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.
Want to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs in your front yard landscape without sacrificing curb appeal? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape.
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.
Tired of generic permaculture design advice that you can’t apply to your specific goals? If so, check out my Permaculture Design Program and get the tools and support needed to create and implement your own permaculture design.
#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:
Mulch the planting area well to reduce erosion and to stabilize the soil in these new planting areas. I like white clover. For more ideas, see: Mulching in the Permaculture Garden.
#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.
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.
See: How to Prevent Soil Erosion in Gardens and on Farms.
#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 🙂
What do you think? Will a check log terrace garden improve your hillside?
Great info! I might well try this.
Cecelia Harrington says
Very helpful! This is a refined technique for what I have done intuitively over the years. Now we are faced with taming a 45-degree slope made up of gravel and subsoil, which we didn’t want to destabilize. Plus, the cost of terracing and amending would be astronomical. As we have plenty of timber, this may be the solution. Thanks!
I hope this technique works for you. If it does, please come back and tell us about it 🙂
Thanks for this! I have a slope along my driveway that goes into a swale. Do you think this will work? The slope is about 15 feet.
I’ve got a reasonably steep hill, maybe 30 degrees. It’s hard for my 5 year old to climb in winter. We want to plant annuals or trees with guilds. Anyway, I’ve been looking at swales and this might just be the answer.
One of the concerns I have, is about longevity. Do you have any plots with this system 2-5 years old? As the logs break down, what is your plan to replace them and keep that precious soil in place? Thanks for the informative pictures, and the great write-up.
I don’t like to build swales on a hillside that has more than a 10% grade. It’s just a personal rule that I go by. There is a lot of varying information on when swales are right for a particular terrain, but that might help you decide whether or not you want to go with swales on your hillside.
As far as the check log terracing method goes, I personally haven’t built any systems that are old enough to monitor their break-down and see how that affects their integrity. The theory is that as the wood breaks down, fungal networks will form and hold it all together. I’ve personally seen how strong these fungal networks can be, so I believe it’s possible. It will help to plant perennial plants in the terraces whose permanent roots will also help to hold everything together. However, over time, you may need to replace a stake, pile up more brush, or add more leaf litter. If you give it a try, I hope you’ll share your progress 🙂
Very nice, cheep and cheerful, I will use this as my guide for my project. Thank you, again GREAT JOB!
Dan Garner says
Longevity would depend on several factors – conditions (water, temperature, aeration), log species and treatment.
Say you are in temperate woodland like me then you should expect a stake to last a very short time indeed. I’ve installed non loaded a sycamore stakes as a flower bed edging, about 2 inches/5cm in diameter, and they snapped off at ground contact point within 2 years, easily. The same story will be true of horse chestnut, willow, alder, ash, beech, lime, aspen, Make a stake twice the diameter and it’ll last four times as long.
Even standard whitewood pine is more durable than all of the above hardwoods.
If you want it to really last, and you are lucky enough to have some, use hawthorn, black locust, European/french/UK oak or sweet chestnut which are far more durable. But then what a shame to waste such good wood when it could be used for more important structures or crafts.
I’d say a great compromise is the round pointy fence posts you can get at farm shops, they are very cheap, will last ages, and are ready to drive into the ground.
This is exactly what I need for my back yard. Excellent, thank you.
Yay! I hope it works for you! If you give it a try, let us know how it works.
Nancy Kinsey says
Doing this in my backyard and using evergreen plants to hide the woods that are not taken care of by our homeowners. Plants I am using Ligustrum, Domestica Nandina, Acuba and the lowest growing evergreen that is doing great because each bloom leaves lots of seeds and they are coming up, this is hellebores or the common name is Lenten Rose. I live in Georgia and mine begin blooming late February. I’m pleased at how it looks and for additional color I purchased 6 Carolina Jessamine that is blooming now and are also very fragrant.
I have been thinking of grading and terracing our front yard.
I am not sure we have enough logs/limbs to follow your example, but I love your nice clear explanations and pictures.
Any recent pics (or did I just not search enough)?
