Hello fellow readers, I have the privilege to work with Stephanie of Denville, NJ, who moved from the west coast. She bought a cute cottage in a lake community overlooking a magnificent forest. The steepness of the slope is a dilemma for those like Stephanie who wish to ponder amongst the trees. That’s where a steep woodland garden comes in.
A hardscape solution for a steep hillside
Thanks to a brave installer, Robert of Sierra Landscape Management, we built a flight of meandering garden steps and walls using boulders from the woods. I’m glad I missed the first dramatic day when his machine slid precariously down the cliff, causing a photo moment for neighbors who watched from above. We uncovered fifty years of debris from previous owners’ house renovations, plus old bicycles and tires. One of Robert’s workers found a Snoopy pencil dated my year of birth. I didn’t fess up (smile).
Ideal plants for a steep woodland garden
Robert dug in the woodland shrubs, including Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) and Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Then Stephanie and I planted the perennials on Labor Day while her folks were visiting from Oregon. Stephanie climbed the cliff of clethra to dig in the Wild Ginger (Asarum). I “answered back,” the vignette of ginger, planted in the safe zone to the left of the shed. The Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) will grow 3-5 feet along the garden edges and below the spruces by the neighbor to help screen the wheels of their RV.
Around the gravel patio, we dug in the largest species of Hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius) with evergreen holly-like leaves that will bloom pale yellowish-green in late winter. Alongside the Hellebores, we planted Marginal Shield Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) with blue-green fronds. A favorite fern in the lineup is ‘Lady in Red’ Lady Fern (Athyrium angustum forma rubellum) with burgundy red stems. Then there’s the native Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemummuticum) which grows two to three feet with bluish-green leaves that thrives in extreme conditions, including slopes in the sun or shade. It’s a pollinator magnet and tolerates drought. To create a foot-tall carpet of violet-blue spring blooms, we planted Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata’ Blue Moon’) that hummingbirds and butterflies will love.
Goat gardening, I call it.
“Goat gardening,” I call it – planting the steep slope of Stephanie’s woodland garden leading down to the lower echelons of wilderness. I loved most witnessing her mom, Cec, guiding her from above, pointing to what goes where while passing the plants to Stephanie.
“We’ve got a system going.” And they did, Cec rolling the pots of choice on their sides to her daughter downhill. Her dad Phil is ready to intervene should anyone topple. “We’ve been gardening together for years.”
You’ll enjoy the story about Stephanie’s Front Lawn Alternative
Column updated 8/7/22