When high winds and heavy rain sweep exposed topsoil away, hillsides erode. Planting a garden of grass, ground covers, shrubs, and/or trees can help stabilize embankments by providing a root system to stabilize things. Varying heights of vegetation can stagger rainfall, lessening its impact on the ground. Here’s what you can do to strengthen a hilly landscape:
Ornamental grasses like mondo, blue fescue, and yellow foxtail are ideal erosion fighters. These low-maintenance plants grow at moderate to fast speeds, thrive in both shade and full sun (depending on the climate), and establish strong, sprawling root systems that give soil staying power. Blue fescue requires only occasional watering, or none at all if planted in an area with frequent water runoff. Mondo does well in almost any type of soil. Yellow foxtail is deer-resistant and spreads as it grows. All three grasses make excellent garden borders.
Ground Covers and Shrubs
Sturdy ground covers and shrubs are a great way to deter foot traffic through an area (another contributor to soil erosion). Juniper, rosemary, and buttonbush are great plants for the job. Juniper and rosemary are both evergreen and easy to care for. They do best in full sun and need little water once established, and juniper comes in so many varieties that you’re bound to find a version that thrives in your zone. Rosemary makes an excellent edible addition to any garden. The deciduous buttonbush shrub, or button willow, is a water absorber that needs moist soil, making it a smart option for rainy climates.
For trees that will flourish in a hillside garden, look for species with extensive root systems capable of keeping the tree steady on a slope and penetrating several layers of earth. Cascara, fir, pine, and willow all fit the bill. The cascara and willow (especially weeping willows) thrive in full sun and require moist to wet soil. They do best in milder climates without harsh winters. Firs and pines, both members of the conifer family, need abundant sunlight too, but they do well in dry soil and are hardy enough to withstand below-zero temperatures.
- Ask Mr. Smarty Plants
- Reducing Soil Erosion: Using Plants For Erosion Control
- Reducing Soil Erosion
- Erosion Control Plants
- Grasses for Soil Erosion
- What perennial groundcover can I plant on a sunny slope that is difficult to mow?
- Best Plants for Slopes
- Japanese Maple
- Climbing Rose
- Landscaping Ideas For Hillside: TOP Backyard Steep Slope Solutions
- Build garden steps correctly
- Use ramps for easy access
- Safety considerations in a sloping garden
- Plant up bare soil areas
- Laying gravel paths in sloping gardens
- Lighting ideas for sloping gardens
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Wednesday – March 24, 2010
From: Memphis, TN
Topic: Erosion Control
Title: Low-growing plants for steep bank to prevent erosion
Answered by: Nan Hampton
We recently bought a house (6 months ago) in Memphis, TN that backs up to a concrete drainage ditch. There is a fairly steep, mostly shaded bank that leads from the flat section of the back yard to the edge of the ditch. The bank is between 10 and 12 feet in width, and has a steep enough grade to make it difficult to walk down, and has developed some serious erosion problems which started after several bushes and trees were cut down by the former owners, a week or so before we moved in. A 6 ft tall wooden privacy fence, backed by a city maintained 4 ft tall chain link fence, set into the concrete walls of the ditch, separates the ditch and the yard. What can we plant that will be a very low growing, but quickly spreading and affordable, low maintenance ground cover to help control the erosion and will also withstand traffic from or deter digging from two large dogs.
First of all, it’s really too bad that the former owners cut down trees and shrubs before you moved in. What were they thinking?
Now to stabilize the area, we recommend grasses for controlling erosion because of their extensive fibrous root systems that serve to hold the soil in place. You can probably buy plugs of the grasses below, but the cheapest thing to do is to throw out some seeds. However, just throwing grass seeds over the side of your bank may not work very well. The seeds need moisture to germinate. If the moisture comes in the form of rain, it is likely to wash the seeds down the bank into the drainage ditch before they have a chance to germinate and take root. You might consider an erosion control blanket. The erosion-control fabric works by slowing the runoff water and allowing sediments to fall out rather than be washed away. Seeds are sown under the erosion-control material and grow up through the matting when they germinate. You can also insert plants into the soil by cutting through the matting. The roots of the plants that are growing through the erosion-control material anchor the soil to stop the erosion. If you use erosion-control blankets made of biodegrable material, they will eventually disappear leaving the plants to control the problem. Many nurseries carry this erosion control fabric. You could also include low growing shrubs and other perennials in the mix with the grasses.
