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Sloping Garden? Here’s How to Make it Work

Don’t despair if your garden’s on a slope – there are many ways to enjoy the space

Houzz UK contributor and award-winning landscape and garden designer. Claudia de… More

Many of us are nervous of tackling a garden on a slope, but there are various ways to make this kind of outdoor space work to your advantage. If you’ve always wanted a stream, a slope is perfect, and if you have wonderful views, then a sloping garden will help you enjoy them more as long as you can access the top section easily. Explore these and other inspiring ideas below.

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Layer your greens
A well-known garden in Wiltshire called Iford Manor is built on the side of a very steep hill. At the turn of the 19th century, the landscape architect, Harold Peto, transformed the hillside into an Italianate garden with terraces, statues, rockeries, cypress trees and waterfalls, all with magnificent views across the surrounding countryside.

The more accessible trick to steal for your own sloping garden is Peto’s clever use of lots of different kinds of green in the planting, which disguises the steep sides of the hillside. The eye is led up the winding paths and steps and you catch glimpses of what lies beyond.

By planting trees and adding different shades of green throughout the planting, with some shrubs clipped and some left loose, a steep slope becomes a mysterious journey through lush growth.

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Look after your soil
As well as being hard for access and planting, a steep garden slope can lead to erosion and water run-off. If you can create steps up and plant the banks with varieties that will anchor the soil with their roots, this will greatly help to retain the soil.

For areas where you can easily lay it, peg coarse coconut matting or a similar material to the slope and plant through it; the matting will decay over time and the roots of the plants should provide a good consolidation. During the summer months, you may need to add more mulch to help preserve water on a sloping garden.

Read expert advice on how to look after your garden over the winter

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Terrace it
Some sloping gardens lend themselves to having terraced areas that can be made into paved or decked patios for comfy seating or dining alfresco. By creating alternative areas in which to sit and enjoy your garden, you gain a different aspect and can look up or down and across.

Steps will minimise the severity of the slope, especially if you can have wide steps and create a landing in-between to break the run. Having steps will also help to connect different areas, making each part distinct, with a different purpose.

Keeping the planting simple in-between the levels means less work, and if you use low hedging, as seen here, this will mimic the steps in the middle, making the whole area look wider.

Get ideas for the best patio flooring for your space

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Work in a retaining wall or two
There are many different ways of retaining soil in a sloping garden, as well as numerous choices of materials, and safety always comes first. High walls and steps can be hazardous, just as grassy slopes and gravel can be slippery and dangerous. Good drainage is important, so you don’t end up with a pool of dirty water at the bottom, too.

The use of retaining walls is a popular way of making the most of the space. Some may need specialist structural engineers if the areas are very steep, and have railings to comply with safety regulations.

Choosing materials will be subject to cost, but also the style you’re trying to create in the garden. For example, Cor-Ten steel, seen here, adds a very modern look, while reclaimed railway sleepers lend a more rustic style. Gabions, which are metal cages filled with stones, can also look very effective, as can locally quarried natural stone. Or you can opt for concrete blocks, which can be rendered and painted in a colour to suit.

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Add water
A sloping garden is an ideal way to introduce a water feature, such as a stream, into your garden, which will help to connect various areas. With a natural slope, there’s no need to shift mounds of soil to create a slope for a pretty-looking babbling brook, and you can make it look very natural by using locally quarried natural stone and gravel, softened by planting around it.

The stream will need to have a big enough pump to push the water up to the top of the outlet pipe, and this means you need electricity. But it’s also an ideal way of having a large or small wildlife pond at the bottom to house the pump. The height and width of the stream will determine the size of the pump required.

Water spouts can also be built into retaining walls on a sloping garden, emptying into either a sump below or a small pond.

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Use self-seeders to fill the gaps
A sloping garden that has rocks, steps or retaining walls will bring with it opportunities to plant many self-seeding plants in nooks and crannies that will soon start to cascade. Good plants to try are: Erigeron karvinskianus (pictured); the compact annual sweet alyssum; creeping thyme and creeping phlox; varieties of sedums and sempervirens; the bright purple aubretia; trailing lobelia, and valerian, which grows out of the smallest cracks.

You can also turn a steep slope into a rockery and enjoy many small alpine plants that will thrive in-between the stones and rocks. Choose plants with contrasting foliage and alpines such as Saxifraga and Aubrieta deltoidea, Rock penstemon, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’, and fairy thimbles (Campanula cochlearifolia), to name a few.

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Let the inside flow outside
If you have the opportunity to open up the back of your home full-width onto the garden, and use materials cleverly, you will help to make your sloping garden feel much less of an unworkable space.

By extending the indoor flooring to marry up with the decking outside, then continuing the wood feel by using sleepers as retaining walls, this steep slope has become far less obtrusive.

Once the planting matures in this garden, and there’s more greenery along the fences, and it reaches the trees to the rear behind the fence, the garden will also feel less boxed in and blend more into the landscape behind.

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Mix materials
Sometimes it’s too costly or hard, due to logistics and access, to use the materials you’d like to on a very steeply sloping garden. By using a mixture of materials instead, however, you can create something really lovely.

Consider introducing natural stone boulders and sleepers together, which can be used to anchor portions of a slope and to add natural beauty.
Plant cleverly, too, using drought-resistant plants where possible, ground covers and succulents. This will help to blend the different materials together and aid in the prevention of erosion, which, as already mentioned, is a natural hazard of all gardens on a slope.

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Light for drama
Lighting a sloping garden is not only important if you want to use it in the evenings, it can also look even more spectacular than a flat space. Water features or streams, paved areas, steps, rocks, trees and plants look magical lit up – and a little light goes a long way.

Lighting your steps is essential to reduce tripping, and light fittings look best recessed into a flanking side wall. Spiked fittings around the garden allow you to change the position of the light according to the varying seasons and plant growth.

Nocturnal wildlife and insects may be put off by too-bright lighting, and anti-glare lights are available. You can also buy solar lights, which can be more cost-effective and better for areas where it may be hard to install electrical cables.

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Consider your way in
With a sloping driveway in your garden, the materials you use will be determined by the steepness of the incline. Gravel is lovely, but may not be practical if the drive is too steep and will need constant topping up.

Cobbles or pavers may work well, or there’s now a good selection of coloured resin-bound gravel. There are many other products to choose from for drives these days, including a honeycomb fabric cell membrane that contains gravel or turf.

Make sure you have adequate drainage installed on your drive, especially on a slope, and edge the sides to hold it together and to help direct water. You can plant behind the edging, if you wish, to soften the effect of any hard landscaping.

The law changed in the UK in 2008 to make it requirement, unless you apply for Planning Permission, for all front gardens with hardstanding to be paved in a permeable material to prevent flooding.

Do you have a sloping garden? What design ideas have you chosen to make it work better? Share your tips in the Comments below.

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