New retaining wall eliminates hard-to-mow slope

Before: October 2008

We almost didn’t buy this house because we didn’t like the front exterior. We’d read the listing online and drove by but were turned off by the bland, 1970s style and the way the heavy-browed garage wing in front appeared to be sinking into the bermed front lawn. Not charming. Our realtor convinced us to take a look, however, and the inside turned out to be very appealing and we loved the back yard, so here we are.

But that grassy berm out front continued to irk me on a daily basis. I park in the driveway, and every time my kids and I got out of the car, we’d slip and slide on the slope. Mowing the sloping lawn was unsafe. And there was no easy access to the back of the house in that direction, not without clambering up the slope or shimmying along the foundation of the house. (I immediately removed the tired foundation shrubs along the garage, but the sloping ground still made passage difficult.) So I saved up, and this fall I bit the bullet, hiring a contractor to fix the problem.

After: December 2012

I decided to build a retaining wall to hold back the slope and create level areas along the driveway and the foundation. After a lot of measuring, I marked a two-foot push-back along the driveway to make room for open car doors and getting in and out of the car, and a five-foot push-back along the foundation to make a pathway and keep water runoff away from the sill of the foundation. I considered both poured concrete and Corten steel, but the former seemed unsuited to the style of the house and the latter proved too expensive. Instead I chose to have the wall built with native limestone, a common and economical building material here in Austin. After interviewing several contractors, I hired De Lara Landscaping to do the work.

Before: The berm is a natural feature of our sloping lot, with the driveway cutting right through it; the other half of the berm is the island bed in the center of our circular drive.

During: Cutting into it was a big job. Limestone slabs and small boulders lurked under 4 to 6 inches of soil, delaying the pouring of the wall’s concrete foundation by a day. I’d consulted an arborist to make sure there was enough clearance for the trees, and during the dig-out we were careful not to cut any large roots. We did run into two large roots and made adjustments to work around them.

After: The new retaining wall eliminates the slope along the foundation and driveway, creating flat spaces to walk and to mow. Of course I have no intention of keeping the lawn. My plan is to replace it, perhaps by this spring, with an alternative lawn of Berkeley sedge in the shade of the live oaks, with an agave-and-wooly-stemodia combo along the curve where the sun bakes the grass to straw every summer.

A side view. My original plan was to continue the foundation path around the far corner of the house and run it to the back gate. Unfortunately, a big tree root near the corner of the house required a change of plans. Rudy, the construction manager at De Lara, and I brainstormed and came up with the idea to build boulder steps to the top of the wall, where a path of large stepping stones could be laid to connect with an existing decomposed-granite path. This adjustment allowed us to shorten the wall by a few feet and skirt the tree root.

Fellow Austin blogger Randy recently gave me a pair of cantera stone columns (half-pipes, actually, which make a column when paired up), and they’d been lying in my side yard while I waited for inspiration to strike about how to use them. Once the wall was finished, I decided to place one of the columns in front of an irrigation pipe that juts out of the front of the house. That seemed good, so I placed the other near the boulder steps, and I topped both of them with white bowls planted with shade-tolerant, deer-resistant foxtail fern. I know, I know—the bowls don’t match. I visited seemingly every nursery in town for two neutral-colored bowl planters, and brought several home to try out, but these were the only two I liked, and the nursery only had one of each. You have to be flexible sometimes!

I still need to plant something at the corner of the garage to soften it, probably a feathery bamboo muhly. And I’m already giddy over the idea of the Berkeley sedge “lawn,” studded perhaps with oxblood lilies and accented with a ‘Margaritaville’ yucca or two. Luckily, that’ll be the easy part of this latest “lawn-gone” project.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

20 Responses

  1. Julie says:

    Wow–what an undertaking! The result is fabulous–excellent vision. Anytime we plan a change in the landscape, we always face issues with large tree roots. (Perhaps it has something to do with living in a forest?!) I love your solution with the boulder steps–lovely and practical. Personally, I like the fact that your pots don’t match. They both are interesting and attractive in their own right, so why worry about matching? Thanks for sharing. We’re planning renovations to the front of the house, which will also require renovations to the landscape/paths (oh darn!) Your post is very inspiring.

    Good luck with your entry renovations, Julie, including the (oh darn!) necessity to redo the landscaping and paths. —Pam

  2. Shirley says:

    Looks fantastic! You have solved so many problems at once. Lots of bang for your buck here the significantly improved value of your home. I love the limestone steps, so natural and typical of the area.

    A very well-done project.

    Being flexible is always best and perfection is often overrated.

