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There are many famous terraced gardens around the world. The rice paddies in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam are beautiful examples. The Inca created stunning terraces, some of which still remain today with the original irrigation systems. Not only are these gardens picturesque, but also, in some instances, they are the best option for growing food.

Though it seems a daunting task, and truth be known it can be laborious, building terraces is something most of us can all do. It’s definitely possible on the home garden scale, and when dealing with larger areas, heavy machinery can make the task much easier.

There are many materials for building terraces, but there are definitely some rules that’ll make the project more successful. It’s just a matter of understanding when terraces are the right choice, what makes them effective, and how to go about creating them.

When Terraces Are the Right Choice

Terraced gardens are appropriate for sloped landscapes, particularly those that are too steep to do much else with. They are how people garden in the mountains. They are also a great way for revegetating a barren and sloped landscape.

Planting on a steep hillside can be particularly problematic:

  • Rainwater seems to slide right away as soon as it arrives, taking the bulk of the organic matter and nutrients with it.
  • And, for those who do try to make garden rows to slow the water down, disturbing the soil creates hazardous conditions ripe for a mudslide or avalanche.
  • Furthermore, steep slopes can be hard to work.

The best place for terraced gardens is on a hillside, particularly those with a slope gradient above 15 percent. Slopes under 15 percent can be aided by swales, an effective and less labor-intensive option. Essentially, the steeper the slope, the narrower the terrace has to be, and eventually, it makes no sense to have such thin terraces. The land just needs to be planted to whatever will grow.

Why Terraces Work So Well

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Terracing can be a safe way to cultivate many steep slopes and create productive gardens when the landscape might not seem to invite it.

  • Terraces capture enough water for plants, slowing down the drainage and spreading it across the landscape to soak in rather than sending it all downhill.
  • They do this without degrading the landscape as conventional rowed gardens would do. Rowed gardens are likely to wash away over time, creating serious erosion problems. Because the terraces slow the water and soak it into the garden, they prevent the soil from washing away and encourage plants to establish strong roots, further stabilizing the hillside.
  • Simultaneously, terracing makes accessing the gardens easier. Not only will terraces help with water and erosion, but the flattened areas provide good walking paths for getting to your crops, be them fruit trees or vegetables.

In essence, we put terrace gardens on slopes because it’s the only way to stably cultivate them, both for us and the land. In other words, the where and the why go hand-in-hand.

How to Build a Terraced Garden

What remains is the how. In the simplest of terms, terraces are just leveled areas on a slope. To do them well, however, requires a few steps and precautions.

Ideally, terraces will be about three or four feet wide, allowing plenty of space to cultivate and walk. They should never have more than three- or four-foot walls, and the height of the walls should be no more than half the measurement of the width.  Additionally, terraces built along contour lines (level lines along the slope) are much more reliable and naturally attractive.

Then, there are two good methods for building the terraces.

  • After marking out contour lines, build a retaining wall along the bottom one. Dig the soil from the space above it and butt it up against the wall until the terrace levels out. Then, build the next terrace’s retaining wall and get soil from above it. Remember that the terrace needs to be level or, if anything, tilted slightly back so as to stop the water and soak it in.
  • Or, after marking out contour lines, start by digging topsoil from one terrace and storing it above. Then, using the subsoil, create a level surface between the contour lines, leaving a small trench in the back to soak water into the terraces. Return the topsoil and work your way up the slope.

Whichever method is appealing, the next step is really important: Get a groundcover planted immediately to stabilize the loose soil, particularly near the outer edge. A nitrogen-fixer like clover or vetch would probably be a good idea. It’s not a bad idea to mulch any exposed soil and plant the rest of it ASAP.


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Terraces make for beautiful gardens, draping the hillside with lush vegetation and often providing gardeners with fantastic vistas of nearby valleys. They are highly functional, both for growing and for keeping the slope from sliding down the hill. If your land is steep, then terracing may be a great option to consider.

Lead Image Source: Pixabay