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Beautiful Hillside Garden

By: Kristin Beane Sullivan
Hillside gardening is never easy. Learn this gardener's secrets to taming a steep slope and creating a canvas splashed with color and texture in every season.

Hillside beauty

There are no quick fixes in gardening. Ellie Gilbert’s patient development of this 20-year-old Massachusetts garden is a testament to what investment in soil, careful observation and a lot of hard work can do. That’s why we chose her as the winner of the 2021 Garden Gate Reader Garden Award. Ellie designed gentle curving borders with a unified plant palette in this zone 6 garden and not only tamed a challenging slope but turned it into a canvas splashed with color and texture in every season. Let’s take a look!

Portrait of Ellie & Ed Gilbert for 2021 Reader Garden Award: 2021 Garden Gate Reader Garden Award winners Ellie and Ed Gilbert from Massachusetts.

Starting from scratch

When Ellie and her husband, Ed, moved into their newly built home in 2001, the landscape was a completely blank slate. But they knew it wouldn’t always be so sparse. That’s why the first thing they did was build a compost pile, knowing it would pay dividends in the long run.

Ellie-Gilbert-patio: Every line in this garden is a broad, sweeping curve. This approach creates a peaceful, harmonious appeal, and the meticulously edged beds frame the plants perfectly.

Patio project

The 14×24-foot patio above was the next project on the to-do list, and Ed laid every paver himself. Then Ellie got to work planning and planting the borders around the patio and the house’s foundation.

She filled them with perennials and shrubs in her favorite color scheme of pink, purple and pale yellow. Several types of hydrangeas, burgundy barberries (Berberis thunbergii) and a Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) planted specifically for its fragrance form the backbone of the curving 7- to 12-foot-deep bed around the patio. Perennial geraniums (Geranium x cantabrigiense), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), salvia (Salvia x sylvestris), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and coral bells (Heuchera hybrids) fill out the beds. She allows forget-me-nots (Mylsotis sylvatica) and foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) below left to reseed.

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birdbath with foxgloves and honeysuckle trellis at Ellie Gilbert Garden: Ellie doesn't mulch around the tall pink foxgloves so their seeds can find their way to the soil and sprout more easily.

The long-term plan

After a few years, Ellie started dividing the perennials that thrived to expand the planting and added them to other beds in the garden. This approach has resulted in a lovely repetition and cohesive color palette throughout the entire yard.

Every spring she has 5 or 6 yards of dark brown bark mulch delivered, and she tops all the beds with a fresh layer of mulch (except the spots where she wants foxgloves, columbines (Aquilegia spp. and hybrids) and forget-me-nots to reseed). In the last couple of years she’s enlisted her grandson’s help to do the hauling with the wheelbarrow so she can focus on spreading the mulch and making a pass with a hand edger to crisp up every bed’s edges. After that, the secret to keeping these beds so beautiful is never letting yourself get overwhelmed. Ellie says, “I make a habit of doing a daily walkabout, when I can notice where grass might be creeping into the bed edges, see weeds that need to be pulled or catch a fungus starting.”

The final touch in the beds around the patio and the house’s foundation are the three trellises Ed built to hang on their cedar shake siding. Ellie planted the ‘Serotina’ honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) above right on the garage wall and enjoys the hummingbirds that start to visit every year around Mother’s Day.

Transforming the hillside into a garden

The crown jewel of the Gilberts’ landscape is an 18-foot-deep, 120-foot-long slope garden that rises to a lovely woodland walkway at the back of their property. It’s proven to be both challenging and rewarding. You can watch Ellie's own slideshow of the transformation above.

Ellie Gilbert hillside garden: Ellie started with creeping junipers and moss phlox on this hillside. Now she prunes them occasionally to leave room for other plants and textures for contrast.

Start with the soil

Gardening on a slope is difficult enough, but the soil on this hillside was so sandy that water ran right through it. (The Gilberts live 5 minutes from the shore.)

“There were only 2 inches of soil that the builders had spread on the hill. When you dug down it was pure beach sand,” Ellie remembers.

Every time she planted something new in the hillside garden, she dug a large hole and mixed in plenty of compost. The yearly layer of mulch has helped to build the soil into a much thicker layer, as well.

Add structure

When she was ready to take on this garden, Ellie dug European white birch (Betula pendula) saplings from nearby undeveloped lots that would be bulldozed soon. She planted seven of them along the crest of the hill. The repetition really anchors the design, and their open structure makes it easy to garden (and navigate paths) beneath them.

Ellie-Gilbert-hillside-planting-with-stone-steps

Planting the hillside

Not wanting to scramble up the hillside every time she needed compost or wished to wander the woodland path in the garden, Ellie turned to her handyman Ed for the stone steps in the photo above. Then she planted a few young perennials and shrubs at the edges, hoping they would eventually help the stairs blend into the hillside.

