One of the most sustainable ways to create a sinuous garden space is to work with existing elements. Whether it’s slope, sun exposure or natural materials, our own patches of earth can provide a road map for our gardens to take shape.

Inspired from existing natural materials, a thoughtfully terraced backyard garden in south Winston-Salem began with a single rock. And from this small boulder, an intricate garden grew around it, all from the hands of a single gardener.

Lisa Swarthout’s home garden is a marvel of improvisation mixed with intentional design. What started as a hillside covered in scrub pines has been transformed into a tiered, walkable garden of color and texture.

Years ago Swarthout was digging around her patio slab to lay bricks when she uncovered a small boulder. She dug it out, rolled it over to the base of a hill, and slowly began to plant around it. Steadily, a small wall of mixed material stone began to weave outward from the boulder, creating the base tier for her terraced garden.

“That’s how it started ... I kept digging up these rocks,” said Swarthout, a horticulture instructor at Forsyth Technical Community College. “None of this was a plan, it just kind of evolved organically, starting from that one rock.”

Swarthout’s terraces alternate between planted tiers and walking tiers, with steps connecting them all together. Knowing that she wanted more than just a planted hillside, she made sure to make the garden easily accessible, so she could enjoy its dynamic from within.

“Initially, the garden didn’t have steps in it; it was only one tier,” Swarthout said. “I didn’t know I was going to put steps in it. But then I decided I wanted every other one to be something I could walk on. Planting on a slope, you can’t be in it, and I wanted a yard that I could be in. So now you can be in the landscape, you can walk on the slope, you can be a part of it.”

“It makes it a lot easier to landscape. It’s so much easier to deal with a slope if you can step it.”

Swarthout hand-built every inch of her backyard, including the hand-dug terraces, walls, fences, patio, and raised beds.

“Everything back here I built, everything outside,” Swarthout said. “There’s no other hands in anything outside. The only tools I used on (terraces) are my hands and a shovel and maybe a pick. It didn’t really take me that long once I got started. The first terrace went pretty quickly.”

The knee walls of the terraces are a meld of mixed materials, including riprap drainage rock, bricks, broken concrete pieces and more found boulders. Several years ago, Swarthout busted out her old concrete patio and built a new one. She reused the chucks of broken concrete as steps to connect the tiers of her garden, which look very natural in the way she arranged them.

Central in Swarthout’s garden is a large Chinese snowball viburnum, which she planted well before the terracing began. She’s now limbed up this large shrub to make it more tree-like, and it harnesses the heart of the hillside nicely.

Framing the top of the hillside are Green Giant arborvitae, and a colorful spread of Knock Out roses. There are colorful containers scattered everywhere, all planted with mixed annuals, vegetables and herbs. Perennials are designed for continual color and texture.

An abundance of blooming shrubs are intertwined across the hillside, making their way from full sun into the shade of a large maple. Lilac, spirea, butterfly bush, loropetalum and viburnums lead to illicium and hydrangeas.

Swarthout often plants a spread of annuals in areas where she’s waiting on perennials and shrubs to mature.

“There’s all different kinds of plants all over, and I just change things up a lot,” Swarthout said. “It’s always a work in progress. I am not afraid of changing something — which means digging something up or if something’s gone wrong to take it out or move it or try something else.”

Swarthout has always used her home garden as a teaching tool for her Forsyth Tech students, but this year’s stay-at-home order has presented new opportunities to make educational connections.

“I’m working from home this year, and I’m teaching fruit and vegetable production,” Swarthout said. “I thought I’ll use this place this year just to put vegetables. It’s a mixed box. All this stuff that I do, I take pictures and then I can show the students.”

On a flat planting tier, Swarthout recently built two planter boxes to grow vegetables. These boxes are packed full of plants to show students how to get the most out of square-foot gardening. One box has tomatoes, basil, eggplant, radish, peppers, beans, leeks, carrots and onions. The other has squash, marigolds and a trellis for climbing cucumbers.

Swarthout has both pebbled and grass paths through the garden. Pebbled pathways on the terraces create an element of sound for the garden. Hand-plugged zoysia grass paths lead from the front yard to the back patio.

“The grass has changed some, too, in terms of where it goes,” Swarthout said. “The grass — I just wanted it to lead you around, not be a big thing.”

Swarthout’s backyard makeover and terraced hillside is an inspirational garden, illuminating the efforts of persistence and focus. She attributes her garden’s beauty and success to her intrepid, can-do attitude.

“Anybody could do this,” Swarthout said. “It’s just not being afraid to do it and not being afraid to re-do it. You don’t know what you can do until you just do it, right?”

(tncms-asset)a44d2850-b03a-11ea-b190-00163ec2aa770 —(/tncms-asset)

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or, with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101

Load comments