The terraces you see in the picture were developed in 2014. I was excited to see how they weathered the winter. Out of 9 total terraces, only one of them needs improving, and it was the widest, steepest terrace. I discovered that I needed to use more stakes as the terraces get wider/steeper to support them better. We’re currently working on developing more terraces on the top part of this hillside where it is the steepest. After that, I hope to share an update on how it’s all working and any new discoveries, but for now I can say that it is a pretty solid system for those that have access to logs and wood debris.
Thanks for this great idea! I’ve been wanting to do something with a steep, barren slope next to our home and this system will allow me to grow perennial vegetables there. I spent last week building three 30-foot terraces using locust logs and branches. Instead of wood stakes, which I could not drive into the hard clay soil (even my husband had a hard time driving them in), I used 3-ft metal garden stakes from Lowes. They cost a couple of dollars each. Much of my wood is twisty, so I found it necessary to use some stakes on the upper side as well. Instead of wood at the ends, I piled up rocks. I’m also planning to attach lengths of cotton sheeting or burlap on the upper sides, instead of using brush to fill the gaps. These terraces are going to be my test sites for a layered garden (compost, wood chips, top soil). I’ll let you know how it goes!
Thanks for sharing your experience. Your new terraces sound lovely. Great idea to use metal stakes when wooden ones don’t work, and burlap in place of leaves. Can’t wait to hear how it all holds up!
My backyard is a very steep downhill slope. It’s very difficult to walk up or down without going in a switchback path. Of course erosion is also a huge problem. So, It was a AHA moment When I read your article about using logsto create a dam effect. Initially I was going to purchase landscaping timbers to terrace the slope. But we were going to have the trees trimmed so no need to buy anything. That saved BIG BUCKS! I’m basically in the middle of the project. I’ve included steps on each side of the terracing and boxed in areas for shrubs. It has been such fun even though exhausting. This is going to look great and solve most of our backyard problems. Thanks for sharing.
I’m so glad to hear that this method will help you manage your slope and save money, too! I would love to see your pictures. I hope you will let us know how they hold up for you and anything you learned along the way!
Great article. My husband and I are overwhelmed with the concept of building swales, requiring even more equipment. We’re hoping to sell the tractor, not buy an excavator! This sounds reasonable. I appreciate the comprehensiveness of your advice and the photos actually go along with the text. Thank you!
Oh, great! I hope it works for you! It’s still hard work…with swales you’re digging and with terraces you’re wheelbarrowing organic matter up and down the hillside…but hopefully you will be happy with the results. I think the terraces look beautiful 🙂
Could you discuss how you decided on the width of each terrace level? I’ve a very heavily pitched valley that will need work on both sides. I’ve been mulling in my mind…how does one have the terraces come out relatively evenly spaced?? Does one start at the top, at the bottom, or just any ol’ where? Color me still confused. It appears you started at the bottom. Maybe this is common sense to you but I’m missing something. Thanks!
These are great questions–thanks for letting me know what needs clarified. The width of each terrace was determined largely by using minimum width needed for whatever was being planted there. For example, each of our gooseberry terraces is 4×4-ft-squared because that is the mature width of each bush. The long strawberry terrace is only 3 feet wide. The paw paw tree terrace is 8 feet wide. The terraces are always divided by 4- to 5-foot wide walkways that allow me to get the wheelbarrow through.
On a steep slope especially, it is hard to reach in and manage the center of the terrace bed, so I use the minimum width to make managing the beds easier. Also, the smaller the width is, the shorter the terrace height can be, which makes them structurally easier to build and maintain.
It is good practice to start building terraces at the bottom and work up the hill. That’s what professionals do, so I do it too 🙂
Thank you so much Amy for the clarification, as it makes sense! Kinda something I should’ve been able to figure out on my own but didn’t. 🙂 Just like, I’m thinking that on a single slope a low-growing plant row should be grown lower down, then a shrub row, then taller and tree rows higher up in order not to completely shade the lower plants out – depending on the sun angles of course. In AZ or NM folks might want to work it out the other direction w/trees giving the other plants shade in the hottest parts of the day. Your thoughts?
My valley in zone 6b/7a runs on a north/south axis so I’m thinking my taller plants/trees should be at the Northern/narrow end of the V-Shaped valley and concluding w/shorter growing plants toward the Southern/wider shaped end. Sort of an ampi-theatre style w/the tallest kids in the class on the back row. Does that make sense? Will it work out in nature??
