Two practical ideas for a split-level garden

Large firepit sitting area from designer-retailer JJ deSousa’s garden in Portland, OR

Are you stuck with a garden that isn’t “on the level” – so sloped, it creates awkward changes in elevation? Want to turn that negative into a positive? Well, our promise to bring back ideas from the Garden Bloggers’ Fling in Portland OR begins here with thoughts on that very subject.

On a hot, hot day in July, as I toured the garden of Digs Inside & Out owner-designer JJ deSousa I was quietly (sometimes not so quietly) swearing to myself. It was so full of ideas! One of the biggest was the simple use of space, using raised planes to literally take the garden to the next level.

See how private and spacious deSousa’s dining deck feels? Set on the highest plane, it overlooks the garden’s far reaches.
Here, you can see how the spaces work together. Imagine if both were on the same level. Wouldn’t the closeness make them feel congested? The wall behind the sectional seating actually adds cozy enclosure to the firepit area. And, when entertaining a really big group, there’s the chance for either interaction or separation between the two conversation groups.

I was blown away by JJ deSousa’s designer flourishes. This gal knows how to work with a colour theme! More on that in other posts. But the idea of making the most of enforced elevation changes works even with a simpler touch. Look at this garden from Toronto’s Beach Garden Tour 2014.

Like many Beach gardens, this garden had sharp slopes at its edges. One of the strategies was to create tiered raised beds on two facing sides – anchored by this elevated water feature beside the garden gate.
Another view of the side beds. (The tree that seems to grow from the top of the light pillar isn’t some odd kind of planter.
It’s a photographer’s error. Mea culpa.)
And here’s the best trick. Rather than risk planting the steep back slope, they’ve turned it into a raised stone patio in the cool shade of overhanging trees. It’s a nice focal point from the house, too, drawing the eye to the back of the garden.

What do you think of these solutions? Would do something else instead? I’d love to hear your ideas.


  1. My back garden is on a steep slope, and we inherited some nice patio spaces on various levels. But I still struggle with a feeling of seeing it all at once. I like the way JJ created those cozy rooms with walls and hope to incorporate a few more low-wall divisions in my own garden.

  2. We have a split level garden too, though we've gone with central terraced beds on the diagonal to make the garden seem larger. It also means I can use screening plants which give a glimpse of what lies beyond without giving the game away.

    Like you I found tons of ideas at the Fling, even from gardens which are nowhere near my style or planting choice.

    1. Yes, that "dynamic diagonal" is an excellent space-making illusion, and perforated screens are a wonderful idea. We used this between ours and our neighbour's yard to share each other's views — especially useful in very small gardens like ours.

  3. This is a very timely post for me since the landscape design for my new front garden will turn the slope into three levels. It's really helpful to see what others have done along these lines. -Jean

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