Steep hill, can't mow it, no time to maintain it.
August 9, 2014 12:54 PM   Subscribe

I have a hill on one side of my house that goes down into the neighbor's yard. It's too steep to mow, and the ground covering plants I've put down have always lost to the weeds. What's a good cost-effective and low (preferably zero) maintenance option for keeping it from becoming overgrown and looking horrible? More inside.

I actually paid a landscaper to clean it up once and put down ground-covering plants, but the weeds kept coming and coming, and I just didn't have the time to keep them at bay. Looking for something that won't go to hell over the course of a couple weeks if I'm out of town.

I've thought about just putting down mulch, maybe rubber mulch so I won't have to replace it so often, but the steepness of the hill (maybe a 35-40 degree grade) has me concerned that it would just slide down / wash away. I'm hesitant to put down any kind of netting / fabric because the previous owners did that in some other beds, and the weeds just grow through it and make it a giant mess.

I really don't care if there's anything green there at all, at this point -- I just want it to not look terrible and not be a constant source of frustration. Filling it in and building a retaining wall could be an option in the future, but the cost there is prohibitive right now.

posted by tonycpsu to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Get a goat or a sheep.
posted by w0mbat at 1:03 PM on August 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

Beyond AstroTurf, there is something called artificial grass that you can buy at Home Depot and the like. No personal experience, but have heard other people be quite enthusiastic about it, while some (possibly snobby) people are less so.
posted by sageleaf at 1:12 PM on August 9, 2014

We built a deck over ours.
posted by emilyw at 1:25 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

What state do you live in? What I'd do is talk to a native plant nursery and ask them what would be a good no maintenance ground cover for a hill. The native plants are more likely to be low/no maintenance. Tell them about the weed issue and they'll give you some advice about a good mix for your hill. You want taller ground covers rather than very low ones for weeds. If you're in California, here are a few good ones.
Las Pilitas
Matilija Nursery
and a good article on planting on a hill
posted by biscuits at 1:29 PM on August 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

I used to mow a similar gradient with a hover mower (mine was electric, but petrol models are available). Hover mowers have no wheels, but glide around much like a hovercraft, so you can stand up-slope from the mower and sort of swing it in long arcs across the grass. They weigh very little, which also helps immensely. In my experience, it wasn't any harder to mow a 40 degree slope than to mow a normal flat area, provided I did it every couple of weeks during the growing season.
posted by pipeski at 1:31 PM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some caveats:don't know the area/size of the slope-some of the below methods won't work well is tall and narrow or accessibility is a problem. Also don't know the sun exposure-this is vital for picking the right kind of plant. Also before investing in a bunch of plants get the soil tested and find out if their are deficiencies. In a lot of cases where you can't control weeds over native/desirable species it is because the soil has gotten out of whack and this can favor a lot of weeds which are often the type of plants(usually annuals) that thrive on disturbance and pioneering poor soils that build up the soil for future stable ecosystems.

They make a product for stabilizing slopes during construction called jute matting. It is basically burlap fabric you 'staple' into place. You can also use rocks to secure it. It prevents erosion and you can put seeds in with it for some kind of native ground cover (BTW in a lot of cases 'native ground cover' = weeds to a lot of people). This matting will help hold the seeds in place and it can be wetted frequently to act as a mulch (the matting keeps the water from just running off the hill and eroding) and get the desirable vegetation established (soaker hoses work great for this).

I would go with some kind of grass/clover mix well suited for your climate. A high end local nursery that caters to builders/contractors can help you out (it WON"T be the cheapest place in town). You will probably need to get in there and cut it once or twice a year to keep the weeds down but you can use a weed eater and just whack the crap out of it-grass likes that. If you time it right to cut just as the grass is going to seed over the course of a few years you will choke out the invasives and weeds and get an ecosystem going. Once the ecosystem is established you can pretty much forget about it. This is basically how the highway department stabilizes their cut slopes on new highways.

Alternative strategy (still with the matting) is to plant a variety of trees back there. Historically the slopes to steep to plow where planted with vines or orchards to get some production out of them. Grapes, berries, apples, pears, peaches, etc, might be suitable. A mix of trees/vines would be the best I would think (not sure if olive trees can live in Pittsburgh but Greece has made extensive use of this agricultural practice on their heavily deforested and eroded hillsides).

