Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (2022)

Changes of level in a garden always make for a more interesting and dynamic composition – they allow views to be blocked or opened up, increasing visual drama. Steps and ramps are the two basic alternatives to deal with level changes in the garden.

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Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (1)
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Levels are a challenge and ideally you would avoid using retaining walls – not only are they costly, but they can really break up a garden’s flow even when planted above and below.

A sloping border allows a tumble of plants where you can play with the height of plants to create an unusual effect. Tall plants, such as Verbena bonariensis, can almost appear to be understorey planting.

There is a lot of natural run-off with slopes – they are drier at the top than the bottom, so the right plant in the right place is key. Read our piece on how to conserve water in garden design. Installing irrigation when the garden is laid out will avoid plant losses in dry weather, where watering by hand might be awkward.

Hard landscaping almost always includes a flat area of terracing – using the same material for steps makes the garden more cohesive allowing one area to fade into the next. Read on for more sloping garden ideas and inspiration.

Sloping garden ideas

Garden steps

Steps are the most efficient means of changing level, but many people mistakenly use indoor step measurements out of doors, where the scale is very different.

Steps consist of the ‘riser’ – the vertical face of the step – and the ‘tread’, the horizontal surface on which you stand. Indoors, where we need to climb in a more restricted space, typical dimensions are 17-18cm riser height and 22-24cm tread depth.

Out of doors these dimensions will seem mean and dangerous, creating a sense of tipping forward as one moves down the stairs. The return journey, especially in steeply sloping gardens, can prove difficult and tiring. Interior dimensions will only really work in tight spaces, for example in smaller urban gardens where decks or balconies need access to the garden level.

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (2)
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A general rule of thumb for garden steps is a 15cm maximum riser and 30cm minimum tread depth. This ratio produces a more relaxed angle of ascent or descent, resulting in steps more successfully proportioned to the greater outdoor scale.

It is useful to consider the steps themselves as a design feature rather than simply as a means of access. A wide terrace benefits from wide steps, preferably the same width as the terrace. It will emphasise horizontal surfaces and give the garden a greater sense of space. Similarly, if a pathway is 1.5m wide, make the steps the same width rather than creating a restriction to easy movement.

Individual treads can also be more than the minimum 30cm. If space allows, steps can be 1m deep or more, creating a much more elegant ‘going’, while also providing spaces for the display of sculpture or containers.

Safety considerations for garden steps

If you get steps wrong, they are potentially dangerous. They can also be difficult for disabled people. Well-designed steps do not need to represent a safety hazard, but there are some basic considerations. A single step is dangerous if people fail to see the change in level. If this is unavoidable consider a change of material along the edge of the step to mark its location. Lighting can also be added to identify the step from the side.

A more subtle alternative is to recess LED strips under the tread paving to shine down the riser face. This needs an overhang on the tread paving of 40mm or so – the overhanging paving will also produce a shadow line in daylight, which again marks the step. Balustrades and handrails are not a legal obligation for garden steps, but may well help anyone unsure of their footing.

Garden step ideas

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (4)

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (5)
(Video) 23 Wonderful Slope Ideas for Yard / Landscaping

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (6)

Steps leading up to a new part of this garden.

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (7)

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (8)

Garden ramps

Ramps represent a much safer option, providing a smooth means of changing level. Unfortunately, they require much more space than steps to produce a gentle gradient. The accepted gradient for a ramp is 1:12 (one in 12), meaning that for every 12m travelled horizontally the level changes by 1m. This produces a workable gradient for wheelchair use. In gardens with steeper slopes the ramp becomes a major design element, which can dominate a space, leaving little room for planting. With increased consideration for mobility in the garden, and access for all to our houses, we will see the ramp becoming an increasingly common feature.

The manoeuvrability of the wheelchair dictates ramp widths and landings. Widths should be a minimum of 1.2m as a typical wheelchair is 90cm wide. Landings are required with steps and ramps to provide space to take a breather, as well as being effective places to break a fall or change direction. Have a landing every 8-10 steps and have ramps no longer than 10-12m before introducing a flat landing.