Thanks again for your time. New reader, enjoying your site.
Another question…does your community garden have any switchbacks in it? How would one combat erosion in the downward aisles if all the the terraces are equal length in a strait line up & down? I wouldn’t want a river to cut into the middle. My slopes are so sharp (nearly vertical in some places) that I think I probably need to do zig-zag terracing to prevent more erosion.
Yes, that totally makes sense! Tall kids in the back of the class (northern-most end) — love it 🙂
Switchbacks are a really good idea. We didn’t use switchbacks in the section of terracing you see in these pictures simply because it felt like too small of a space to try to maneuver the turns with a wheelbarrow. The paths do go straight up. It’s been nice to use them like a straight ramp for the wheelbarrow, but in the long run erosion would be a problem, so once we have the terraces completely built, we intend to build steps into the pathways that will hopefully help slow down water. This will make the climb easier for visitors, too, something I wouldn’t worry about as much if it were my own personal garden.
However, in another part of the garden (not pictured) where we built terraces out of cinder blocks, we did put in switchbacks and are really happy with them.
Thanks again Amy!!! Still digging into your archives. What a lovely and educational way to enjoy a cold, rainy holiday weekend!!
Linda Kissick says
Please let us know if you develop a termite problem. I found them in walnut logs I saved but did not get them under cover and within a year the termites had infested the bark.
Thanks for bringing up the subject of termites. Termites are natural inhabitants in most yards, so there is no need to worry if you spot them. I’ve seen termites in my check log terraces and pay them no mind. However, there are precautions you can take to reduce the chance of them infesting a house or other nearby structure. Academic and industry experts recommend keeping firewood and woodpiles at least 20 feet away from the foundation of a house, so I would recommend this minimum spacing for check log terraces as well.
Linda Kissick says
Please do a search on artillery fungus before using this idea near a house. This fungus can destroy your siding and even stick to your cars. The spores can be carried on leaves and logs from the forest. This fungus can shoot a black spore 20 feet and it is viable for 10 years. I have a very bad problem and it came from black hardwood mulch I purchased and used for landscaping around my home. I am very thankful for finding this idea and plan to use it in the back woods.
That sounds like an expensive and time-consuming problem to have to deal with. The industry recommendation of keeping woodpiles/logs/check log terraces a minimum of 20 feet away from the foundation seems relevant for this problem, as well. Based on your experience, it sounds like 25-30 feet might be even safer.
Linda, I researched said fungus and you are right to be concerned and tell people. What a procedure to get rid of. Mulch and firewood can bring trouble to the house! I don’t use or buy mulch. Who knows where it came from and how it was colored. Seasoned and dry split firewood is mostly bug free. It is the fresh and wet wood, branches, leaves, that harbors carpenter ants etc, and mold and fungus. I do not see this type of terrace lasting too long, but if you try this away from the house and use trees and perennial shrubs, even when the logs day the plants should stay put. Using large logs would be good. rock walls are best.
Unless you’re using mortar or manufactured retaining wall blocks that lock together, rock walls won’t last any longer than these check log terraces. In fact, our rock walls built at the site started leaning after just a couple of years. Check log terraces last much longer than you would expect due to the fungal networks I’ve referenced in the article. The walls themselves are only part of the equation with this solution. The terraces will remain stabilized long after the original walls have decayed.
Did you use treated or non-treated stakes?
I’ve used both. The untreated stakes may last only one to two years, which is fine in terraces in less steep areas that can stabilize themselves fairly quickly. In the steeper areas, however, where the terraces may take longer to stabilize, I needed the stakes to last longer, so I used Ecolife treated stakes from Lowe’s. I’m sure it’s not perfect, but it is a green certified product that is non-metallic in nature (so no heavy metals in the soil).
Cindy Eby says
Both cardboard and cement blocks contain nasty chemicals that can leach into your soil.
Cindy Eby, even plain brown cardboard?
NO. corrugated is glued together with cornstarch. (family in box industry)
Tom Hemme says
This looks really interesting. We will be using this technique in an adapted way on our new organic farm.
