It can tame slopes, add dimension, or even double as planting beds or seats. A good retaining wall is basically the superhero of your garden
1 of 9Caitlin Atkinson
Terrace a slope
Rob Lieberman and Brian Schneider loved everything about their Victorian house in the Castro District—except the unusable backyard, a tangled mess of greenery cloaking an uneven slope. The couple, both Philadelphia transplants, craved California-style outdoor space for grilling, entertaining, and gardening. They called in Beth Mullins of Growsgreen Landscape Design (growsgreen.com), who installed retaining walls to create three tiers that serve as outdoor rooms. The lowest level is a patio and the second an alfresco dining room; the third holds vegetable beds and a cutting garden in raised cedar boxes from Natural Yards (naturalyards.com).
2 of 9Thomas J. Story
Create a sunken patio
Because her house near the Southern California coast is set in a hillside, Leslie Mannes was short on outdoor space for get-togethers. The only possibility: a tiny, crumbling patio out back. Enter landscape designer Ryan Prange (fallingwaterslandscape.com), who revamped it into a stylish, surprisingly roomy-feeling refuge with some genius landscaping ideas. Prange hid part of a broken concrete retaining wall behind a wooden screen and the rest under a curtain of creeping fig (Ficus pumila) planted against the wall. He repaved and planted the patio floor, tucked a seating area into the corner, and added built-in benches and a gas firepit. “Now the patio is inviting,” Prange says, “and full of nice little surprises.”
3 of 9Thomas J. Story
Modernize an entry
Concrete steps lead the way to this Oakland, CA house on a hill—much more modern than the busy red bricks that used to be in their place. Charcoal-colored concrete retaining walls are the perfect neutral color to show off the chartreuse details, from window trim to plan life. Design: Russ Dotter and Wencke Solfjeld;dottersolarchitects.com.
A large retaining wall not only holds the slope at bay, but also becomes the wall of an outdoor room, complete with TV affixed to it. The aluminum arbor, pictured here, 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. Design: Envision Landscape Studio (envisionlandscapestudio.com).
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Passerby would get a full fishbowl view of this backyard, which is located at the bottom of a hill, if it weren’t for the natural screening created by designer Cameron Scott. Maiden grass and black lace elderberry create privacy, while clumps of red Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrical ‘Rubra’) and a smoke tree add color. White granite boulders tie the space together. Design: Exteriorscapes, Seattle (exteriorscapes.com).
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Build a barrier
Rocks excavated straight from the property of this sunny San Diego slope form a low, casual retaining wall. The wispy palo verde tree forms an airy canopy to cast a bit of shade over artichoke agave, blue chalk sticks, and ‘Sterile Green’ fountain grass. Design: Ryan Prange, Falling Waters Landscape, Encinitas, CA (fallingwatersweb.com).
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Set up a seat
This front yard near downtown Santa Barbara thrives on very little water. Before the new landscape went in, piles of sandstone boulders—all unearthed during site preparation for the home—populated the lot. Designer Margie Grace incorporated the boulders into the garden, using them to form gentle mounds and swales that help prevent storm-water runoff, and to build retaining walls. Then she chose mounding shrubs and soft grasses, which are watered by a seasonally adjusted drip-irrigation system. Design: Margie Grace, Santa Barbara (gracedesignassociates.com).
9 of 9Allan Mandell
Stacked slabs of argillite form three progressively shorter walls on a steep slope in Ketchum, Idaho. Design: Rob King Clemens Associates Ketchum.