If you can’t get to the garden, you can’t garden! Creating access on a steep slope is challenging and can be expensive. Access means steps and paths. Steps help get you up and down the slope. Paths get you across the slope. Both are essential for maintaining and enjoying your garden.
Steep slopes need steps—unless you like climbing up the slope on all fours, or sitting while sliding down. Options for step materials include flat rock boulders, stepping-stones, pressure-treated timbers, or rot-resistant logs. Flat rock boulder steps will last more than a lifetime but will be the most costly choice. You’ll probably want to hire a professional to bring in equipment and set the boulders. An alternative to large flat boulders is to dig stepping-stones into the slope. Stack the stepping-stones and mortar them together to create risers. You can also build a nice-looking, easy-to-traverse staircase out of pressure-treated timbers. Eventually though, the wood will start to rot and have to be replaced. A very simple, easy-to-install, and relatively inexpensive step system uses rot-resistant logs—such as locust—cut into the slope and backfilled with dirt or gravel. Adding a stepping-stone to the tread behind each locust log riser will provide solid footing as you climb up and down.
With steps in place, turn your attention to creating paths across your steep slopes. The best paths to amble through the garden with visitors will be at least three to five feet wide. Terraces will give you maximum walking and gardening space. A professional landscaper can build terraces into the hillside and use retaining walls to hold back the slope. But “goat paths” just wide enough to allow you comfortable access—a foot or two—will also provide safe access into the garden. Cut into the hillside a bit and level out your path with the excess dirt. Use small boulders or vertical timbers to shore up the lower edge of the path and to retain the hillside along the upper edge of the path. Complete your paths with stepping-stones, gravel, wood chips, mulch, or grass.
While you’re building steps and paths, consider using boulders or timbers to create a few planting pockets on the slope. They don’t have to be large—no more than a foot high and four or five feet long. Backfilled with soil, these mini-terraces make just enough level planting area for a nice, accessible flowerbed or small vegetable garden.
Think about footholds
Leave large rocks, tree stumps, and tufts of grass in place across the slope. They will provide much-needed footholds and landing spots when you traverse the hillside to maintain your garden. My favorite steep slope gardening tool is a pair of sturdy hiking boots. The treads and strong ankle support have saved me many a slip down the hill!
Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.