How to level a sloping garden

Leveling a sloping Garden by terracing

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If your garden has a steep slope, leveling it by terracing can make it both attractive and useful. One benefit of a terraced garden is that it stops soil erosion and rain water washing the nutrients away, making it difficult to plant and maintain most shallow rooting garden plants. However the main benefit you will find after leveling the slope and forming terraces, the garden will be easier to work on and get around, making it an enjoyable garden to be in, instead of a daily challenge.

Leveling a sloping Garden

If your garden  has a steep slope, leveling it by terracing can make it both attractive and useful. One benefit of a terraced garden is that it stops soil erosion and rain water washing the nutrients away, making it difficult to plant and maintain most shallow rooting garden plants. However the main benefit you will find after leveling the slope and forming terraces, the garden will be easier to work on and get around, making it an enjoyable garden to be in, instead of a daily challenge. Terracing a sloping garden also adds interest, allowing planting at different levels, flowers at the top and vegetables at the bottom, paved area at the top flowers in the middle and fruit bushes at the bottom etc. The combinations are endless and unlike a garden with one steep slope, plant choice is not limited because of soil erosion . Leveling a garden that either slopes away or toward the house will present  many more design and planting options.

What materials can I use to terrace a sloping garden?
There are two main ways of terracing a sloping garden. One is to build stone retaining walls, using  pre formed concrete stacking  blocks (not cheap), breeze blocks (relatively cheap) or natural stone (expensive).
The other is  useing  wood to form the retaining walls. Reclaimed railway sleepers are fairly cheap and treated to last, the downside with railway sleepers, is the treatment used to preserve them and the tar and other messy materials that have covered them over the years whilst they have been holding railway lines together,  make them unsuitable for sitting on or contact with bare skin, especially if you suffer from allergies. The safer but slightly more expensive wooden option is to build the retaining walls using new Oak beams or sleepers, these will need to be treated over the years to prevent them from rotting.

Can I level a sloping garden myself?
Leveling and terracing a sloping garden takes a lot of time and effort shifting earth and in new build houses, digging out clay and all sorts of builders rubble from dumped concrete to coke cans and even buried machinery parts but It is a job you can handle yourself if you cant afford to hire a professional landscaper. But bear in mind, if things start to go wrong and you end up calling in a landscape gardener to put it right when the walls retaining the terraces start to give, it will be a lot more expensive in the end.

How to build a retaining wall in a sloping garden.
 If you do decide to terrace the slope yourself it will be worth the hard graft, stopping the impact of erosion by forming even a short slope into terraces will save money on plants and make the area more workable, also lawned areas will be easier to cut.
 You can use a range of materials to form the retaining walls from the two main ones we have discussed earlier, treated wood or stone,  through to house bricks (reclaimed brick makes an attractive wall), concrete, quarry rocks and if the terracing isn’t very steep,even compacted piled earth. The durability of the wall will depend on the material you use and the quality of the footings you build the wall on. 

Basic design advice for building  a retaining wall.
Try to keep the maximum height of your walls to about two foot, anything higher make sure the retaining wall leans slightly back into the soil, not perfectly plumb and is built on a sound footing. Retaining walls take a lot of pressure from the weight of the soil and in our climate rain water behind the wall . (A single cubic foot of wet soil can weigh up to 100 pounds). If you are using cemented stone or concrete to retain the terraces in the slope, form weep holes in the bottom of the wall. 

High retaining walls are at the greatest risk of failure. As the retaining-wall height increases, the force trying to topple the wall increases by a large factor. For example, if you double the height of a wall, the tipping force can increase by a factor of three or four times. More information about landscaping sloping gardens

What do I do with the soil when leveling the slope.
To save time shifting soil from one area of the garden to another we use the dig and fill method to form the terraces, digging out soil to level one area, and using this soil to fill  the lower areas.
If you plan it right, you wont have a lot of topsoil to get rid off. The tons of builders rubble, clay and other unsuitable rubbish you will have to remove into skips, will leave plenty of space for the good top soil left over, you will probably end up needing a ton or two  to top up the beds.

How long will it take to level a sloping garden.
DIY will depend on the size of the garden, the steepness of the slope, access to the skip and how much help you can count on. If I can get a digger onto the slope, the leveling and terracing work normally take me a couple of weeks in a small to medium garden.

Tips for designing a sloping garden.

What garden features can I include in a terraced garden.
What you include in your sloping garden design will depend on the size. Creating to many different levels will mean that terraces could be to small for purpose.
 Paving on a slope
The golden rule for a paved terrace is that it is big enough to dine and entertain without falling of the edge, To work out the space you will need, place a dining table in the middle and place six chairs around the table, now move each chair back 18″ that’s the minimum space you should aim for and  don’t forget to include space for the BBQ!
Vegetable beds.
You may of course be more interested in growing your own vegetables than entertaining, I am, in that case a growing area will be more important than paving don’t forget to include space for a compost heap.
Kids play area and seating
 A family with young children might  want  to include a safe play area and maybe a sand pit and a shed to store the kids toys. If you are not including a paved terrace aim to have plenty of natural seating spread around the garden, the tops of stone retaining walls and sleeper raised beds make great places to sit and ponder.Try to have them spread around to follow the sun. also make the tread of your steps wide enough to sit on.
Water features.
 Water features and streams running from the top to the bottom work well and look good in a sloping garden,they seem to connect the variouse terraces together and the sound of running water bubling over pebbles is something else. 
Not to high and not to much
For the reasons we have covered above If possible, avoid very high retaining walls, and split the garden into fewer, shallower levels
but If your  garden slopes away from the house and you are planning a patio area directly outside the house the further into the slope the patio extends, the higher the retaining wall will need to be. A higher retaining wall will need more steps to access the lower terrace.In a garden with a downward slope away from the house it might be worth considering positioning the patio on one of the lower levels rather than sacrifice dining and entertaining space. Remember the formula, table, six chairs pulled back at least 18″

What do you want from your garden.
You can see why it is worth taking time to think about and note down what you really want from your new terraced garden, well before you start leveling the slope or calling in a landscape gardener to do the groundwork. When I am called in to price a garden terracing job, I always ask this question “What will be the main purpose of the new terraced garden?” Its expensive to make major design changes once the leveling is started.


Don’t be put off, a sloping garden with soil erosion, areas you cant get to and slippery slopes can be a nightmare, especially as we get older.  With some thought and hard work it really can be turned into a garden you will enjoy using again.

Sloping Uphill, Sloping Downhill
Uphill slopes and Downhill slopes need a slightly different approach at the design stage. On a downward  slope you only see the tops of steps and walls  when they are viewed from the house but they are the focal point when you are looking at the house from the bottom of a sloping garden.  Visa versa if the garden slopes upward away from the house

Downhill slopes often look better with straight walls, sweeping paths and gradual slopes.
Uphill slopes look better when the walls are curved making the retaining walls garden features.

Stand at the bottom of the slope when you are designing a sloping garden and remember, although it can be expensive to build, a sloping garden is easier to maintain looks better and will become a garden you will use again. 

More gardening tips on the landscape gardening website 

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