Conquering the Hill

I live at the top of a hill that causes anyone with a lawnmower to shudder. My family moved into the house in the summer of 1988, when I had no interest in gardening or landscape design. The front yard was something to be moved through as quickly as possible, to get to the house – no mean feat given the length of the set of concrete ramp and steps that took you from the street to the front door. Here’s an old photo (bad quality, but you get the picture).

front yard design, "before"

My house in 1988 or so, complete with lovely concrete steps up to a yew-covered facade. Charming.

When I set about redesigning this area in 2000, I was most of the way through my training as a landscape designer and eager to start from scratch in terms of plant palette, with the exception of my two magnificent trees and a few interesting, mature shrubs. But tackling the steps was more challenging, and had to come first. I wanted a more direct approach to the house but knew I would need landings, retaining walls – and lots of steps. One experienced designer, a friend and my part-time employer, consulted on the concept for the new steps. Another friend was kind enough to shoot grades for me, and eventually I came up with a plan:

The plan for my new steps and front yard plantings.

Then I hired a wonderful stonemason to bring the plan to reality, and watched as the design came to life.

hardscape, steps, construction

The hillside resembled a battle zone at times.

Because of the scale of the pillars at the landings, I decided to use 3″ flagstone caps rather than the 2″ ones I had originally planned for. It increased the price but made the structures look just right rather than wimpy on top.

hardscape, steps

The steps and walls, awaiting only final mortaring and lighting fixtures.

The landings are edged in brick, to tie them to the brick on the house.

stone steps, hill design, landscape design, hilly sites

Brick-edged landing areas help the flagstone and fieldstone steps and walls relate to the brick house.

The planting phase, after the steps were done, was icing on the  cake (although since I did most of it myself, my back still hurts to think about it). Out came the oversized yews and non-blooming azaleas. On the north-facing slope, I planted a small ‘Crimson Queen’ dissectum Japanese maple, ‘Halcyon’ hostas, skimmia, cherry laurels, ferns, hellebores and dwarf azaleas. Next to the house, there are more cherry laurel (I was trying to avoid the predictable palette in our area of too many azaleas) and hydrangeas, along with some old pieris; Solomon’s seal and hostas which I spray against the maurading deer; and fothergilla and Itea virginica. A weeping yew spills over the top retaining wall and I planted a Schizophragma hydrangeoides (Japanese hydrangea) on the wall next to the front door.

stone steps, hill design, landscape design, hilly sites

The front yard in 2003, three years after the steps were replaced.

The only hardscape left untouched in this project is about to get its own makeover now. The front steps and stoop next to the front door are concrete and brick. I didn’t face them with flagstone in 2000 because the veneer sizes available weren’t workable. Now I’m glad I didn’t, because unfortunately the concrete stoop is cracking, causing moisture problems in the basement. So some time in the next few months, my great stonemason will return, demolish the stoop, and for a price that is about 1/3 of what I paid for all the stonework you see here, build a new set of brick and flagstone steps and stoop. Lemonade from lemons, I guess, even though my pocketbook is protesting. But it will finally tie everything together – and then I will get to replace all the snow-damaged plants next to the steps. I’ve already started thinking about that part!

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20 Comments on “Conquering the Hill”


  1. The new staircase is majestic,beautiful and combined with the new landscaping enhances your home.
    However, it’s not easy to understand why the stairs are not lined up with the front door. I know there is a very simple answer but I just can’t figure it out from the pictures.

    • Melissa Says:

      Allan, the slope of the hill gets exponentially steeper the closer one gets to a “straight line” up to the house – so lining the steps up directly with the door would have meant higher risers and I was already at 7″ each with a 3% pitch on each tread. From a design point, I also liked the idea of a switchback approach to give visitors more opportunities to look at the plantings and the trees on the way up.


  2. What a fabulous transformation! Beautiful stonework and plantings … now your house stands out in all it’s glory. Quite stunning! I have never understood all the foundation plantings that hide a house. Happy Spring!

    • Melissa Says:

      I agree. The foundation plantings in the “before” photo had obviously grown up over time but the yew in front of the bay window apparently was placed to “screen” the view into the house – I guess. (We bought the house from the estate of the previous owner so I wouldn’t have had the chance to ask even if I’d thought about it.) Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Randy Gatlin Says:

    Absolutely amazing. A beautiful transformation. One question though…It is hard to tell by the picture, but does the turf remain on either side of the new plantings?

