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Marin IJ Articles

Hillside Gardening

  • Jane Scurich
  • By Jane Scurich

    Gardening on a hillside presents a unique set of challenges. Hillside gardening without deer fencing exponentially increases the challenges.
    My own home has a steep rise from the street to the front fence. For decades, families of deer have used this narrow space as their well carved trail to access the tasty treats in the unenclosed neighborhood gardens.
    While I have often longed to have a lovely landscaped front slope, I have not been able to identify the plant material that could survive a steep slope, regular visits from our local deer population and provide erosion controlling, long root systems. The majority of our slope is also shaded more than 50% of the day—more challenges!
    I try to keep my eyes open to solutions other people have found for tricky landscape issues.
    Since very early last spring I have been observing an open hillside in Corte Madera mature into an eye-catching array of long blooming, deer resistant perennials. Starting in February, a lovely soft palette of pastels including soft pink, lavender and white began to emerge. Contrasting splashes of yellow and hot pink add variety and interest. Currently this hillside is nothing short of spectacular!
    A visit to the local nurseries and hours of on-line research helped me discover more about the plant material on this hillside, but along the way I had to erase some of my preconceived notions about a few plant families. When we first purchased our home in 1978, the builder had installed multiple white and yellow marguerites. In a few years they became extremely woody and difficult to manage in addition to being rather boring on their own. Based on that experience, I have not been a fan of marguerites and I have not kept up with the amazing array of hybrids currently available. Newer varieties offer a much larger color and size spectrum with soft to bright pinks, single or double flower forms, and some dwarf varieties. Even the names are captivating: Twinkle Lavender, Satin Slipper, and Madeira Violet—to name a few. These evergreen plants are both easy to care for and long blooming. Marguerite, or Paris Daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens), is in the Chrysanthemum family and is considered to be a short-lived perennial.
    The hillside that has so captivated me has a street level border of purple and white Lantana (Lantana montevidensis ‘Lavender Swirl’). This lantana is an excellent ground cover with branches about two feet high and trailing three to six feet. The spreading lantana family is also well known for controlling erosion.
    Above the border of lantana is a variety of small, showy pastel marguerites with a couple of yellow and hot pinks mixed in for contrast. Mounds of silver gray Artemisia provide a soft, neutral background for the blooms. This homeowner has combined profusely blooming, easy care, drought resistant plants for an overall eye pleasing combination while not intriguing deer—a total delight!
    One of my neighbors has been very successful with her gentle slope, which has a totally different look from the pastel hillside. Her color palette is more in the “hot” range. Brilliant deep pink marguerites which gradually fade to a paler pink as the blossom matures provide months of non-stop color. Soft mounds of cat mint (Nepeta) form a relaxed border and boast numerous deep blue flower spikes. Summertime brings an incredibly colorful display of spicy red yarrow (Achillea), appropriately named ‘Pimento.’ Gray leaved lavender and deep yellow coreopsis combine with graceful grasses to complete this lovely sloping front yard.
    My neighbor advised me that even though her plant material appears on most every list of “deer resistant” plants, she did use quite a bit of Liquid Fence and some other smelly concoctions to protect the young plants until they were well established.

    I have learned quite a bit in my research on hillside gardening, but unfortunately for me, these two attractive hillsides share something that I do not have—full sun. So, I am still looking for that perfect combination to replace the vinca, blackberries, various grasses and rogue poison oak that now populate our down slope. I hope to borrow some ideas from these neighborhood gardens and substitute some shade lovers where necessary to protect my steep slope and discourage the doe-eyed visitors.