Up and down is a concept that seems simple. Understanding what it takes to go uphill or downhill in a landscape is not so obvious, or simple. Rest assured that your instinct that level ground is stable, usable, and easy to negotiate is correct. Some hilly or steep properties ask for several flat levels, with a transition moment, or steps, that remake and divide a steep slope into several flat levels. Are you with me? Some steep slopes at the angle of repose can be fine, as long as you have no plan to walk them. Steep slopes that are landscapes are meant to be viewed, not meant as a venue for a party. What is the angle of repose? That angle at which the soil, and the landscape is stable. Terraces, and other places where people gather are usually designed and set flat with the horizon. My deck is a flat space one step down from the grade set by the floor of my house. When I am standing on my deck, I am looking down on my pots, as my eye level is 5′ 6″ above the floor of the deck.
The experience of the deck is different for Milo. He could not be taller 24 or 30″. Buck made stands for my terra cotta rectangles, so that when we are sitting on the deck, those pots are at eye level. Milo and Howard can walk under these pots-if you look close, you can see that Howard is in his summer house.
The fountain garden level is 7 steps down from my deck. As an average step is 7″ high, that means the deck floor is 49 inches higher that ground level.
Several stone walls enclose that deck. The deck is supported by wood posts that are sunk into the ground, and back filled with concrete. The underside of a deck is not all that attractive, nor is it easy to grow anything in a spot that has not natural light whatsoever. My stone walls conceal the under side of the deck, and are not load bearing. A single wall that high would need a 42″ deep footing or foundation underneath it to keep it upright despite upheaval from frost. Splitting the wall into two, one narrower than the other, means a full foundation is not necessary.
No one could possibly enjoy the high places in my yard better than Milo. He is able to keep track of who is passing by on the street. He is better able to spot the squirrels in the trees. He can watch me, if I am in the driveway watering. Running up and down the steps is an activity he enjoys. He goes down the stairs to the fountain garden, and up a similar flight of stairs to the side garden. All those changes of grade keep him very busy.
Changes of grade in a landscape can provide a lot of visual interest, in addition to the physical interest. Driving through Iowa, or looking out over the ocean, is a very different experience than driving through the Rockies. Flat properties are easier to navigate; hilly properties involve lots of transitional steps or slopes. A great landscape design can do a great job of creating different visual levels with plants. Annabelle hydrangeas are great planted on top of a wall. How they fall over and weep is beautiful against a wall. How they flop in a garden-not so pretty.
This corgi eye view of the landscape does a great job of explaining how the level at which any landscape element is viewed is critical to the design. It is clear my garden was not designed for him. This also shows how important it is to determine what will be at eye level before planting. Will my view be obstructed, or will my view be private? Or can a view be the combination of open and closed?
Milo frequently sits on this wall. He likes being able to see further. A low stone retaining wall like this one can organize a garden by means of its structure, but can also provide a place to sit. This is a way for me to appreciate the lower level of this garden, as well as the standing level.
I have a second level deck that is 4 steps above the main deck. I call it the Romeo and Juliet balcony. It is the highest place to sit in the yard. It is 10.5 feet above the driveway level, and 7.5 feet above the fountain level. I have to come up 3 sets of steps to get here from the driveway. Multiple levels like this makes my very small garden seem larger. The view is different from every level, and additionally different if I am standing or sitting on a given level.