Great! I hope you’ll let us know how it goes 🙂
Footehills Farm says
Great article! We too live on the side of a hill with anywhere from 5-15 degree slope. Unfortunately we are underlain by clay and fractured basalt. In our case we will use #5 rebar left over from our house construction. Thanks for this.
Great idea to use the materials you have available to you 🙂
based on experience, I would not use small sticks like those in your photos–what are you going to do when they biodegrade? I’ve done extensive terracing on slopes up to 25 degrees on my farm (see breadandrosesnursery.com), and unless you’re using logs 10+ inches in diameter, you might as well get use to watching your terraces crumble. sorry for the reality check, but I would just hate to see someone do all the work to create some amazing terraces and end up with an eroding bed in 1-2 years. I’ve even built some terraces with logs 16 inches in diameter (poplar admittedly) and these I’m needing to replace with limestone 4-5 years later. as you point out, fungi eat wood.
the block method is the best I see you using–keep thinking in that direction. stone with a solid foundation will last centuries.
I always recommend that people use what they have available to them. Sure, larger logs will last longer, but they will also put more pressure on the stakes (maintenance) and are harder to move. Maintenance over time is inevitable no matter the materials you have.
Much like a vegetable garden bed–which requires the regular addition of compost, soil amendments, and mulch to perform well–so, too, will these terraced beds need a bit of maintenance. However, I will point out that the beds in these pictures are two years old now and still holding strong without any maintenance.
In the long run, we fully intend on having to replace stakes as they biodegrade over time, and on adding organic matter behind the stakes to keep the beds built up…the nature of both gardening and growing on a hillside.
We do like our cement block walls, but they aren’t fool proof either. Over time they lean, fall, and need rebuilt. We used what we had: blocks from 10-year-old walls that had completely fallen over. Our 5-year-old walls are showing a little lean. As one commenter above pointed out, there are also concerns over toxins in the blocks, especially if they are new.
Thinking of the most permanent solution is definitely the way to go, but in the end, gravity has its own plans 🙂
Dan Ganrer says
Having problems with your walls? Buttress your concrete walls (small addition), step lean them into the slope, or build in an arc so the load points at the convex face and your wall.. Like this load —> ( wall
We did lean the blocks into the slope a bit, but great idea to reverse the face of the wall. Will have to try that in the future!
Christine Ochsner says
I’m working with “glacial till from the Frazier era.” This is hard pan clay in some spots. Clay and rocks on a 20 degree slope in the front yard. When the property was developed, they planted a lawn, junipers and cotoneasters. All this had to be wiped out when two excavations were done. Fine, dark bark was blown on. The soil is being conditioned in spots where new plantings are installed. This is the front yard, 8,000 square feet, no back yard. Patches of this look like the surface of the moon, with cracks following the latest excavation, replacing cement sewer pipe. I threw wood material into the ground before the soil was covered up this time, although this woody matter may have been covered up too deeply to be beneficial as a hugelkultur start.
The challenge in terracing this would be the runoff water from the hill above. Should I create a hardscape dry river bed in this area or terrace it for native plants? A cistern was placed three quarters of the way down the property, when a french drain was installed to channel water away from the house.
Sounds like you have a tough landscape there! It will take a long time to repair a landscape like this, where the soil horizons have been mixed together, and topsoil has probably been scraped or eroded away. Check log terraces sound like a good solution for this challenging landscape. I would bury a lot of woody material under the terraces and I would be sure to plant perennials that won’t need a lot of maintenance, so you can let the landscape rest and heal. Planting nitrogen fixers and cover crops will really help heal the soil.
Thank you for this “how to”! My entire 8 acre property is about a 45 degree angle…many parts steeper. The whole property is covered in trees. In the areas we’re keeping more wild we’re taking the dead and/ or fallen trees, logs and brush and piling them up in berms on contour. We are using the same technic with light terracing and the occasional cup swale for our pastures. We dug a couple hundred feet worth of swales on the sunny hillside near the house for annual crops. This may get changed to terracing later but for now I need to get my first large scale garden planted.
