Alternative Landscapes for Challenging Terrain

large rocks in grassy landscaping

Certain landscapes make it difficult to grow anything, and sometimes the land simply won't allow for the lush landscape you’ve always dreamed of, no matter how green your thumb is.

The soil may be poor quality, or there could be barriers like slopes, rocks, and other obstructions.

Don't fret! There are many landscaping solutions for botanically challenged settings that can create visually appealing scenes with a minimal, or focused use of plants and other materials.

Hardscapes and architectural features like rocks, stones, fountains, and ponds may be more beneficial to your design, and some prefer this over the maintenance of gardens.

Here are some alternative landscape designs for challenging terrain, or the not-so-avid gardener.

Rocky Areas

Rocks, stones, and loose gravel pose the greatest challenge to landscape designs as they are difficult to move and grow with. Large rocks are heavy and cumbersome, and small rocks are difficult to sort or gather, often becoming havens for weeds.

Working with this area rather than having it removed is the simplest and often cheapest option, and there are a few different landscape designs you can use to make a beautiful space.

You can simply build over the top of it, either by adding topsoil and creating new garden beds, or by building a patio space. Paver and concrete patios need the ground excavated with proper drainage gravel and screening underneath, but if you already have a solid, easily compacted weed-free surface, most of the work has already been done for you.

While most plants won't survive in rocky soils, xeriscape plants, and desert perennials will be happy to adorn rocky ground. Stonecrops and sedums specifically do well in xeric designs, as do cacti.

These plants will also thrive in very intense dry heat and sun.

Many ground covers trail along rocky paths or patches nicely, filling in space quickly and efficiently if you want some greenery.

Creeping thyme, sedum ground covers, and evergreens like creeping juniper would be excellent choices for dry, sunny locations as they spread fast, are drought-tolerant, and low-maintenance.

large rock steps on landscaped hill

Slopes and Hillsides

One of the easiest ways to deal with a landscape on a hillside or steep slope is to simply let it go wild. This doesn't mean chaos, however, but a focus on what will naturally fill in the space and flourish.

A simple method is to plant a mix of hardy, native perennials, grasses, and/or wildflowers to cover the space without the need for maintenance.

Ornamental grasses or ground covers don't need to be mowed, as the problem with planting turf grass means the homeowner must risk injury or sliding every time the grass needs cutting.

The other option is to put in a retaining wall to separate the sloped area and create a flat space at the top where you can relax and entertain, or take in a view.

With a proper retaining wall, lawns are much easier to maintain, and the fear of erosion is minimized or eliminated. A garden space, lawn, or paver patio are just some of the options that could be put in once the land at the top was properly flattened off.

Heavily Treed and Shady Spots

Those who are new to gardening often mistake woodlands or shaded areas as places where nothing will grow, or nothing worth planting, anyway. This couldn't be further from the truth, and actually, some of the boldest, most interesting foliage comes from shade perennials and annuals.

Hydrangeas boast some of the largest, most bulbous blooms of any perennial, and the majority of them not only tolerate but prefer shaded areas of the garden. They fall limp in full sun, and prefer damp earth to keep their many blooms plump and colorful.

Shade-tolerant ground covers like sweet woodruff, Irish moss, and wild ginger will spread beautifully under trees; blueberry bushes can be planted for interest and food, and an assortment of clematis, astilbe, bleeding hearts, aster, and ferns can give the densest areas beautiful splashes of color and texture.

Shaded areas may also be an excellent place to put in a patio or pond, especially in places that experience intense heat and would benefit from some respite. Leave the planting for full sun areas, and create an oasis out of the intense heat.

sandy soil with grass

Difficult Soils

Not all soil is made equally, and even if it's not rocky or hard to work with, loamy, nutrient-rich soil isn't always what you're blessed with on-site. Many soils are clay-based and retain water, or they're sandy and hold very little.

Ideally you want something in between, but luckily, there are plants for every landscape, as long as you choose the right species.

