Tips on How to Landscape a Bare, Rocky, Steep Hill


The Beginning: A Bare Slate
When building a new home the first thing that happens is all the land gets cleared of any trees and plants. So when the building is completed and it is time to do the landscaping, you start planning with a bare slate. In order to cut costs we opted to skip the professional landscaper and do the landscaping ourselves. This is how we did it.

It has been almost ten years now since we moved into our dream home that we designed. For over a year, we watched daily as it began to take shape as it was built from the ground up. The house is on the side of a steep hill that had just enough land leveled to build the house on. In discussing the design, we decided we wanted a swimming pool. Because of the shape of the house there would be no way to get the big equipment required to dig a hole for a swimming pool into the back yard after the house was built. Therefore, the swimming pool was the first thing that we broke ground on.

Bare Hill + Heavy Rain = Mud Slides into the Pool

The swimming pool has a unique feature. A thirty foot plus long waterfall cascades down into the pool. With the hill continuing up in the backyard it seemed like the natural thing to do. Because of the hill, the far side of the pool has retaining walls to help hold the hill in place. We placed catch bins with drains beside the wall at the bottom of the hill to divert rain water and prevent muddy water from going into the swimming pool. In the beginning, this did not work. Sometimes when it rained we would have what we call “gully washers.” That’s rain so hard that you can’t see two feet in front of you. The results of those gully washers were mudslides into the pool. It would take days of vacuuming and running the pool pump to get all the mud out and the dirty water filtered.

The Left Side: Tier the Hill

One of the reasons the rain water jumped the walls and put mud into the pool was because we opted to skip the professional landscaper. We quickly discovered that doing the landscaping ourselves was going to take time and there was no quick fix.

We call the hill “the right side” and “the left side” with the waterfall being the dividing line. The left side was where most of the dirty water was coming from and it is steep. It is hard to work on a steep hill so we began to try to tier the left side in an effort to make it easier for us to maneuver on the hill. The only way to move the dirt while trying to level out a tier was with a bucket. It was slow-going, hard work, and it was nice to have teenage boys that were willing to help with this chore. We then built walls on the tiers we had cut out using leftover rocks and stones we had from the waterfall bed.

The Right Side: Plant, Seed, Plant

The right side of the hill is a whole different ballgame. The right side of the hill is where most of the mudslides occurred. In the beginning we had “The steps that go nowhere.” We had the building contractor build concrete steps up the first ten feet or so of the hill because the hill was so steep there. When the hard rains came those steps became a natural waterfall for the mud to slide down into the pool. This side is hard and very rocky so it is hard to get anything to grow on the hill. Hoping for a quick fix we purchased a couple of boxes of mixed wildflower seed and covered the hill with the seeds.

Receiving Plants from Friends and Family

The first plants that we planted came from my aunt. We went to her house and dug up enough monkey grass to fill two thirty-gallon garbage bags. We then chopped the monkey grass into little sprigs using an ax. When we finished plugging them into the ground we had over three hundred sprigs of monkey grass. That sounds like a lot, but the hill still looked sparse. So back to my aunt’s house we went. This time we received some day lilies and some irises. These are great plants. They easily multiply and spread plus they produce beautiful flowers in the spring. (View our irises here.) We also planted sprigs from a periwinkle vine and planted some nandina seedlings that we brought from our previous yard. Other various plants and flowers came from friends.

Check Out: Cover Steep Sites with Ground Covers for more ideas on how to landscape a slope

The Backyard Hill Today

Today, after almost ten years of hard work, we have a very green hill with a variety of plants and flowers and we hardly ever get muddy water in the pool anymore. (Knock on wood!) The monkey grass and all the other plants have matured and filled in most of the previously bare hillside. The bare spots we have showing on the hill today is because the ground is so hard in that particular spot of the hill that we cannot dig to plant anything. Currently on the hillside we have pompous grass, zebra grass, mums, zinnias, black-eyed susans, daisies, butterfly bushes, sunflowers, creeping phlox (phlox grows good in the rocky soil, but it is slow to multiply), gladiolas, Easter lilies, green elephant ears, black elephant ears, hibiscus, roses, bamboo (transplanted from the river bank), hosta, nandina, salvia, and azaleas.

To save money on plants it helps to have family and friends you can get cuttings, seeds, or seedlings from. Those plants will mean more to you than any you buy at the store. Your friends or family will probably be happy to let you cull out their seedlings if they have an overcrowded bed of plants. After all, you’d be doing some of their gardening for them, but in return you get “free” plants or flowers. When you are doing your own landscaping it takes time for the plants to mature for you to see the results. So, remember, patience is a virtue when gardening.

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