There's no getting away from it, New Zealand is a pretty hilly country. Our fabulous landscape and stunning views come with sloping, steep and even precipitous gardens. These sites have a big need to handle changes of level in designing a garden, giving rise to some fantastic design opportunities and practical headaches.
The transformation of a sloping path or bank when steps are added is dramatic. Suddenly the slope has a purpose, was meant to be there. You can see from our photos that adding steps totally changes the look and atmosphere of a garden.
Changes of Level
A hillside garden is not a disadvantage, although some sections resemble a cliffside more than a garden. A change of level offers an opportunity to use steps and terracing to define separate garden areas, mark a transition from one garden 'room' to another, and to create a feature.
Steps have an ornamental as well as a practical purpose. On flat sites designers frequently create levels, importing soil to do so, or cut and fill on gently sloping sites to create the illusion of a change in levels.
A steep site can be left as a grass bank, but difficulty in mowing and the absence of a flat site for spending time in the garden may lead to terracing, linked by steps. Steps are used in many gardens, some steep and some comparatively flat.
You need to be able to get around the garden, and on sloping site steps are one of the most practical ways of getting about. In steep garden steps are almost inevitable. And steps make so much more of the design. Anyone with a flat garden will envy the changes of level possible and the opportunities to mark transitions in the garden using steps.
The gradient of the slope and the size of the garden will dictate much of the impact on the steps on the garden design, but planting can be used to soften and the style of the steps will also influence the degree to which they dominate the garden design.
Remember that, as you are more conscious of your footing outdoors than in, garden steps that are slightly uneven can still be safe, but very uneven steps will be slow and tedious to negotiate.
Harmonizing with Garden Style
Any terracing or steps are contrived and not 'natural' but the style of the steps will stress or reduce their importance in the overall design.
Large, sweeping flights of formal steps, especially double sweeps of steps are designed to impress. More natural materials and low-key design blend the steps into a more natural-styled design.
There's a very good reason why important buildings are often reached by way of a long, magnificent flight of steps; they announce that you have arrived somewhere, add substance and impress the visitor.
Edwardian gardeners were fond of semi-circular steps with intricate paving, making a grand statement. Major buildings use impressive flights of steps to reinforce their importance
Informal steps made of natural materials such as wood, stone, gravel and bark are suited to informal gardens, woodlands, bush and coastal gardens. As they blend in more with the planting and don't dominate giving a more natural appearance to the garden design.
In contemporary gardens clean crisp steps give emphasis to a structured, formal design. Rugged steps of hewn stone can create a quite different but totally modern look. In both the steps add to and are an important, integral part of the overall design.
Steps are very useful for marking a transition in a garden; a single step can signify a change from one garden room to another. A single step adds importance to a garden feature such as a summerhouse, statue or focal point.
A simple, short flight of steps between two garden areas will make a definite statement telling you that you have moved from one area to another, from formal to informal, from rose garden to potager. It's a device that garden designers use with great sucess, over and over.
Steps add drama and ease movement around the garden
Before: The garden falls away towards the house
After: Steps make a transition from lawn to terrace
Steps make a steep bank a design asset
Grand steps impress at Parc del Laberint, Barcelona
Elaborate Edwardian steps at Great Dixter, Northiham, UK
Steps transition from the bold Red Borders to the formal Stilt Garden at Hidcote, UK