Asked on Sep 03, 2014

I'm digging steps out of a hill and need suggestions

by Louise
These don't look like much at this point, but if my vision takes place, it will look better. It won't be magazine-worthy, but will be practical. My yard is sloped too much (had retaining walls -- which I will put stucco on or maybe be artsy and paint them an interesting color -- built on the side that was much more sloped) and to get to the top of the hill, I've started building steps. To the right of the steps, I plan to use landscape timbers to make several flat areas. Not sure if that makes sense or not.
Here's the first step. On the right side of each of these steps will be landscape timbers like the ones you see here next to the first step. I'll have to dig into the earth to place them flat and then build one of top of the other. The wood you see to the right of the second step is only a temporary place holder. My plan is for the right side of each step to be similar to the first one.On top of the dirt on each step will be river rocks. On step one, I made a concrete structure (behind the shovel) to keep soil from eroding down the left side of the railroad tie. I need something similar (ideas?) to the left of each of the other steps because the dirt is higher than the steps.
Here you see step one and step two. There's a short piece of leftover railroad tie to the left of step two. It's just there as a placeholder and to keep soil from completely washing down. I need to figure out what to put there? Maybe build another concrete structure like on the first step? Or something I could buy to place there?
Here you can see how something needs to be placed on the left side of each step because the soil is higher than the steps. But what?
This shows how much higher the soil is than the railroad tie step. Need to figure out what to do there to keep the soil from eroding away.
View from the top of the hill. My plan is to put landscape timbers into the yard to create small retaining walls and more level areas of soil. I'll start each of these at the edge of each step. This will stop erosion in that area of the yard and create more level areas where I can plant hostas and other shade plants. I'll cover the ground with wood chips. Can't put plants everywhere because I have dogs and they need places to run and sit down when they're outside.
Here's a view of the ground where I'll put landscape timbers, starting at each railroad tie and going to the right. I'll have to dig out soil to make more level areas.
  28 answers
  • For the left side I would keep the continuity going with the railroad ties where there isn't any concrete & maybe a little grading to make sure the dirt doesn't go over the top You could possibly pour a concrete curb in those areas but I don't see that blending as well
  • DebLynn DebLynn on Sep 05, 2014
    I agree w SLS Construction to keep it going…HOWEVER you could use decorative stone in the Garden Bed and stack some by the RR ties too. Keeping the soil off the steps! Mulch is too lightweight and will probably wash out during rainstorms…. P.S. BTW My family has been into landscaping for 50+ years
  • Don Payne Don Payne on Sep 05, 2014
    You are building a high maintenance project, I would have built a walk way that goes from top to bottom. steps like these are not good , too much chance to get hurt
  • Louise Louise on Sep 05, 2014
    I don't understand what kind of walkway you mean. Without steps, I can just walk up or down the hill but with some danger of falling since it's somewhat steep.
  • Melanie Hinman Melanie Hinman on Sep 05, 2014
    I was just at the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan, and a trailhead down from a lookout bluff started out identical to what you describe you are doing for your steps! But I've no recall of what they did to retain soil on the sides and have no pics showing it. :( An option might be stacked brick/pavers or fieldstone (depending on the look you wanted) - quickcrete or masonry adhesive would hold them in place until the ground settled. Regardless - I like the step idea and I think its going to be beautiful and highly functional!
  • Debra Grieve Debra Grieve on Sep 05, 2014
    Using the railroad ties is probably the best idea, as it will blend in better with the stairs. You could also build mini walls from block (like the retaining walls), as you go on the left side of the stairs. That way, you can change the look of the wall by paint, stucco, facing it with faux rock, etc. A masonry wall will last much longer than wood in the long run, too. You can plant trailing plants to cover part of the wall, as a matter of fact you can actually plant the wall itself if you fill with soil at the top! Maybe those plants won't get trampled or dug up (I have dogs too) since they're next to the stairs. Fill the bottom layer with some concrete and rebar pieces to anchor them in place, then just butter the next block row with mortar mix. Btw, you're doing a great job!! It will be beautiful when it is done!
  • Christine Willson Christine Willson on Sep 05, 2014
    If you go to "concrete" on Hometalk you will find some wonderful suggestions for your wall. Your steps look great, my son-in-laws built similar steps leading down to the lake. Good job.
  • Becky H Becky H on Sep 05, 2014
    What about using landscape fabric with egg rock and other rocks for added interest to the wall?
  • Shar Shar on Sep 05, 2014
    I built a step system just like this a few years back. I lined the sides with a decorative Stone border and made the stone border higher than the walkway about 3" taller. For the sides, planted some flowering shrubs and a bulb garden filling it it with washed pebbles. It was low maintenance and yet a nice nature walk.
    • See 2 previous
    • Shar Shar on Sep 05, 2014
      Oh and I lived in TN at this time We had the red clay and I used mulch but it did start to wash away so switch to the pebbles
  • Beth Bourque Beth Bourque on Sep 05, 2014
    You're creating a gully for rain to funnel through. You need to block the flooding at the top on the right with more retaining wall AND dig out the area on the right to keep it from flowing back in on that side, too. Your project started out too deep from the very first step at the top.
