Slopes and Ladders

‘Gardens with different levels are always more interesting than flat ones’, I reminded myself, staring down at a new garden that would be more suitable as a ski slope than an British garden. But mostly we don’t have any option other than make the best of what we have; and what we have seems to be coming along in more unusual packages as housing gets crow barred into more marginal areas of land.

Slopes! How do you deal with them? Well the steeper they are the more you have to concentrate your resources regardless of whether they slope away or towards the house. Decide where the main sitting area is going to be,for entertaining,catching the evening sun, kids play area, BBQ, whatever you use it for try to create as large a single level space as you can. A single garden divided into 5 narrow terraces for instance is actually 5 small gardens because you can’t use them all at the same time. Building retaining walls or raised decks can be expensive if your not careful but so is wasting half the ground your sitting on if you can’t get more than a couple of steps out of the back door.

Some uneven gardens could be managed with sloping paths but mostly steps are needed. Whether in brick, timber or stone it pays to make them generous so they become part of the design rather than a functional means to an end. How steep they are will depend on the topography of the garden. Steps are measured in the ‘going’ and the ‘rising’. The first is the depth of the step front to back, the second is the rise in height. The more ‘going’ and the least ‘rising’ the more comfortable the step but work on something around 150mm,(6″) as a comfortable riser if you can get away with it. Get it the other way around and you can feel like your climbing a ladder.


The tread of the step needs to be as safe and non slip as possible, a textured or riven slab, chunky timber edge backed by gravel, deck steps can incorporate ‘grip strips’,brick on edge etc. the worse steps I ever came across were made of slate, one shower of rain and they were lethal, they had to go!

You may need walling at the sides to retain soil, you pretty much need to build this first then fit the steps between, the opposite is also true if raised up make sure a handrail is installed. Essential as a handrail is it’s difficult to make it easy on the eye, the simpler the better as fussy detail can be distracting. Presumably we want everyone looking at the garden and not the safety features.

In bigger gardens Break the steps up with landings if you have a way to go or even change direction if you have a long way to go! It makes you look at different views of the garden or house that normally you wouldn’t see.


To stop the hard landscaping dominating too much it’s important to soften walls and edges and even steps with planting, all the elements of the design should work as a whole and the planting will be key to this.

Time to take stock

About this time of year is ideal for stepping back and taking stock of your garden. Most of the leaves are off the trees and shrubs and the bare bones of the garden are revealed, with the summer not too far behind you can also now review just how the area outside your door works for you.

Gardens have to fulfil a lot of different functions and they should work hard for their keep and pay back your investment of time, money and effort. With the garden making up at least half, often more, of the property you own you need to be making the most of what you have. And there are plenty of questions you can ask yourself.

Have you got enough privacy or is that tree just blocking out the sun rather than a neighbours overlooking window? Is there enough room outside of the patio doors to entertain, relax and still use for everyday use? If you want a patio table and chairs for 6 people you will need a minimum of 3 metres depth or it will feel cramped with guests pushing their chairs back onto the lawn or into shrubs and plants. Is there enough lawn for play space? If there is, can the shape be altered to a more interesting one to create semi hidden seating areas or focal points? Did the garden work for you over the summer? If it didn’t what was missing or even how would you like to use it ?

If you would love more colour and interest you can have that without necessarily having a work intensive herbaceous border. Like most other things you only get out of a garden what you put in, but that doesn’t mean you have to be out there every weekend slaving away.

A garden should make you want to go out in it and enjoy what has been created. Things can look very drab this time of year but it also makes it easier to see where you may have gone wrong. And if it is looking drab consider hardy cyclamen, Mahonia Japonica types are starting to come into flower, Viburnam Bodnantense will soon or even is starting to show flower buds. Hellebores in many varieties should be put in the ground or pots to flower in the grey days of January and February.