Are you challenged with sloping land? Here’s a solution to stop erosion on a hillside and create an easily-navigable terrace garden. Oh, and don’t forget to grab your FREE DOWNLOAD: Building a Check Log Terrace Quick Start Guide at the end of the article.
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In 2011, I started Hillside Community Garden, and as the name implies, we had a steep challenge. The hillside was prone to land-sliding and erosion. Any topsoil and nutrients that may have been there at one time had since washed away.
We were looking for a garden terrace solution that not only helped stabilize the hillside, but also helped increase fertility (to make up for all that had washed away). Oh, and the solution needed to be cheap and low tech, because after all, we’re just a volunteer group operating on a small budget.
Check Logs: A Garden Terrace for a Slope
I sought council from local permaculture practitioners, who suggested that I look into the concept of check logs. I had no idea what check logs were, but I found more information in Edible Forest Gardens as well as in Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, where they are referred to as check dams.
A Check Log Terrace Summary
So what is a check log terrace?
In this method, logs and brush are laid across the hillside like a beaver dam and held in place with wooden stakes. Organic matter is added above the dam. Perennials are planted above and/or below the dam, whose roots will soak up and slow the rain and nutrients as they rush down the hill.
Building a Check Log Terrace in 8 Steps
The following are the steps to build your own check log terrace.
#1: Drive stakes along an elevation contour line.
Contour lines are those that you see on an elevation map. Imagine a flat dinner plate with a tablespoon of water on it. When the edges of the plate are level (all on the same elevation contour), the water stays on the plate. However, if one edge dips to the side (changes elevation), the water runs off.
When building terraces, find the contour line to keep the rainwater on the plate (terrace) so it can slowly sink in. A low-tech gadget called an A-frame level can help identify contours. Read all about this tool and how to build one here.
Drive stakes in along the contour line every 2-6 feet. The steeper the slope, the closer together the stakes should be.
Make stakes out of waste wood, buy 2 x 2 x 36-inch untreated pine stakes from a home improvement store, or buy untreated wooden deck balusters.
#2: Lay cardboard as a weed barrier behind the stakes. (We covered enough space to make a garden terrace three feet wide).
Free cardboard is a great weed blocker in managed garden areas. Lay cardboard like shingles on a roof—start at the bottom, top pieces at the top of the slope. Overlap the pieces by several inches on all sides—weeds will find any openings.
#3: Lay logs, limbs and brush uphill of the stakes to act as a dam.
We used logs and limbs that we cleared from the area in preparation for this project. If your check log area is already cleared, a local tree trimming company may be able to supply you with the wood you need.
Logs and limbs 1-4 inches in diameter work best. Logs that are 6-8 inches in diameter will work, too, but first, dig a little trench for them to sit in, to take some pressure off the stakes.
Pile the logs up so that they’re slightly higher than level, because the terrace will settle over time. Like this:
#4: Plug up the holes.
Pack twigs, brush, and leaf litter into the logs and limbs to act as a filter and hold in soil.
For this reason, fall is a perfect time to build a check log terrace!
#5: Add soil uphill of the limbs and brush, on top of the cardboard.
Fill soil on top of the cardboard until it’s level with the terrace. The soil will settle over time, so expect to add more in the future.
If you want to plant below the dam instead of above it, you can skip this step.
#6: Observe the terrace after a couple of hard rains.
How did it hold up? Are there any low spots that need more logs, leaf litter, or soil?
Check log terraces provide the foundation for wood chip paths to flank either side of this to-be fruit tree terrace.
#7: Plant perennials in the new soil.
At this test garden, we’re planting fruit trees, berry bushes, and edible/medicinal herbs. It’s best to focus on perennials, whose roots will be permanent fixtures in the terrace to stabilize the hillside.
For my favorite planting ideas, see:
#8: Observe over time.
As the terrace settles and decomposes over time, there may be little spots here and there that need to be plugged up, or a stake that needs replaced.
In general though, this little ecosystem you’ve built will do a good job of stabilizing itself without a whole lot of work on your part.
Would you like to learn more about using the contour of your land to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
6 Benefits of the Check Log Terrace Garden
#1: Aerate Soil
Check logs loosen and aerate this soil so you can have a successful hillside garden.
#2: Catch Nutrients
Check logs are like nets, catching essential nutrients before they rush away in the rain.
#3: Improve Plant Life
In check log terraces, plants thrive in the loose, aerated soil, rich in nutrients.
#4: Increase Organic Matter
Rich, aerated soil attracts worms and other beneficial soil organisms. As they go about their daily business, they wiggle in and out of the new and old soil, forming little tunnels and fertilizing everywhere they go.
Worms excrete a sticky exudate in these tunnels, which holds the loosened soil together so it doesn’t wash away. The tunnels allow air, water, and nutrients to penetrate deeper into the soil, preventing even more runoff and building nutrient-rich soil to support thriving plants.
#5: Attract Beneficial Fungi
Fungi are an indication of healthy, mature soil, and show up fairly quickly in check log terraces because of the decomposing logs. These fungal networks form beneficial relationships with the roots of the plants, and catch and hold both soil and nutrients.
#6: Build an Ecosystem With Very Little Work
Ultimately, a check log terrace on a slope will become its own self-sustaining ecological system, drastically improving the stability of the hillside and contributing to the regeneration of an eroded landscape.
A check log terrace is so simple that it’s worth a try on your hillside today. Even better: if you change your mind, it’s just as cheap and easy to deconstruct 🙂
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
What do you think? Will a check log terrace garden improve your hillside?