Seattle’s steep slopes can make it difficult to garden. The payoff: spectacular views and out-of-the-ordinary spaces.

Share story

A NEW BOOK sums up in its title the gardens in this issue. “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography,” by David Williams, explores the history of our terrain, which leads not only to landslides and an inspiring variety of microclimates, but also to spectacular views and extreme cliffside gardening. Or at least trundling wheelbarrows up and down slopes, digging holes at an angle and hoisting bags of mulch up steep stairs.

Whether your property is softly undulating or sharply vertical, whether you wear crampons to cling to the side of the slope as you work or pull on mud boots to garden at the bottom of a hill, local topography offers endless possibilities for out-of-the-ordinary gardens.

You can still see how glaciers shaped the land, from city neighborhoods stacked nearly vertically atop bluffsides and hillsides, to kettles hollowing out parts of Whidbey Island. No matter where you live, if you’re not on flat ground, you’re dealing with the effects of glacial drift, including the possibility of crumbling or sliding slopes. Of course, this is also why we have such spectacular views and the opportunity to see plants from all angles. Trees never look quite so magnificent as when you’re looking down upon their canopy, or up into their branch structure.

Gardening on the slant is as old as the history of agriculture. The Rice Terraces of the Philippines, cut into high, steep hillsides more than 2,000 years ago, are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. While better preserved, they aren’t unique. Ancient Incan, Roman and Chinese farmers terraced slopes for the same reasons we do today: to prevent erosion and surface runoff, and simply to make it less arduous to till the soil.

In this issue, you’ll see how rock-garden enthusiast Gary Necci produces enough food at the foot of his precipitous West Seattle garden to share with neighbors, and how Marjie Bachert grows vegetables on terraces her husband carved into the side of their Coupeville kettle garden.

At John and Janet Walker’s in-city property, the designers took advantage of the terrain to cantilever a deck out over the steep slope. The owners had assumed that in this environmentally sensitive area they’d need to install a new retaining wall. But a soils engineer advised leaving the old rockery in place. Now the Walkers’ garden seems to hover above the hillside, and they can seat 20 guests at the dining table on their new deck.

A more rural setting halfway up Whidbey Island near Coupeville highlights the geologic phenomena of a kettle. When the glaciers receded, they took with them giant boulders, leaving huge depressions in the earth. John Bachert, undaunted by acreage shaped like a deep amphitheater, created a nature sanctuary of a garden filled with flowering plants and happy birds.

Necci says sometimes he feels like a billy goat gardening the most acutely vertical property in this issue. He gets his exercise hauling rocks, plants and soil up and down the slope. Picking your way along stone steps offers the chance to see the plants intimately, in close-up, from above, below and at ground height. It’s an effective play on scale, as sometimes you look up into a dwarf spirea, or down onto a spreading black pine tree.

Many thanks to these hardworking gardeners willing to share the lessons they’ve learned from designing, creating and tending beautiful, eco-conscious and productive gardens on such impressively challenging topography.