Sloped Garden? How to make it your happy place! – Pt 1.

Hillside gardens don’t have to be a nightmare!

Gardening on a steep slope has it’s challenges. It takes vision and a great deal of tenacity to manipulate it and create something that is both appealing to the eye, but also practical. The easiest solution is terracing, creating flat tiers or steps within a garden. Each terrace must be easily accessible. Your gardening life will be so much easier once you’ve done this. We created an interesting journey through our steep garden using vertical railway sleepers. You can do it too! Are you up for the challenge?

Even if you don’t have a sloped garden, there’s still a lot to be learned from the design of such a space. Its important to have height in a garden particularly if your garden is completely flat and level. It’s imperative to create drama and a journey in your space, drawing the eye to what could lie beyond a pergola or archway, for example. More than anything else a garden should be pleasing and be a space that you feel calm and content in. Read on for how we went about creating our happy place in the garden.

When we came to view our current home I wasn’t overly enamoured by it if I’m honest. In fact, I didn’t even want to view it, Mr C had to convince me to take a look! It belonged to a client of mine and we would be buying it off the market. We had been gazumped (a British expression for someone bidding higher than you on a property after you had already agreed a sale price) so many times. Mr C and I also won a sealed bid for a house, but then someone was allowed to come in later than the closing date and again they came in with a higher price. We finally found a place and it was all going through nicely when our buyer pulled out, so by this point we were at our wits end.

The house was built in 1919 and resembled the average 20’s box often found in the suburbs. It was dark and uninviting. The garden matched the house. You couldn’t even see the sky for all the forty foot high Leylandii trees that surrounded it. It was a steep jungle of a hot mess, quite frankly. My client, however, was incredibly proud of her achievements and didnt hold back in telling me how pleased as punch she was with her planting: “The choice of plants here is inspired, don’t you think?” – erm, no I certainly did not think madam, but each to their own!

Imagine an overgrown mountain of garden, where there is so much greenery that no one plant could be distinguished from another. There were steps and paths, but you’d have been hard pushed to find them and even then you needed a climbing harness, ropes and a well-fitting helmet! It was my idea of hell and I was decidedly displeased, until I got to the top.

Once I’d mastered my mountaineering technique and made my way to the peak, I was rewarded with the most wonderful view of the North Downs. It was worth every slip in my climbing boots, every wrench of my muscles to conquer each crevice! I am, of course, being ridiculous, but it’s funny and was really steep, I promise!

The views changed everything. A house and garden you can change. A view is either there or not. I turned to Mr C and said: “Ok we’ll buy it, but only if we can turn the house and garden into something completely different!”

Six months later it was ours and we set about planning the house and garden transformation almost immediately. We had a tight budget for both house and garden, which meant that we would be living in the house the entire time and would just have to cope. There was no chance of us being able to afford the extortionate rental prices in the Surrey Hills as well as paying a mortgage.

The house renovations would see us taking an extended research trip to Massachusetts. Before that, however, we would start on the felling of trees, soil excavation and hard landscaping of the garden.

It’s unusual to design and create a garden first, prior to a house build/remodel. In our case it had to be that way. We knew once the house was complete that we wouldn’t be able to get mini diggers into the back garden. Our house is unusual in that the ground level is actually a walk-out basement. There are steps up to the front door, which is effectively first floor. Either side of the steps are now raised lavender borders. In order to get the mini diggers in to the back garden, these borders had to be flattened to create easy access.

Our tree surgeon and his helpers were at the house for two days. Every single tree and shrub was removed apart from a beautiful Himalayan Ash in the front garden. There was a huge ten foot deep by 12 foot high laurel hedge that ran along the front of the property, which we also had removed and that unearthed a second driveway entrance, slightly further up the hill, which we would eventually use.

It would allow us to close up the lower entrance and then, in place of the hedge, we would build a meter high retaining wall and raised bed, which would allow us to deposit a huge amount of the soil excavated from the back garden. This kind of thing is worth thinking about as soil removal is extortionately expensive. It was about £350 per lorry load when we did this back in 2013.

After the Leylandii had been removed I remember being so thrilled to bits to be able to see the sky. All of a sudden we had this huge expanse of open space and it was blue above us instead of dark green! I knew we’d made the right decision.

The soil excavation started in October 2013 and it rained every single day! Mr C had made me a temporary salon in what would end up being our snug. My clients would have to enter via the front door and some temporary steps, but before that they would would have to brave the torrents of thick, muddy, sludgy water streaming down from the back garden to the front. I told them all to wear wellies, but a a few did forget and turned up in high heels. They were not best pleased! That’s hairdressing in the countryside for you.

I designed the garden myself. It was based on the rice paddy fields of Bali. We’d visited there about ten years prior and I loved the curved terraces that the local farmers create to grow their crops and easily irrigate the land. With such a steep slope in our garden, it was important that we softened the walls of earth that would create with sexy curves, rather than hard geometric shapes. I had visions of a hanging gardens of Babylon, here in jolly old England.

The garden as it stands today.

I had to come up with a way of holding back the soil in our garden, but using curves. I wanted a rustic feel to the hard landscaping, preferably using grey, gnarled old wood, if possible. We settled on reclaimed African hardwood railway sleepers. They had no creosote in, so in the Summer they wouldn’t exude sticky tar.

Interestingly, we would be placing the sleepers vertically, rather than horizontally, as is the usual way. This would allow us to create curves, which to me were so much more interesting than flat sleeper walls. Once each terrace was excavated, the contractors would then start on digging trenches for the vertical sleepers to be concreted into. Black plastic was placed between the sleepers and the soil they were holding up and metal braces attached each sleeper together along with eight inch long galvanised screws.

It was quite the job and, of course, using the sleepers vertically meant that we had to use a lot more of them as at least two feet of each would be concreted into the ground. It sounds like a terrible waste, but the undulating curves were worth it. They catch the light as the sun moves around the garden. Can you imagine how hard and austere everything would have looked with square, straight lines and tall flat walls?

These curved retaining walls would be separated by a Hollywood style sweeping, winding staircase, also made of sleepers. The builders weren’t happy about this at all, as it caused all types of logistical and technical problems. I was not to be deterred!

  • Stay tuned for part 2 next Sunday where I’ll be talking about my Hollywood steps, the planting design and the field beyond the main garden.


  1. Kelly
    August 23, 2020 / 9:26 pm

    looking forward to part 2 JP, I might have to get some ideas for my garden, its so boring! loving the blogs xx

    • JP Clark
      August 24, 2020 / 11:23 am

      Thank you Kelly. Xxx

  2. Jemma (greeninthenewworld)
    February 16, 2021 / 11:01 pm

    This is brilliant. Now got an idea for a pergola, a pathway and terracing so thank you! Are the African sleepers easy to come by? We have slopes all over our garden and I’ve found this post really inspiring, comforting almost as it was stressing me. Also did you do the part two?

    • JP Clark
      February 17, 2021 / 2:37 pm

      Hi, yes part two is within the garden section of the site. TheAfrican hardwood sleepers came from Sleepers Direct. Xx

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