Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Planting a Steep Woodland Garden

a woman with short brown hair planting on a steep slope.

Hello fellow readers, Working with Stephanie of Denville, NJ, who moved from the west coast, was a privilege. She bought a cute cottage in a lake community overlooking a magnificent forest. The severe back slope is a dilemma for those who wish to meander amongst the trees. That’s where a steep woodland garden comes in.

Thanks to a brave installer’s can-do attitude, we designed and built a flight of meandering garden steps and walls using boulders from the woods. Robert Molinet uncovered fifty years of debris from previous owners’ house renovations, old bicycles, and tires. And a Snoopy pencil dated my year of birth. I didn’t fess up (smile).

Garden steps going up a steep woodland garden

Robert of Sierra Landscape Management built a flight of meandering garden steps.

Perfect plants for a steep woodland garden

Robert’s crew dug in the woodland shrubs, including Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) and Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). Then Stephanie and I planted woodland perennials while her folks were visiting from Oregon. Stephanie climbed the cliff of Clethra to dig in the Wild Ginger (Asarum). I “answered back” with a vignette of ginger 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.

a large pink and white bloom of a hellebore being held by a hand.

Happy Hellebore

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); It’s the pollinator magnet we spoke about a few weeks back, which grows two to three feet with bluish-green leaves that thrive in extreme conditions in full sun or shade.

To create a foot-tall carpet of violet-blue spring blooms, we planted ‘Blue Moon’ Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata’ Blue Moon’) that hummingbirds and butterflies will love.

How to Plant Trees & Shrubs on a Steep Slope:
Stephanie, a gal with short brown hair, standing with Mary Stone after planting day.

Stephanie’s muddy jeans are proof she tacked the steepest parts :^)

I call planting on a steep slope “goat gardening.” When planting trees and shrubs, create a platform by elevating the downhill side or cutting into the hill. Often a combo of both techniques creates the optimum flat space.

The area should be three times the root ball’s width (five times for large trees) and firm enough to stand on while planting. Secure the hill’s downside with rocks or a retaining wall before adding soil. Then follow proper planting protocols of digging the hole 2 to 3 times the root ball’s width and only as deep as the root ball.

Supplement the soil with rich organic matter, firmly filling the hole to eliminate air pockets. Fertilizing can add to plant stress when planting, so wait until after they are established. Top with 2 to 3 inches of undyed wood mulch (my fav is hemlock mulch) and keep it clear of trunks or stems to prevent disease.

A woman handing a garden pot to an elderly woman sitting in a white rattan chair wiht a man in the background.

“We’ve been gardening together for years.”

“We’ve got a system going.”

I loved witnessing Stephanie’s Mom guiding her from above, pointing to what goes where while passing the plants to her daughter.

“We’ve got a system going.” And they did, Cec rolling the pots on their sides to her daughter downhill. Her dad Phil stood by to intervene should anyone topple. “We’ve been gardening together for years.”

The scene reminded me of my dear momma and our gardening days together. It just goes to show digging in the dirt is hereditary.

There’s an update to the story.

Recently Stephanie decided to move back to the West Coast to be near her parents. The new owner reached out, confessing she’s not a gardener, and asked how to maintain the garden. The good news is there’s not much to do now that the woodland garden filled with native beauties is well-rooted. Let Mother Nature, the ultimate gardener, do her thing.

Even if you’re not a fan of digging in the dirt, you’re a gardener by respecting and admiring nature in the garden of life.

Garden Dilemmas? and your favorite Podcast App.

There’s more to the story in Episode 70 of the Garden Dilemmas Podcast:

Link to the related stories the Proper Planting Hillside and Gift of Meadows & Mountain Mint 









Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary
  1. April Fisher Reply

    Beautiful work! Such a shame that Stephanie won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of her labor….

    • Mary Stone Reply

      Thank you, April; Stephanie enjoyed the garden for a few years. And I enjoyed visiting it each year too! Thanks for reading my column, Mary

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