Here are some grasses and other plants that should work on your bank in shade (less than 2 hours sun per day) and part shade (2 to 6 hours sun per day):
GRASSES: All the grasses listed here are bunch grasses and grow to around 3 feet.
Andropogon virginicus (broomsedge bluestem)
Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama)
Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye)
Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats)
Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)
SEDGES: Sedges are grass-like and evergreen and generally grow less than 2 feet tall.
Carex blanda (eastern woodland sedge)
Carex cherokeensis (Cherokee sedge)
Carex texensis (Texas sedge)
SHRUBS: These shrubs grow to 4 feet or less.
Comptonia peregrina (sweet fern)
Gaultheria procumbens (eastern teaberry)
Hypericum prolificum (shrubby St. Johnswort)
Aquilegia canadensis (red columbine)
Lupinus perennis (sundial lupine)
Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower)
Phlox divaricata (wild blue phlox)
Euonymus obovatus (running strawberry bush)
Mitchella repens (partridgeberry)
Now about the dogs—my experience with dogs is that they like to dig in soil that has been freshly worked; therefore, I would recommend that you temporarily fence the area until the plants are well-established. Otherwise, you are likely to lose a goodly portion of your plants. Hopefully, after the plants are well-established, the dogs will be less eager to dig in them.
Here are photos of some of the plants above from our Image Gallery:
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Reducing Soil Erosion: Using Plants For Erosion Control
Urban building, natural forces and heavy traffic can wreak havoc on the landscape, causing erosion and loss of topsoil. Reducing soil erosion is important to preserve nutrient-rich soils and natural or unnatural configuration of the topography. Using plants for erosion control is an excellent biological method to safeguard the landscape and the shape of the land. There are many types of erosion control plants, but preventing erosion with native plants complements and accents the natural landscape. Native plants also need less specialized care and maintenance.
Reducing Soil Erosion
Conditions that promote soil erosion are rain, wind, physical disturbance and overuse. Overworked soils have few large plant species to help hold soil in place and have diminished nutrient resources. That dusty, lifeless soil is prone to blowing or leaching away, leaving exposed areas that become rife with weeds and unwanted species.
Preventing erosion with native plants is a common ecological practice in land management. It is a relatively easy way to conserve top soils and prevent open areas from wearing away. Other methods include coir netting, mulching, terracing and wind or water breaks.
Erosion Control Plants
Cover crops, such as vetch, rye and clover, are excellent plants for erosion control. These hardy easy to grow plants send out nets of roots that help hold topsoil in place while also reducing competitive weeds. When tilled back into the soil, they increase the nutrient density as they compost.
Other types of erosion control plants might include the ground covers. Examples of ornamental erosion control are:
- Creeping juniper
- Weeping forsythia
Even smaller plants like wooly thyme and baby tears are helpful in preventing weeds in overworked soils and protect the topsoil, allowing it to recover nutrients and tilth.
Grasses for Soil Erosion
Native grass plants are useful for erosion control and have the added benefit of fitting readily into the landscape. They will easily transplant and take in conditions that mimic their natural habitat. Native grasses also need less maintenance as they are adapted to the region in which they occur and receive most of their needs in the existing site. The right grasses for soil erosion depend upon your zone and region.
Overall, some excellent choices are:
- Timothy grass
- Smooth brome
- Some wheatgrass varieties
In arid regions, buffalo grass, deer grass and native bunchgrasses are useful erosion control.
You can also simply use a turf grass appropriate for your zone. Consider whether you need a cool or warm season variety. Sow seeds in early spring and keep the area moderately damp until germination. Establishment after germination is rapid with the proper seed choice for your soil, average moisture and temperature and plant hardiness zone.
What perennial groundcover can I plant on a sunny slope that is difficult to mow?
For those who want to reduce the amount of turf grass in their garden or have areas that are difficult to mow, a perennial groundcover species may be the perfect choice. Groundcovers are an integral part of any low maintenance landscape. They reduce erosion, lessen weed incursion, require relatively few inputs and don’t require mowing. Groundcovers are particularly useful on slopes, which are prone to unstable soils.
