Berm Victim



Elevation without meaning

The entire big L-shaped border in front of my house is raised up and carelessly edged with random stones completely inappropriate for a Victorian city house.  Not only do the plants do notably less well here than in other places in my yard, the whole thing is a mess.  The sandy soil and mulch wash away over the stones and spill out onto the sidewalk with every rain.  Yesterday, as I was shoveling the mess up, my neighbor looked over her porch-rail and kindly offered, "The previous owner of the house had a professional do that."


What I should have done when I was in the violent phase of gardening-making–sawing down the unshapely yews, the sickly sweet pink azaleas, the inexcusable barberries–was remove the rocks, set aside the miniscule layer of topsoil, dig out the underlayer, and level the entire bed.

But instead, in my impatience, I just planted into what was there.  Now I would have to take a spring-long sabbatical from my life to rectify the situation. 


  1. This gets to a rant I’ve been thinking of writing about grade, and you’ve inspired me. Preview: only professionals seem know to correct grade problems before planting. Amateurs like us live to wish we had.

  2. Oh, and I voted for your first option but would amend it slightly: Put the family to work leveling the mess. Or hire a hard-working day laborer to “help”. But level the mess you must because aesthetics aside, there’s no fighting water and gravity.

  3. Michele you are too funny. How did you know that in my entire professional career as what ever I am or was, I never installed or planted on a berm. They always looked so odd to me, even growing up in flat Florida. Now in water logged or heavy clay soils there could be a legitimate reason for their use, but if I was to do it, I would still try to hide the odd berm effect.

    Your picture doesn’t show the true height of you urban berm. A nice stone block edging would be fine I think and you know I appreciate clean sidewalks. However if it is so high the water will drain back towards the house, it may be best to edge the entire bed creating a level planter box. Then add organic matter to the soil for better water retention. But you know that.

  4. Maybe you could let a root structure do the same thing that an edging would do. It would obviously take much more time overall, but what I would do is, grow about 30-60 small plugs of Teucrium chamaedrys / germander from seed (can’t tell how big your edge is from pic), then plant them low and close and keep them well watered. Germander can and actually likes to be clipped into semi-formality. I have a series of completely neglected Germanders growing in my garden; they’ve been stepped on, peed on, not watered, overwatered, etc.

    Any tightly woven edge root system would protect from mechanical erosion, as well as trap nutrient runoffs like calcium and put them to good use.

    I just happen to prefer the shiny deep green foliage and lavender loveliness of Germander.

  5. Oh God that first Berm bed is unsightly. I have seen cemetaries landscaped better than this, or actually like that. I guess the dead don´t care, but for us who is still alive to have to put up with this! Perhaps the landscapers who did this were on prozac and zanax? I sure would need it if I fell wictim to such an eyesore. Michele – your bed is not so bermed that it can not be rectified. A garden is a process – if you don´t like something change it! We only live once.

  6. hmm, does that make me a gardening criminal? I put up a small boomerang shaped bermed bed a few years ago. On a flat yard. But there was a purpose, the wind whips through our neighborhood and literally minutes after our plow guy left, our driveway was drifted over. Since I put in the bed, we haven’t had the major drifting issues we used to have.

    Fourth picture down. Actually, it doesn’t look that bermed in the photo, but the land in front of it is higher than the land the bed is on…

  7. Hey! Don’t pick on my beloved SULIS!

    Besides, as it says, “Berms, like any landscape element, should enhance and blend into the overall design.”

  8. If you must have a berm, it’s a great place to plant hill prairie plants.

    Few thing prettier than a hill covered with dropseed grass, Pale Purple Coneflowers, and Butterflyweed! I don’t have a berm, but do have a short slope terminating in a “high wall” along the street. In addition to the above plants, I have Leadplant, Silky Aster, Purple Prairie Clover, Shooting Star…

    And no water worries, of course:)

  9. Whatever the pros and cons of berms, your picture shows plain bad landscaping. In fact it shouldn’t even be dignified with the name landscaping. The whole space is unfriendly, not a bench in sight, hardly a big tree,no paths, no water – what’s that big space for? Or maybe they are so afraid of muggers and homeless that they won’t make something other than a wide open expanse with a couple of highly visible bushy pimples offering no place to hide. Makes one want to introduce them all to community gardening or take up one’s pencil and design the parks that could be there.

  10. Is it possible to take a middle of the road approach, grade down just the outer 18″ of the bed, and then spot-replace soil with composted horse manure within the middle portions of the bed? (amend in the manure if you do that, don’t leave it in solid manure hunks.)

