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Hilly, rocky, muddy landscapes are no problem for these homeowners

Michelle and Joao Valerio in the hilly yard

Michelle and Joao Valerio in the hilly yard of their Huntington home, which Joao has transformed, one section at a time. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When he moved into his Huntington home 20 years ago, Joao Valerio knew he wanted a beautiful garden, but was stymied by the prospect of landscaping a hillside property covered with trees, bramble and weeds.

"It was a mess," says Valerio, 65, a clubhouse manager at Plandome Country Club, who lives with his wife, Michelle, 54, an insurance agent.

Valerio got to work, clearing swamp trees and overgrown brush, and built the first of what would be four retaining walls throughout the terraced property.

With most of the flatter and larger parcels of land on Long Island already developed, some homeowners find they need to get creative as they face the challenge of transforming a difficult property into areas their families can enjoy.

"What’s left over for development are the plots that no one else wanted, because they were too problematic to deal with, whether they were too small, or they had too sleep a slope or they had drainage issues," says Ken Muellers, senior landscape designer for Hicks Nurseries in Westbury. "We definitely see it more and more."

Conquering the slope

Over the past 17 years, Valerio tackled his property one section and one project at a time, starting with the retaining walls, then clearing the land and building a gazebo, he says.

To lessen the visual impact of the walls, Valerio added hostas, hydrangea, juniper, Japanese maple, sedum, ivy, myrtle and other plantings.

About a half-acre in size, the property now features an all-weather covered patio, complete with electric heater, fans and curtains, and four pergolas, including one covered by orange trumpet vine flowers, that run along solar- and torchlit paths, with seating, lighting and retractable shades. Curved paving stones lead to a gazebo on a rug-covered platform, in which plastic ivy camouflages the ceiling hardware.

Each year, Valerio would come up with a new project, tackling another section of the land, creating various vignettes with beauty and utility in mind.

"I walk and look around and say, ‘This looks like a good place to sit down,’ " he says.

The landscape, now with 10 different seating areas on four separate tiers in shade, sun, close to the road or up high with vistas of trees and sky, is dominated by curved angles, such as the semicircle of arborvitae and steps with stamped circular designs, softened by lush plantings.

These days, Valerio’s efforts are spent weeding, transplanting, pruning and repairing the sprinkler system, which he put together himself, clocking in about 18 hours a week in the garden.

"My wife needs to come and look for me," he says, "because I can get lost just doing things."

Redirecting nature

Several years ago, a Melville homeowner needed to solve a drainage and erosion issue on the side of the home where the sloped lawn was covered with dirt and sand that collected at the bottom of a hill.

Drainage can be controlled in two ways, says Muellers of Hicks Nurseries, whose team worked on the job: on the surface or channeling the water below ground into drywells, French drains or catch basins.

"In this situation we decided to control it on the surface where you can see it," says Muellers, adding that the client was looking for an aesthetic focal point to resolve the issue.

His team created a dry riverbed on the property, moving soil and regrading the area to form a low spot where the water could collect. To keep the riverbed from eroding, they added a gravel-covered rubber liner surrounded by larger decorative rocks. Along the bed, they added astilbe and inkberry holly, both water-tolerant plants, and a steppingstone path to avoid damaging the lawn.

"It looks naturalistic, but in reality, it’s all artificial and a way of containing that water flow, so when it rains, instead of the washing away of the grass and plants, it flows down this dry riverbed in a controlled fashion," Muellers says.

In a big rainstorm, water collects and stays in the riverbed, no longer running off into the lawn.

"When all is said and done, as it grows in, you would think that that was always there by nature and not something that we necessarily put in," Muellers says.

Creating gathering spots

The owners of a house under construction on a 7-acre hillside lot in Old Westbury had a tall order for Francisco Hernandez, senior project manager of Kean Landscaping, a division of Cold Spring Harbor-based builder Kean Development: They wanted multiple entertaining spaces sited throught the property, which has a 64-foot-tall slope.

"Our difficulty was the dramatic change in grade from one end to the other of the lot," says Hernandez.

Most of the work involved building retaining walls, including a 9-foot wall that separates the back of the house from the lawn level and a 4-foot wall that transforms the swimming pool into a separate outdoor room.

"We built the walls to create the coziness in the space," says Hernandez, adding that steppingstones, steps and paths dot the landscape, leading from one outdoor space to another.

A third bluestone-capped concrete 9-foot wall divides the high grade of a wooded area with towering old trees from the garden below. The wall is finished with a veneer that matches the house’s stone front to maintain a cohesive look. Atop the wall are Densiformis yew shrubs, which both soften the masonry naturally and serve as a buffer to protect anyone from falling below.

Just above the pool, Kean used a natural stone boulder retaining wall that surrounds a teeing off area for the clients, avid golfers who have sand traps and golf greens farther down the slope. To prevent lawn and pool runoff, Hernandez’s crew installed French drains and drywells.

Now, the 7-acre property has a functional and appealing landscape, with a pool and putting green, dining and lounging terraces, all surrounded by lawns and lush plantings.

A pricey fix

Addressing these drainage and other issues can require extensive work and a considerable investment.

The Hicks Nurseries’ dry riverbed project in Westbury, which extended around two sides of the property and also included plantings, came to $30,000. Yet Hicks’ work on a similar drainage/erosion project, which involved catch basins, piping, regrading, gravel, steppingstones and plantings on a 1-acre property in Smithtown, came to just $5,000.

For Valerio, who saved labor costs by doing almost all the work himself, the cost for materials for a retaining wall done 20 years ago came to about $3,000; a paving stone path and patio were each $3,000; steps with a stamp design, about $5,000, and pergolas and gazebos, $1,000 each. Naturally, there were additional costs for plantings.

4 challenging landscapes, and solutions

Tips from Ken Muellers, senior landscape designer for Hicks Nurseries in Westbury:

Steep slopes

Problems Unusable, unmanageable spaces with lawn areas too steep to mow or use for other activities; hard to maintain and cause erosion

Solutions Add retaining walls, boulders, groundcover; regrade

Code restrictions

Problems Village or town regulations requiring structures, such as pools, decks or sheds, to be set back a specific distance from the property line or that only allow a certain percentage of property to be developed, limiting use of the total space

Solutions Study the codes and use creative design. Permeable pavers and stepping stones often don’t count in code limits.


Problems Excess water due to shade, clay soil or low topography that kills plants and keeps lawns soggy

Solutions On the surface: Regrade; put in dry riverbeds; landscape with water-tolerant plants, rain gardens

Below ground: Install drywells, catch basins, French drains

Small-space gardening

Problems Tight plots with insufficient room for planting or other uses

Solutions Make every inch count and double up on uses, for example, a paver driveway as patio, a sunny side spot for growing tomatoes; keep views open to neighboring property to make space seem larger

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