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Materials for garden ramps and steps

When choosing materials, think about grip – this is a priority when designing ramps, as wet or icy conditions can be dangerous. Consider textured materials such as coarse, resin-bonded gravel or exposed aggregate concrete. Stone can be flame-textured to create an artificially rough surface. Drainage of ramps and steps will also reduce puddles and slipperiness in icy conditions.

Steps should have a slight gradient of 1:60 or 1:100, with drain-runs, often called cut-off drains, across paths and ramps to take away excess water. The drain itself should be covered with a grille, which finishes flush to the paved surface.

Garden steps and ramps: coping with a sloping garden (9)

Potential problems with garden steps and ramps

A typical hazard is created when solid paved steps are used in conjunction with loose gravel pathways or terraces. The gravel tends to move or sink with use, leaving the paving for the top step standing proud to produce a potential tripping point. It is much better to create an apron or a wide landing of paving, perhaps 1-1.2m deep, or more, which incorporates the top step.

Timber is often used for steps in country or woodland gardens, but can prove quite slippery, especially in shade. Railway sleepers are no longer available due to their heavy creosote content, but new sleeper-like timber lengths are now manufactured instead.

Granite setts may prove a better solution and the provision of a timber balustrade or handrail would be an important addition.

KEY POINTS FOR GARDEN STEPS AND SLOPES

  1. Try not to over-elaborate steps as people need to be sure of their footing. Also, curved or spiralling steps may look romantic, but are more complex and costly to build.
  2. Riser heights of 15cm maximum and tread depths of 30cm minimum are good rule-of-thumb measurements. An alternative formula is: two risers + one tread = 63cm. This would deliver a 33cm tread for a 15cm riser. To produce a close approximation of the number of steps required, calculate the change of level in your garden and then divide by 15cm. Riser heights can be adjusted slightly, but make sure that all steps are the same height.
  3. As treads increase in depth, the riser should reduce in height. For a 45cm tread a riser height of 9-10cm is preferable. This can be maintained for treads up to 1m deep.
  4. Allow steps and ramps to drain easily. It is best not to construct side walls above step height, which can hamper effective drainage and leave water standing on the treads.
  5. If you are planning steps for your garden, carry a tape measure and a camera with you and check the measurements of steps that you like or find comfortable to use as you visit other gardens.
  6. Most steps are built on poured concrete foundations. Larger step constructions will require steel reinforcement to prevent cracking.

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FAQs

What do you do with a steep sloped garden? ›

Creating Terraces for Sloping Gardens

"The most cost effective way to manage a sloping garden is with gabion cages or railway sleepers to act as retaining walls." One of the best ideas for making a sloping garden into a more useable outdoor space is to create terraces by building retaining walls.

How do I calculate how many garden steps I need? ›

To work out how many risers you need, divide the vertical height of the flight by the height of your riser. Then divide the horizontal length of the flight into a suitable number of treads. The combinations of tread and riser measurements in the table will make attractive, safe steps.

How do you landscape a steep slope on a budget? ›

Nine Budget-Friendly Ways to Landscape a Steep Slope
  1. 1) Use Mulch. One of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to landscape a steep slope is to use mulch. ...
  2. 3) Use Groundcovers. ...
  3. 4) Erosion-Control Blanket. ...
  4. 5) Create a Path. ...
  5. 6) Use Recycled Materials. ...
  6. 7) Incorporate Water. ...
  7. 8) Use Cages or Nets. ...
  8. 9) Build a Retaining Wall.
3 Aug 2022

How do you landscape a slightly sloped backyard? ›

You can make a sloping property more functional by cutting away a portion of a hill and installing a retaining wall to hold back the soil. This is a great opportunity to create a dedicated planting area behind and along the retaining wall, while reclaiming a portion of your yard for an expanse of grass on level ground.