Many gardeners think of groundcovers as low growing, herbaceous, evergreen plants that spread quickly to form thick layers of vegetation. While this certainly describes the typical groundcover such as spurge (Pachysandra) or English ivy, there are many other options. Many other herbaceous perennials and shrubs make great groundcovers. Steep, sunny slopes are perfect for perennials such as daylilies, creeping phlox, lamb’s ears, stonecrop and a variety of ornamental grasses. A number of woody plants can also serve as good groundcovers, especially creeping juniper, fragrant sumac, bearberry, and Russian arborvitae.
Daylily, a great perennial groundcover for steep, sunny slopes
Although groundcovers are generally low maintenance plants, they will still require some care, especially until they become established in the landscape. Until the new ground cover fills in, it can be assumed that weeds will make their way into the garden. Some groundcovers are more prone to weed problems than others. Short, herbaceous ground covers are more likely to become infested with weeds than taller shrubs, because taller plants do a better job of blocking light from reaching the soil.
Lamb’s ear, another perennial that can be used as a groundcover on steep, sunny slopes
It’s also important to note the ways that the groundcover spreads. Be wary of plants that propagate by suckers, stolons, or rhizomes. These perennials often spread quickly outside of their intended borders and sneak into neighboring beds, lawns, or woodland areas. A number of groundcovers can verge on the point of being invasive so do your homework before you plant. Ask UNH Extension for specific ground cover recommendations for your own yard.
Pictured at the top: creeping phlox, a great choice for a perennial groundcover for steep, sunny slopes.
Best Plants for Slopes
Very few yards are perfectly level, and most have ditches or hills that make landscaping a challenge. Flower beds on sloped areas often suffer from erosion that displaces the soil and exposes the delicate roots of plant. There are many plants that are able to fill in the open spaces and have strong and deep roots that will hold plants in place. Here are some of our favorite plants for slopes.
Hellebores are durable flowering plants with the added bonus of being early bloomers—they can often sprout up when there is still snow on the ground. These flowers come in many colors and have a freckled pattern on the petals. Plant hellebores on a slope in full shade or dappled shade for the best results.
Boxwood shrubs are sturdy and dense enough to be reliable hedge and topiary plants, making them a great choice for sloped landscapes. Although hardy, these shrubs prefer drained soil and won’t do well in standing water. When choosing a variety (since there are so many), be sure to research the light and watering requirements for that specific type before placing it anywhere in the yard.
Image zoom Image zoom
Add roses to a slope for added color and elegance. Most types of roses are good for erosion control and do well in sun to part sun. ‘Falstaff’ is a fuchsia English rose variety with tight, lacy petals that look like a peony’s. Get a completely different look from the same species with ‘Carefree Spirit,’ a bright pink Floribunda rose. The open, sparse petal arrangement leaves the textured center exposed.
Japanese maples are a dwarfed, more delicate version of the classic maple tree. Like maples as a whole, they do well on slopes. They have smaller, more ornate leaves that come in hues of purple, gold, orange, red and green. Most varieties stay under 25 feet, and some only get to be 8 feet tall.
Hydrangea shrubs have strong branches and tons of clustered color when in bloom. They work as great garden bed fillers and are able to hold their own on an incline. Because there are so many types and varieties of hydrangea, be sure to check the label for light requirements before planting.
Climbing roses are tough and great for slopes. The can vine up trellises or fences to create privacy, and have multiple blooms to add color to landscaping. Give climbing roses a sunny spot to keep them happy.
Most groundcovers are built to sprawl and cover exposed soil, which helps these plants stay put on a slope. Allowing these plants to take over will help reduce the amount of runoff, and gives a sloped garden a more finished look. Try tough groundcovers like ajuga, hen and chicks, brass buttons, and thyme for delicate texture and solid soil stabilizers.
- By Jenny Krane
Photo by S. Cory Tanner
A variety of ornamental grasses and perennials, like these in Greenville’s Falls Park, can stabilize a steep slope and make an attractive display.