Many people plant lavender in nutrient-rich soil, water it diligently, and wonder why it dies when actually this beautiful plant thrives in sandy, poor soil and would prefer to be left alone to bask in the dry heat.

Other popular drought-tolerant perennials like yarrow, tickseed, and autumn joy do well in sandy soil, and there is often overlap between plants that can handle stones or rock gardens, and sand-tolerance.

On the flip side, plants that can handle wet conditions perform better in clay soils. Rain gardens are an excellent way to establish plants that thrive in clay-based or wet soils, or aren't finicky about drainage, often helping to soak up excess water.

Joe pye weed, bearded iris, sedge grass, coneflower, and a number of other beautiful perennials can thrive in clay soils and rain gardens.

Cup plants have large, tall stalks that boast dainty, yellow flowers on top and grow very well in clay soil as they naturally need a lot of moisture and can handle wet feet. Plants with deep taproots like milkweed or comfrey help break up heavy, clay soils.

You can either work with the soil you have, or find natural ways to bring the soil back towards an ideal, loamy state by planting species that will mediate nutrient levels.

Container Gardens

You may have poor soil, or you may not have any soil at all, in which case you can still grow a bountiful amount of flowers and produce in raised garden beds and containers.

This is one of the best design choices for urban homes where space is limited, as well. Trellis systems and small fences can help vining plants like clematis, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes grow upwards, maximizing small areas.

Deeper vessels like old wash basins and sinks can be retrofitted into planters for peppers, kale, or root vegetables. Anything that can hold soil can be turned into a place where annuals and perennials are mix and matched for all season blooms.

Not all perennials will be able to establish root systems in containers, but some varieties like asters and coral bells can happily exist in a pot, and even be brought closer to the home, garage, or shed when you want to shelter it.

Hanging baskets are excellent containers for delicious strawberries, wooden planter boxes can be adorned with a variety of herbs, and old bricks and concrete blocks are adorable places to grow succulents and cacti.

wild landscaping with stone steps

Allow Things to Naturally Grow

Few landscapes have nothing growing. The plant life that already exists may not be what you had in mind, but consider whether you have garden bias, either from moving to another area and getting used to a different climate, or wanting a certain "look" to your garden that isn't possible.

Plants you consider weeds are still plant-life, and often have more benefit to you and your land than you think. They are usually native and thrive in the conditions that already exist.

They may even have culinary or medicinal benefits that can be enjoyed rather than eliminated.

Consider your climate: what grows naturally and what types of plants need minimal care. A prairie or woodland scene has a rustic allure that even the most formal gardens can't always rival.

Cultivate Native Plants

Native plants are the best choices for gardens as they will thrive in your climate, attract beneficial pollinators, and are low-maintenance. They preserve biodiversity while combating invasive plants that have taken root - a problem that extends all through the United States.

There are plenty of native perennials to adorn any type of garden; big or small, full sun or shade. Coneflowers, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, columbine, blazing stars, and irises are just a few that boast stunning flowers and have ecological benefits.

Native trees and shrubs will also be much less maintenance to establish. Native fruit trees and shrubs will produce good yields without the threat of overgrowing an area and choking out other species.

While native plants are the best place to start, you can also responsibly plant non-native species as long as they perform well in similar conditions and aren't invasive.

Hostas, hydrangeas, boxwoods, hybrid tea roses, spring bulbs, peonies, and some salvias are all non-native plants that will not disrupt the ecosystem and can offer alternative aesthetic choices.

Maintenance-Free Plants

While biodiversity is best for gardens and landscapes, choosing one type of shrub, perennial, groundcover, or ornamental tree for instance may work out better for your particular space. Don't try to force things to grow, but cultivate that which will give you good results.

There are hundreds of tough plants for easy maintenance, and adding only a few of these to a hardscape may be all the greenery necessary for a beautiful scene.

If you want a landscape that relies on some easy-to-maintain hardy plants that can be grown in your area, and features that have little to nothing to do with gardening, a line of boxwoods, a patch of lavender, or a running walkway of creeping thyme could add just the right amount of greenery without complicating the site.