    Then at least your soil and mulch wouldn’t wash out into the walkways, and the manure could help hold water in the middle portions of the bed. I find manure is awesome in the beachy sand soil we have in some areas – nothing helps hold water that well.

    I like the idea of planting around the edges to have the roots hold things in, too – maybe you could grade down the edges and also do that kind of planting.

  11. I was thinking the same thing as Christopher above, that you could add more topsoil behind the berm to make it all one level. You could dig back from the edges and build a low retaining wall of small flagstone pieces, essentially turning it into a raised bed.

    I’m not opposed to berms, though; I think they can add a lot of interest to a garden, if done correctly.

  12. That’s not a berm, that’s Mt. Vesuvius that spewed out some shrubberies.

    There are ineffective untalented duds in every profession.
    Looks like the above places found those few.

    Shaping the topography is part art , science and mathematics .
    It takes educated skill and innate intuitive vision to to see form, texture and mass in a positive / negative space and then engineer it into a properly working aesthetic formation.

    Mt. Vesuvius above would benefit from meeting Mr. Fibonacci.

  13. Oops! Sorry about that Rainymountain. I forgot about the other picture when I was making the previous snarky comment. I realized my error on the way to town. There might be a touch of humor left in my half-cocked confusion.

  14. Carolyn – Thanks to the perfect response to the park berm. I shall never be able to look at a similar one without thinking of the buried elephant.

  15. Yes, Christopher N, I guess I should have said I was referring to the first picture of a park with a shrub covered berm.
    Michele’s sidewalk bed hardly counts as a berm; surely it is a raised bed. Berms I think of as mounds in various shapes at least 6 foot high or more which are constructed for a reason, such as baffling the noise from a motorway or creating shelter etc.

  16. I love seeing new commercial construction where trees are planted with the soil ball 4 inches above grade and then mulch placed 4 inches deep to finish off the job.

    Thats what you get for 8 years of college and the architect thinks he knows plant material as well.

    The (not a carpenter,bricklayer,electrician or mason but customers think landscapers should be but don’t want to pay the carpenter,bricklayer,electrician or mason wage) TROLL

  17. Michele, I think you should just embrace your berm. I’m “stuck” with a berm as well, and it’s a berm of pure sand under river rock. There was once landscape cloth under the rock as well, but it’s been steadily decaying, and after 20-odd years, it doesn’t serve as a barrier to much of anything any more.

    I use the berm for fussy xeric plants that really don’t like the extra water (e.g. Penstemon palmeri, cacti, Yuccas, Agaves, Eremurus, Fritillaria (imperialis types, including F. raddeana and F. eduardii) and some Salvias). Okay, so those aren’t fussy plants in my dry (Northern Nevada high desert) climate, but they are even LESS fussy on the berm.

  18. I am sooooo sick of being better than everyone else. You’ve inspired me to critique my own ‘hood very soon, aka, gazing ball bermville. Maybe I am tired of gardening.

  19. Am I the only one who thinks that the berm in New Jersey is there to present a dragon to the world? The coniferous drippy thing surely resembles the classic Welsh dragon–perhaps there’s a Green Man planted underneath the whole thing?

  20. So very funny. I have a place similar to this except it’s my front lawn which is higher than my home. I live on a hill. I’m working to remedy it, but it may take my retirement. Heck, I’ll be dead from the work, so who needs a retirement?

  21. Looked at your berm(?) photo and feel your pain. You know what y ou have to do. The best advice I would give is ignore the neighbor and go with the flow…literally. Best advice I seen in a garden book was to use the existing terrain to your advantage. Do not try to make a change to it, as in adding a berm where none existed. Our home is on a hill. Our front yard has a major ravine and rises up and slants to the curb. A natural berm almost rose out of the ravine edge and the grounds to the curb, we had a professional just enhance the edges with limestone. Now it looks like it belongs there, but that is the opposite of what you have. I would look at the house and look at the ground area as it once was before someone raised it. What should be there? It it is to be raised, it must have a solid edge as high as the highest point of the soil. I would clear all the stuff out and if the soil is good, move it some place. If you want it up a coupe inches or more, put a gray brick or gray paver vertical edge there along the edge between the soil and the sidewalk. Now forget the tall flowers and shrubs. They really do look rather silly with that house. How about different textures of herbs? Spreading thyme in a silver color along the edge, with globe basil behind it (that is an annual be warned), add in a sage plant in silver grey and a clump of hosta at a corner opposite the sidewalk. If you must have a touch of color, why not a fmall savender floribunda rose set close to the railing? There, now THAT looks victorian, as your house would have looked when it was first built.

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