Steep, sunny slopes frustrate plenty of gardeners. These hillside challenges offer up one problem after another: hot, dry locations that are awkward to maintain, with poor soil and chronic erosion. Without vegetation, they can deteriorate into unsightly wastelands.
For years, the standard advice has been to plant juniper groundcovers or turfgrasses on these sites. Junipers are certainly tough enough to survive slope conditions, but they give landscapes a dated look, and they tend to allow weeds to poke up in between. If invaded by a single pest or disease, such as root rot, a juniper bed will turn into a swath of dead sticks in short order. As for turfgrasses, they must be mowed with regularity—a chore that is downright dangerous on a steep slope.
I say, ditch those junipers and lawn grasses in favor of a variety of attractive and easy-to-maintain ornamental grasses and perennials. Ornamental grasses, especially native species, are well adapted to enduring sunny slopes. Most can survive on low levels of soil nutrients and are drought tolerant once established. As a bonus, they have dense, fibrous root systems that are great for stabilizing soil and reducing erosion.
Grasses come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The wind blowing through grass leaves adds graceful movement and a pleasant sound to your landscape.
A few years ago, these grasses were hard to find in the nursery trade. But today, some are widely available, and you can even find multiple cultivars for most species. Some good options for slopes are switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), weeping lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) and pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).
You might have some success with seed mixes, but you’ll likely enjoy greater success in establishing these plants by transplanting from containers or small plugs, as long as the plants are irrigated through their first summer.
Consider creating a wild meadow look by mixing different grasses at random in your plantings. Or, mass several plants from a single species in a large swath, so it’s easier to appreciate the individual attributes of each grass.
Sun-loving perennials and bulbs may be interspersed to provide extra color and multiple seasons of interest. Flowering perennials that look great among ornamental grasses include black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), coneflowers (Echinacea), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), false indigo (Baptisia), goldenrod (Solidago) and a variety of salvias. A mix of species will increase the biodiversity of the slope, turning it into a hotbed of butterfly, bee and bird activity.
Because slopes are commonly created from a landscape cut or fill during construction, they are usually composed of very poor soil. Perform a soil test before planting, and make the necessary adjustments. As always, organic matter (compost) will further improve the soil, increasing the health of your planting. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch (shredded hardwood or pine straw) to reduce erosion, conserve soil moisture and prevent weeds.
Other than watering during establishment and fertilizing occasionally, the only care these plantings will need is periodic weeding, focused on removing large weeds and woody plants that invade, and an annual mowing. Cutting back the grasses once a year, typically in February or March, will help keep the patch tidy and manageable.
A mix of ornamental grasses and perennials will have fewer pest and disease problems than a monoculture of junipers or turfgrasses, and it enhances wildlife habitat. Instead of a boring mat of green, you can enjoy a living, breathing, prairie-style landscape on your slope.
S. Cory Tanner is an area horticulture agent for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Email him here.
For a full listing of species of ornamental grasses and care instructions, see the HGIC 1178 fact sheet “Ornamental Grasses.”
Landscaping Ideas For Hillside: TOP Backyard Steep Slope Solutions
Sleep stopes or “banks” run rampant in some San Diego neighborhoods. A by-product of Southern California’s hilly terrain or simply of builder-bulldozed soil, these slopes often characterize backyards, especially in North County. Depending on the slope’s stability and what’s behind it, homeowners have dealt with their backyard banks in a number of ways: landscaping it with ice plant (not recommended), pushing it back for a pool installation, or letting it grow “wild.”
Of course, issues like erosion control and drainage pop up when talking about slope management, and are important slope stability considerations. So before we cover what to do with your steep backyard slope, let’s discuss what’s happening on your slope first.
What Kind of Slope Do You Have?
Where does water drain on your slope? Is it moving across it or down it? Look for water channel clues. Are the channels wide or narrow? What direction are they headed? If the answer is down, erosion control will be a problem and you slope may be more unstable than you want. This is something to keep in mind when you landscape – slope stability.
Dig a hole and fill it with water. Note how long it takes for the water to drain. If drainage occurs within an hour or so, that’s good. If it takes several days to drain, that’s not so good. You don’t want water sitting on your slope because wet soil and mud on a steep hill can cause erosion and slide issues.
