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Sloping Backyard? Terrace Gardening

How to turn a steep backyard into a terraced vegetable garden.

Terrace GardenTerracing — building level steps on sloping ground — is a technique that has been used since ancient times by farmers around the world to grow crops and gardens. Think the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the beautiful terraced rice paddies of Asia. Terraces are one of a landscapers great tools in steep and hilly country. If your property tilts as much or more as it runs level, you might want to consider terrace gardening in your yard.

As part of good backyard conservation practice terraces can play a role in xeriscaping and water conservation. Not only do they allow you to reclaim space from the hillside to plant vegetables or flowers and shrubs — terraces can be very decorative — they’re also a great hedge against water runoff and soil erosion. They can also create warmer, sunnier micro-climates for growing light-and-heat-loving plants and vegetables. Now — in the dead of winter — is the perfect time of year to start visualizing your hillside alive with tomatoes, trailing vines, and stands of beautiful blossoms.

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Here’s a site to get your creative juices flowing: a rather detailed drawing of a hillside garden — with compost bin! — from a gardening blog with a rather risque name. Notice how features like a storage shed, cold frame, even steps and benches are built right in. While this gardener had the help of a professional landscaper, you can see that much of the design — and the work — could be done by any reasonably energetic and skilled handy person. Here are step-by- step directions, right down to making sure there are no buried wires on the hill you’ll be digging up, for terracing a sloping yard. Here’s another from the Natural Resources Conservation Center which discusses different materials — wood, stone — to use for the walls and the steps to take to prevent heavy, water-logged soils from collapsing those walls (drainage is important). There’s also a discussion here of planning for the “run and rise” of your slope; in other words how deep and how high your terraces should be. You’ll also need to consider the contours of your hill, something that might require a level, stakes and line, or even the services of a surveyor, to make sure the contours are just so. Gardeners whose lands are mostly flat can still use the practice of contouring to conserve moisture in their xeriscape.

Don’t feel like you have to convert your whole yard in one season. We’re acquainted with one gardener — the proverbial friend of a friend — who visits only once or twice a year. Each time he visits, we get a photo journal of his progress. He admits that he did his terraces backwards, from the top down. But this allowed him to establish them at intervals. From a couple of stone-walled narrow spaces where he grew lettuce and marigolds, to a full hillside of growing spaces hosting an abundance of vegetables and flowers, it’s been great to see his progress and to hear him crow. His neighbors up there in Missoula, Montana get a few tomatoes, sure. But his south-facing slope, with their built-in windbreaks and natural air circulation that keeps off those first few frosts (if not too heavy) gives him a bumper crop.

Need more proof that terracing is a smart thing to do? Here’s Thomas Jefferson’s huge terrace garden on a Monticello hillside. It’s just another example of the vision and wisdom of one of our Founding — and gardening — Fathers.

2 Responses to “Sloping Backyard? Terrace Gardening”

  1. Jim Collier on May 24th, 2016 at 12:31 am #

    We live on a steep slope and 2-3 years ago, we converted our lawn to terraces. It has alternating bands of lawn grass separated by sloped bands of flowering perennials, ivy and many other. The slope at the top is doing very well – it is next to our deck – but as you move down to the lower slopes, the ones below the bands of lawn are not doing so well. The plants still have not covered the dirt even after two years. The ivy has done almost nothing. We fertilize and use weed control on the lawn. I am wondering if these chemicals could be washing down when it rains and injuring the plants below. Does this sound possible and is there a solution for this? Also, the grass isn’t doing as well as it is higher up either. It seems that the flat lawn bands are either too wet for days after a rain, or they dry out. The grass remains very thin in spots and has never taken hold, so we have bare dirt interspersed throughout. This invites more weeds to grow, so we are constantly pulling them, but can’t get the grass to cover.

    • Brian on June 6th, 2016 at 9:47 am #

      Jim,
      There might be a variety of answers as to what is causing the problem. Perhaps the drainage is too poor below and the plants are lying in water. Maybe you need to plant a different kind of vegetation at the bottom portion that can adapt to varying conditions. Perhaps more fertilizer is required in the bottom section, than the top. If you have a local agricultural agent, I would check with him/her to see what recommendations they can make for your situation.

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