Grass Steps - My Signature Dish, Part One

Garden writing is a delectable occupation. It allows me to offer up choice morsels of horticultural trivia, succulent design tips and full flavored philosophical musings about all and sundry. Today I am presenting the first installment of my signature dish  --- grass steps.

one of my projects - can you see the steps? no? great!

I refer to grass steps - or grass treads, which is the more correct term - as my signature simply because I have been incorporating them in my landscapes since the early 1980s.  I first saw grass steps in the mid 1970's in one of my favorite landscape venues, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

this great photo from Dumbarton  is from The Photo Garden Bee website

Beatrix Farrand, the preeminent American landscape gardener (as she called herself) of the early twentieth century, installed three grass treads in a sloping lawn in Dumbarton Oaks. When I first saw them I was struck at how they disappeared when viewing them from above...I loved this visual illusion! I also admired the way they suited the general sloping conditions of the site.

Beatrix Farrand, my fave

This approach arose, I assume, from what Farrand's mentor, Charles Sprague Sargent, taught her. The following is from the informative website, 'Beatrix Farrand, Landscape Gardener'...

"Sargent taught Beatrix the basic concepts of landscape design, as well as how to stake out and survey a piece of land. Sargent imparted to Beatrix the idea that "plan" should fit the ground. One should never attempt to change the ground for the plan. (Balmori 2, p. 17) Farrand heeded this advice in her design plan for Dumbarton Oaks (Dumbarton Oaks, Site Plans, no. 3). "

"Never attempt to change the ground for the plan"...well, in a perfect world that would be true. But I find I must alter a site to make it usable...However, grass steps do comport themselves and fit within a slope so seamlessly that it appears that all I had to do was make a cut in the earth and insert them, surgically..and that is why I love them so much! no one would ever guess how much work I went through to make these steps look so natural.

In 1992 Landscape Architecture magazine featured an article about me and a photo of my grass steps cutting across a lawn in Greenwich, CT.  (They wanted to put it on the cover of the magazine but called and explained to me on the phone that they didn't know who I was so...) I received so many phone calls from designers who had seen this photo, asking me the specifics of how I built them. From that day forward , grass steps have multiplied and are now everywhere! I like to think I had a hand in this rediscovery of Beatrix Farrand's fabulous idea but I will never know.

a project of mine in Greenwich, Ct.

This is the photo from the 1992 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine......'Married with Clients' was the name of the article.

More on grass steps in another post, have to go to work!


  1. I'm in Thailand and I admire your grass steps. May I ask what is a good size for the step's rise?

  2. Thanks! No higher than 6 inches high. remember to pitch the steps for drainage.

  3. I'm the anonymous poster from last time. Your reply makes my day! Thank you so much.
    How about the grass step's tread? Are there any rule of thumb?
    Do you need to lay any foundation for the steps?

    1. Great!
      at least 18" wide but deeper is better.....yes, foundation is critical for steps.

  4. Thank you and Happy new year to you.
    Would you kindly recommend a book to build the grass steps please?

  5. I think I have to write one - just make sure to build like regular steps with foundations and then pitch up 1/2" per foot for tread. will write a post about it.

  6. Thank you.
    Looking forward to your post!

  7. Could you please please write a post about how to build the grass steps? I've tried to find the information everywhere but no luck.


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