    • See 1 previous
    • Mssmatch Mssmatch on Sep 05, 2014
      I also started at the bottom for my steps - is it better to start at the top?
  • Connie Mar Connie Mar on Sep 05, 2014
    I like the idea of using railroad timbers on both sides. I'd also recommend having your steps slope slightly to the right (as you look up) for proper drainage, so water doesn't pool on the steps. I also recommend using smallish river rock on these steps, otherwise it will be hazardous to walk on. Our neighbor recenlty added ~4" river rock in their backyard, and it's not very stable for walking. In some cases where the soil is a lot taller on the left, you may want to put a concrete layer under the railroad timber, or stack 2 timbers with the top one extending into the slope more to create the base for the next level. If you have a lot of deciduous trees, know that you will end up with debris in your rocks and will end up pulling trees, bushes, weeds, etc. over the years. If you can afford flagstone or other rock surfaces for the steps, that would mean less maintenance over the years.
  • Dudley Right Dudley Right on Sep 05, 2014
    Connie is correct...the river rock is difficult to walk on and can be unstable. Smaller pit run or crushed rock (or a flat stone if possible) would be better with a good weed block underneath. You might find yourself pulling weeds out of your rocks more often than you'd like. Low maintenance is always a good idea to keep in mind. Good luck!
  • Beth Bourque Beth Bourque on Sep 05, 2014
    Sorry, Louise. I wasn't trying to pick them apart and criticize, but there is a major engineering flaw that will cause your entire project to wash away when you have your first major rainstorm. I don't know about you, but that would devastate me after so much hard work. The steps look like they are a gutter waiting for rain TO ME. Maybe I'm just not seeing it the right way. Sorry again. You really are a hard worker to take this on. Good going.
    • Louise Louise on Sep 05, 2014
      @Beth Bourque The bottom two steps have been there for a few years and didn't wash away. I agree that in the current condition of the ones more recently added, they might not look structurally OK -- and they're not because they're not finished. We've actually had some pretty good rains since I've been working on the newer ones and surprisingly, the ground has remained intact.
  • Tris Smith Tris Smith on Sep 05, 2014
    Slices of branches or small trees would look nice to fill up that step area or slate.
  • Peggy Gama Peggy Gama on Sep 05, 2014
    Don't listen to those buzz killers. You are bad to the bone to have gotten that far. I helped build a gigantic park here in this area that it looks a lot like your yard. Brown pine needles and pine bark ( inexpensive). Slate, free standing or cemented in place with moss in the cracks. I get a lot of material in the trash around town. Cement with marbles embedded or other mosaic colors and shapes. Rope handles to hold on to, rope linked through holes in 4x4.
  • Peggy Gama Peggy Gama on Sep 05, 2014
    P.S. Important: Standing water. dig little trenches to make the water drain where you want it.
    • Christine Willson Christine Willson on Sep 07, 2014
      Important, when u dig trench go to garden store and have them sell u tubing to put in trench, then put dirt over so that rain will never damage that hill take pics and show at garden center. Good luck
  • Bruce Armstrong Bruce Armstrong on Sep 05, 2014
    You can use 5/4 Cedar planking horizontally to hold the hill. This is really 1 1/4 inch thick and will hold the dirt well. 1 inch will also work. Smooth or rough will work fine. Drive 2-3 foot pieces of rebar steel (the stuff you use in cement) into the ground . Drive is so it it just below the top of the wood. Fasten the rebar to the cedar with electrical plastic clamps and deck screws or stainless steel screws (no rusting this way). Have these on the back so the dirt can cove the rebar. Another way is to sink the rebar as above, use short 4X4 cedar posts you have drilled out length wise. Slide them over the rebar and then bolt the cedar planks to the cedar posts. Use galvanized lag bolts with washers as the bolts. I hope this makes since. I do not like to use red wood as it splinters easily.
  • Joan Joan on Sep 05, 2014
    An inexpensive way to prevent the soil from washing would be to work lengths of garden hose throughout the soil before planting and mulching. Use long "spikes" to hold them in place. They do not deteriorate and can be well hidden with mulch. 20+ years ago, I, with the help of my husband did this using granite stone! I know how much work it is. Do slope the steps ever so slightly for quick drainage.
  • Jeanette S Jeanette S on Sep 06, 2014
    Good luck! Big job! Particularly in the heat we have been having!
