Our Garden: Then and Now The Challenges of Landscaping on a Slope

One of our biggest challenges with the house was the landscaping. When we bought the property we underestimated the slope of the hill. It seemed like a gently sloping pasture when we were walking the property prior to buying it. We were so focused on the construction of the house we did not realize what a challenge it would be to deal with the steep (as it turned out) slope. In particular, how to get from the driveway above down to the house.

We knew we needed professional landscape design help, but it turned out to be one of the most difficult things to find. It seems that landscape design is not really a thing in Italy, except at the very high end (e.g., the villas around Lake Como). We did eventually find someone: a British woman who had retired to Italy and did a limited number of projects. We were warned that she tended to be a bit of a primadonna and quite difficult to work with, but we didn’t feel we had any choice, so we hired her.

As it turned out, she was just as described, and it took us a long time to get an actual plan. The structure and hardscape parts at the front of the house made sense and we executed most of that. That included a retaining wall up at the driveway, with a couple of terraces on the slope. There was a formal stairway leading to the front door and another, more rustic stairway leading to the kitchen door.

Retaining wall and stairs built (June 2018):

Beyond that, however, things got a little tricky. Many of the plant selections were not native to the area and/or not readily sourced. She also recommended extending our pergola across the entire back of the house, which would have obstructed both the light and the view. The plan had some other convoluted elements on the backside so we ditched those as well. In the end, we decided to let our gardens guys, Pippo and Marco, come up with solutions, based on inspiration photos I provided. That worked out quite well and was a lot less expensive than the plan that the fancy landscape architect had recommended.

By the time our yard was ready to be planted, it was already too hot, so we had to delay planting until the fall. I returned solo to work with Pippo and Marco on plant choices and placement in October.

Ready to plant (October 2018):

Newly planted:

How the slope looks today:


As it turns out, some of the plants have fared better than others. Some have thrived. Others have either died or struggled, especially in this summer’s extreme heat, leaving some bare spots. So at this point the plantings on the slope look a bit haphazard and will need some adjustment. When the weather gets cooler we’ll replace some of the casualties with plants that do well in this location. At any rate, it’s nice not to have to look at a mountain of bare earth. I don’t mind the wild and carefree appearance of the slope.

I do love the casual look of the back stairs with the lavender, roses, verbena and other flowering plants along the border. The hungry bees seem to be very pleased with the tasty smorgasbord.


I’m looking forward to the continued evolution of the garden.

Note: For anyone wanting to know which plants did well on this hot, dry slope with poor soil, here are some of them:

Russian sage
Santolina pinnata and chamaecyprissus
Potentilla frustosa
Rosa rugosa
Guara lindheimeni
Butterfly bush
Narrowleaf firethorn
Artemisia Powis Castle
Golden euryops (Golden shrub daisy)
Threadleaf fleabane

Reactions to the Landscape Plan Overall, Not Too Bad

We sent Paula’s long-awaited landscape plan off to Kevin for consultation with Francisc and for their comments.

Overall, we got a not-unexpected “yes, but …” reply.

It starts like this:

Overall, it looks nice. The key is that on this first pass you got something you can work with. Now, we need to get it to where it can be executed starting in a 3-4 weeks.

Now on to the specifics:

On the stairs directly down from the parking to the stairs, there was no mincing of words.

Landscape Plan Detail in Front of House

Nobody this end — me, Francisc, others — thinks it’s a good idea to execute a staircase directly from the front door to the parking lot … it’s too steep and the costs of doing it (in anchored, reinforced cement) could be prohibitive.

This one point Anne and I won’t budge on. We’ll just hope the costs are manageable.

On the other access paths in front of the house.

I would be careful to not “junk up” the front of the house with two many stairs, trails, paths … ONE would be fine and that lets the house and planned plantings speak for themselves.

Here we agree.

On the idea of a “guard wall” at the bottom on the driveway, his thoughts are clear.

No additional walls are required at the driveway/parking lot … I don’t understand why that’s been suggested.

This one is trickier for us. We do have a concern abour cars going over the edge, based on our past visits, but the situation may have changed. We’re going to leave this guard wall out of the plan, but think about putting some large planters there to define the edge better than the wooden rail fence will on its own.

Moving to the back of the house, he had only one major concern.

I would not put a pergola on the back of the house — this would essentially defeat a key design element of the house — all those big french doors that bring light into the house. If the pergola is covered in vines or plants, or even if it’s there unencumbered, it will block sunlight into the house … if you need shade (and you will) head under the portico or onto the 1st floor terrace. Note that with the quality of insulation in the walls, door/window glass and roof — WAY BEYOND a normal house — the idea of too much heat coming in is a non issue … plus, a pergola will require permissions … plus, it’s something you could always add LATER, so see if you really need it before spending money on it and blocking light.

He’s convinced us here. No pergola for now.

Now it’s time for the clincher and he’s spot on here.

Paula needs take the lead on this and specify exactly what is needed. I can help, certainly, but she needs to lead (and she needs to do that LITERALLY as soon as you say you like the plan as is)

My job is to back to Paula and get her to step up and take charge.