This article helps greatly with landscaping the rest of our front yard, beginning with the hillside where the chicken coop is. I’m using thinnings from the woods and wood from a rotting fence. Then the greenhouse hill will get terraced so I can plant more perennial produce there…and rebuild the greenhouse which needs a LOT of work!
Wow, it sounds like you’ve accomplished a lot on your sloped property! It’s nice to know that wood-based terracing has helped.
Lala T says
This would still work on a smaller hill right?! (Meaning not as long…) one that would only fit two terrace layers?!! Would you recommend skinnier terraces to fit 3 or keep them at 3ft wide?!
Also- if you are doing this on a slope that is definitely very unhealthy, stripped of any nutient, compacted down clayish soil….do you recommend- terracing?! Then improving soil microorganisms, etc for a year or so before planting anything? (Like fruit trees at the top and raspberries?!) or do you recommend planting immediately to get roots in the groung to stabilize the whole system? (And if so- do you just cut through the cardboard in that area to plant in said clay soil?!)
Let me preface this by saying that there is no wrong way to do it. I like to approach everything as if it were an experiment–sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With that in mind, and without seeing your space, I would probably stick with 3-feet-wide terraces. If you plan to plant perennials like fruit trees or raspberries, you’ll need wide terraces.
As long as you’re adding organic matter, including some compost soil, you could plant right away to stabilize the system. You can cut through the cardboard if you need to. My preference would be to plant a cover crop mixture to improve and stabilize the soil while everything gets settled. Things like clovers, lupine, yarrow, dill, fennel, and daikon radish would be great. Then this fall or next spring you could plant your main perennials.
Good luck–sounds like a fun project!
Lala T says
Is oak brush okay to use as the logs?!
I realized we actually have more room than we thought- so 5ft top for trees then 3ft for vertical raspberries (or do you recommend longer?!)
Thanks for your help!
Oak brush is great. 5 feet wide for trees and 3 feet wide for raspberries should work well. In my experience, raspberries need more room, but if you keep them seriously pruned, they’ll work fine in that space.
Lala t says
Was this answered above?! What kind of trees/wood did you use for this?! Is that just what’s on your property?
Yes, we just used what we had.
Going from least longevity to most longevity here in Ohio, I believe oak, walnut, locust, and o’sage orange are the longest lasting fence posts. It stands to reason to me that those woods would be the longest lasting as retaining logs too.
I need ideas for my hill, I have about 5 acres, with a lot of trees on it. We have slowly been clearing the trees around our home. I am very frustrated and would rather have flat property. I need ideas of how to create garden areas, this way is great sounding. But what else can be done with a hill? Help thanks for ideas.
Well, you could do contour garden beds or swales. No matter the solution, you’ll need to shore up the soil and make level garden beds to prevent erosion. Once it’s created, it can be an ideal way to garden as far as using gravity to your advantage. Creating it is the hardest part.
Sam Heatwole says
This is a great, effective, inexpensive, ecological, logical, way to manage erosion and to beautify a hillside. My wife and I built our first terrace this weekend. Our getaway is on a hill side and the topsoil was removed years ago when the property was developed, and what was left of the soil is very poor clay soil. We see this as a way of reclaiming our hillside. Really love this website, Amy. Keep up the good work.
Thanks so much for this awesome feedback! I’m glad this solution worked for you. Please keep in touch and let us know how it works over the years. I’m interested in learning more about how these terraces age for different people, and what kind of maintenance they need.
Natasha Ammons says
Do you start at the top of a hill and work down? Or from the bottom up? I have searched for 2 days about this topic, and I love your information!
I have always started at the bottom and worked up. I’m not sure what others do, but this strategy has worked well for me.
Mary Ann says
I am hoping this will work on my back hillside, it faces north, is very steep though short and fairly narrow. I have done nothing with it because of that difficulty, except keep the English Ivy in check and removed weedy trees. Do you think it will get enough sun on a north facing slope? I was given some raspberry starts and would like to put them there, but I may need to use it for more shade tolerant or cool season crops. Any thoughts?
I think you’ll need to observe to see how much sun the space gets. You can use an app like Sun Seeker to map your sun exposure. If it is mostly shady, raspberries probably won’t do as well. Research what grows well in the shade in your growing zone. It seems like a good space for perennials.