Ornamental grasses and lawn alternatives are other easy ways to have a lawn-like yard without all the work that's involved with mowing, fertilizing, and weeding.

Hardscapes That Wow

There are ways to build a breathtaking landscape without any plants at all. Architectural features and hardscapes can be the focus of your design, while still providing a natural respite.

Water features, ponds, and natural stones are excellent ways to get the feel of nature without relying on plants or a full garden.

Instead of rolling hills and green vistas, a stretch of cobblestone or a sea of gravel can mimic a natural scene and provide its own kind of beauty. Landscaping with the following features may actually transform your scenery into an enjoyable place to relax and entertain.

There are many ways to integrate and design a beautiful patio space or deck to replace large swaths of grass or plant life.

Urban homes with deep, but cramped yards have installed tiered decking that extends beyond a traditional 20-foot deck, giving more space to entertain and sunbathe, and reducing the amount of lawn and garden maintenance.

Urban landscapes can still add a touch of ground cover for effect and add a few container plants. Your patio furniture and accessories will go a long way to creating an inviting situation.

Platforms and decks can be built right into slopes or atop one to overlook the valley below. Think how much more appealing a plain grass-filled yard might be with an alternative paving of cobblestone transforming it into a courtyard style patio.

pergola with plants

Gazebos, Pergolas, and Sunrooms

Enlarged porches, gazebos, and pergolas offer other ways to provide shade or architectural interest along the property instead of gardens or lawns, as well.

Gazebos are open-air structures that usually have four open walls and a partially or fully closed roof. There are many styles to choose from, but these structures add interest, and also provide a place to entertain and enjoy the outdoors in a partially enclosed or shaded area.

Pergolas can easily be attached to existing decks or placed out in a different area altogether. They are similar to gazebos, but usually have less walls with an open roof line.

Sunrooms are another architectural feature that you can add to the exterior of the home to bring the indoors outside. These enclosed spaces are great if you have pets you want to keep indoors, or prefer to be bug-free while enjoying the view.

All of these options are great places for patio furniture and outdoor decor like lanterns, candles, and wind chimes. They can be adorned with indoor plants and annuals you can pick and choose as the seasons allow, or these spaces can look beautiful plant-free.

Ponds and Water Features

Another landscaping alternative could be to put in a large pond or another type of water feature. Water gardening requires considerable maintenance, but there are many ponds without pretensions or other types of aquascapes that add stunning, low-maintenance beauty to the landscape.

Keeping the water healthy requires some upkeep, but no attractive landscapes are without some ongoing effort, and water features add life to a landscape while promoting biodiversity.

Encircle your pond with a paver or an easy-to-care for ground cover and you have a wonderful all-season landscape. For a small lot, consider a stone fountain surrounded by no-mow ornamental grass.

Pools, basins, and cascades are other water features to consider, while rain gardens, water chimes, and rainwater accessories can add interest, as well as eco-friendly advantages to the land.

Concrete, Stones, and Pavers

Finally, you can add variety to a flat dry space with rock. Pebbled pools and gravel streams can mimic the look of water.

Arrangements of rocks and rock-loving plants will create height and variance and are very easy to maintain. A rocky landscape can be softened with some painted architectural features and the use of colored stone.

Choosing between concrete pads, stones, and pavers can be difficult, but you can also mix and match these elements, even adding brick or other masonry to break up different spaces.

There are many kinds of natural stones that are cost-effective and attractive like river rock, pea gravel, and decomposed granite. Consider paver alternatives to save money and labor, and get creative with interesting materials.

With the addition of some tall container plants or a few hanging baskets, this landscape can be a breathtaking alternative that's easy to care for.

Full gardens and plants are wonderful things to add to a backyard or patio space, but sometimes it's not such an easy task depending on your site. There are many alternative landscapes for difficult terrain, or situations where plants aren't an option.

You do not have to be a great gardener to have a terrific landscape, especially if the land is problematic or difficult to grow on. By relying heavily on other features, you can make minimal use of plantings and still create a lovely setting for family and friends to enjoy.