Imaginative ideas turn a sloped backyard into a garden for relaxing and entertaining.
By Adam Levine | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
A waterfall, a pond, and surrounding garden beds are just a few of the ways Susan and Steve Dovey transformed a sloping liability into a beautiful asset.
The steep drop-off behind Susan and Steve Dovey’s house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, was far from inviting—for them, a couple of avid gardeners, and for the family and friends they hoped to entertain when they moved to the third-of-an-acre property in 1993. The builder had provided what Susan calls a birdcage of a deck, but he neglected to connect it to the ground below. From the driveway, the south-facing backyard was reached by a set of seven precarious wooden steps. The only shade was under the deck, where the couple located a sandbox for their then-young children. The slope was too hard to mow, and water eroded gullies down the hillside every time it rained.
A fire pit is the latest addition to the backyard party amenities; the patio is easily accessible via two flights of stairs.
But the couple didn’t give up on having a beautiful and functional garden in their backyard. Over the years, they’ve found solutions that have transformed the space into their own private haven and even created a landscape worthy of a stop on the 2016 PHS Chester County Garden Visits tour.
An old bicycle by the driveway serves as both a funky decoration and plant container.
Aside from being too small and disconnected from the yard, the original deck had been made of splintery pressure-treated wood. A replacement that was built with cedar rotted underneath potted plants. The couple realized they wanted not only a more durable deck but also more outdoor room. Steve drafted a spacious design, and their contractor used lumber made of a polymer material (Azek brand) so the new structure would last. It includes large containers that enable Susan, who has rheumatoid arthritis, to garden without climbing up and down the hillside. It also has a few special features for entertaining (see “Party Ready”).
Built-in planters on the deck make gardening easy for Susan.
After several false starts at planting the slope—one was trying to create a “no-maintenance garden” of cotoneasters and junipers, which provided ready cover for a variety of weeds—the Doveys hired Ronald Funk, a landscape designer based in Narvon, Pennsylvania. Working with their ideas, Funk created a beautiful water feature, a series of retaining walls containing garden beds, and a patio at the bottom of a staircase leading from the deck. Beneath the deck, the sandbox of the now-grown children became the starting point for a beach theme; the space also houses a hot tub and showcases various mementos from the couple’s favorite Caribbean vacations. A fire pit set away from the house adds one more nook for hanging out—during a party or in a reflective moment.
Your outdoor get-togethers will be more fun and manageable if you remember these tips from the Doveys.
Make your patio as large as you can. Once the furniture is in place, you want the remaining space to be large enough for guests to mingle in.
Know the flow
Having a few standing counters on which people can set drinks and plates of food—part of Steve Dovey’s deck design—allows the party to spread out from the seating areas.
Break up staircases or steps with landings where guests can pause and congregate.
Outdoor lighting sets the mood but also ensures safety in areas such as pathways and steps.
Walls and other landscape features can do double duty as benches or serving areas.