Hi, I didn’t want to read through all the comments so I hope this question is not repetitious. Sorry if it is. We are planning to do this to our back yard as it is on a steep grade and we are having erosion issues. Where would you start? From the bottom or from the top?
Matt Lebon says
this article rocks! great job
Thanks so much! I have been looking for a practical option for this that doesn’t involve heavy equipment and deep pocketbooks! Our backyard has a shallow flat part and mostly slopes toward a retention pond. I’ve been dreaming about a terraced veggie garden to save the headache of mowing grass on a steep hill. (And of course to have my own veggies.) Inspired to give it a try. So glad you mentioned leaving paths between for weeding/walking – I hadn’t thought of that!
It may not be the sturdiest of solutions for a hillside veggie garden, but it will get you growing without, as you said, a lot of expense or heavy equipment. Let me know how it goes!
I’m confused as to how this is like a “check dam.” I thought a check dam was built inside a swale, running perpendicular to the contour (from inside to outside edge), at distant intervals and built up above the bottom of the swale (like a mini-berm) to catch, “check” and slow-down any sediments in the water from flowing further downstream?
Isn’t what you built just a retaining wall terrace built out of logs?
It looks good, but how is it holding up after 3-4 years?
A good natural way to protect wood stakes in the ground from decay is to char them first; that’s what they did back in the day!
I would personally plant the front of the terrace logs (in between the logs) with spreading groundcovers that have deep fibrous root systems that will eventually form a sort of natural “mortar” that will spread across the entire front as the logs rot and hold the terrace up like a living “plaster” over time.
A few questions: The pathways between the top edge of the lower terrace and the log retaining wall above were left at the natural slope (not graded / leveled), right? So any water that flows down across the pathway flows into the lower terrace, right? My question is what happens during excessive heavy rains? Doesn’t the water pressure erode the upper area of the terraced bed? Or did you dig a mini-swale where the lower edge of the pathway meets the upper area of the terraced bed?
I think adding a mini-swale here would be great, as it would stop wash-outs during excess rainfall and also serve as a water catchment / slow-percolating irrigation system that would reduce the need to irrigate as often (the moisture would be held deeper in the terrace soil), and can even be used as a time-saving deep irrigation trough during droughts (place a rock or paver in the bottom (to prevent erosion) and just place a hose there till the whole swale fills with water).
Sorry for all the questions! I just found your site, and honestly, I have many books on permaculture / forest gardening, but as far as blogs go yours is probably the most useful I’ve read – it is both simple, straightforward, clearly explained and accessible. Many blogs are either overly-vague or make things seem way more complicated than necessary!
Check log terraces and check log dams are similar in that they are slowing water, slowing erosion, “checking” and catching soil, seeds, and organic matter. And they are using similar materials to get the job done where appropriate.
Check log dams are typically used in gullies with an emphasis on managing water, whereas check log terraces have an emphasis on stabilizing soil and fertility for growing purposes. Similar enough that they share a naming consistency.
Any terrace made of organic matter is temporary in nature. But as soil, seeds, and organic matter are captured, and perennial plantings establish, the slope becomes more stable and the terrace structure itself is less important. Mine have held up well.
As I state in the article, each year the system will be a bit more stable, but a once-per-year check-up on the project is a good time to make amendments, replacing a stake, log, or building up soil where it may have washed away. This is not much different from other planting areas that you would manage throughout its lifetime.
There are many options for using plants as the stabilizing features. What you plant will depend on climate, bioregion, soil type, sun exposure, what you want to use the area for, etc.
Each terrace, whether path or planting area, was terraced to be a slight grade. Flat enough to slow and stabilize, but not perfectly flat as to catch and hold too much water and destabilize.
Many of your questions have been discussed in previous comments. Swales are not appropriate on steep hillsides, not even mini swales, and especially not here in Cincinnati, Ohio, the landslide capitol of the U.S. Solutions are always site specific. Swales are excellent tools used in the right context. 🙂
Has anyone tried this with annual vegetables beds? Are perennial roots necessary for stabilization, or would a vegetable rotation with cover crops to keep living roots in the soil work?
