Horticulture Magazine

15 Garden Steps Ideas for Navigating Slopes

stone steps with a retaining wall

Turn a logistical challenge into a charming focal point with these interesting approaches to overcoming slopes in your back yard.

A sloped garden can be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to landscaping. Not only can an uneven gradient be conducive to waterlogging, but it can even pose problems in simply traversing from one side of the garden to the other for those with mobility issues. For that reason, ensuring you install an appropriate stairway solution is imperative in making the most of the space available to you.

Fortunately, there are plentiful options which can actually enhance the overall appearance of your back yard. With the right amount of forethought, investment and effort, you can transform an unsightly slope into a gorgeously undulating area, bisected and circumnavigated by an attractive set of steps. Regard them as being equally important from an aesthetic point of view as a practical one and you’ll end up with a design feature that adds value to your home, both in terms of financial worth and quality of life.

Of course, it’s important to keep safety at the forefront of your calculations when designing a stairwell to connect elevations in your back yard. That means getting the depth of the “tread” (the horizontal surface on which you place your feet) and the “riser” (the vertical height of each step) just right. A common mistake involves replicating similar dimensions that you might employ in your house outdoors; this is a recipe for disaster, since the expanded dimensions of your garden will turn household steps into a vertiginous ordeal for anyone who tries to negotiate them.

As a general rule, you don’t want your riser to exceed 15cm in height, while your tread should be at least 30cm in depth. You can play around with these dimensions, but it’s important to test out your plans before you begin the arduous process of setting them in stone (or whatever materials you choose to fashion your steps from). Creativity and decoration are all well and good, but functionality and safety must take precedence.

Having said that, the process of landscaping a stepped route from the top of your sloped garden to its nethermost reaches should primarily be a creative and enjoyable endeavour. To start the ball rolling and set your inspiration aflame, here are a handful of suggestions of how best to tackle the problem.

1) Modern minimalism

modern granite staircase leading into a home
Clean lines and unembellished granite give a contemporary feel

If your main property follows a modernistic theme in its design, it’s sensible to continue that aesthetic into your back garden. The use of simple materials like concrete, cement or granite can accentuate forward-thinking feng shui, especially when selected in either black, white or grey tones. Keeping things straightforward and uncluttered is conducive not only to an austerely attractive appearance, but also providing a direct route that will hold up over the test of time.

2) Overgrown and au naturale

old concrete stairs with moss and ferns
A stairway to a natural wonderland

On the other hand, you might want to go completely the opposite way and invite Mother Nature to take a guiding hand in the design of your stairwell. The materials mentioned above will work equally as well here, but careful placement of shrubs, ferns and mosses will transform their impact into one that evokes the wild and overwhelming willpower of the planet. Of course, it will take some time for your steps to become as attractively overgrown as they are in the image above, but the results are well worth the wait.

3) Grassy gradients

grass-covered steps
Grass-covered steps give the impression that the garden has swallowed the staircase whole

One criticism that’s often levelled at garden staircases is that they can be incongruous among the flowers and foliage present elsewhere in their surroundings. A slightly overgrown arrangement like the one mentioned previously is one way of overcoming that issue, but taking that idea to its logical conclusion (as in the image above) can pay massive dividends. You can do this either by cutting steps into the soil itself and sowing grass seeds that will flourish over time, or else taking a shortcut and inlaying the staircase with strips of turf. Either way, you’ll end up with a superb outcome with softened edges and a stirring aesthetic.

4) Bring the beach to you

tiled stones and pebbles made into garden steps
The calm of the coastline in your back yard

Continuing the natural theme, you could gather other natural materials – such as seashells, beach pebbles and river stones – and set them inside an inlaid wall made of cement or mortar for a truly unique end result. These kinds of raw materials come in all shapes, sizes and colours imaginable, affording you an incredible array of options with regard to the design you wish to create. They also offer great grip on the feet and look impressive on the eye, even (or perhaps more so) when wet.

5) Boardwalk beauty

a planked garden pathway
Walking the planks takes on an altogether more pleasant meaning

Building on the idea of a backyard beach, you could introduce a boardwalk into your garden as a means of navigating an incline. Wooden slats that are slightly raised up off the floor add a touch of refinement and class to a staircase, while simultaneously allowing the soil underneath to breathe. Letting the foliage of overlapping plants to drape handsomely across the outer edges of the slats enhances the idea that they’re an integral part of the garden, too. A boardwalk is also easy to manipulate, can offer sure footing and can be supplemented with a handrail to enhance the safety of the setup.

6) Handy handrails

brick steps with log handrails
Practical and impressive

Speaking of handrails, these functional accessories aren’t just there to lend a helping hand. Careful consideration of the materials used to make them – such as the combination of logs, hemp and rope pictured above – can provide a stunning focal point all of their own, improving both the practical capabilities of the stairway and its aesthetic impact, all at the same time. The options available are virtually limitless, too; a simple guide-rope gives the ensemble a rustic and almost adventurous feel, while an ornate steel framework imbues elegance and style.

