Rock Steps

 I've been working on the steps which connect the bridge with the upper garden path. They've been left as dirt footholds cut from the hillside for the last year+ which has made getting between the the two areas precarious.


Rocks spread out and ready to use
Work is happening on the path to the right of bridge

Because of the fire hazard all grass is cut short during the dry season. Most of the year that means the hillsides in our neighborhood are left looking barren.

Sorted Rocks
Sorting rocks by general shape


Rock steps in progress
Step and wall progress

 There wasn't enough horizontal room ("run") to meet the existing top landing (shown below) so I disassembled it's edge and reused the boulders as steps.


As you can see below - to make this happen required sacrificing about a foot of the landing. Oh well.

Building Rock steps - almost done
Almost there

As the "rise to run" ratio steepens on the steps they become less comfortable to negotiate. I find myself slowing and looking down with each step. This makes a natural spot to add smaller, specimen plants - maybe Agave Kissho Kan, or an Agave 'Cream Spike'.

Rock wall next to steps
Morning sun showing off a newly constructed bit of wall

I'll add rock to hold the right edge of this path which will in turn open up new planting space. I'm hoping to create a sense of enclosure with some larger sized Leucadendron etc on the downhill side of the path. It may be hard to tell from the above picture but eventually these steps will form a ribbon of rock cutting through a green landscape.

Over the next weekend

The sun is setting after another weekend of work.
Garden stairs
Late afternoon in early October, 2021

Looking at the above shot makes me wonder when does a garden turn into a landscape? I'm not sure I understand the difference but vaguely think of landscapes as a slice of nature - perhaps a bit unkempt or even unfriendly. Gardens are our creations while landscapes just exist and don't care whether we fit in or not. I've borrowed some of the later for this garden so it looks like a stylized version of a natural space. If I push it too far will it feel like a landscape with garden-ish qualities? Someone walked by a few months ago and complemented the garden but then stopped mid-sentence and wondered out loud if it even was a garden. Good question - I thought it was.

Hillside garden
April, 2021 (no steps)

By this point the steps have been given a layer of decomposed granite aka "Gold Fines" as well as edging. The common surface gives the steps a new sense of uniformity that I like.

Hillside Garden steps made  of stone

The concept of a hybrid garden / landscape and at what point one turns into another is fascinating for some reason. I don't think there's a magic point at which one turns into another - it seems more likely there's nuance involved. That's good because it gives us gardener's room to operate and find what suits us and the environment. Maybe another way to think about the difference is gardens are made by us to serve our needs and wouldn't last long without our care whereas landscapes existed before us and regardless of us - though they may still serve some of our needs. Both can be beautiful and inviting but one is controlled while the other is wild.

Hillside garden steps made of stone
Finally connecting with the upper path

Maybe the hybrid garden / landscape is intriguing because it's hard to categorize. It's a little wild and dangerous but still manicured and ultimately artificial - so safe.

More time passes...

Digging a hole for a landscape plant
Digging a $5 hole for Banksia ericifolia

I just learned about the old adage -

It’s better to plant a 50-cent plant in a $5 hole, than a $5 plant in a 50-cent hole.  

Some landscapers / horticulturalists disagree with this sentiment which I think has mainly to do with amending the native soil. I have mixed feelings about the topic - but what is apparent on a hillside is that the "$5" can easily be spent on labor and materials to hold the plant in place!

Digging a hole for planting

With a lot of effort I planted a total of... 5 plants. Two of them were the young Euphorbia amarak's which I thought might punctuate the hillside dramatically over the coming years.

Lots of rocks - now I need some more plants.

Nestled in a rocky corner is one new Agave...

Agave nickelsii
Agave nickelsii

The view while walking down the steps

I was reading some very practical advice recently that mentioned gardens should compliment the architectural style of nearby buildings. For example a modern house might benefit from clean lines in the garden and avoid overly ornate pots or statuary. I came away feeling a little constrained until I realized this hillside garden is completely disconnected from our house - you can't even see our house while in the garden. This space can take whatever flight of fancy it wants because it stands alone. It is it's own thing.