  4. Melissa Says:

    Randy, thanks so much for stopping by and for the comment. Yes, the turf continues on either side of the plantings. You can see some of it in the very last photo, and it shows pretty clearly in the design itself. Mowing remains a real challenge; the turf is often torn up from the mowing process and since I don’t have an irrigation system it’s difficult to re-seed successfully. So I live with imperfection – but that’s part of being a gardener as well as a designer!

  5. Laurrie Says:

    I love seeing this project unfold from “before” to “after”, including the mess in between. The final result is impressive. All that stonework in front could have been too dominant, but it isn’t… it’s weighty and substantial, but in scale with the house and the hill. And the wonderful composition of plantings next to the steps ties it together beautifully. I love the landing! That’s the best feature of all.. a sheltered oasis on the way!

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, arriving at the top is a treat, although the trip itself is enjoyable. Fortunately the only major planting that seems to have been irreparably damaged during our snowstorms is the Japanese maple, and it’s so small it won’t cost a fortune to replace.


  6. You are clearly a very talented landscape designer! The difference in the before and after would make one question if it was the same house. I love using natural stone in designs and the steps are wonderful.

    • Melissa Says:

      Noelle, thank you for the compliment – high praise coming from you! I did have considerable help working out the design for the steps, although the planting picks were all mine. And the stonemason is a real artist. I look forward to having him help me with the stoop.

  7. Desiree Says:

    Melissa-
    Your blog just keeps getting more and more beautiful. I love the way the planting areas on either side of these entry stairs create big welcoming “arms”. And while the stairs’ location may have been driven by site conditions, I really like that when you come out the front door, you are not immediately directed down the stairs, you have sort of an overlook to ponder. Thanks for the post! Fabulous!

    • Melissa Says:

      Desiree,
      Thanks for the comment. I too like the fact that you aren’t immediately faced a long expanse of steps straight down to the street when you come out of the front door. I am still assessing planting damage to the areas on either side of the steps but the pachysandra and vinca seem to have weathered the storms well and the hellebores are perking up. Now if only the skimmia would lift itself up a bit, I could live with everything else!

  8. Sylvana Says:

    That’s much better than mowing and you can actually see the house!


  9. Melissa, Melissa, GORGEOUS!
    Love, love it, makes me want a steep slope to my front door. I love the brick with the stone, makes it even more interesting, and all the landings make such great viewing platforms. A hundred years from now, when someone buys this house, they will be talking about (and loving)this gateway to the house.

    • Melissa Says:

      Deborah, I’m so glad you like it! (But believe me, you don’t want the hill that started it all.) My realtor (who lives across the street) tells me I will get my money back when I sell the house – but like you, the payoff has been a great psychological boost, especially since this was a project undertaken at a time when my personal life was in turmoil. It was great therapy to see the face of the house change so dramatically.

  10. Jean Says:

    Melissa, I’m catching up on some blog reading, and was happy to come across this post. I’m just beginning the planning for an addition on my house and a re-design of the pathetic looking front yard. I have a slope (although nowhere near as steep as yours) to deal with, so I’m also thinking about steps and retaining walls. This post was a great source of inspiration for me.

    • Melissa Says:

      Good luck with your project! I’m glad you found the post useful. I was really fortunate to have input from my experienced designer friend, Elin Haaga, who is a whiz at working out grades.

  11. lalitha Says:

    Hi,
    I came across your blig while trying to find a solution for my front yard. Your transformation is great. I have a front yard that is hilly and is completely covered with ivy. There are few cherry blossoms here and there but the look of ivy is killing me. Do you have any suggestions to make it look better?

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks for reading my blog and your kind comments about the post ‘Conquering the Hill.’

      I think you should consult a good landscape designer about your own situation. They can help you assess the site and suggest options. (Is your yard sunny or shady? What is the slope’s grade?) The ivy is undoubtedly helping stabilize the slope so removing it in large areas can be tricky. Good luck!

  12. amanda Says:

    How much did this project cost? I am looking to do something similar with my front yard, but don’t want to contact a landscaper and waste their time if the project is way out of my price range.


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