Making the Most of a Hillside Landscape in a Small Backyard

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Paul and Ava Linton were very happy in their home. It was the small backyard set against a steep hillside landscape that was the problem. The woods the property backed up to were beautiful, but in front of those woods was a steep uphill slope where the rains came down and not much in the way of vegetation came up. After several years of paging through landscaping and architecture magazines, while looking forlornly at unusable yard space, their basket of ideas was empty. What to do with a small, shady backyard where no grass will grow? With that major question in their minds, the Lintons decided to seek some expert opinions. After interviewing several landscaping companies, they met with senior landscape architect Howard Cohen and decided to go with Surrounds. 

Landscaping a Steep Slope: Making a “Problem” Part of the Solution

That steep hillside presented a two-fold challenge: a limited level area for landscaping plus drainage issues in the backyard. “There was that steep uphill slope in the back that was full of untended trees and rag-tag bushes,” Paul remembers. “We did have a relatively flat area in one spot, but nothing much grew there because the house blocks the sun from one side and the trees on the other. It was often a muddy mess.”

By keeping the visual plane open, the hillside landscaping that backs up to the house feels like a natural extension of the main yard.

Cohen and the Surrounds team helped Paul and Ava to think through their options. The woods beyond the back property line presented such a beautiful backdrop, the design team suggested metal fencing that would mark the property line but maintain an unobstructed view beyond. By keeping the visual plane open, the hillside landscaping that backs up to the house would feel like a natural extension of the yard landscape.  “That one detail makes the yard feel much larger,” Ava says.



Curved patio design and layered plantings soften the hard lines of the retaining wall.

Making More from Less on a Hillside Landscape

Landscaping against a steep slope may sometimes present tough choices. “Originally, we wanted to have a play area for the kids, in addition to family space that included an outdoor kitchen, fire pit, and sitting area,” Ava recalls. But the available area would not allow them to comfortably fit everything on their wish list. After some conversation with Cohen, the Lintons dropped the dedicated kid’s space from the landscape plan in favor of outdoor living for the whole family. “When we were asked to choose, we realized the kids would outgrow their space fairly quickly, and we’d have to do a redesign,” Paul says.

backyard BEFORE landscaping


BEFORE landscape renovation

outdoor kitchen new steep hillside


PHOTO: Courtesy of Amanda Provost, Compass Realty

By staying focused on their primary vision for the space, the Lintons were able to build functionality and enjoyment into this redesigned and rejuvenated yard.

With that overarching decision made, a detailed and efficient design maximized the available space to include a large multi-level patio with an outdoor kitchen, dining area, and fireplace. A fireplace was handily built into the existing retaining wall. “The design introduced different elevations, primary and secondary levels,” Paul says. The whole design has natural curving lines throughout and the hardscaping is perfectly balanced with plantings.”

Supporting the Design with a Sound Infrastructure 

Beneath the ground, supporting the visual experience of hardscaping and plants, are the engineered systems that make all the aesthetic elements work together to create a cohesive outdoor living experience.

When your home is built on the side of a hill, grading needs to be carefully managed. “If you have the wrong grade in the backyard, all the water will just stay there,” Ava says. “You need to be able to have some paths for the water to actually run to the two sides of the house and then make its way to the front yard.”

When designing and installing the patio area, special attention was given to drainage. “We didn’t want a situation where water would be sitting on top of the patio,’ says Ava. “There’s just not enough sunlight and if the patio doesn’t drain properly, there would be water sitting there for three, four, five days until it dries out.”

backyard retaining wall BEFORE landscape


BEFORE landscape renovation

patio and outdoor fireplace against steep slope


PHOTO: Courtesy of Amanda Provost, Compass Realty

Landscape lighting was another important consideration because this yard would be used for entertaining into the evening.

Unlocking Creative Potential in Small Yard Landscaping

With planning and the right design concept, you can maximize the yard space you have so it feels and functions like a much larger space.

The lighting design employed lots of indirect lighting. “It creates such a beautiful ambiance as a soft glow reflects off a tree canopy or a wall,” says Ava.

A plan for ongoing landscape maintenance was the finishing touch. A beautiful new yard is great, but how do you make sure it stays that way? The best way is to have the same firm that designed the landscape provide continuing care and maintenance in the years following. “We are so happy we chose a company that follows up the project with maintenance,” says Paul. “That way, we know it will always look beautiful.”

Small Yard, Big Impact

A feature of the surrounding landscape like a steep slope may present a challenge that would seem, well, insurmountable. But with the right vision and implementation, that challenge can be met. “Initially, there can be sticker shock because the project was so all-encompassing with every detail considered,” says Ava. “But the process was so thorough, the end result was nothing short of a spectacular transformation.”

Must a small yard space, subject to the surrounding topography and laws of physics, be doomed to remain underutilized and unattractive? The Lintons will tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Now they can enjoy sitting near the fireplace in the evening, listening to music, and sipping a glass of wine. Their outdoor environment was transformed and they were able to use it like they never had before.

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