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Create a Faux Rock Garden on a Hillside or Berm
by Scott Beuerlein - posted 05/30/12

Steeply sloped areas don’t have to be ‘trouble spots.’ Hillsides can be turned into gorgeous rock gardens. Here are some tips.


Properly constructed, a hillside garden can be a delight of texture, form and color and provide year-round excitement.

Gardening on a hillside is a wonderful and rare opportunity. Yes, it does present a few challenges, particularly with installation, but there are so many benefits. Immediately, you have contour, and this is a game changer. The movement of land provides interest before you even buy your first plant. Then, after you’ve planted, your plants seem to own the landscape. Woodies defy the pull of gravity and stretch upwards while perennials hug the ground in mats, clump up in the protective spaces between rocks, or revel in the slopes and tumble freely.

Traditionally, planting of berms and hillsides has been the stuff of rock gardens, and basically that’s what we’re doing here. To prevent erosion, we need to use the devices rock gardeners have used all along. Tiers of rocks (or some other materials) set into the hillside at a slight upward angle that break the slope into terraces, gravel or hardwood mulch, and thick plantings will all work together to prevent a heavy rain from washing away your hard work.

You can amend the soil with compost before you plant. If you have very heavy clay, it is recommended.

It is not absolutely essential, though. Do not amend your clay soil with sand. Where we’ll differ here from many rock gardens is that we have little interest in solely using true alpine plants. In the heat and humidity of the Midwest, we’re totally willing to rely simply on plants that look right and will live.

Be sure to include some woody plants for structure. Mixing up textures, forms and foliage colors will always provide more interest. You can play homage to the color wheel, but I have found that if you go easy on extreme colors and are generous with white, most of the plants play well together. Mainly, try things and have fun!

 


Chrysanthemum weyrichii is a perennial mat-forming chrysanthemum that waits until mid-October to erupt in white daisies.


Some traditional rock garden plants such as Dalmation bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana) actually grow surprisingly well in the Midwest landscape, if given the good drainage a hillside provides.


Lady finger (Anthyllis montana rubra) is another true alpine with a surreal flower that grows well if given good drainage. Aurinia saxatilis, Arabis alpina and some dianthus species will do well and deliver some exceptional beauty.


Rockcress (Arabis alpinis) poking up from between stones.


Dwarf conifers and other small woodies add structure and winter interest to such a garden without overwhelming the proportions. Seen here is Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom.’


Dwarf fan-leaf columbine (Aquilegia flabellata ‘Nana’) is a gorgeous little mounding plant with soft, blue-green foliage, an easy disposition and an oversized flower. Easy in any garden.


One of the nicest things about gardening on a hillside is that smaller plants are raised up and are easier to view.

 

(From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2012. Photography by Scott Beuerlein.)

 

 


Scott Beuerlein is a horticulturist, an ISA Certified Arborist, a Certified Landscape Technician and owner of Heritage Gardens.