I think this system could be used with annuals. Of course, the steeper the slope, the more I would caution against annuals. But with some care, as you have suggested, rotating with cover crops would be a good idea. I would also choose low maintenance crops in the first year (at least) so that the system can get established without a lot of wear and tear. I’m thinking things like garlic or winter squash — crops with a long season.
Hey Amy, I’m seconding all the comments that say “great article!”, as I found this very useful. I’m just about to start a garden on a pretty steep slope, and had been thinking about swales. Thankfully I read some comments about the potential dangers of landslides when doing this, so was sat a couple of nights ago wondering quite how I’d go about getting this new garden into production. Somehow I found my way here, and am much inspired by the notion of check dams as terraces. I’m thinking I’m going to try a hugelkultur version of this, as I have very little soil to work with (bare rock in places) and that which is there is pure clay, so I need a way to get as much organic material of any description at all in to build soil. I’m also thinking to use a living stake system; I’ve been reading about bio-engineering (https://hatchetnseed.ca/soil-bio-engineering-for-erosion-control/), and I think combining their ideas with a fast growing, nitrogen fixing tree (Robinia pseudoacacia, aka black locust) will give me a good way to quickly create some soil and deal with the steep slopes. I’m quite excited to have a go at this, and I started here, so cheers!
Linda B says
Hi Amy! Great write-up about a great idea. I stumbled into a similar method for taming our sloping backyard which is also our fenced chicken yard. Anytime I put woodchips at the top of the hill to walk on, the chickens would move it all down to the bottom of the hill in short order. We had our decking replaced, and so many of the cedar boards taken up were in good shape, so we kept them. Our solution was to build 4’-ish wide terraces going down the hill, using those cedar boards and rebar. We filled in behind the boards with arborist chips. As part of the terraces, we made a switchback, to make it easy to walk or run a wheel barrow along the terrace-paths. I have been planting elderberry, gooseberry and other shrub/tree plants on some of the terraces, skipping every other row. It has transformed our chicken yard from a steep, sometimes treacherous walkway, to an easy to navigate area, and the chickens love it. We do have to go in and rake the wood chips every few weeks because the chickens dig holes here and there looking for insect and worms. Will be interesting to see how long it holds up, but we are thrilled to have used up a ton of cedar boards that would have been put in the dumpster!
Sounds like a great solution! I love the integration of chickens to reduce work, as well as the use of materials that you already have available. It’s really important that we don’t overlook materials that we already have on site. Did you cage the perennial plants to protect them from the chickens?
I’m so glad that you have an entire article about planting on a hillside – I have an area like that behind my house and have been wondering how to begin terracing. I can’t wait to get started this Spring!!
Great artice thank you! I so wan to try this. There doesn’t seem to be a link flr the dwnoad on this page? It says to click but there is no link?!
Didn’t you lose much soil through the gaps between the logs?
See step 4 above.
Super interesting, thanks Amy! This could be perfect for my situation. Two questions:
1) How is it holding up – any significant maintenance?
2) You mentioned 36″ stakes — about how high did you pile the logs? It looks like they are about 2 feet high implying that driving them in 12″ is sufficient. Any guidance on this would be helpful!
As mentioned above, the only real maintenance is replacing the wood as it biodegrades if it seems like the integrity of the terrace needs it. Oftentimes the terrace stabilizes itself without replacing the wood due to sufficient activity by soil organisms.
The logs are piled as high as they need to be to create a level planting terrace. The steeper the slope, the higher the pile. The leveling tool can help with this decision. How deep to drive in the stakes depends on the soil and how tall your terrace will be. In sandy soil and in taller terraces you would drive the stakes in deeper, whereas in clay soil or on less steep slopes, the stakes could be more shallow, perhaps 6″.
Julie Rimer says
This is such a wonderful article! I so appreciate the clear directions and photographs. I am converting a block-long area of city-owned, neglected property from non-native, invasive plants to native plants that will benefit pollinators, birds and wildlife.
The slope of much of the area is about 45 degrees. I have been creating bioswales using recycled bricks, but I now plan to incorporate the trunks of the Tree of Heaven trees I have cut down to augment the slope with check log terraces.
Thank you so much for this incredibly helpful post.
Amanda Dryer says
This is amazing! I just bought some property that has heavy slopes. which would be better for growing…. North or South facing?
