A slippery slope

    A few months ago a reader asked me to write about gardening on a slope, which I had every intention of doing before now.

    For better or worse, dealing with a steep piece of ground is a topic I have some experience with, now in the second year of working on an extremely sloped area of my yard. When I took it on, it was covered in weeds, ivy, and honeysuckle, and undesirable tree species like Ailanthus, mulberry, and Norway maple provided the canopy. The topsoil having long ago washed away, the soil was (and is) beige powder.

    Here’s what I’ve learned so far: getting plants to take root on a slope is an exercise in patience. Keeping yourself from falling off a slope while gardening is a great whole-body workout, akin to alpine skiing. And you shouldn’t do it in flip flops.

    My strategy has been to remove the undesirable plants discriminately. All the tree stumps were left to hold the soil, which would otherwise succumb to gravity; a lot of this part of the yard is probably already in the Schuylkill River. I’ve been clearing small sections at a time and replacing the invasives with perennials that are sturdy colonizers (the kind that are almost too aggressive in a regular garden). After trialing them for a year, these are the plants that have come through for me: catmint (aka catnip), day lilies, echinacea, amsonia, bee balm, gaillarda, coreopsis, and asters.

    All these are actually quite pretty, and will be in bloom for at least a few weeks at some point in the season. As they continue to spread, I’ll clear more of the vines away to give them enough room.

    I’ve also had a few happy surprises with my slope. A tiny oriental poppy seed that somehow made landfall grew into the best specimen I have ever seen. Larkspur showed up unexpectedly. And the butterfly weed I planted is beginning to reseed itself everywhere, something it never did for me before.

    Admittedly, this garden still doesn’t look like much. My forecast is that it will take another three years before the plant census is made up of more flowers than weeds. I also predict that over time the plants will slide downhill, and I’ll need to repopulate the top part.

    Not for the faint of heart (or anyone afraid of heights), this is the contact sport of horticulture. But if you love your garden so much that you want to literally wrestle with your plants, nothing beats gardening on a slope.

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