Photo courtesy of Michael Judd of Ecologia Design
Contour gardening is a way to use the land’s contours to reduce irrigation and erosion, and maximize nutrients for abundant harvest yields. It’s a popular tool in permaculture gardens. Here’s what contour gardening is and how you can pull it off.
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The Roots of Contour Gardening: Contour Farming
As long as agriculture has been around, farming flat land has been ideal. Gravity, after all, can turn a lovely hillside into a grueling challenge. As population densities increase around the world, however, global agriculture is being pushed from the flat prairie lands to less-than-ideal, sloping terrain.
Unfortunately, growing practices like tilling—which were appropriate on flat lands—have been transferred to the slopes. An inappropriate use of farming techniques the world over has caused an increase in soil erosion and an astounding loss of soil fertility.
Contour farming is a cultivation technique that, when used on gently sloping lands, can mitigate erosion and maximize the absorption of rain and nutrients before they rush down the slope.
In contour farming, crops are planted across a slope following the natural elevation contour lines, rather than up and down the hill. When planted along the natural curve of the land, gullies and soil erosion are reduced. In this way, water and nutrients can more easily infiltrate the soil and be absorbed, minimizing irrigation and fertilization needs. This technique of farming the contour lines can be used for both annual and perennial crops.
Image courtesy of Carl Wycoff
As more and more people are looking for effective solutions for gardening in less-than-ideal areas, the idea of contour farming has been adapted to the backyard scale.
Let’s take a look at how contour gardening can be used on a small scale.
Contour Gardening in the Residential Yard
In the backyard, raised garden berms, also called permanent, in-ground raised beds, can be built along the contour to serve as vegetable garden beds or as beds to hold perennial fruits or other crops.
Since aesthetics are a concern in many residential areas, backyard planting berms can even be lined with a stone or rock border, if desired. They will not only look attractive, but will also add erosion prevention and moisture retention.
Swale trenches could be dug in the pathways for even more water retention, but this isn’t necessary, and would depend upon the degree of the sloping land. Digging can sometimes destabilize steeper slopes.
For areas that collect water, a raised planting berm along the contour offers an elevated gardening solution for plants that don’t do well in waterlogged soil. See: 20 perennial crops for wet soil.
Raised beds along a contour will create microclimates of sun and shade, creating diverse growing areas, and improving soil ecology and rainwater infiltration even more.
Would you like to learn more about using the contour of your land to reduce maintenance and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
How to Create a Contour Garden
1: Mark the elevation contour lines.
An A-frame level is a simple, handmade tool that can help you identify elevation contour lines. To see what an A-frame level looks like and how to use it, see the video in my article How to Construct a Swale.
2: Build a raised bed or outline a berm along the contour line.
Construct raised beds along a contour line at your desired length and width, or to form a raised planting berm, outline the desired garden space with more stakes or flags.
3: Sheet mulch the proposed garden area.
Before filling the raised bed or planting berm with soil, use a digging fork to aerate the existing soil. Then cover the existing ground inside the planting area with cardboard. Overlap the ends so that weeds can’t find any openings.
Now, fill the raised bed or form the berm with compost soil. It is likely that you will have to import some soil, but to reduce costs you can layer purchased soil with other organic materials such as aged manure, worm castings, shredded and aged leaf mulch, and/or composted wood chips. The top 6 inches of the planting area should be compost soil.
Be sure you know the source of your compost and other “organic” materials, as these can often be laced with herbicides, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals that will persist in your garden soil and affect productivity and health of your crops.
4: Fine-tune the contour garden.
If you have created a berm, line it with stones or rocks if desired. Let the new beds rest for at least two weeks before planting; three months is ideal. During this resting time, expect the soil to settle, so retain extra soil to add to the beds before planting.
For this reason, building a contour garden in the fall is a good strategy to have garden beds ready for spring.
Now you’re ready to plant! This will be an excellent growing area for both perennials and annuals alike.
Contour gardens will reduce irrigation time, mitigate erosion, and retain nutrients on site for a highly productive and efficient garden.
- Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: How to Have Your Yard and Eat It Too
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- How to Kill Poison Ivy in 5 Steps
- The Circle Garden for Low-Maintenance Gardening
- Front Yard Rainwater Catchment
Have you used the contour of your land to your advantage?