Replacing a Sunny Grassy Slope With Shrubs

All good gardeners know that lawns don’t grow well on a sunny slope, because grass needs a lot of water and, on a slope, drainage is much too rapid. Unfortunately, property developers and many homeowners living on steep slopes don’t seem to be aware of this, or they prefer to lay turf, which has an immediate but not very long-lasting effect. Moreover, mowing a lawn on a steep slope is extremely dangerous. But the obsession with lawns at all costs leads to heroic feats, like the poor man I saw cutting the lawn with his mower at the end of a rope.

More Attractive Options

It’s possible to create much more interesting and long-lasting landscapes with drought-resistant groundcovers that will require virtually no work after 2 or 3 years, once they’ve become well established and weed control has been taken care of. You can use perennial groundcovers, of course, but some shrubs are even more resistant thanks to their deep root systems. Here are two successful examples I’ve piloted on the grounds of an apartment block.

Transforming a Grassy Slope

The first is a south-facing slope backing onto the building. Covered with turfgrass in 2012, this area was mowed low. By 2021, there was virtually no grass left, devoured by bugs and/or grubs. I proposed pulling out what was left and planting drought-resistant shrubs that would quickly cover the surface. I chose to plant a few shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) on the top, and around twenty lace shrubs (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’) on the slope: creeping shrubs with spreading branches that root where they touch the ground. The white flowers go unnoticed and the leaves turn a little reddish in autumn. These are very hardy shrubs that like well-drained soil, in sun or part-shade.

At the very beginning, in 2021.
At the time of planting in 2021.
Now, in 2023.

The evolution of a grassy strip

The second example is an island separating two parking lots and covered by a 1 m high mound of earth, covered with turf in 2012 and carefully mowed to death. In 2021, I proposed planting false spiraeas (Sorbaria sorbifolia): upright shrubs that suckle enormously. They thrive in both sun and shade, forming beautiful white panicles in spring. These are carefree shrubs, as long as you can limit their expansion. Here, between two parking spaces, there’s no danger of them growing out of their patch.

Initially, in 2021.
During planting in 2021.
Now, in 2023.

I’m sure you’ll agree that both arrangements are far more attractive than a dying lawn, and will be trouble-free for years to come.

Some Shrubs to Keep in Mind

I could have opted for other hardy, drought-resistant shrubs that stabilize the soil on a sunny slope, in particular :

  • Cotoneasters  (such as Cotoneaster dammeri)
  • Russian arbor-vitae (Microbiota decussata)
  • Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)

Edith Smeesters is a biologist and a pioneer in ecological horticulture in Quebec. She has given countless conferences and workshops and written several books on the subject for over 20 years. She founded and has been president of several environmental organizations, such as Nature-Action Québec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She was a key figure in the creation of the Pesticide Management Code of Quebec, which has been in effect since 2003. She has received several awards for her involvement in the environment and is a member of the prestigious "Cercle des Phénix".

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