9 Ideas for a Hillside Garden

A sloped backyard comes alive with water-wise plants and clever landscaping

Kathleen N. Brenzel
1 / 10

Slope solutions

Homeowners Elaine and Larry Barden weren’t initially thrilled with their steep backyard in Danville, California. “We envied neighbors who had flat lots and pools,” says Larry. “We weren’t sure we could accomplish anything with this slope.” But the couple had a nugget of inspiration—a modern yet natural hillside garden they’d seen a few years before at a Sunset Idea House. A vision for their yard came together, says Elaine: “Palm Springs meets W Hotel style.”

They kicked off the backyard landscaping project by having their friend Dale Sessions, a San Francisco–based designer, build a fireplace and bar on the plain concrete patio. Then landscape designer Colin Miller and his team took over. They painted the Douglas fir retaining walls black and replaced the hillside’s weeds with drought-tolerant plants. To give the patio a contemporary hotel vibe, they converted a built-in planter into a fountain and created sleek seating and dining areas, where the Bardens often eat dinner with their 18-year-old twins.

Steps away, a path meanders to the top of the slope. Overlooking canyons and mountains, the spot is transporting, even enviable. Says Elaine: “It’s got one of the best views in the neighborhood.” envisionlandscapestudio.com.

2 / 10


A gas fireplace, set into the retaining wall, left, is the focal point in this cozy corner.

3 / 10


The aluminum arbor, above, was custom fabricated by Design Construction. Miller and his team built it on-site and painted it silver to match the wall sconces. Redwood slats cover the top. dcmetalfab.com.

4 / 10

Side patio

A built-in ipe wood bench hugs the corner near a pair of redwood trees. Pavers are of cast concrete, in French gray and light gray, with crushed Lodi stone between. Behind, steps of 6-by-8 pressure-treated timbers lead upslope. stepstoneinc.com.

5 / 10


Edged with low walls of dry-stacked stone that help stabilize the slope, the path connects various parts of the garden, which features drought-tolerant plants (California wild lilac, yellow kangaroo paws, pink penstemon) and grasses (blue oat grass, ‘Morning Light’ eulalia grass, and deer grass).

6 / 10


A stainless steel basin, with black Mexican pebbles and a recirculating pump in the bottom, is set into the ipe wood trough. With the flip of a switch, the water begins to flow. Agaves planted above the fountain mimic the spray.

7 / 10

How to landscape a slope

If you have a steep yard, don’t give up on landscaping—but don’t try to do it entirely on your own. Even a team of professionals found the Bardens’ yard challenging. “The guys were on their hands and knees, crawling up to the top,” says Miller. “The soil is heavy clay, but you can’t till a slope—it will loosen and slide.” To landscape a slope, you need safeguards to keep the hill and plantings in place. Here, the team covered the ground with jute netting, then cut through it to dig planting holes. They covered the netting with a 2-inch layer of wood shavings, then mixed wood chips and good soil into the holes. Finally, they set wire baskets into the holes to protect rootballs from gophers.

8 / 10

Favorite plants for a hill

Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos)

Velvety yellow blooms top these perennials that grow 4 to 6 feet tall. They attract hummingbirds.

9 / 10

Lavender (Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’)

Spikes of fragrant light violet flowers, which are great for drying, top the 2-foot-tall plants.

10 / 10

Penstemon (P. hybrids)

These compact, bushy perennials—2 to 4 feet tall—have large, loose bloom spikes in spring and summer.