If a yard is a canvas, then applying “paint” – lush green grass, multicolored flower beds, mosaic stepping stones – is easier for most if the canvas is flat. While landscape architects can easily visualize terraces or a waterfall, homeowners limited by inexperience or budget see nothing but an uphill battle. But there are lots of ways to sculpt and color a contoured yard, with or without a landscape designer’s assistance.
If easy maintenance is a priority, “One tip is to plant a native grass that will only grow about 4 inches tall, like buffalo grass that’s native to most areas, so that you don’t have to mow it,” says Rachelle Kemp, technical services specialist for The Grounds Guys. “Another tip would be to plant a groundcover that is evergreen and low-maintenance instead of grass.”
If a functional rather than frilly space is a must, hardscaping the slope with a series of connected decks will create different zones for entertaining and relaxing. Natural stone, brick or wood can be used to tie the hardscaping in as an architectural element of the home.
One of the most common methods for making the most of a slope is by building retaining walls to create terraces. “Connect the terraces with zigzag pathways,” recommends Johanna Silver, garden editor for Sunset magazine. “Before construction on steep slopes, it’s a good idea to review your plans with a structural engineer.”
Certain building projects may require an engineer’s stamp or a permit, along with an understanding of natural forces such as hydrostatic pressure.
“If a slope is not planted or stabilized properly, it can present a hazard in wet weather or to the gardener tasked with maintenance,” Silver says.
Gardening on a slope presents erosion and runoff challenges. One DIY solution Silver recommends is installing jute erosion-control netting before planting on steep slopes. “Unfurl the rolls on the slope across the grade and secure them to the ground with U-shaped galvanized or plastic-coated pins, which are usually sold with the jute,” she says. “Then, cut small, X-shaped holes in the jute and plant the seedlings or plants through them.”
Plants with dense, strong roots that help hold the soil perform best on slopes. Staggering rows of such plants also safeguards against erosion.
A drip irrigation system with emitters positioned uphill in relation to the plants “allows plants to get the amount of water they need without a lot of runoff,” Silver says. “To catch rainwater, build berms on the downhill side of the plants using soil from the planting holes that you dug.”
For front or side yards, riotous native plantings or a rock garden may not be acceptable in some neighborhoods. Where groomed grass is de rigueur, mowers should be operated with extreme caution on slopes. “It’s safest to push walk-behind mowers from side to side and drive riding mowers up and down, and do not mow backwards,” Kemp says. “Grass is very slippery when wet, so make sure that the grass is completely dry before mowing.”
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