Transform a Sloped Lot into Beautiful, Usable Space

Retaining walls and terraces can help make sloped yards more usable, less susceptible to erosion and easier to maintain. But beyond their practical benefits, these constructed elements can also offer attractive design solutions that just aren’t possible with flat lots, including creating natural transitions, revealing picturesque views and showcasing elegant walls, plantings and water features.

The following three landscape transformations show how functional and appealing a yard on a slope can be. While we know that these outdoor projects are not inexpensive undertakings, they can extend usable living space and enhance how we spend time at home.

Before Photo
1. Elegant Terraces in Atlanta

Designer and builder: Boyce Design and Contracting
Location: Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta
Size: 1,475-square-foot (137-square-meter) outdoor space; 550-square-foot (51-square-meter) patio

Before: After years of neglected maintenance and overuse by the family’s pets, this Atlanta backyard was ready for an overhaul. The backyard before the renovation featured a deteriorating deck and a sloping, overgrown lawn.

The homeowners sought a more contemporary outdoor space. They wanted to be able to host intimate family gatherings as well as large backyard parties, so they requested a design made up of multiple outdoor rooms that could accommodate those different uses. The outdoor renovation coincided with an exterior upgrade, as the homeowners also wanted to update the home’s Tudor-style siding.

Boyce Design and Contracting
After: Terraced board-formed concrete retaining walls create more usable outdoor space and help break up the redesigned backyard into three distinct outdoor zones, with the artificial turf-striped patio as the centerpiece.

A covered outdoor lounge underneath the rebuilt deck features a daybed built into the retaining wall system, offering the homeowners a place where they can relax during the day or night.

A custom aluminum underdeck system protects the lounge area from sun and rain, and it conceals wiring for recessed lighting and a ceiling fan.

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Boyce Design and Contracting
A new poured-in-place concrete fire pit and floating built-in bench anchor the outdoor patio. When not in use, the fire pit functions as an outdoor dining table, thanks to a custom built ipe wood tabletop.

The new concrete patio also helps to solve the yard’s original drainage issues. “The existing poorly designed drainage pattern resulted in water leaking into the basement,” landscape architect Micah Rogers says. The design team installed the patio on a 12-inch-deep gravel base over a perforated pipe, which collects and directs water into an ornamental grass-filled rain garden behind the seating wall; the water then drains into the soil.

A row of ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae (Thuja ‘Green Giant’) creates a living privacy screen between the patio and the neighbors’ yard.

The rebuilt ipe wood deck’s stairs angle down into the yard as a design move to save space and add staircase seating. A landing pad between the deck and lower patio features artificial turf that’s soft enough for the family’s two dogs to play on and requires zero maintenance. “The area was also very shaded, making it difficult to grow grass in that area,” Rogers says.

In the planters surrounding the patio, the design team paired loose, sprawling golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) with more structured boxwood (Buxus sp.) shrubs.

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Before Photo

Outdoor Dreams

2. Family-Friendly Design in Virginia

Designer and builder: Outdoor Dreams
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Size: Patio: 283 square feet (26 square meters); deck: 314 square feet (29 square meters)

Before: This home in Richmond offered no meaningful connection to the backyard, with French doors off the breakfast nook opening up to a long drop to the ground. Additionally, the steeply sloped backyard made even growing a lawn challenging.

The homeowners wanted their backyard space to be more attractive and practical for their family, which included their young son and another child on the way. They wanted to create flat, terraced areas where they could add a play set, fire pit and lounge, edible garden and grill station. They also wanted the designed area to smoothly transition into the natural wooded area surrounding their property.

Outdoor Dreams
After: Greg Koehler of Outdoor Dreams created a three-tiered backyard design, with a patio at the lowest level, a flat play area on the middle section and a deck projecting off the house up top — with the project not requiring any additional fill.

The new patio features an attractive curved retaining wall with integrated bench. River-stone-inspired pavers encircle a wood-burning fire pit. Polymeric sand — a mixture of fine sands and polymers — fills in between the pavers, preventing weeds from growing and holding the pavers in place.

The newly planted area above the patio features a mix of grasses, shrubs and perennials (many of them native to the region) that add beauty to the space and give it more of a feeling of enclosure.

Retaining wall materials: Mini-Creta Architectural blocks and caps in Champlain Grey, Techo-Bloc

The team turned the area underneath the deck, an often neglected spot in a landscape design, into a useful design feature. Climbing plants like tomatoes and green beans grow up a wood lattice. Raised beds at the base of the lattice grow vegetables, herbs and cut flowers.

The homeowners can also use the space under the deck for storage. “This additional storage has put off the need for a shed,” Koehler says.

Outdoor Dreams
The wood deck leads down to a bluestone landing path (with the grass play area off to the left), which continues to a set of stone steps that curve toward the patio at the base of the yard.

From this view you can see how the slope plantings surround the patio, softening the edges and connecting to the woodland area in the distance. Native flowers like ‘Goldsturm’ black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’) and ‘Magnus’ purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’) grow near the path.

Landing pavers: Blu 60 slabs in Champlain Grey; outline pavers: Villagio in chestnut brown; steps: Mini-Creta Architectural blocks and caps in Champlain Grey; all by Techo-Bloc

Read more about this backyard makeover

Before Photo

Abigail Hazell Landscape & Garden Design Ltd.

3. Contemporary Cottage Garden in England

Designer: Abigail Hazell Landscape & Garden Design
Location: Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England
Size: 1,240 square feet (115 square meters); 46 by 89 feet, plus balconies and terraces

Before: Not only was the backyard of this home in the middle of Cheddar Gorge, in Somerset, England, an overgrown, unusable slope, it also turned out to be a construction dumping ground. “When we started digging down, there was just rubble from where the previous owners had built an [addition] and dumped stuff,” landscape designer Abigail Hazell says.

The homeowner wanted her garden, which overlooks the gorge’s limestone cliffs, to fit in with the surrounding natural terrain and to be attractive and easy to maintain.

After: A series of new terraced areas nestle into the sloped property, with a single set of stone stairs connecting them. The upper terrace sits on a Cor-Ten steel platform. “Already orange and rusted, this was inspired by farm gates in the area. It allowed us to achieve the incremental increase in slopes without the need for wider walls,” Hazell says.

An ornamental Bath stone fireplace sits at the end of the platform, adding the feeling of a garden folly or romantic ruin. ‘Étoile de Hollande’ climbing roses will one day climb up and trail around it. Planted panels and flowering trees help screen the view of neighbors’ homes.

The designer also looked to the natural surroundings to help guide the design. “We took inspiration from the local flora — evergreen ferns, cheddar pinks — and used similar plants,” Hazell says.

Abigail Hazell Landscape & Garden Design Ltd.
Walk down to the next terrace and you’ll see a new wood soaking tub, one of the homeowner’s top wish-list items. The tub sits 4½ feet below the deck on a concrete pad, placing the tub more in the garden and giving the homeowner a semiprivate spot to unwind. “It’s somewhere to switch off and really feel as if you’re immersed in nature,” Hazell says.
Abigail Hazell Landscape & Garden Design Ltd.
Masses of wispy grasses and long-blooming wildflowers fill borders and terraced planters throughout the project, creating a cottage garden look that still feels contemporary and organized. “There’s a relaxing movement to the planting in the garden that was deliberate,” Hazell says. “It’s designed to give the sound of rustling grasslands.”

Read more about this backyard makeover

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