She also started with a few creeping junipers (Juniperus horizontalis) and moss phlox (Phlox subulata) on the slope to hold the soil in place and added more plants every year for structure and contrast.

Large sweeps of plants and repetition help create a rhythm and harmony. Pink and purple moss phlox and perennial geraniums bring color in spring; by summer, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids) and threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) take over, and in fall colorful hydrangea heads, tall sedum (Hylotelephium spectabile) flowers, swaying grasses and golden river birch foliage show off.

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Ellie Gilbert bench and stone steps: Ed used stones unearthed as the couple built the patio and its surrounding beds to create the steps that lead to the woodland garden and tranquil garden bench.

Woodland walk

At the crest of the hill, a 4-foot-wide mulch path meanders beneath the birch trees through plantings of azaleas, hostas, astilbe and ferns. As you walk it, you’ll be tempted to sit on the bench above and enjoy the cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice and other birds that visit the nearby feeders. It’s a quiet spot and also a good place to view the borders below from another vantage point. Ellie, an accomplished photographer, enjoys finding unique ways of looking at the garden. The view from the top of the hill, peeking through a birch’s branches is one of her favorites.

Ellie-Gilbert-hillside-garden-view

The plant palette

You might have gathered from its look that Ellie has a very disciplined approach to her garden. She keeps a to-do list for the future and notes when the best time to do each task would be. Keeping perennial divisions watered in July can be tedious work, but tackling that project in April means that the new plants take off quickly and don’t require extra babying.

Ellie also keeps a folder with all of her plant tags (those that have thrived as well as those that have failed!). This way she knows what to buy if a single plant in a clump dies out and needs replacing. “I’m a fanatic about keeping my plant tags. If I lose one of the plants in a pattern, I want to replace it with the same thing.” All that record keeping and 20 years of trial and error have led to a few favorites. Ellie has shared 9 of hers in the gallery below.

‘Camelot Rose’ foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Type Biennial Blooms Pink flower spikes emerge in the plant’s second year in late spring to early summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 24 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Dancing Butterflies’ peony (Paeonia)

Type Perennial Blooms Large, single fragrant bright pink flowers in spring Light Full sun Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 30 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

‘White Wave’ bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Type Shrub Blooms White lacecap florets with pink or blue centers in summer depending on soil pH Light Part shade Size 5 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9

‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta racemosa)

Type Perennial Blooms Small blue flowers top fragrant foliage from late spring through fall Light Full su Size 18 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

‘Goldflame’ Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica)

Type Shrub Blooms Pink flowers in late spring to early summer; new foliage is rosy red turning bright green Light Full sun Size 3 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

‘Rosebud’ azalea (Rhododendron)

Type Shrub Blooms Pale pink buds open to double blooms in early spring Light Part shade Size 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow-green sprays of flowers bloom in late spring over attractive mounds of foliage Light Full sun to part shade Size 10 to 18 in. tall, 18 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Karmina’ perennial geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense)

Type Perennial Blooms Purple-pink flowers first appear in late spring and bloom sporadically til frost Ligh Full sun to part shade Size 6 to 12 in. tall, spreading Hardines Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8

‘Raspberry Ice’ coral bells (Heuchera)

Type Perennial Blooms Pink flowers rise above silvery-purple leaves in late spring to summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 1 to 2 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Camelot Rose’ foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Type Biennial Blooms Pink flower spikes emerge in the plant’s second year in late spring to early summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 24 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Rosebud’ azalea (Rhododendron)

Type Shrub Blooms Pale pink buds open to double blooms in early spring Light Part shade Size 2 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8

‘Dancing Butterflies’ peony (Paeonia)

Type Perennial Blooms Large, single fragrant bright pink flowers in spring Light Full sun Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 30 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow-green sprays of flowers bloom in late spring over attractive mounds of foliage Light Full sun to part shade Size 10 to 18 in. tall, 18 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

‘White Wave’ bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Type Shrub Blooms White lacecap florets with pink or blue centers in summer depending on soil pH Light Part shade Size 5 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9

‘Karmina’ perennial geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense)

Type Perennial Blooms Purple-pink flowers first appear in late spring and bloom sporadically til frost Ligh Full sun to part shade Size 6 to 12 in. tall, spreading Hardines Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8

‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta racemosa)

Type Perennial Blooms Small blue flowers top fragrant foliage from late spring through fall Light Full su Size 18 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

‘Raspberry Ice’ coral bells (Heuchera)

Type Perennial Blooms Pink flowers rise above silvery-purple leaves in late spring to summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 1 to 2 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Goldflame’ Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica)

Type Shrub Blooms Pink flowers in late spring to early summer; new foliage is rosy red turning bright green Light Full sun Size 3 to 4 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8

Published: Oct. 1, 2021
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