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Garden design: a focus on… levels, slopes and hills

There’s no such thing as an average garden, as any garden designer will tell you. Some of my favourite challenges to encounter when working with a client are slopes and levels. It might be the case that the garden is set into a hillside (often the case with seaside or rural properties), or perhaps the garden contains lots of different levels as part of  a conscious design. This presents me with a lovely opportunity to work with steps, sections and other aspects of garden design in order to really make the most of a multi-level garden.

Different levels in a garden are a fantastic visual tool: they open the space up, allowing us to draw the eye upwards and creating the illusion of more size and space. The changes in levels can give us the chance to break up one large area of space, adding interest, drama and focus. And of course they can enable us to make more of fantastic views (or block ones we’re not so keen on!)

Mariners Garden in Berkshire sits on a large sloping plot – sometimes these slopes are quite dramatic and occasionally as in this photo they are gentle and meandering and draw you through the garden on long stretches of grass pathway using plants and trees and as focal points to catch the eye.

You need to be able to move around your garden, so one of the key components of designing an outside space on different levels is the use of steps. Steps should always be considered for aesthetics as well as functionality and can be used to create or compliment the existing space: wide sweeping steps for gentle height changes, or deeper steps to ease a steeper narrower climb.  I’ll always consider a range of materials when I’m putting steps into a garden design: there’s so much to choose from, including wood and natural stone, and the use of lighting can totally transform the look (and safety) of steps in a garden.

This is a garden I designed for sloping site near High Wycombe – here I’ve used  a wide sweep of steps up to the lawn to create the illusion of width and distract from the steepness of the slope while feature steps guide you across and up a number of terraces to a private seating area at the top of the garden which enjoys views across the surrounding countryside.

Once I start to design the levels themselves, I’m always reminded of just how much scope there is for planting, hard landscaping, textures and colours. Different levels in your garden can be used for areas of lawn or meadow, paving or decking, hard landscaping mixed with foliage, raised beds, borders or planting. The options are almost endless, limited only by budget, soil type and drainage. These are all things I’ll advise on and take into account.

Even the smallest level change can be used to create interest.  In this garden in Bracknell I was tasked with rejuvenating the soft landscaping as the terraces and pergola were to remain in place and so I decided to take advantage of a slope of just 400mm to create lawns on three levels – a simple but effective way add another dimension to the garden.

Sometimes people dismiss gardens which slope, thinking they’ll be more trouble than they’re worth or perhaps that they will limit what can be achieved in the space. I disagree: in fact, I think a garden which rises and falls gives the homeowner a wonderful opportunity to create something unique and eye-catching.


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