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How to Landscape Your Hillside

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

A hand points to a slope that with dry, brown vegetation. A large tree sits on the left of the photo, some shrubs or large plants on the right. Where the slope meets the lawn, some of the lawn is bare clay dirt.
Brown, patchy hillside.

If you live in a hillside community, chances are that you have a slope somewhere on your property – one that you just can’t get anything to grow on.

When you have a steep slope, water runs directly down to the base, not leaving enough water to sustain plants on the slope itself. Ground cover has trouble getting a foothold due to the lack of water and constant soil erosion. You can generally trace the path that the water takes by the pattern of bare patches on the hillside.

Ground cover on a large slope, with visible brown areas where water flows down taking soil with it.
Tracing water and soil erosion on a steep slope.

That is why terracing is so popular for hillsides. Terracing creates usable space out of a problematic slope with the help of retaining walls. Water and soil are retained, swaths of wild hillside are turned into orderly areas, and land is reclaimed for you, the homeowner, to use and enjoy.

Expansive areas of flat play area covered in artificial grass, modern cut concrete stairs, immaculately planted shrubs and plants, and trees stretch into the sky on a terraced hillside area.
Modern terracing project by Pinewood Design/Build, Long Beach CA

Multiple levels of modern concrete stairs, artificial grass, trees, and large planter areas.
Aerial view of modern terracing project by Pinewood Design/Build of Long Beach, CA

Terracing is a major project - requiring soil engineers, permits, and sheer tonnages of heavy earth carved and carted away. For many first-time homeowners, terracing is not in the budget. Or the slope in question is not quite large enough to warrant major construction.

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you have to live with an unattractive slope looming over your otherwise beautiful landscape. My favorite alternative is to simply plant trees. I especially like to plant varieties of trees that aren’t ideal for planting near home foundations or walls.

Fig and mulberry trees are two examples: easy to grow, but ill-advised near your home or hardscape. Avocados and citrus are safe to plant almost everywhere, but I love putting them on hillsides anyway. They have great branch structures and are evergreen, which means they look pretty all year round. Their root systems provide resistance against soil erosion, while their trunks provide a natural terracing effect - disrupting the angle of the slope and giving irrigation a place to hang out and soak in.

Lemon tree loaded with fruit.
Lemon tree loaded with fruit.

Tree creating dappled light/shade.
Tree creating dappled light/shade.

Slopes can also help you save space in your backyard vegetable garden. In the summer, I plant my slope with vines that sprawl wildly upwards and across the hillside, depositing squash and melons wherever they please. This year, I’ll be moving my tomatoes up the hillside as well. I’m looking forward to saving time on building and extending trellis systems to keep up with the rapid growth of the plants. I’m also hoping that having the tomato plants trail the hillside will spur more root growth along the stems, which is said to produce a better yield.

A wheelbarrow in a field of vines holds a variety of different squash/gourds - acorn, butternut, kabocha ranging from white to different shades of orange. One distinct squash is orange on the bottom with what looks like a paint splattered top of dark green.
Squash harvest

For those who prefer low-maintenance, ground cover is the traditional option. There is always the option of planting the entire area with a single variety that grows well in poor soil and give you something green to look at. You can’t go wrong with something that’s easy to grow, and easy on the eyes.

Regardless of what you choose to plant, in most cases, the soil needs to be restored first. The easiest way to restore distressed soil is to put two to three inches of mulch over it and wait a season. Mulch doesn’t have the most exciting reputation, but it looks nice, and is even nicer on your wallet. Best of all, it buys you time to consider and save up for your long-term landscape goals.

When it comes to steep slopes, most mulch products will simply roll down the slope and leave you back where you started. Slopes require a specific product: one that goes by the humorous, and apt, name of Gorilla Hair Mulch.

A small(er) gorilla gazes at a tree trunk that has a hole in the bottom.
No actual gorillas were harmed in the making of this mulch.

Gorilla hair mulch is composed mostly of shredded tree bark and the fibrous material that is between the actual tree and the bark. It is fluffy and fibrous. It’s so light that it makes a good substitute for peat moss when it’s triple ground. Yet it forms a dense mat that takes longer than other types of wood mulch to decompose, giving you more years of vibrantly colored coverage.

A large pile of gorilla hair mulch
Gorilla hair mulch

Today’s aggressive inflation takes major construction projects off the table for many homeowners. Gorilla hair mulch is a great first step towards beautifying a brown, patchy slope.* If you’ve been stuck in limbo due to the cost of removing or terracing your hillside, try mulching the area. You may find that what was once an intolerable eyesore blends pleasantly into the rest of your landscape.

A windy path separates mulched planter areas and on the left, a grassy lawn bordered by a concrete mow strip echoing the curves of the path. A slope rises in the far left of the photo, it is covered in gorilla hair mulch and looks vibrant.
Simple but aesthically pleasing planted and mulched yard + slope. Photo courtesy of Apollo Wood Products.

If you've got a truck that you don't mind getting mess and a couple friends with strong backs and knees, it's not hard to DIY your hillside mulching project. If you'd rather make a call and have the job done from start to finish by landscape professionals, reach out to us at 626-879-7070 or for a free design consultation. We'd love to help upgrade your outdoor space!

Check out our latest YouTube video featuring an in-depth explanation of where gorilla hair mulch comes from:

*Gorilla hair mulch aids in water retention, but if conditions are dry, it can be extremely flammable. It is not recommended for use in high fire-risk areas. If you live in a high fire-risk area and have an unsightly slope, I recommend terracing or planting trees or plants that do not have high levels of waxes, oils, and resins. You might see these labeled as “fire-resistant,” but please note that they will require regular irrigation and maintenance in order to retain their water content and not accumulate flammable dead layers.

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