Landscaping Steep Slopes

Steep banks may be the greatest challenge in landscaping

By: Sandy Feather ©2011
Penn State Extension

Q. We have two small and steep exposed banks in the yard that just don't seem to grow grass despite working hard to reseed and water them for the last 2 years.  They are also a challenge to mow.  What else would be attractive yet hardy, sun tolerant and drought resistant for these spaces?

A. Banks such as yours are a common feature of many landscapes. They are also one of the most troublesome from a maintenance standpoint. It can be tough to grow grass on banks because they tend to dry out quickly. When you try to water, more runs off the surface than soaks in to keep the grass hydrated. They are dangerous to mow, the soil often leaves much to be desired, and standing on them for any length of time to maintain a garden can be strenuous.

Stop Mowing Steep Slopes!

Replacing lawn grass in these situations makes a lot of sense. Options range from grasses that only need be mowed once a year, to traditional, low-growing ground covers, as well as small shrubs and perennials. A plan that incorporates a large percentage of shrubs will be lower maintenance in the long run. Shrubs only need to be pruned every few years to keep them blooming well and producing colorful stems, while perennials have to be cut back at least annually and divided every few years. All options will require some maintenance for the first few years - mostly weeding, mulching and watering – until they become established.

Eliminating the Grass

To start, kill the existing grass. This can be done by smothering it with layers of dampened newspapers or corrugated cardboard covered with compost and bark mulch. Another option is to spray a non-selective herbicide such as horticultural vinegar or glyphosate (Round Up, Eraser, Kleen Up) to kill the grass. Do not remove the dead grass, but leave it in place to act as mulch. With this method, you dig holes for individual plants, but do not till up the whole area. This minimizes erosion and avoids bringing weed seeds up to the soil surface where they are likely to germinate. Try to plant in staggered rows rather than lining plants up in formal rows. They will fill in faster and look more natural if they are planted this way.


Plant Choices for Slope Plantings

The following list includes plants that tolerate full sun and drought, clay soil as long as it drains well, and grow no larger than tree feet tall. Where specific cultivars are mentioned, they have been chosen for their smaller size - other cultivars might grow larger than you want. I suggest a few references at the end of the plant list, as well as a few websites, so you can read more about each plant and see pictures of unfamiliar plants. Websites from land grant universities (Penn State, Cornell, Ohio State, Rutgers, etc.) and botanical gardens and arboretums are good sources of unbiased, research-based information.

Shrubs for Slopes

Dwarf Red Osier Dogwood
(Cornus sericea Arctic Fire™)

Cranberry Cotoneaster
(Cotoneaster apiculatus)

Cranberry Cotoneaster
Cranberry Cotoneaster

Bearberry Cotoneaster
(Cotoneaster dammeri)

‘Nikko’ Slender Deutzia
(Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’)

(Forsythia x intermedia ‘Arnold Dwarf’ and Gold Tide®)

Creeping Juniper
(Juniperus horizontalis)

(Lavandula angustifolia)

Grow-low Fragrant Sumac
(Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’)

(Spiraea japonica cultivars such as ‘Golden Elf,’ ‘Lisp,’ and ‘Little Princess’ and ‘Magic Carpet’)

Spirea japonica 'Little Princess'

Cutleaf Stephanandra
(Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’)

Perennials for Slopes

(Achillea spp.)

Yarrow - Achillea 'Moonshine'
Yarrow - Achillea 'Moonshine'

Arkansas Bluestar
(Amsonia hubrichtii)

Butterfly Weed
(Asclepias tuberosa)

(Coreopsis verticillata)

‘Elijah Blue’ Fescue
(Festuca ovina ‘Elijah Blue’)

‘Biokovo’ Perennial Geranium
(Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’)

‘Rozanne’ Cranesbill Geranium
(Geranium x ‘Rozanne’)

(Hemerocallis spp.)

Daylily - Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro'
Daylily - Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro'

(Liriope spicata)

Moss Phlox
(Phlox subulata)

Obedient Plant
(Physostegia virginiana)

(Salvia nemerosa)

Sedum, Stonecrop
(Sedum spp.)

Sedum - Stonecrop
Sedum - Stonecrop

Little Bluestem
(Schizachyrium scoparium)

Creeping thyme
(Thymus serpyllum)


Armitage, Allan M., Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Stipes Publishing, 2008. (ISBN 9781588747754)

Darke, Rick, The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses, Timber Press, 1999. (ISBN 0881924644)

Dirr, Michael A., Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Stipes Publishing Co., 2009. (ISBN 1588748685)

Still, Steven M, Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants, Stipes Publishing Co., 1994. (ISBN 0875634338)



Hillside Plantings

Growing Apples

Saving Bean Seeds


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