Dyckia platyphylla (wide-leafed Dyckia)
A first for our garden - Dyckia platyphylla


The real rain has arrived a little early this year with a classic pineapple express hitting Northern CA. This is great news for our corner of the west because we certainly need the moisture. It's not great news for my efforts to put some finishing touches along the step's edges. 

Rocky hillside garden on a rainy day
Dry Creek on a rainy day... still dry.

Hillside garden steps on a rainy day

Rocky hillside garden on a rainy day

Agave titanota "Lion's Mane"
Another new addition - Agave titanota "Lion's Mane"

Agave titanota "Lion's Mane"

It's hard to tell from a distance but I added about 50+ lbs of smaller rocks around the plants late yesterday. When I'm lucky the rocks and plants have complementary hues.

There is more work to do in this area around the steps but I'll save that for another post. With the dramatic turn in our weather this seems like a good stopping point.

Happy Landscaping!


  1. Really love this! That 'Lion's Mane' titanota nestled into rock really captures how rock and succulents speak to each other. Just extraordinary.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words Denise. Sometimes special plants like this little Agave deserve their own stage!

  2. Your rock structure is a dramatic stage for your ever-expanding succulent collection, Hans, whatever you want to call it. The way you're going, you may be able to call it a desert botanic garden soon - it already looks much more impressive than the desert section of my local botanic garden.

    I hope the rain is less torrential than weather forecasters have predicted. I heard the term "bomb cyclone" used to describe it in a newscast this morning. It's expected to reach us here in the very dry southern part of the state tomorrow but our forecast is 1/3rd of an inch of rain.

    1. 1/3 of an inch sounds like a perfect amount after a long dry season - just enough to soak the ground but not enough to create mudslides! I'm trying my best to soften this garden with non-succulents but somehow I keep coming home w/more Agave :) I appreciate your positive feedback Kris.

    2. This really looks fantastic-artificial it may be , but it does not intrude at all in to the integrity of the native landscape, and the warm color of the stone is perfect. That Dyckia platyphylla !

    3. This is the first Dyckia I've ever planted - I hope it does well! To be honest I'd never heard of the Genus until I joined the garden blogger community and saw some of the beautiful specimens you all have shared.

  3. Thanks for the continuing coverage of this inspiring project. I wondered if a pulled back shot would include your home, interesting to learn this area is completely separate. Are there other neighbors who have a view? Or is this strictly a "from the road" space?

    1. It's an interesting space because it's on the downhill side of a shared driveway for a few houses which places this garden closer to the public street and sidewalk. From the sidewalk the hill is steep enough that our house is not visible - tho the roof-line maybe from a few vantage points. So basically the layout is: house -> shared drive -> hillside garden -> public street. Several people walking by have assumed it's city property. My approach to this garden is that it's akin to a very public front yard; this has both good and bad aspects but in the end I'm just making the best of the space. I'll take some shots from varying distances - including from across the street in the adjacent open space area.

  4. I tried a couple times to comment some days ago, and got error messages--on my side, "cache full" . Grrr.

    Anyway, looks terrific, so professional (in the best sense of professional), and choice plants to boot. Beautiful variant of A. titanota. Not a Dyckia fan because they offset like crazy and the beauty of the solitary rosette is lost, but yours is another choice one. How did the creekbed hold up to your rain this past weekend?

    1. thanks for the compliments - always nice to hear. I guess I'll find out if I'm a Dyckia fan over the next few years - I have other plants I've soured on for the same reason you mentioned. The night of the rainstorm (we got 2"-3" over 24hrs) I ventured out in my rain jacket w/flashlight and beheld a very small stream had started! By the next day it was gone of course but the ground is well and truly soaked now.


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