Terracing — 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.