Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Trouble Spot: The Slope

Every garden has its trouble spots.  Maybe yours is a dry shade bed, an area of hard-packed clay soil, an area that receives no sun, an area buffeted by winds, or something else altogether.  One of my trouble spots is our slope, located at the very back of our property.  It was the focus of my second blog post.

The slope presents several challenges:
  • Limited access
  • Poor soil 
  • Fluctuating light conditions 
  • No automated irrigation system 
  • Weeds galore 

I hadn't intended to tackle the slope until the later stages of my garden renovation project but little things chipped away at my resolve.  A neighbor complained that the bedraggled banana tree on our side of the boundary line was blocking her view so my husband took it out, creating an empty space in front of her homely chain-link fence.  The rains caused an explosion of weeds last winter so I started pulling a few at a time, gradually finding myself working my way from my dry garden down the slope.  When I fell on my backside on the narrow dirt path that bisects the slope a few too many times, I complained to my husband about the need for safer access.  When my husband dug into the slope to create a rudimentary stairway of concrete blocks for me, I began hauling out the small rocks and pebbles riddling the soil there.  It seemed reasonable to add compost as I went.  And then there was the lemon tree.  The large Meyer lemon at the bottom of the slope, laden with ripe fruit all year round, was a big draw and regular trips down the slope to pick the fruit virtually compelled me to do something with the slope.

Established Meyer Lemon

If we had pots of money, I would have loved to bring in a contractor to properly terrace the slope but we're pinching pennies so the work on the area has been done on a shoestring budget.  My husband used concrete blocks to create a stairway.  The picture below shows the top of the stairway at the back of my dry garden, with Thymus serphyllum 'Pink Chintz' planted between the blocks and drought tolerant plants along the sides.

While I left the existing honeysuckle and ivy covering the upper side of the slope alone, I cleared weeds from the lower area.  The prior owner had left a large number of wood tree rings behind and I re-purposed these to divide and level this area, then filled the beds with homemade and purchased compost.  When the wood segments begin to rot, I'll have to replace them with a more durable edging material but my hope is that the plants will have stabilized the soil by that point.

I purchased dozens of small plants, none larger than 1-gallon size, to fill the new beds but I also transplanted divisions from plants elsewhere in the garden.  Some of these, most notably Centranthus ruber and Oenothera speciosa (Pink Evening Primrose), are so aggressive they could be considered weeds here.  Hopefully I won't regret the decision to use them to create my budget garden.

Centranthus ruber, Euphorbia 'Dean's Hybrid' & Oenathera speciosa (not yet in bloom)

I used a few plants repeatedly in the new beds, including Ribes viburnifolium (Catalina Perfume Currant), Euphorbia 'Dean's Hybrid', Pelargonium hybrid 'White Lady', Liriope muscari 'PeeDee Gold Ingot' and Arthropodium cirratum 'Renga Lily'.  Miscellaneous sedum and other small succulents have been placed between and around the stair steps in the lower section of the slope.

Ribes viburnifolium, Euphorbia 'Dean's Hybrid', Oenathera speciosa, & Pelargonium 'Edward Michael' (not in bloom)

I added single selections of a few other plants to see how they'd do, including Carpenteria californica 'Elizabeth', Monardella villosa 'Coyote Mint', as well as a purple-flowering groundcover Abelia.  All are reputed to be drought tolerant once established.  All made it through their first summer in good shape.

View from bottom of slope looking up the stairway at about 9 months after planting

Here's a close-up of one of the Renga Lilies, which should bloom mid-spring.

Arthropodium cirratum 'Renga Lily' surrounded by Thymus pulegiodes

I recently added some grasses, Seslaria 'Greenlee', and Stachys byzantina (divisions from plants elsewhere in the garden) in the flat area in front of the lemon tree.

Nothing much is flowering yet this year except for the Argyranthemum frutescens I stuffed in a pot with bromeliad offsets (which unfortunately didn't hide much of the neighbor's chain-link fence).

Sawdust from the Eucalyptus recently removed from the upper yard has been distributed as mulch around the base of the lemon tree and along the pathway running below the base of the lower beds.  I still need to see what I can do to revitalize the giant Yucca growing at the boundary of our yard.  It's 12-15 feet tall, stands at the edge of a sharp drop-off into our neighbor's yard, and it's full of ivy (and, reportedly, tree rats), which makes it a bit intimidating.

Yucca - No ID

There's plenty more to do but I feel I've at least made a good start on tackling this trouble spot, even though the work began without any real plan.  If you have any suggestions for drought-tolerant plants that can handle partial shade in a zone 10 climate, please pass them along.  I still have empty spots that need filling!


  1. Your hillside is looking pretty good already, congratulations! That yucca might be a real focal point with all the stuff removed, but I'd be hesitant to deal with tree rats!

    1. I've only seen the tree rats 2x but they're big and the neighbor contends they nest somewhere within the Yucca jungle. (Shudder!)

  2. Wow-nice job! Whenever I clean up a section of the garden that has gotten a bit out of control I always feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Sorry I can't help with the plant selection but I can ooh and ahh over the eventual choices.

    BTW, do you have a block of complaining neighbors or is it just one person? Did the previous owner of your home just ignore them?

    1. Actually, I'm afraid it was 2 different people. The neighbors are generally very nice but they're a little anal about their views - that's one of the things that draw people to the area, although I'd contend that the trees are also major contributors to the ambiance. In any case, there's a convoluted local ordinance governing "view conservation" that some people seem to like to invoke (which is probably why I hear tree trimming in the area about 2x a week). As we've been here 2 years now and we haven't heard from anyone else, we're hopeful this is the end of the complaints directed at us. (The guy across the street trims his smoke tree every year to appease the same neighbor who made an issue of our Eucalyptus.) We had wondered why the prior owner elected to sell after just 15 months...

  3. Wow! I'm so impressed! That picture of the stairway and the planting bed is just gorgeous. What a smart - and cost effective - re-do! And your Meyer lemon tree is amazing!

  4. I can't take much credit for the tree. The back story is that it was planted by my next door neighbor (the same one that asked us to cut down the banana tree) in the belief that the property was part of her lot. An individual who owned our house several years ago (before the guy we bought the house from) raised the issue of ownership with the city and she lost the lemon tree and the sloped area I recently planted. Fortunately, she holds no ill will toward us (she was very happy when we took the banana tree down for her) and I give her bags of lemons on a regular basis.