Garden levelling Information on this page;
Diagram of the 'DIG and FILL' method for levelling a slope, more detail on this page
These are some of the most popular materials used to retain terracing.
Stone retaining walls using pre-formed concrete stacking blocks (not cheap), breeze blocks, house bricks or natural stone (expensive).
Reclaimed railway sleepers are fairly cheap and treated to last. But the downside with railway sleepers is the oil and tar used to preserve them making them unsuitable for sitting on or contacting with bare skin, especially if you suffer from allergies.
New sleepers are a cleaner, but slightly more expensive option to build the retaining walls from. They will need to be treated over the years to prevent them from rotting.
Gabions (wire cages filled with stone or rubble), are being used more and more in domestic landscaping for building, cheap, safe and attractive retaining walls. See below
Building materials used for paths and hard surfaces where mobility is a key factor.
Materials for paths and hard surfaces should be carefully chosen for safe and comfortable use by people using walking aids and wheelchair users. Surfaces need to be well constructed with a firm, non-slip, level access. Gravel is unsuitable, however, there's a wide range of materials available. Block paving is fairly easy to lay, looks good and is permeable (lets water through).
Path surfaces should be firm, level, non-glare and non-slip when wet or dry and have a well-consolidated sub-base to avoid the surface cracking up or shifting.
Gabion baskets make building a retaining wall simple
These heavy duty tools will take some of the back aching stuff out of it,
Levelling and terracing a sloping garden takes a lot of time and effort. Shifting earth, maybe digging out clay, but yes it is a job you can handle yourself. Bear in mind though, if things start to go wrong and the walls retaining the terraces come tumbling down. And you end up calling in landscape gardeners to put it right. It will cost lot more in the end. It is very very important to get the retaining wall right.
If you do decide to terrace the slope yourself it is worth the hard graft. Stopping the impact of erosion by forming even a short slope into terraces will save money on plants and make the area more workable, also makes mowing lawns much easier.
Advice for building safe retaining walls.
You can use a range of materials to form the retaining walls from the main ones we have discussed earlier, treated wood, gabion wire cages or stone, through to house bricks (reclaimed brick makes an attractive wall), concrete, quarry rocks and if the terracing isn't very steep you can use compacted piled earth. The durability of the wall will depend on the material you use and the quality of the footings you build the wall on.
High retaining walls have the greatest risk of failure. As the retaining wall height increases, the force trying to topple the wall increases by a large factor. For example, if you double the height of a wall, the tipping force can increase by a factor of three or four times.
Not to high and not to much.
For the reasons we have covered above, if possible avoid very high retaining walls. If your garden slopes away from the house and you're planning a patio area directly outside the house, the further into the slope the patio extends the higher the retaining wall will need to be. A higher retaining wall will need more steps to access the next level. With a downward slope away from the house, it might be worth considering positioning the patio on one of the lower levels rather than sacrifice dining and entertaining space.
Dry stone walls. This article explains how to build stone walls. retaining walls.
How long will it take to level a slope.
Doing it yourself will depend on the size of the garden, the steepness of the slope, number of terraces, access to the skip and how much help you can count on. If I can get a digger onto the slope. The levelling and terracing work normally takes me a couple of weeks in a small to medium garden.
To save time shifting soil from one area to another.
As you dig deeper into the slope you may hit clay or stone, possibly rock. So, it is a good idea to have a pick-axe handy. Bury the clay and rock saving the best soil for the top
You are now ready to begin building the retaining walls and levelling the terrace. Before you start however, its worth spending a little bit of time considering the different design ideas for uphill or downhill slopes. This can make all the difference in the aesthetics of the finished job.
Both uphill slopes and downhill slopes need a slightly different approach at the design stage. On a downward slope viewed from the house you only see the tops of steps and walls. However, with an upward slope viewed from the house. The steps and walls become the focal point.
Downhill slopes often look better with straight walls, sweeping paths and gradual slopes.
Uphill slopes look better when the walls are curved making the retaining walls a garden features.
To get an idea of what you will end up with, stand at the bottom of the slope you are designing the terraces into and imagine the finished job. Do you like what you will be looking at one day? It is an expensive undertaking terracing and levelling a sloping garden. The benefits will be, easier maintenance, space to entertain and space for kids to play safely. With an extra bit of planning it will look good too.
Paved terrace. The golden rule for a paved terrace is that it is big enough to dine and entertain without falling of the edge. To work out the space you will need. Place a dining table in the middle with six chairs around the table, now move the chairs back 18". That's the minimum space you should aim for and don't forget to include space for the BBQ! What you include in your sloping garden design will depend on the size. Creating to many different levels will mean that terraces could be too small to build a comfortable dining area.
Kids play area and seating. A family with young children might want to include a safe play area and maybe a sand pit/shed to store the kids' toys. If you are not including a paved terrace. Aim to have plenty of natural seating spread around the garden. The tops of stone retaining walls and sleeper raised beds make great places to sit and ponder. Try to have seats spread around to follow the sun. Also, make the steps wide enough to sit on.
Illuminating slopes, terracing and steps. Positioning garden lighting tips, can be found here. lights on a slope
What features can I include in my terraced garden.
Features; Can include birdbaths, bird feeders, big flowerpots and trellises all add interest. But don't go over the top in a small sloped garden. Too much clutter makes it look smaller, design tips can be found on my small garden page.
Water features and streams running from the top to the bottom work well and look good in a sloping garden. They seem to connect the various terraces together and the sound of running water bubbling over pebbles is something else.
Existing plants and shrubs can be dug out whilst the groundwork is going on, planted in containers and flowerpots and saved for replanting when the terracing is complete. Working around plants is time consuming.
Plants for terraces.
Some deep rooting plants as well as looking good, actually help retain the soil stopping erosion on slopes whilst shallow rooting plants, like ivy can cause erosion. I have listed plants on this page best plants for slopes
Plants that like to flow down slopes like coneflowers, black eyed susan, garden phlox, shasta daisies, purple russian sage, herbs like catmint and creeping phlox work well on the edge of a terrace.
Plants like artemesias and soft wooly lambs ears with grey or silver foliage add contrasting colour against brighter blooms and dwarf evergreen shrubs.
Vegetable beds. You may of course be unsociable and more interested in growing your own vegetables than entertaining. I am, that's what my wife says anyway! If like me, a growing area is more important than paving, include space for a compost heap. If you can't completely level the growing area, a slight slope won't effect the plants.
What you include in your sloping garden design will depend on the size. Creating too many different levels will mean the terraces could be too small to build a comfortable dining area.
What do you want from your levelled garden.
You can see why it is worth taking time to think about your new terraces before you start levelling the slope or calling in a landscape gardener to do the groundwork. When I am called in to price a terracing job, I always ask this question "What will be the main purpose of the new terraced garden?" It's expensive to make major design changes once the levelling is started.
Don't be put off by the cost, or hard work if you are going to do the work yourself. Soil erosion, areas you can't get to and slippery slopes can be a nightmare, especially as we get older. With some thought and hard work it really can be turned into a safe place to enjoy using again.
If drainage is a problem, visit my lawns and garden drainage page.
Gabion baskets make building a retaining wall simple
The Benefits of levelling or terracing a slope include;
Hope you find the DIY levelling tips useful, but if you haven't got the time? We are Landscape gardeners specialising in levelling, terracing and landscaping sloping gardens in Weston super mare, North Somerset, Somerset, Bristol, Portishead, Clevedon, Nailsea, Yatton and Bridgwater and sometimes further afield. Contact Mike