If you have a choice, south facing slopes are best in the northern hemisphere.
Thanks so much for this clear, informative article! I used what I learned and have created three check log terraces in the back of our backyard, just downhill from our vegetable garden. The veggie area is fairly flat and gets full summer sun, so it produces well, but the rest slopes gently down toward a creek and has not been nearly as good for planting, even though it is mostly sunny too. Your method and description were the perfect match for what I wanted to do.
Moreover, I’m excited at having done this for practically free– I bought a couple of bundles of stakes at Lowe’s, and having them pre-cut and ready was a big help. But that was less than $20! I was able to do all the rest with logs and limbs and brush and leaves that were elsewhere in the yard. Bonus, those other areas are looking tidy and cared-for, and in the process of raking, I got to peek at the daffodil shoots already coming up. We had a pile of decaying logs cut from a huge elm tree that the county watershed department took down (alas), which had long since passed the point of being useful as wood. But using the smaller of the logs as part of my check log structure seems like it will be a great way to encourage rich soil to develop pretty quickly.
I’m glad I undertook this as a winter project– all the leaves still lay where they had fallen, I pruned shrubs that needed it and then placed the brush in front of the check logs, and was able to round up limbs and large sticks that had been accumulating. Plus, I enjoyed the winter work of using dead and discarded material to prepare a fertile place for growth! I plan to give it a few months to settle and be added to, then add compost into the terraced beds as the spring/summer planting time arrives.
I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to perennials here (we already have berry bushes nearby), so I’m considering annuals. Previous comments mentioned dill, fennel, garlic, radishes, etc. as simple anchor annuals for the first season of the beds. I think garlic and radishes are both possibilities we’d enjoy growing. Any other advice for annuals to try this year in the first go-round? I’m in zone 8A.
Thanks again for this helpful post!
It sounds like the terraces were a perfect solution for your needs! I would suggest planting annual crops with a long season. That way you can let this area rest without being disturbed much in its first year. I’ve listed a few in this article about low maintenance crops.
Kristen George says
I cannot believe that I found this site. This is exactly the advice that I have been searching for. I wanted to do a terrace with logs from dead trees but wasn’t quite sure if it would work. We are going to start on my back hill this weekend. Thank you!
Hi! Is the cardboard supposed to cover the entire area, or just right in front of the logs? And does the cardboard eventually decompose?
I want to do this in our front yard which faces the public sidewalk. Any advice about the sidewalk that is pushed is against our hill?
It’s kinda hard/annoying to push the stakes through cardboard, which is why I list pushing the stakes in as step #1 and laying cardboard as step #2. The cardboard will decompose.
Great post thank-you. Here in Aotearoa/Nz I follow amazing permaculture farm where they do this but they essentially using living trees as their stakes (flame trees particularly, which are pruned heavily to let the sunlight in). It’s amazing watching their videos, their focus is on syntropic agroforestry. Inspiring post, we’ll definitely be coming back to this when we get to our steep slope.
Hi, Amy! We started this in our front yard, set back only a couple feet from the street. Since we’re probably breaking rules I want to make sure our finished product is super sound.
I see drainage systems mentioned in a lot of terracing/retaining wall plans… is that something we should try to incorporate here? Or is the permeability of the wall itself enough? I didn’t see it in any of the comments above.
Also, how are those terraces doing now???
Thanks so much for all the inspiration and instructions!
Regarding drainage, you answered your own question. 🙂 Log terracing is naturally permeable and therefore doesn’t need formal drainage built in like rigid terrace structures do.
I’ve built lots of log terraces over the years, and continue to do so. They all do great, as long as you understand that they aren’t a permanent fixture as you’ve originally built them.
A log terrace is more like a beaver dam, which slows water, collects rich soil behind it, and decomposes to be even richer soil. Over time, it can become a “shelf” of stable, level-ish soil that is a great planting spot.
You can choose to actively manage the terrace, continuing to add more wood behind the stakes to ensure that the terrace structure remains functioning. I usually only do this if it isn’t mature enough to function without the wood as a stabilizer.
It’s also why I focus on using log terraces for perennial planting, which doesn’t require as much foot traffic as annual gardens do.