Grass Steps - A Great Garden Design Idea

Grass steps in one of my landscapes- Jan Johnsen
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 discussing my signature dish — grass steps.

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

I refer to grass steps - or grass treads, which is the 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). "

Charles Sprague Sargent at work
"Never attempt to change the ground for the plan"...well, in a perfect world that would be true.

But I find I must often 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.  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.

Grass Steps in the garden and the photo by Jan Johnsen

In 1992 Landscape Architecture magazine featured an article about my firm and showed a photo I took of a project of mine in Greenwich, Ct. The grass steps were front and center in the photo.

 (They wanted to put the photo on the cover of the magazine but the editor called and explained to me that they didn't know who I was so they were putting another photo instead...)

I received so many phone calls from landscape designers who saw this in the magazine, 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....

the photo of Greenwich, Ct. landscape by Jan Johnsen  in LA magazine

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


  1. Wow... really nice landscape creation. You achieve the aesthetic, functional, and environmentally sustainable landscape design.

  2. Thanks Grosse Point! Feel free to use them in your Grosse Point landscapes!


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