    • Louise Louise on Sep 06, 2014
      @Jeanette S I wait until later in the day -- evening, actually -- before doing much. I can't stand our heat!!! :-)
  • Susan Cryor Susan Cryor on Sep 06, 2014
    I admire you for your major undertaking. It is a challenging job and as you are going, looks like you are up to the challenge ! Go for it! I have cemented steps on a bank, then had to redo as they pulled apart, down the hill. Built patio on slope, and steps on slope. No great photos but will share some. Only advice I can give you is to anchor the timbers, drill holes in them and pound in metal rebar. The long drill bit and metal rebar are cheap. The rebar should go into the soil about 2-3 feet. It will hold everything in place and even keep your timbers from rolling on their sides. A cross piece at the top is very helpful, as is sloping the ground away from your steps. I cheer you on, having lived on a hill where every side is "down hill" sharing some of my attempts to make it useable land
  • Bonny McDaniel Bonny McDaniel on Sep 06, 2014
    I would recommend putting small river rock into the narrow space beside the steps. If you pack enough rock into that area, it acts as a French Drain and slows the flow of water and lets some of it percolate into the soil. And I agree, that putting river rock on the top of the steps sounds rough to walk on, even if you pound them down into the dirt. If it was mine and the budget was tight (as it usually is!) I would put one of the concrete steps they sell at box stores for about 88 cents apiece and put river rock around it. The slate, however, is a better option if you can afford it. Great work...I wish my old body could make that kind of effort in my hilly area.
    • Chrystine Dimitry Chrystine Dimitry on Sep 06, 2014
      @Bonny McDaniel Exactly right!! The French Drain idea is perfect .. and will look attractive, as well!! Louise, you are doing a fabulous job. Don't let the nay-sayers get you down.
  • Wendy Johnson Wendy Johnson on Sep 06, 2014
    It looks like a lot of work! No suggestions just encouragement, yours and mine! When I see what other people are facing it inspires me to get off my couch. Best to you !
  • Buster Evans Buster Evans on Sep 06, 2014
    You are doing a great job.. Keep going til you chisel out the steps as you see them in your vision and then you can decide what works best with the sides to retain the dirt. If the dirt is compact red chert/clay it may not wash much if you chop it away straight on the sides ... Its gonna work out great. and you will be proud of the accomplishment once you are done!
  • DORLIS DORLIS on Sep 07, 2014
    • See 1 previous
    • DORLIS DORLIS on Jun 11, 2015
      @Louise I have not mastered that yet, old age slows down the learning process. Will say my steps are on a bluff with a southern exposure. Many old oak, hickory, etc trees. The tops of the oaks are even with my deck and roof. We have to occasionaly trim branches back to keep them from rubbing on the roof. It is very shady so I decided to go with wild plants tht grow in the woods and need little care (74 year old knees don't do stairs well). This year I will have to go down to the terrace that runs along the south side of the house and weed it. I plan to plant roses or climbing vines at the base of the deck posts so they can climb up and scent the air. Mostly, I do what I can physically, no dramatic plans, plants that will survive deer, raccoon, etc. The driveway, I had large rocks brought in and I arranged them. This has not really turned out like like I wished it would. Lots of sun, but the honeysuckle bush has taken over. I am in the process of cutting, digging and spraying stmps with vinegar so I can see my flowers.
  • Liliana Wells Liliana Wells on Sep 08, 2014
    That looks like a lot of work. We have a similar back yard and we struggleto go up and down. So we don’t much withit, except mow. We had a small wallbuilt professionally in the front so I would have a level place to plant shrubsand flowers. Here are somepictures. The first shows how the bedwas when we bought the house. Anotherpicture shows the process of trenching and laying tubes and gravel. The last one shows the finished wall. I know the drainage is important when rightnext to the house. I wish you luck. We don’t have the energy anymore for aproject of this magnitude.
    • DORLIS DORLIS on Jun 11, 2015
      @Liliana Wells Problem is with building walls, walks, etc. it takes a lot of manpower and usually money. Not much money so I rely on me which means work a bit, rest a bit, work a bit more. I had a group coje in last year to help with the yard. They bought soil from somewhere and I now have more weeds than before. They also left the honeysuckle and cut my lilac, almond bush. I will go b ack to me, myself and I.
  • DORLIS DORLIS on Sep 09, 2014
  • Martha Martha on Sep 11, 2014
    Here's another idea for holding soil in place. I had to have a creek bank rebuilt. The contractors used "burritos" made of soil wrapped in coir fabric. They laid down a layer of fabric with excess hanging down the bank, placed soil on it, packed it down, and then folded the fabric back over the soil. There are about six or seven such layers stair-stepped up the bank. Small trees were laid horizontally on each layer before the next was added. The tree roots have grown into the fabric. You might be able to do something similar on your smaller scale with sturdy landscaping fabric, poking holes for perennials such as sedums or other ground covers which will eventually hold the soil in place.
  • Capernius Capernius on May 19, 2015
    In picture #3, it looks like there is a cement/masonry wall farther up from the one you built..can you tie the 2 together? or somehow build a wall that will separate the steps from the higher side? What you can do with this area After you have a wall built is to fill it in with the dirt that you shovel out for the steps....afterwards, at a later date, you can make this area a flower &/or veggie garden maybe... To make sure that your work does not get washed away, drill holes in the landscape timbers & then drive rebar thru the holes & into the ground...I would suggest 18 inch to 24 inch long rebar & 3/4 inch thick(the rebar).this will not only help to hold the timbers in place, but the soil as well.