Credit: Valerie Freeman/Prestige Pools & Spas
Credit: Valerie Freeman/Prestige Pools & Spas

An asymmetrical backyard isn’t a problem; it’s an opportunity to flex your creative might.

Backyards with steep embankments, awkward angles, and long, narrow footprints can inspire brilliant designs.

In this four-part series, we'll explore how landscape designers tame challenging terrain.

This week's edition: Slopes

The opportunity: Conquer hills and maximize usable level space.

How: The obvious answer is a retaining wall. But this is by no means the only option. Some designers only consider this as a last resort.

“Most of the time, we’re looking to do something less intensive than that,” says Ben

Bowen, head designer with Ross Northwest Watergardens in Portland, Ore.

As an alternative to a wall, Bowen recommends building something into a steep upgrade, such as a three-sided raised vegetable garden. This budget-friendly option is catching on in Portland, where the urban homesteader movement is in full force.

But if a wall is a must, proceed with caution. While retainers can help create more usable space, they also can make the level portion feel sunken, like a pit. This is especially true of a yard with a formal sitting area where guests might not be able to see over the wall. That’s why Eric King recommends walls 3 feet tall or lower.

“My favorite height is to keep it at 18 inches; then it becomes a seat wall,” says the owner of King Landscaping, which serves the greater Atlanta area.

Doing this adds more seating capacity in a small space that might only have enough furniture room for a table and four chairs, King adds.

As for dressing up a slope with vegetation, be careful what you plant and where. For example, don’t install tall plants right on top of the wall. They will only serve to make the wall appear taller, and the yard lower. Instead, layer the slope with plants 18 inches or lower up front, and go gradually taller as you go back. For the very back, pick a plant that will mature to the desired screening height, King advises.

When it comes to a downgrade, take the opposite approach. Say, for example, the slope drops 6 feet. In this case, install a plant in the back that will mature to a height of 6- to 8 feet. Then, as you come up the hill, install shorter varieties. At the garden’s edge, plant something around 18 inches tall. The result gives the slope a more level appearance.
But if the client prefers a more minimalist design, then disguising the slope under a canopy might not be the best option.

“Sometimes all you can do with a slope is make it beautiful and easy to maintain,” Bowen says.

That means creating paths. Consider a winding trail made of small boulders, juniper wood timbers and steel edging.

“It’s not only beautiful in and of itself, but it also makes it so you can maintain the slope even in wet weather and not hurt yourself,” Bowen adds.

You can also make the top a destination by placing a pergola or bench for relaxation, especially if it offers views to enjoy.

Of course, slopes also lend themselves to waterfeatures. A series of terraced waterfalls would look perfectly natural in a hillside.