• How to Landscape a Steep Hill - 3 Landscaping Techniques

    Brandon Cornett

    By Brandon Cornett, Editor
    © 2013 All rights reserved

    Reader question: "We have a steep hill in our backyard, and we are trying to figure out how to landscape it. Right now there's just grass back there. My husband has a heck of a time trying to mow it, as it is really steep. I think it's dangerous for him to do that. Can you offer any landscaping ideas for a hill such as ours?

    "The way I see it, anything is better than the grass we currently have. But it would be nice to improve the overall look of the backyard, while also solving the hill problem. I am wide open for suggestions!"

    You are not alone. This is one of the most common questions we receive from homeowners. As it turns out, there are many people out there who want to know the same thing you are asking: How can I landscape the steep hill I have in my yard?

    Below, I've offered three specific landscaping ideas for your consideration: (1) retaining walls, (2) shrubs, and (3) ground cover with mulch or other substance. These techniques can be used by themselves, or in combination with one another. They all meet the challenges of landscape design for a hill, but with varying degrees of expense and effort. 

    The Landscaping Challenge of Hills

    A yard with a steep hill presents certain challenges, from a maintenance perspective. These yards are hard to water, due to runoff and pooling. They are hard to mow (as your husband will be quick to tell you). They can even be dangerous. This is why people with hills in their yards often seek a landscape-design solution to the problem. You'll be happy to know there are several solutions available. Which one you choose will depend on your budget and your aesthetic preferences. 

    The challenges of landscaping a hill become clear at the start of any project:

    • Traditional techniques do not work for hills, especially when they are particularly steep.
    • You must account for water drainage, soil erosion, plant types, equipment use and more.
    • Plant placement can be more difficult and may require the use of plant wells or 'blocks.'
    • Flagstone and gravel paths (popular landscaping features) are not an option on hills.

    With those challenges in mind, let's look at some of the ideas and techniques you can use when landscaping a hill in your yard.

    Idea #1 - Segment the Hill With a Retaining Wall

    One popular idea for landscaping a hill is to segment it into two sections, with a retaining wall for a divider. In your case, since you are trying to get away from mowing the yard, you could combine this technique with mulching and plant placement. The idea is to create multiple tiers of yard space with no grass, and therefore no grass maintenance. You may have to water some plants or replace some mulch / groundcover from time to time, but you won't have to mow the steep hill anymore. 

    In the picture below, you can see this technique in action. Note that the wall is placed where the hill becomes less steep.

    Hill and retaining wall

    This person has chosen to retain the grass in the flatter part of the yard, where it's easier to mow. In the steeper / upper part of the yard, they have planted some low-maintenance but attractive plants. The plants they have chosen require little water. This landscaping solution addresses the hill situation, while also minimizing the maintenance requirements.

    Add some flowers to the upper part of the hill (like they've done in the photo), and you have a beautiful backdrop for your yard. It's not just a functional solution. It adds some aesthetic value as well. You could even install a small stairwell to give you access to the upper hill area, if necessary. This would make it easier to maintain the upper portion of your landscaping.

    This is an effective way to landscape a hill, but there is an obvious cost to be considered here. You have to build a wall. So you're in for some material cost, at least, and possibly some labor cost if you're not the DIY type. Due to the stonework involved, I would consider this an intermediate to advanced landscaping project. So if this idea for shaping a hill appeals to you, consider hiring a local landscaper to help with the project. If you don't have the budget for this technique, you could use one of the landscape design ideas below.

    Idea #2 - Use Ground Cover With Shrubs

    Another option for landscaping a hill is to replace the grass with mulch, and then plant shrubs or bushes to prevent erosion and washout. This adds visual interest to the hill while also reducing the level of maintenance. You'll have to water the shrubs as needed, but you'll never have to mow the lawn there again.

    Shrubs on hill

    You can see this landscaping idea in action above. Granted, the hill in this photograph is not very steep at all. But the same technique can be used for hills of any grade / steepness.

    Just keep in mind that the steeper the hill, the more plantings you need to prevent erosion. Anytime you put mulch, bark or other substrate on a steep hill, you need to consider the wash-down factor. When it rains, gravity will try to bring your mulch down toward the bottom. You can prevent this by interspersing the shrubs, and maybe some landscaping rocks as well. Grass naturally prevents erosion. It stays put. But when you replace the grass with a loose, unplanted substance like wood mulch, you have to consider the erosion factor.

    Idea #3 - Cover the Hill With Bark or Mulch

    This approach is similar to the idea featured above, but without the shrubs. This idea for landscaping a hill is one of the simplest approaches, in terms of both the labor and the end result. This is an option for people who simply want to avoid mowing or maintaining a steep hill in their yard, but do not care as much about the aesthetics of the finished project.

    Mulch or Bark

    With this technique, you really have to be mindful of erosion. With Idea #2 above, the shrubs will help keep the mulch in place to a certain extent. But in the absence of plants and shrubs, the mulch or bark may wash down the hill over time, especially in areas with a lot of rain. To prevent this, you might use interspersed beams or trusses. Of course, if you live in an area with very little rainfall (like Arizona), this will be less of a concern.

    You can also combine this with the retaining wall idea we started with. That's the great thing about landscaping -- you can mix and match different techniques as needed to get the results you want. The same goes when working on the hill areas of your yard. You can employ any number of landscape design techniques, depending on where the hill is located, how steep it is, and what effect you are trying to achieve.

    Get Professional Landscaping Help

    Landscaping work is not as expensive as many people think. Generally speaking, the cost of landscape work has come down ever since the housing market crashed in 2008. The reasons are fairly obvious. With so many people losing home value, fewer people could afford these types of projects. The demand for these services declines considerably, and the average cost fell with it. You might be pleasantly surprised by how affordable a hill-landscaping project is. You can use the link below to get free quotes from local landscapers.

    If you are the do-it-yourself (DIY) type of homeowner, then we salute you and wish you luck with your hill projects. However, if you're not as handy in the yard and would like some professional help to realize your vision, you can use the ServiceMagic link provided above. Good luck with your project!