    Thank goodness, right? :-) —Pam

  3. Wow! Looks great.
    I like the stone steps. Adds another layer of interest.
    And, your bowls are good…same shape, same color.

    You’ve done so much there, in a short time.

    Good job.

    That’s the last of the big jobs, Linda. We did have a few of them lately. —Pam

  4. Jean says:

    I love it Pam! I can see why you made those changes. So nice to have a good contractor to work with who understands the importance of not cutting large tree roots (I have stories I could tell!). Your soon-to-be new “lawn” will look great.

    I’m looking forward to trying an alternative lawn, Jean. More reports to come. —Pam

  5. Mamaholt says:

    I LOVE it too!! That is such a great idea…you clever girl.

    Thanks, Mamaholt. —Pam

  6. That picture of the little land mover sent chills up my spine and through my bank account! The end product looks great and is so much more “you” than that crazy undulating lawn could ever be. You’re neighbors must all be so glad you guys bought the house!

    Crazy undulating lawn is a good way to put it. I’m glad to have the change in levels in my garden, but this is a better way to enjoy it than the slippery slope of grass. —Pam

  7. Lori says:

    I love it! I was wondering where those columns would end up.

    So was I! I’m glad to have found a home for them. —Pam

  8. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This project turned out great. I didn’t even notice that the white bowls didn’t match. I bet no one else will either especially when the ferns get big. Well done.

    Thanks, Lisa. —Pam

  9. Alison says:

    I love your new wall! What a great project! I don’t mind the non-matching containers, I have loads that don’t match. And I love the columns and where you’ve placed them. I was wondering while I was reading how you were going to get up the wall onto the grassy area, and the steps solved that problem. I can see how you were put off by that front lawn, it is kind of freaky.

    Yes, freakily difficult to deal with. I could have planted the slope to deal with it, which is what I did with the island bed, but this way we have a place to get out of the car—so nice! —Pam

  10. That looks amazing – what a change! So naturalistic and functional. I look forward to seeing what you plant! I have a feeling you are going to have a hard time sticking to sedge ;)

    I’m going to try mightily to resist the temptation to overplant, Heather. I feel that this garden needs an area of simplicity, and I think an alternative lawn is the way to do it. Wish me luck! —Pam

  11. ChrisG says:

    Love it Pam! And really love what you’ve done to the front door. Can’t wait to get my hands on your book!

    Thanks so much, Chris! I’m excited that my pub date is only two months away. —Pam

  12. Nicole says:

    The end result looks very sharp!

    Thanks, Nicole. —Pam

  13. Ismail N says:

    I like what you did with the half-pipes and containers. They may not match but they look so right together. Everything definitely looks better!:D

    I’m glad you agree, Ismail. I’m happy with how it turned out. —Pam

  14. rjhyden says:

    I love walls! Well done !

    Thanks, Randy. —Pam

  15. peter schaar says:

    Let me add my congratulations for a really good and inspiring job! I’d be interested to know how you interviewed the contractors to find one who knows how to respect trees and their roots AND can get his employees actually doing the work to do the same.

    I could tell that Rudy had a lot of experience when I interviewed him, Peter, and he spent a lot of time with me during the initial consultation talking it through and explaining the construction process. But I think his daily presence on the job is why his crew did such a good job. —Pam

  16. Excellent solution! I need to do something similar to a slope on the west side of my house. I didn’t even notice that the bowls don’t match. I love the steps. Very nice, Pam.

    Thanks, PP. Good luck with your own slope-retention project! —Pam

  17. Layanee says:

    That looks so much better. I especially like those steps at the far end. It softens the look and ties the wall to the earth. I look forward to seeing your new plantings.

    Thanks, Layanee. I’m eager to plant that sedge now (while I have some free time), but it won’t be in the nurseries until spring. And then I’ll be super busy with clients, with little time for my own garden. But I’ll have to make some time somehow. I’m itching for that sedge lawn! —Pam

  18. Gail says:

    Another wow! The wall is fantastic. Maybe it was fortuitous to run into those roots, the boulder steps are perfect!

    Perhaps it was, Gail. A fortuitous accident! —Pam

  19. Nice solution! And we’re big fans of unmatched “pairs” so I like your white bowls.

    Thanks, Linda. —Pam

  20. Kaveh says:

    Looking good. Next step is to get rid of all that lawn!

    Baby steps, Kaveh, baby steps. If you could see how much lawn I’ve gotten rid of already—1/3 of the front and all of the back and sides—you’d be suggesting a little rest break. —Pam