloped and Hillside Landscaping Ideas

Strategy and creativity are the two most important considerations when landscaping on a hill. There are a few tried and true techniques that will turn even seriously sloping spaces into functional yards for the whole family. 

Tiered Design

The first, and most common way to address a hilly backyard is turn a long, continuous slope into a series of tiered, flat spaces. To do this, your contracting company will cut into your yard, creating large, flat, step-like sections. Each of these sections will be held in by a shorter terrace or retaining wall.

A tiered or terraced landscape design is one of the most popular solutions to landscaping on a slope for a few reasons. Not only does creating flat, descending spaces retain the downward angle of the environment, but it helps to prevent excess erosion and encourage water absorption.

Additionally, a long series of flat, descending spaces can be turned into more than just a space to plant. Patios, decks, pergolas, and even pools and spas can all be installed on one of these tiered levels making them as functional as they are nice to look at.

Staircases

Keeping with the vision of tiered design, hillsides are a great opportunity to incorporate an element of design not often used in flatter spaces- stairs! Most people view stairs in any design as a purely functional element. Of course, they do help you to more easily traverse your yard. And the hardscaping of installed stairs can give rainwater a natural and guided path to descend. However, with a little creativity, stairs can become a design focal point in a sloping space.

Use the implementation of a staircase to help guide you physically and visually through the space. From the bottom and top perspective, stairs are a reference point for the eye to follow up and down the line of your hill. For this reason, you may consider steering away from a traditionally linear trajectory.

Creating a meandering path will not only help guide you around the space, but it will do a better job at anchoring plantings as well. Staircases can be striking, and vary in texture and color based on the materials used. For those looking to play into their environment, natural stone could be a great choice. If your designer has created other retaining walls or more modern lines, poured concrete can be another beautiful alternative.

Large Retaining Walls

Another popular solution for landscaping on a hill is to avoid the process of planting on a sloping space altogether. To do this, many landscape designers will bring in a retaining wall. Retaining walls are exactly what they sound like. They retain a section of earth from falling or eroding a way. In a way, they are functionally retaining, or “holding back” the hill in your space.

Retaining walls can be built in either back or front yards, and can be quite small, or larger. The larger or higher the hill, the bigger the retaining wall must become. Those dealing with very large changes in elevation may not find a single retaining wall to be a feasible solution. In the case of long, gradual descents, a tiered approach is more logical.

Because a retaining wall is essentially taking the place of a hill, it is important that it is built correctly. Rushed or poor installation will lead to slipping or shifting rock, or even collapse of the wall over time. Investing in high quality material and a company you trust will prevent a breakdown of the space. Still, homeowners should ensure their retaining walls are checked and maintenanced regularly.

Hillside Waterfall

Rather than letting a sloping yard defeat you, view it as an opportunity to incorporate dynamic and exciting design elements. One great option for hillier outdoor spaces is to include a cascading or tumbling water feature.

Typically, those wishing to install a waterfall will need to create the elevation. This may make the installation look less integrated with the yard around it. This puts those of us landscaping on a hill at an advantage.

Whether you’re creating a steep, stoney cascade, or a meandering, bubbling stream, waterfalls look at home in hillside spaces. Additionally, the installation may help to anchor the plants around it. When done correctly, a water feature is one of the best ways to make a big impact in a sloping yard.

Choose Plants Carefully

As discussed, hilly landscapes are home to the constant forces of erosion and degraded top soil quality. This means not everything will grow there. To be successful on a hillside, plants should be chosen carefully.

Generally speaking, if you plan to retain the grade of your hillside, you need to choose plants will strong, interlocking root systems. This means that traditional sod or turf is largely out of the question. Both have shallow roots and are likely to wash away with time. Instead, turn to native plantings for cues.

Prairie grasses, groundcover, wild flowers, or shrubbery native to your area are more likely to thrive in a sloped space. Not only that, but their network of roots will help to retain soil quality, reduce runoff, and prevent erosion over time.

In some cases, it may be unrealistic to expect full plant coverage on the side of a slope. When this is the case, it’s time to turn to other forms of groundcover such as mulching, gravel, or even hardscaping.

Embrace Mulching

As discussed, you may run into issues in attempts to completely cover the side of your hill in greenery. When this happens, talk to your contractor about mulching options. Traditional wood mulching, or hard mulching with material such as pea gravel or stone is placed to do what plants cannot. The variety of groundcover available means homeowners can choose from a broad range of colors and texture for their space.

Choosing tones that complement the rest of your landscaping will help the integration of mulch feel more seamless. Placing a few larger anchors such as boulders, rocks, or even stairs will give you opportunities to break up the space, and anchor plantlife.

While mulching can be used to promote good drainage and prevent runoff, in areas with significant precipitation, it may not hold up. In this case, designers should turn to more solid, permanent hardscaping solutions.

Hardscaping

If rolling hills are preventing you from creating a green space, leaning into hardscaping will help you achieve a yard that is not only functional, but beautiful as well. Working with the grade of your space, ask your landscape designer if they can incorporate tiered decking, or leveled patios.

Natural stone, composite decking, and interlocking pavers are all beautiful materials that can stand up against the forces of erosion in your space. Homeowners should note that significant hillside hardscaping will not do much to prevent runoff. In that case, measures should be taken to direct drainage and properly dispose of rainwater at the base of the property.

An Uphill Battle

Some of the most challenging projects in landscape design are also the most rewarding. If you’re grappling with how to create a beautiful outdoor space on a slope or hill, don’t give up hope. Landscaping on a hill can be a challenge, but it is far from impossible.

Understanding the issues presented by your own backyard will help you to assess the best way to work with and around them. By embracing your own backyard and working with the grade, rather than against it, you can quickly learn to cope with a slope, and turn an uphill battle into a beautiful success.

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