An Encouraging Perspective on Banks and Slopes


Steep, sloping ground seems to demand a garden (because we can’t safely mow lawn there) and thwart our gardening (weeds multiply while we struggle to stay upright).

What’s a gardener to do?

I have my own challenging banks, and I know many in our garden community do as well. For planting inspiration, I turned to a much-loved resource, David Culp’s beautiful book The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage.

But the inspiration I found was not what I expected:

“The weeds are still a constant battle, one that we cannot let go for too long, but we believe that the ecological benefits of doing the job ourselves, rather than letting the chemicals do it for us, were worth every minute of the extra work.” – David Culp

I have a sunny bank planted with daylilies. I have a shady bank planted with Sweet Woodruff, hostas, astilbe, and ferns. I have another sloping patch of ground covered in daffodils. But what do I have in every single one of these places?


I have so many weeds, that these banks and slopes are frequently overtaken with them. They seem to need a heavy-duty going over at least twice a year. Which must mean I am doing something wrong, right?

Apparently not.

If an experienced gardener like David Culp says that weeds are a “constant battle” on his hillside garden, then perhaps it isn’t my planting that is wrong but my attitude.

With that epiphany in mind, here are a few tips for both plants and perspective:

First, perspective:

  • Weeds are not a sign of failure. They are an invitation to tend my space.
  • Banks and slopes are not “problems.” They are unique places with unique needs. Growing a garden on a slope is as rewarding as it is challenging. But it is challenging: topsoil is easily washed away by rain and the soil can dry out quickly.
  • If I am willing to ask for help in other areas (perhaps I pay a teenager to mow my grass), perhaps I can ask for help with my bank (and train and pay that same teenager to weed!). It is okay to admit that maintaining a bank is not a one-person task.
  • Banks might need special hardscaping like retaining walls and terraces, but these can become especially beautiful features in a garden.

Second, plants:

  • Consider planting in the layers of nature: first trees, then understory shrubs, and finally herbaceous groundcovers.
  • Consider planting in a mass: for instance plants that can quickly be divided and spread around to cover ground like daylilies
  • Consider plants that are relatively fast-growing and low maintenance: dwarf forsythia, dwarf sumac, hypericum, Christmas fern, liriope, polygonatums, native pachysandra, hydrangeas (though perhaps not the thirsty mophead types), and Japanese maples

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.


Posted on

May 26, 2020

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