steep garden stairs plants and retaining walls

An impossible sloping site turned steep garden masterpiece


A tapestry of texture, this steep garden oozes street appeal

Full of textural contrasts, this informal front garden draws the eye and turns what seems an impossibly steep slope into a design masterpiece. “The goal was to create a garden that managed the steep slope. Nothing too formal; the owners wanted it to be a bit organic,” explains garden designer Karen Staunton-Ross of Outside Living.

While the finished garden looks natural, this was quite a tricky project. “When we started, there was lawn growing on vertical faces and no opportunity for any gardens,” says Karen. “This was an all-or-nothing project so we had to remove the lawn, introduce some walls and create places for plants.

“We avoided using straight lines in favour of creating interesting shapes and connections, and we used materials that were of interest in their own right as well as being functional. It was also essential that we provided a way for visitors to negotiate the slope without feeling like they had hit a goat track.”

Outside Living strove to avoid the over-use of hard surfaces; in fact, the only hard surfaces are the steps and path. Adds Karen, “We used gabion walls, Corten steel and natural sandstone on vertical faces with grasses and groundcovers holding things together, then shrubs and small trees for interest. We also used large rocks and boulders rather than walls in some spots, providing better places to incorporate plants and add interest.”

Given the sandy soil and exposed aspect, the plants needed to be robust. “Not only did they need to grow well, they had to contribute to an interesting garden with colour, texture and contrast in form and foliage,” says Karen. “We chose Salvia, Nepeta and Erigeron ‘Sea Breeze’ for their long flowering seasons, and Aloe ‘Erik the Red’ and Echium for seasonal colour. For movement there is Miscanthus transmorrisonensis and spilling over the walls you’ll find Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’, prostrate rosemary and Russelia.

“To pick up on the earthy tones of the Corten steel and stone, we incorporated both Kalanchoe ‘Copper Spoons’ and Trachelospermum ‘Tricolor’, and to create some unity through repetition, a serpentine line of Carissa ‘Desert Star’ extends from the front entry through all the levels right up to the patch of lawn near the house. To help bind the soil, we used grasses and groundcovers.”

Given the steepness of the slope, jute matting was used in some sections for its stabilising effect and to improve the sandy soil, organic soil conditioner was added and a layer of organic mulch applied.
Ultimately the garden, built by EJM Paving and Landscaping, is about creating a sense of arrival. The slope is still steep but the look is soft and appealing, beckoning visitors to begin their ascent and enjoy the interplay of colour, form and texture along the way.

For more information

Outside Living

This project is an entrant in the Outdoor Design 2022 NSW Landscaper of the Year Awards, celebrating residential design innovation and construction excellence. All entrants were featured in Outdoor Design Issue 42, with winners to be announced in Outdoor Design Issue 43.