An Update

Paula did go to the site and explain the plan to all involved: Kevin, Francisc, Pippo and his son Marco, who will do the landscape installation. While the relationship between Paula and Kevin and Francisc can be quite testy, she seemed to hit it off with Pippo and Marco, which apparently helped to lighten the mood.

Next is for Francisc to plan and cost the stairs and for Paula to get to work on the planting plan.

Image: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Finally Some Progress on the Landscape Plan Stairs and Paths

This has been a long time coming.

Last we heard, we had received the detailed survey that our landscape designer Paula required. That was in November. The delays on this have been driving Kevin and Francisc crazy, as they want to get the project wrapped up. We can’t blame then, but given the difficulties presented by the sloping plot, we’ve been patiently waiting for this plan.

At this stage, we’re focusing only on the hardscape — the stairs, walls, and paths — since that work needs to be started right away. The next phase, once this is settled, will move on to the plantings.

I’ll start with a plan overview that shows the whole property. It’s a little hard to read, so I’ll show close-ups of the key areas around the house and provide some commentary.

Landscape Plan Overview
Landscape Plan Overview
Click image to enlarge
In Front

We’ve done a lot of land reshaping to try to soften the slopes around the house. This work has helped a lot, but right now we’re left with only one way to get down from the parking area to the house, via a path that leads to the kitchen door.

While this is fine for everyday use, we need a more direct route to the front door for guests and for a “proper” approach to the house.

During our trip in May, when we first met Paula we discussed the need for some stairs that went directly down from the parking to the front door. She’s included those stairs, divided into a top section that is more formal and a lower section that is more informal. (Aesthetics, I guess.)

There is also access to the kitchen via a gravel path, following the existing slope. (More on that below.)

She’s also included a very indirect approach, starting along the path to the right of the house, cutting across on the level in front, then descending some stairs to the left front of the house. (This seems like it’s likely overkill.)

She’s also recommending that we build up the retaining wall at the end of the driveway, as a safety measure to define the edge of the slope and to act as a barrier to prevent a car from sliding all the way down to the house.

Landscape Plan Detail in Front of House
Landscape Plan Detail in Front of House
Click image to enlarge
Side Near the Kitchen

This is just a closer look at the path that approaches the kitchen. This slope is shallow enough to build a path, gravel with wood risers, like railroad ties.

Landscape Plan Detail at Side of House
Landscape Plan Detail at Side of House
Click image to enlarge
Behind and Down to the Pool

First, Paula suggests we add a pergola across the back of the house, covering the area from the portico to the edge of the house.

Next, she’s suggesting a stone landing in the middle of the back of the house, leading to a set of (too steep?) gravel and wood steps down to the level below the house. These steps would then continue to the next level, the one above the pool.

From here, the slope is less steep, and we might be able to do just a path down to the pool, really a series of short stairs with grass levels.

Then, at pool level, there would be a portico to provide some shade.

Landscape Plan Detail Behind House
Landscape Plan Detail Behind House
Click image to enlarge

We think that overall it’s a very good plan. We’ll send it off to Kevin for his thoughts and some ideas about feasibility and costs.

Plan drawings by Paula Ryan: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Extending the Parking Level More Earth Being Moved

Place to Extend Parking Area at a new house in Le Marche
Place to Extend Parking Area
Click image to enlarge

Since the property is shaped like a triangle, with the narrow angle being up the hill above the house, we’re a little cramped on parking area, and just as important, in the turning area to get faced uphill. Francisc noted that as the earthmoving has developed, we were left with a bit of “dead space” adjacent to the parking area. He suggested that we use it to provide some breathing room.

Using the area this way means we need to extend the parking area retaining wall toward the south side of the property. The work comes with a price tag, of course, but it seems like a worthwhile investment.

It requires the wall extension and then more backfill.In the end we will be left with a much better turning area and a chance to get a straight shot going uphill.

Backfill Work Behind Wall at a new house in Le Marche
Backfill Work Behind Wall
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Also, as part of this work, they have started to face the retaining wall with stone and to put some topsoil over the terra armata.

Working Above Retaining Wall
Stone Wall at Right Top
Click image to enlarge

Here are a lot more pictures of this work, which extended over several days.

All images: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure

Drainage Avoiding a Flood

Given our hillside location, we’re concerned that in a heavy rain water might pour down the slope until it ended up inside our house. A few weeks ago, I raised this issue with Kevin. He said Francisc had some drainage planned, but I asked them to beef it up.

The trench digging and gravel and pipe work has been going on over the last few days. These trenches are designed to carry the water around to the sides of the house.

Digging Ditch in Front
Digging Trench in Front
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Drainage Gravel
Drainage Gravel
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It looks like they are covering the gravel with a landscape fabric of some type.

Drainage Gravel and Fabric
Drainage Gravel and Fabric
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Drainage Ditch Filled With Gravel
Drainage Trench Filled With Gravel
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On top of the gravel and fabric, I think they’re going to place the topsoil.

Drainage Ditch Being Filled
Drainage Trench Being Filled
Click image to enlarge

Seeing all this in place makes me a lot less concerned about a flood.

All images: Copyright © Our Big Italian Adventure