Cutleaf stephanandra makes a handsome addition to slopes located in full sun to partial shade.
Photo/Illustration: Melissa Lucas. Photo taken in the garden of Duncan Brine in Pawling, New York
Whenever I’m driving down the road and see a gnarly, out-of-control slope or a barren, mulch-laden incline pitted with washouts, my heart goes out to the person tending that piece of land. Without a doubt, gardening on an exposed slope can be an absolute nightmare. It seems almost impossible to establish any plantings. Heavy rains flow like a river, carrying away any topsoil not held down by roots. In times of drought, the soil is bone-dry and inhospitable to desirable plants trying to make headway, while weeds seem to grow bigger and better.
As a landscape designer in the hills of central Virginia, I am all too familiar with the conundrum of planting on slopes. As a result, I have built up a plant arsenal containing low-growing, slope-friendly shrubs that can take a beating yet gain ground fairly quickly. To make the cut, shrubs must have a vigorous, soil-holding root system and a tight mesh of intertwining shoots that diffuses heavy rains. I avoid plants with excessive pest or disease problems and that stray too far from their original planting site. Thorn-free shrubs always make maintenance a little easier. Plants that leaf out early and hold their leaves until late fall, however, rise to the top of the heap. Here is a list of seven great plants I use to tackle challenging slopes.