How to garden on a slope

Geoff Stonebanks shares his top tips for gardening on a slope.

The central steps at Driftwood Garden

When we moved from London to the south coast, back in 2004, I wasn’t really a gardener. When house hunting, a garden was certainly on our wish list, but if I am honest worrying about whether it was flat, uphill or downhill really was not a consideration. That said, I think my feelings may be different if we were ever to move again.

Driftwood Garden 2004 uphill slope
The uphill slope in 2004. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Sloping plot

The garden that came with our new house was on a slope. As a result I needed to think very carefully about how to combat the slope from the house up to the top of the garden. Our first summer was challenging, not being able to place a chair anywhere in the garden that gave you a level spot upon which to sit was an issue. I realised fairly quickly that the lawn was going to go, and that led me to consider creating a number of different terraces or levels to facilitate level spaces. Here are the key factors that influenced me and helped me to create level spaces in my sloping garden.

Downhill slope to house at Driftwood
The downhill slope to the house. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Using Garden Buildings

When we moved in, there were a couple of ram shackle old garden sheds which had to be replaced, but fortunately there was already a small base to extend, to guarantee a level area on which to place my much larger garden building.

New shed at Driftwood
The new shed in situ. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

As far as the remainder of the garden buildings were concerned that was the starting point to think about terracing. My partner needed a garden studio at the very top of the plot, for painting, so that was the very first project we undertook. It was either a case of digging in and creating the level space or building up and creating a dominant location for the building, we opted for the latter.

Laying the base for the studio at the top of the garden - Driftwood
Laying the base for the studio. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

In the same part of the garden I decided to install a new greenhouse, so the next level was determined by its location. Sometimes when designing a garden it’s a good idea to take a breather and assess what you have done and what comes next. At this point, things were not too clear on how best to take it to the next stage, so I opted to lay weed resistant matting and cover the intervening spaces with heavy duty bark chip for a few years to get the measure of how I wanted it all to gel together.

The greenhouse at Driftwood Garden
The new greenhouse. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

The main decider for me, on the design structure for the main body of the garden, was determined a few years later, in 2007. I decided to erect a summerhouse in the top right hand corner, which had distant views to the sea. In order to combat the severe slope we had to build up the ground quite significantly to create a level area immediately in front of the structure.

Having got all the garden buildings in place it gave us the opportunity to consider what the next steps would be.

The summerhouse at Driftwood
Summerhouse and patio installed. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Paths in a sloping plot

In my case, there was a sloping central path, running up between the two original lawns in the garden. I made a conscious decision to retain the slope there, thus avoiding too many steps throughout the garden to negotiate the many levels. A new winding path, on a less severe slope, was then installed from this central path, to join the steps down from the summer house on the right of the plot and finally, for me, the overall structure started to fall into place. Luckily, the access path to the garden from the front of the house, was already in situ and had been built on a slope to ease access there.

The sloping central path at Driftwood
The sloping central path. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Tiering a sloping garden

Having established the buildings and the paving, the next major obstacle was creation of some level spaces joining everything together and creating an overall effect.

In the central area of the back garden, I opted to create two different tiers of gravel beds, utilising old railway sleepers. Once complete and planted the new look took several years to fill out and take on the look of a mini jungle as it does today.

Tiered shingle area at Driftwood
Tiering with shingle bed bordered by old railway sleepers. Image: Geoff Stonebanks
The tiered gravel bed Driftwood
The tiered gravel bed as it is today. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Meanwhile, on the left hand side of the garden, I created a small raised patio area from two circular, decorative steps. This flowed up from the central path and opened out onto narrow tiered patio with a raised bed and folly door.

The central steps at Driftwood Garden
The central steps with folly door. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

The most recent addition to the tiering of the gardens, was completed in the autumn of 2021, when the new sunken garden was added behind the house.

Sunken garden at Driftwood
The sunken garden. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Food for thought – always do what you feel is right for your plot!

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