B. Rosie Lerner
Purdue Extension


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Plants for Steep Slopes

Perhaps the most challenging landscaping problem is that of what to plant on a steep slope.
Slopes require plants that can establish quickly, tolerant of fluctuating soil moisture and potentially poor nutrient availability, and require little care once established. You’re likely looking for small plants for filling this rather tall order! 

Turf grass is one of the most popular ground covers for keeping soil in place, but mowing on an incline is inconvenient at best and possibly downright dangerous! However, replacing established turf is no small feat. The turf could be killed but left in place to stabilize the slope while the new replacement plants establish. The dead turf could be cut away to install the new plants.

In addition to site conditions such as sun exposure, soil condition, soil moisture, existing cover and degree of slope, plant selection will largely depend on size of area to be planted and, of course, your budget. Planting seeds will generally be less expensive than started plants, but plants often will establish cover more quickly than seed. Seeds will need to be planted in cleared ground or within openings in killed turf. Temporary living mulch such as annual rye or wheat can be used to provide quick cover of the ground but will then die back as the permanent plantings get established.

There are a number of plant options that offer a lower maintenance alternative to a mowed lawn. Do your homework – assess the planting site and your wish list for plant character such as flowers, foliage height, color or texture; set your budget; develop a planting plan and choose a reliable plant vendor. A mixed planting of native grasses, herbaceous and woody ground covers, shrubs and trees, if space allows, is the best strategy for slope stabilization. Some nurseries feature blends for slope stabilization. In addition to appropriate plant selection, nonplant features such as terracing, boulders and retaining walls may be options to consider.

The following list is just a start; there are certainly many more choices available in the trade.  Plants denoted with (S) perform best in shade.

Grasses and Sedges:

Little bluestem
Big bluestem
Virginia wild rye
Canada wild rye
Indian grass
Prairie oval sedge
Sideoats grama
Fine fescue blends

Herbaceous Ground Covers:

Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia)
Christmas fern (S)
Hosta (S)
Lady fern (S)
Solomon’s seal (S)
Wild ginger (S)

Woody Ground Covers and Low Shrubs:

Bunchberry (S)
Virginia creeper
Rose (shrub and ground cover types)
Sweet fern (Comptonia)
Wintergreen (Gaultheria) (S)



Writer: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox