Hillside Plantings

What to grow on a steep bank instead of weeds or a lawn

By: Sandy Feather ©2006
Penn State Extension

Q. There is a small, sunny hillside next to my driveway. It is difficult to mow and I'd like to replace the grass with a ground cover like myrtle. How do I get rid of the grass without eroding the hillside? I tried this before on the other side of the driveway, and we ended up with soil in the driveway every time it rained. 

A. You can kill the grass with a non-selective herbicide such as Roundup (or one of the many knock-offs available since Monsanto's patent on glyphosate has expired), but leave the dead grass in place. Do not mow it beforehand, because more leaf surface allows for better absorption of the herbicide, resulting in better control. It will take 10 - 14 days for Roundup to kill the grass, including the roots.

Once the grass is dead, mow it so that it is shorter, and then simply plant your ground cover right into the dead grass. The dead grass will act as a mulch and hold things in place until the ground cover fills in and takes over. Now is a good time to spray, and even plant the site, depending on what you choose. You can apply a thin layer of bark mulch over the dead grass once the area is planted for a neater appearance. An inch or two is sufficient.


First: Take a Soil Test

You should still have a soil test performed so that you know the pH (acidity or alkalinity) and fertility level of the soil, which will aid in proper plant selection. Soil test kits are available from your local Penn State Extension office for a nominal fee. In Allegheny County, consumer soil test kits cost $12 each, and come with detailed instructions for taking a good soil sample and information to help you understand your soil test results. Customers ordering multiple kits at one time pay $9 each for the additional kits. Send a check made payable to Penn State Extension to Penn State Extension, 400 North Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write Attn. Soil Test Kit in the lower left corner of the envelope.
Since you have a sunny hillside, periwinkle (Vinca minor) is not the best choice - it prefers some shade, especially from the hot afternoon sun.


Hillside planted with Periwinkle
Periwinkle covers this hillside

Also, since you are not incorporating organic matter or preparing the soil to any degree, it is important to choose tough plants that do not mind less-than-ideal soil conditions. Although you certainly do not want anything tall that would block your line of sight pulling out of the driveway, ground cover plants do not have to hug the ground. Many perennial flowers can act as a ground cover, with the added bonus of flowers through the growing season.

Specific Plants

Evergreen and semi-evergreen plants are marked with an * in the following list. Although these are tough plants, they will not tolerate poorly drained soil. After the list I have included a bibliography of suggested references so that you can read more about these plants, their ultimate size, and see pictures of them before making your final selections.

  • Blue Fescue (Festuca ovina glauca)*

  • Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) - especially smaller re-blooming varieties such as 'Happy Returns' or 'Rosy Returns'

  • 'Nikko' Slender Deutzia (Deutzia Gracilis 'Nikko')

  • Ground Cover Junipers (Juniperus horizontalis, Juniperus procumbens 'Nana')*

  • Lily Turf (Liriope muscari)*

  • Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata)*

  • 'Gro-low' Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica "Grow-low')

  • 'Green Mound' Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum 'Green Mound')

  • Sedum (Sedum spp. & cultivars, especially 'Vera Jamison,' Sedum spurium Sedum repestre 'Angelina'*)

  • Japanese spirea (Spirea japonica 'Little Princess' or 'Magic Carpet')

  • 'Crispa' Cutleaf Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa 'Crispa')

  • Spreading English Yew (Taxus baccata 'Repandens')*


Armitage, Allen M., Armitage¹s Garden Perennials, Timber Press, 2000. ISBN-10: 0881924350.
Clausen, Ruth and Nicolas Ekstrom, Perennials for American Gardens, Random House, 1989. ISBN-10: 0394557409.
Darke, Rick, The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Timber Press, 1999.ISBN-10: 0881924644.
Michener, David C. and Nan Sinton, Taylor's Guide to Ground Covers, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ISBN-10: 0618030107.
Fisher, Kathleen, Taylor's Guide to Shrubs, Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN-10: 0618004378.
Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing, ISBN-10: 875638007


Juniper groundcovers

Transplanting shrubs

Vines for shady spots


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