Terrace Gardening: Terracing Is The Process of Turning Steep Slopes Into Manageable Level & Productive Terraced Gardens. It’s a Gardening Technique That Goes Back To The Beginning of Gardening & Makes Gardening Easier And More Productive.

Rice Growing Using Terrace Gardening On a Grand Scale
Rice Growing Using Terrace Gardening On a Grand Scale
Trying to grow plants or edible crops on a steep slope is problematic for so many reasons. As my grandfather used to say, if we were meant to work on slopes we’d have had one leg longer than the other. Perhaps thats why Terrace Gardening came into being. Since the dawn of agriculture and gardening mankind has recognised the problem and adapted the landscape to make it easier to work and far more productive. In many cases terracing means moving mountains. So it’s not lightly undertaken. But for some crops it’s essential. For example rice needs water to grow in, and that means level ground or the water just flows down the slope. In parts of the world rice wouldn’t exist without terracing. For example the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in China consist of hundreds of thousands of terraces spread across 160 square kilometres of mountains. It’s landscape engineering on a grand scale and was a construction project that took generations to turn the mountain sides into series of stepped fields. Building commenced in the Tang Dynasty, (618-907 AD) and took a millennia to perfect. Today the area supplies rice and fish in an integrated system that works with nature rather than against it. But terracing isn’t just for edible crops. Ornamental gardens and parks can be built on terraces and drinks on the terrace wouldn’t be so acceptable if the terrace wasn’t flat and level!

Historical Examples of Terraces and Terrace Gardening

One of my favourite terraced landscape gardens is the Hanbury Botanic Gardens, which are situated just over the Italian border from Menton, France. The gardens are a series of terraces going down the cliffside to the Mediterranean. The plant range, design and views are stunning. The gardens were built in 1867 so are relatively modern compared with many terracing examples. And it’s not just overseas that terraces have been used. The old English word for a terrace was lynchet or lynch. Just up the coast from our home, in Lyme Regis, is an ancient example of a Lynch Mill. Water was sent along terraced ducts to reach the mill.
Mediaeval Lynchets At Bishopstone Wiltshire. Image by Mike Barratt.
Mediaeval Lynchets At Bishopstone Wiltshire. Image by Mike Barratt.
And at Bishopstone in Wiltshire there is a mediaeval strip lynchet system that demonstrates the use of terracing in the UK centuries ago. Glastonbury tor also exhibits seven lynchet terraces, though their purpose isn’t clearly for horticultural or agricultural use.  

Island Terrace Gardening Examples That Go Back Centuries

Terracing and irrigation is also very evident in Maderia. Steep hillsides are terraced and water is fed from the wetter north of the island to the growing areas in the south. The irrigation channels are called levada and are managed by levadeiro who ensure water is supplied during the Época de Giro. This is the designated time of year when water is supplied to designated areas of land. I found watching them fascinating. The levada are controlled by blocking a main channel (Tourdoiro)  and directing water into side channels (Regdeira) that serve individual plots. Each gets water for a designated time, eg between 9-10 on Wednesdays, and the irrigation water just flows across the plots. Knowing water is due at that time many plot holders are there to direct the water to specific areas within their plot, eg between the rows of potatoes etc. Water is measured in Pena (feathers) which equate to 1 l/minute and there are 64 Pena to the anéis. A lot of the work on levada goes back to the the last century. But the initial work started in the late 1500s. Without levada terraces wouldn’t exist. And Madeira would never have had a, Henry The Navigator ordered, sugar industry which supplied Europe. So successful was it that it was then copied in the Caribbean and Brazil.  

How To Build a Terrace

The basic process is very simple. You just dig a series of level “steps” into a hillside. But if this is all you do it will likely fail. The reason being that most of the topsoil will be removed. The secret is to remove the topsoil, dig out the step and then return a layer of topsoil adequate to grow crops. The steep sides of the steps, the risers, can be natural or reinforced by stone or rock to prevent collapse or erosion.  

Is Digging a Terrace Worthwhile?

The answer has to be “It depends”. In some areas of the world mankind has happily grown crops on very steep slopes with no need to construct terraces. An example would be Weston Plats in Devon. Here the market gardeners worked the cliff edge slopes, using donkeys to help them bring seaweed from the beaches to improve the soil. Produce was also taken out using donkey power as there were no roads in the immediate area.  

What Can Be Grown On Terraces?

Almost anything has to be the answer. On Madeira I’ve seen trees producing a huge range of fruit ranging from oranges and anona to guava and pitanga. In Asia rice is often grown whilst in the UK anything we can grow in a garden or allotment can be grown on a terrace.    

There are more Gardening Techniques here.


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