How do you go from sloped area to landscape? ›

5 creative ways to landscape a sloped yard
  1. Mulch your slope. The most affordable way to landscape a slope is also the easiest: mulch it. ...
  2. Plant your slope. The most promising accent of any yard, plants can add some serious personality to your slope. ...
  3. Erect a masonry retaining wall. ...
  4. Landscape a slope with it all.
25 Aug 2020

How do you keep dirt from washing away on a slope? ›

Techniques for steep slopes include wood retaining walls, interlocking concrete blocks, rock retaining walls, riprap (loose rock) areas, and terracing. If you choose wood, make sure the wood is treated with a wood preservative to prevent rotting.

What is the best ground cover for a hillside? ›

Steep, sunny slopes are perfect for perennials such as daylilies, creeping phlox, lamb's ears, stonecrop and a variety of ornamental grasses. A number of woody plants can also serve as good groundcovers, especially creeping juniper, fragrant sumac, bearberry, and Russian arborvitae.

Do you need planning permission to level a sloping garden? ›

When it comes to doing work to your garden, there are certain things that will require planning permission. However, the good news is that for levelling a garden, no planning permission is required.

Is a ramp safer than steps? ›

A ramp is much safer and easier to use than stairs for anyone with any type of mobility issue. Think of the various people and equipment which may need to access your steps or change in elevation. A safe even slope is much better to navigate than steps are. A ramp greatly reduces fall risks when compared to steps.

What is the best height for a step? ›

Riser Heights

In the United States, the step height standard should be between 7 or 7 ¾ inches at the most, and no less than 4 inches. You should follow other measurements if given by local building codes.

How deep should foundation be for garden steps? ›

Make sure the ground is well compacted on each step. You need to make a foundation for the bottom step to be built up from – dig out a small trench along the front of the step and back the length of a brick at each corner. The trench should be 150mm (6”) deep and twice the width of the bricks.

How do you construct a walkway on a slope? ›

  1. Plan a route that zigzags back and forth down the slope. ...
  2. Level your path. ...
  3. Use either the shovel or a scooper to dig your slope along the cleared pathway. ...
  4. Lay the walkway surface. ...
  5. Install steps in any of the steeper or straight areas. ...
  6. Install railings anywhere you have installed steps or wherever the path is too steep.

How do you build a cheap retaining wall? ›

The cheapest way to build a retaining wall is to DIY it. And the most DIY-friendly way is to use commercially available concrete blocks, sold in Home Depot or Lowe's. They commonly come as self-aligning and trapezoidal in shape which makes it easier to form concaves, convexes, or straight walls.

How do you build a garden on a steep hill? ›

How to successfully garden on a steep slope or hill - YouTube

What is the best ground cover for a hillside? ›

Steep, sunny slopes are perfect for perennials such as daylilies, creeping phlox, lamb's ears, stonecrop and a variety of ornamental grasses. A number of woody plants can also serve as good groundcovers, especially creeping juniper, fragrant sumac, bearberry, and Russian arborvitae.

Do you need planning permission to level a garden? ›

When it comes to doing work to your garden, there are certain things that will require planning permission. However, the good news is that for levelling a garden, no planning permission is required.

How do you plant ground cover on a steep slope? ›

Do not till steep slopes, because loose soil can lead to even more erosion. Instead, after removing weeds dig a hole for each plant the same depth as the plant's root ball and twice as wide. Center the plant in the hole and fill with good potting soil that contains an all-purpose fertilizer.

Videos

1. How To: DIY Landscape Stairs
(AZ Highland Homestead)
2. How to make a hand rail option 2
(themrhelperguy)
3. Building steps into a hill.
(Brantley Blended)
4. How to plant on a slope (and other great sloping garden tips!)
(The Middle-Sized Garden)
5. How To Calculate Over All Stair Rise Height On Sloping Hill – Construction Tips
(stairbuilding)
6. How to Landscape a steep slope without Retaining walls
(Stanley "Dirt Monkey" Genadek)

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