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Groundcovers for Steep Slopes

Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet

Steep slopes present both challenges and wonderful opportunities for landscaping. Steep banks can be difficult and dangerous to mow. Erosion can be a serious problem if vegetation is not established. South facing slopes may warm up and dry out quicker than other areas, while north facing slopes may be cooler than surrounding areas. So, what are your options if you have a steep incline in your yard that presents maintenance problems?

First, determine the existing conditions. Which direction does the bank face? Is it shady or sunny? Then, decide if you want a formal, manicured look or a more natural look.

If you prefer a well-maintained look, plant low growing groundcovers other than grass. Numerous plants are available that will blanket the ground, protecting it from erosion and remaining neat throughout the year with little or no maintenance. Low growing species of juniper (prostrate juniper) will do well in many sunny, drier locations. They spread rapidly and vary in texture and color from blues to greens. In shady spots, the non-native pachysandra often does well. This plant remains green throughout the winter and spreads easily. Wintercreeper is another non-native but hardy plant that grows in sun and partial shade. Varieties are available that have white or gold variegated leaves. Yet another possibility is periwinkle���actually a Vinca species���known for its blue or white flowers. Check with a local nursery for species that are best suited for your area.

When planting groundcovers on slopes, try to avoid planting into bare soil. This may not be possible with new construction. In this case, mulch around the plants with an organic mulch to help retain water and prevent erosion. If you have existing sod, it is preferable to kill the sod and plant into it. This limits the potential for serious erosion before the new groundcover becomes established. You may want to mulch around the plants so the area looks neat. Providing extra water while establishing your plants greatly enhances success during dry periods.

If you prefer a more natural look, plant wildflowers and native grasses on slopes. Once established, these natural plantings can provide season long color, food, and shelter for birds and butterflies. Periodic mowing may be needed to control growth and keep woody shrubs and trees from becoming established. Check on local ordinances dealing with unmowed areas.

Terraces provide another option for steep slopes. Terraces provide architectural interest as well as opportunities for extensive gardens. They can vary considerably in cost--depending on the materials used and the area to be terraced. Terraces must be installed properly to ensure the stability of the slope. Check on local ordinances and building codes if considering a terrace. When contracting for the work, use a reliable, competent professional.

For more information on mulching, terracing, and other Backyard Conservation practices, contact your local conservation district or the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Or call 1-888-LANDCARE (toll free) for a free colorful Backyard Conservation booklet and tip sheets.

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