Dig another hole somewhere on your slope, preferably where you’re considering landscaping. If you find solid rock or clay, the soil on top can slide down your bank easier and this will inform what you plant to better “secure” the bank. Meanwhile, analyze for soil with a home test it. Make mote of what you find because it will inform what types of plants will grow best there (or not grow at all).
Is your slope accessible? Are you able to walk up your slope or do you need to hold onto something at all times? Your answers will help you decide if you can plant and maintain your slope or bring some of it into your existing backyard landscape.
Is your slope in full sun? Again, noting this factor will help you choose how you landscape your slope.
Contemporary Landscape by
What To Do With Your Slope?
Because erosion is an issue in many cases, hillside stability is key. What you plant can address erosion and most hillside movement in your landscape, as can reinforced retaining walls (something has to keep all that dirt and rock up there).
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Most hillsides can be made relatively stable with plants . The planting should be a mix of groundcover, shrubs, trees, and perennials with the areas between plants covered with mulch or boulders. A mix of plants and vegetation layers ensure that when it rains, the force of the water hitting the ground is deflected. In most cases, if your slope soil is deeper, a mix of deep-rooted plants like bougainvillea and shallow-rooted plants like monkey flowers or sagebrush are needed to secure the top soil to the bottom rock.
If you have surface soil on solid rock, planting trees helps keep water moving off the slope.
For actual planting, create small divets in the sloping soil as individual planting holes. Stagger planting placement to help to prevent water from running straight down the hill. Dig holes that are large enough to allow the roots to spread out and apply a layer of organic mulch between the plants, such as large bark chips. Be sure to irrigate your planted slope, using drip irrigation or soaker hoses, which allow water to soak into the soil and reduce runoff.
Depending on the size of your slope, you can divide hillsides into more manageable sections with retaining walls, which are strong and stable barrier walls usually made of stone, concrete or lumber. These walls can be placed where they will hold back the soil above, and make a space below that can be left as a slope, leveled, or planted. Multiple walls can be placed at different points to create a terraced look. Terraces can range from a few feet wide and used as planting areas to wide expanses. If your is large, some experts recommend putting an 8-10-foot terrace every fifty feet to make your slope much more functional long term.
Creating tiers down your slope make it less likely to erode. By digging into the hill at certain points, you can also create tiers for planting. Retain the walls of the tiers with stone pavers and layer different plants and landscaping elements to create contrast between tiers. If you use rock walls as tiers, try filling them in with plants, small trees, or even river rock for a natural look.
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Paths and Stairs —
If your slope isn’t dangerously steep, enhance its incline with paths or staircases made of stone. If you do have a very steep bank, consider a winding path made of pavers, or bricks that traverses your slope to create less of an incline. Stepping-stone paths are pretty, too, and add form and function to your backyard.
Rock Landscaping —
Using rocks for landscaping adds some “nature charm,” while also holding plants and soil in place.
Make indentations where rocks can sit without rolling and place different-sized rocks of varying texture and color together in groups. To avoid an all-rock look, leave spaces between groupings and spaces between some of the spaces to add medium-height plants or flowers to break up the landscape.
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Go Native —
As you might imagine, native plants are native for a reason. In fact, studies show that using native plants on a slope causes no measurable erosion because they’re adapted to the California environment. Native plants are perfect for sloping hillsides because they’re pretty, stabilize slopes and reduce water usage.
You can also choose native plants with different bloom cycles for year-round color and variation. If you’re into birds, and butterflies, using native plants will attract them to your bank.
If you do go native, some good choices include California holly, California Glory or Dara’s Gold. Native ground cover options are California perfume, bear berry, and coyote bush.
What Not To Do With Your Slope
Plant grass —
Planting grass does not stop erosion, and it’s been found that 30-75% of all rainfall on grass- covered slopes runs off. Also, seeding a bank with grass creates a weedy slope that is hard to stabilize and makes reestablishing plants much more difficult.
Use plastic —
So-called plastic weed barriers or erosion matting will sooner rather than later curl and kill almost everything under it, except possibly weeds. Plus, plastic in a natural landscape does your backyard no beauty favors.