A cheaper alternative to a big retaining wall would be a terraced step type approach with several small walls (i said cheaper, not easier). You can use 'castle block' type system or get a series of large concrete block placed for a gravity wall (heck, you could use 'jersey barriers' that are surplus from a highway operation). If you are interested in this let me know and I can point you to some resources-but this is going to be the MOST work but will look really cool and will turn this part of your yard into usable space.
posted by bartonlong at 1:52 PM on August 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

You could also rent a goat (this article talks about some Pittsburgh options).
posted by three_red_balloons at 2:21 PM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We tried planting ours into buffalo grass, which seemed perfect because it requires no extra water once established, fills in the area and keeps most/many other plants out, and self-limits in height to about 6 inches.

However, we never really got the buffalo grass established and it was overwhelmed by other, larger plants.

What we have ours in now is in giant prairie wildflower type plantings. Sunflowers, black eyed susan, brown eyed susan, coneflowers, and evening primrose predominate, though there are some other varieties as well. We love it, though I'm not always sure our neighbors do.

You'll note that most of the successful species I've mentioned there are large and rather fast growing. I think that is the trick as those type of plants tend to crowd out the competition--rather than being crowded out.

One thing you could do for example is plant a row of sunflowers along the top of the hill every year. They'll naturally spread seed down the hill and after a while and plantings like that might lead to a wildflower garden that 'takes care of itself' more or less if you just keep re-seeding the top row.

Another tip is, keep the borders straight and clean and the area immediately around the bed scrupulously maintained. Maybe put up a bit of a rustic fence to delineate the area (even just wooden fence corners help delineate the area) and keep the borders carefully trimmed. That way you have a well defined 'wildflower garden' area that can be a bit more natural/wild looking, but it is clearly a well defined area of native wildflower that is established and maintained that way **on purpose**, not just a weedy yard that someone forgot to maintain.

Our prairie/native wildflower garden is a bit like some of the hillside & roadsides on the Sprint Campus (theirs of course look better . . . ): article - roadside hill with buffalo grass - behind the trees on either side of the road you can see more what the 'full prairie' treatment looks like
posted by flug at 2:34 PM on August 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Cover it with ivy. It will take some time to grow and spread (unless you get lots) but it will choke out the weeds.
posted by sardonyx at 2:34 PM on August 9, 2014

Many of the yards in our neighborhood are quite steep and a number of folks have put in rock gardens with succulents interspersed. They're quite lovely and (at least in Georgia, home of gigantic invasive weeds) the only maintenance they require is weeding a couple times a year.

(and if you don't want your neighbors to hate you, don't plant English ivy or any other invasive ground cover that will try to take over their yard, too)
posted by hydropsyche at 3:15 PM on August 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Butterfly field. Plant with Milkweed and other pollinator plants to help the monarch population.
posted by ApathyGirl at 3:27 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The traditional way of getting rid of weeds in a reasonably permanent way is to cover the area with heavy black plastic for a season or two. After that point, you should be able to plant ground cover with reasonable success.

Grass on hills is generally trimmed with a weed whacker/string trimmer. It can be done surprisingly quickly. Remember to wear good eye and ear protection.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:35 PM on August 9, 2014

I'd plant hearty groundcovers such as periwinkle, stonecrop, sedum or creeping jenny. I have all four on my property, and I have had some measure of success with choking out the weeds and not having to mow with all of these. Also, once established can take drought, sun and shade quite well. YMMV
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 4:05 PM on August 9, 2014

Best answer: Oh jesus, don't cover it with ivy, the stuff is an absolute bloody menace, and it will be ripping apart the mortar in your house and guttering before you know it and it's practically impossible to eradicate.

I have a very sloping block, and I Nth the use of Jutte. This process will involve a little bit of work now, but then you will be set for a long time.

Step 1), spray the current weeded hillside with RoundUp. Use a strong concentration, you want to be sure to kill everything. It takes about a week. RoundUp has a far scarier reputation than it deserves, don't be afraid. It needs photosynthesis to work, so don't do it on cloudy or rainy days.

Step 2) Buy the Jutte matting. Generally comes in 25 metre rolls (75 feet or thereabouts). You can also get pegs for it, which I would recommend given your slope. The reason you buy jutte not regular weedmats is that it's biodegradable and unless plastic weedmat will not create a nightmare for you down the road. It will last between 3-8 years depending on thickness and local weather, and when it dies it will enrich the soil. You can buy slitted and nonslitted varieties for planting. Roll it out, covering your now-dead hillside with slight overlaps to prevent gaps. Regular pegging will stop it sliding away.

Step 3) Stake the hillside. Buy some small wooden stakes, and nail them across your hillside in horizontal lines at regular intervals. Run wire or twine (I recommend twine; again, it's biodegradeable so you never have to worry about picking it up at a later date) between them. Between one to three lines. This will stop your mulch from sliding down the hill. Space the "rows" about anywhere from 1-5 feet, depending on how steep the slope is. You can also buy netting that you can use, and you don't need multiple lines. Just make sure it's not plastic. You will regret anything plastic.