7) Oversized slabs

slabs cascading down a outdoor slope
Slab it all together

The almost haphazard arrangement of a slab staircase suggests that it might not require a huge amount of effort to put in place – but nothing could be further from the truth. Sourcing the slabs themselves shouldn’t pose too much of a problem, since local suppliers can meet your needs whichever part of the country you’re in. However, manoeuvring them into place might be an altogether trickier feat to pull off given the weight and unwieldiness of them! Don’t let that put you off though, since the pastoral panache of steps made from oversized slabs is not to be beaten.

8) Back to brick basics

red brick steps leading upwards
Another brick in the stairwell

Constructing an entire staircase from red bricks is guaranteed to add some colourful oomph to your garden. Not only are bricks hugely versatile and incredibly long-lasting, but their powerful palette can offer a pleasing contrast to the lush greens surrounding them. They’re especially impactful when hit by the hot rays of the sun, which will give their warm hues a gently baked impression. It’s certainly possible to lay a brick staircase if you’re an amateur DIYer – and the straightforward nature of the materials might tempt you into doing so – but hiring the services of a qualified professional might be preferable if you don’t have much in the way of experience in landscaping projects.

9) Railroad routes

stairs made from reclaimed railway sleepers
All aboard!

Railroad ties are readily available and very versatile materials to work with when planning a backyard staircase. They can be used as standalone items as in the picture above, or else as a simple retaining wall to hold back smaller elements such as pea gravel, pebbles or even sand. Add in some ground cover plants at the edges of the pathway and you’ll benefit not only from better protection against erosion on your stairway, but a livelier colour scheme, too.

10) Rounded retainers

two rounded steps leading to a garden lawn
Rounded stones offer variation and verve to your staircase

The use of rounded stone retainers is ideal for creating an attractively expansive appearance for your steps, as in the image featured above. They can be combined with other types of stone as they are here, or else surrounded by mortar for a more natural and nostalgic end product. Using rounded stones also allows you to change direction more easily and create a meandering path down your slope, rather than a direct trajectory which can sometimes seem a little too obvious and unimaginative.

11) Follow the flagstones

a stone walkway with pebbles between and beds to either side
Contrasting stones create a visually appealing result

Flagstones are a favourite go-to for landscapers looking to combine functionality with finesse in the garden and it’s not hard to see why. The slate stones pictured in the image above are combined with smaller pebbles surrounding them and large rocks at the periphery of the path to create pleasing contrasts among the sizes, shapes and colours of the materials present. Of course, flagstones are flexible enough that they can be used on their own or alongside a variety of other natural materials to create an equally impressive result, every time.

12) Stepped flower beds

an extremely steep stairway in a Candian public garden with plenty of accompanying trees and flowers
Floral blooms at all elevations

Sometimes, the stairway itself pales into significance when compared with its surroundings. This fantastic display from a public garden in British Columbia in Canada might be a little ambitious for your own back yard, but you can adopt the same principles when landscaping the contours of its slopes. The easiest way to achieve impressive results is to divide the slope into individual terraces, then fill these with overflowing blossoms of all your favourite flowers. The colourful display and the aromatic fragrance they can impart to the staircase will make ascending or descending it all the more pleasurable.

13) Increase accessibility with a ramp

a handicapped ramp in a garden park
Gently does it

Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and installing steps isn’t the only method of scaling a slope in your back yard. Opting for a ramp instead will not only make the ascent or descent gentler on foot, but will also increase accessibility for those who use a wheelchair to get around. Again, practical considerations should take priority here, which means creating a ramp with a width of at least 1.2m to accommodate a standard wheelchair size. Make sure the gradient isn’t too steep and that the slope isn’t too long so as to maximise its effectiveness when in use.

14) Water feature stairwell

beautiful stone walkway with a water feature to the left
Let gravity do the work for your water feature

One of the advantages of having a sloped garden is that it’s incredibly simple to implement a waterfall in your back yard, since gravity take care of half the battle for you. Incorporating a water feature alongside your steps can add movement, intrigue and a delightful babbling soundtrack to the journey, as in the picture above. Alternatively, you could repurpose an old set of stairs that are no longer in use by turning them into a waterfall themselves. All it takes is a sturdy pump and a few hours of labour and you’ll have a staircase fit for Neptune himself.

15) Potted pizzazz

plants in pots on a stairway
Liven up a jaded staircase with floral arrangements

Another idea to repurpose a staircase that’s become surplus to requirements is to populate it with potted flowers and plants. This is a great way of injecting a fresh dose of vitality and interest in an area of your garden that may have fallen into neglect, as well as maximising the dimensions at your disposal and increasing the surface area of your foliage. An informal potted garden like the one in the image above is great for adding a touch of personality and pizzazz to your outdoor display, while the layered layout of the arrangement brings intrigue on a number of levels.

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