Use fabric/straw mats —
Fabric mats don’t last, cause greater erosion, and attract rodents. That’s enough about straw mats.
Use ice plant as ground cover —
Ice plants have very shallow roots and are heavy, which add to the weight of the slope, actually encouraging the soil they’re superficially planted in to slide after a rainfall. Ice plant is used so often in southern California because it doesn’t burn very well, and addresses fire concerns. If fire danger worries you, instead of ice plant, use California native plants, which tend to be more fire-retardant than other varieties, and use mulch, which helps keep plants hydrated and a little less flammable.
Good Plants for a Slope
- California lilac
- Creeping juniper
- Purple coneflower
- Rattlesnake master
- Russian sage
- Star jasmine
- Common periwinkle
- Siberian carpet cypress
Backyard slopes can be made into things of beauty, but before landscaping, it’s always a good idea to check with a landscape architect to ensure you’re not creating potential erosion problems. Overall, if you’re still stumped, go with a mixture of deep-rooted California native shrubs, and trees, mixed with shallow-rooted shrubs that are mulched. Do you have a slope in your backyard? What did you do with it?
We love these twinkly led deck lights, making your garden sparkle all year round #kingfisherdecking #millboard #lighting #twinkle Kingfisher Decking
A photo posted by @kingfisherdecking on Oct 13, 2017 at 4:56am PDT
You can install decking yourself if it’s a simple structure that’s needed; be inspired by these amazing decking ideas to get started.
(Image credit: Garden House Design)
Build garden steps correctly
(Image credit: Jo Thompson )
Steps are a key design feature on most slopes and the most common way of getting from A to B. Outdoor steps are very different from indoor ones, as they should be deeper and wider. As a guide, the riser (the vertical face) should be no higher than 15 to 20cm. The tread (the flat part you stand on) should be a minimum of 30cm, and the tread can be as deep as you like. For long slopes, 2m deep treads (essentially a series of platforms) aren’t uncommon.
In a small sloping garden, curving the steps or building them across the garden will take up less space.
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)
Use ramps for easy access
Ramps are a simple-to-navigate option in a sloped garden, but they need a lot more room to accommodate them, plus they can dominate small spaces. If, however, access is required for a wheelchair user, there is no other choice. A 1:12 ramp is the minimum for wheelchair users to navigate comfortably. This means that for every 12m travelled there will be a change in level of 1m. Many garden designers aim for a shallower ramp of 1:20 if it can be fitted in.
Safety considerations in a sloping garden
High retaining walls and raised decks should be carefully designed with safety in mind – with rails or tall planting preventing anyone, particularly young children, toppling off them; steps and ramps can be slippery in wet or frosty weather, too, so consider handrails, particularly if an elderly person uses the garden regularly.
Retaining walls and raised decks over a certain height must have railings anyway to comply with building regulations.
(Image credit: Darren Chung)
Plant up bare soil areas
Never leave bare soil unplanted – plant up the slope immediately, even with something temporary like annual bedding. Grow eye-catching mixed plantings, wildflower meadow seed, or even just plain grass seed. Plants absorb heavy downpours and the roots help to bind the soil on the slope together. Bare soil erodes fast during heavy rain and washes quickly down to the bottom.
Find out more about how to choose plants for your garden.
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)
Laying gravel paths in sloping gardens
If you’re diy-ing your sloping garden, consider laying a gravel path. However, the process will be a little different from an ordinary gravel path. You’ll want to prevent your gravel sliding downwards as much as possible; there are three main ways to try and achieve this:
- Use self-binding gravel which should stay more compact. Find out how to choose the best gravel for your garden;
- Use gravel stabilisation grids underneath your path;
- Break up the path with bricks or stones, which will act as barriers for your gravel and to stop it sliding. You will probably still see some movement, though, so be prepared for this if opting for gravel.
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp Photography)
Lighting ideas for sloping gardens
Typically, a sloping garden will benefit from some simple spot lighting that will prevent stumbling in the dark, especially if there are steps. However, there are also more imaginative options, including pathway lights that can be scattered around the different levels to emphasise the multi-layered structure of the garden. See all our garden lighting ideas in our design gallery, and for more practical information, see our guide on how to plan garden lighting.
(Image credit: Wayfair)
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