Step 4) Mulch the hillside. I don't recommend rubber mulch, it will never break down. Consider just regular woodchips, or pinebark. Regular woodchip mulch will enrich the soil as it breaks down, but it will also suck up nitrogen from the soil in the process, making it harder for weeds to come up under it. Pine bark doesn't do this, and is typically darker in colour so you may prefer for cosmetic reasons. It also breaks down much more slowly. It is often a little pricier. You can get very cheap if not practically free woodchips if you get in contact with local tree lopping companies. They are always looking to get rid of the stuff. Much cheaper than buying from landscape supply places. If you have no luck with the first one, just keep calling round.

Total cost: the jutte goes for about $100 for a 25 metre roll, at least here in Australia. Could well be cheaper where you are. The stakes, twine, roundup etc would set you back maaaaaaybe $50, total. Mulch cost will very dramatically from free, to $50, to say $300 bucks depending on how big your slope is, and what you buy and where from.

Time: One weekend morning to RoundUp. The better part of one saturday to roll and stake the jutte (it's not heavy at all, think like a blanket), one full weekend day to lay the mulch, depending on how far you have to travel from pile to slope, and if you have any help. You will, obvs, need a wheelbarrow and shovel for that part.

So think about two days reasonably hard work. It will be painful doing it, and feel slow - but if you do this, you won't have to do anything but the most desultory maintenance for many years. Note that weedmat obviously only stops weeds coming up through the ground. Seeds blown on the wind will land on top, and will eventually grow. But the volume of weeds will be dramatically reduced, and you could get away with a spray probably twice/three times a year depending on weather conditions.

If you buy the slitted jutte, I heartily encourage you to plant that slope up, with trees over ground cover preferably. They won't have competition from weeds so will grow much better, and they will be established before the weeds get a chance, and then there will not be enough light for most weeds.

Best of luck!
posted by smoke at 5:28 PM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, somehow I've been living in a cave and unaware of the hatred for ivy.

Yes, it grows and it can spread, but a little bit of work keeps it under control.

MeatheadBrokeMyChair offered up some good suggestions, although I've found myrtle/periwinkle relatively slow to establish itself. Pachysandra is another option, but even that requires a bit of attention. One of your biggest factors for picking the right plant will be the amount of sunlight/shade you have on the incline.
posted by sardonyx at 5:47 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! Let me clarify a few things about my situation that I probably should have included in my original question, and respond to some of the suggestions so far.

The slope is directly on the side of our house, with no plateau at the top from which to stand to hold a hover mower or line trimmer. When I've hit it with a string trimmer before, I've just walked up from the bottom, but if I neglect it for just a week or two, it's a damned jungle.

I think because it's so right up against the house, trees are right out. Don't want the roots and limbs causing problems so close to the house.

Unfortunately, I don't think grazing animals would be a good solution, and not just because our dog would go insane watching other animals grazing on his territory. It is neat that Pittsburgh-area landscapers are using them, though -- would have never guessed that.

The location isn't really good for a deck, which would be very narrow, and on a side of the house that doesn't currently have a door. There's only ~3 feet from the bottom of the slope to the property line on that side.

I was looking at the "never breaks down" aspect of the rubber mulch as a positive. I'd never use it somewhere that I care about aesthetically, but thought it made sense for a hill that's on a side of the house nobody uses so I wouldn't have to re-mulch so often. However, after reading this document from someone who seems to have some serious credentials, I agree that it's probably not a good choice.

Sounds like I should look into the jute matting. I was hesitant to use any kind of mat given what's happened to the weed mats in our other beds, but if it's something that will just break down naturally, that could definitely work.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:06 PM on August 9, 2014

Jutte is usually made from hemp fyi, but the texture is reminiscent of a rough blanket. You can cut it with a stanley knife, or even tear it from a small cut. Now you've discussed how big the slope is (three feet? You lucky bastard), you could totally knock it over in a weekend.
posted by smoke at 6:12 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No, I'd say it's about 12 feet wide, but there's a ~3 foot strip of flat grass at the bottom that I end up mowing.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:15 PM on August 9, 2014

If you're in the market for a decent amount of mulch, call a tree service rather than buying it from a garden centre. If they have a job in your neighbourhood they'll probably give it to you for free, just to empty the truck. I have also paid in beer.
posted by superfish at 10:30 PM on August 9, 2014

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