Terraced Gardening Tips

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How high should my elevated garden beds be?

How High Does This Elevated Garden Go?

Everyone's talking about slant, spin and bias. The only slant you're concerned with is the slope where you're creating your terraced garden designs. While pundits blather on cable networks about how to beat Big Oil or win the war on terror, you chatter about how to build a terraced garden. When you're building elevated gardens, you only need to know two angles--and no, they aren't "liberal" and "conservative." You need to know:

  1. The rise of the slope--the vertical distance from the bottom of the slope to the top.
  2. The run of the slope--the horizontal distance between the top and bottom.

Remember your geometry? Plot the rise and run on a graph. Say that your rise is ten feet and your run is twenty-four feet. You can build six beds that are four feet wide (the ideal width for a raised bed and terraced garden). Each elevated garden bed will be 1 2/3 feet high.

Knowing the slant isn't always a negative. in your case, it keeps you away from the TV so you spend more time planting fresh vegetables! Hey, that's one way to cut your food and gas costs.

What are the basics of constructing a terraced garden?

We Built This Garden

You were the one who built Windsor Castle with your Erector set. You know how to build a terraced garden. Don't you? Actually, you've never built anything on an incline. The principles of Erector sets will help you with your terraced garden designs. Here's a crash course:

  1. Connect the joints--use 18-inch pipes or spikes to connect timbers. Anchor with timber posts if the slope and the ground permit. Use heavy cornerstones and mortar to anchor rock frames for elevated gardens.
  2. Start from the bottom--if your terrace is at the bottom, it will typically be a low-riser--bury timbers, railroad ties and stone to about half their thickness to create an elevated garden frame.
  3. Have a firm foundation--even in hard soil, make sure the trench bottom is firmly planted.
  4. Even it out--digthe sides of your terraced garden trenches so they are level with the bottom of the first trench.
  5. Build on the foundation--use the back timber of your first tier for the front of your second tier.
  6. Have all your tools at hand--there's no need to leave spaces for wheelbarrows when you're lining elevated gardens with soil--though if you create paths with railings down the slope, you'll find filling your elevated gardens to be easier.

Mix your compost beforehand--you can even blend it with the soil so you don't have to make two trips. Everyone said you wasted your time with Erector sets--now you can have the least laugh and a beautiful terraced garden.

Is it difficult to garden on a slope?

Slip Sliding No Nos

Tackle terraced garden designs on the weekend? No problem! Then you'll rewire your house...time to cut back on your caffeine. Rewiring the house takes longer than a weekend. Similarly, building elevated gardens is an attractive option if you have poor soil and a hilltop house, but don't understimate the difficulty level.

Before you run out and buy a book on how to build a terraced garden, take a cue from our weekend warrior hints:

  1. Whatever material you use--railroad ties, stones, timbers--be sure it's sturdy and anchored well.
  2. Just because you can't see the moisture in the soil, you shouldn't think that your elevated garden is free of water hazards. If you plop a stone wall down without testing the soil first, your elevated garden could resemble a scene out of a disaster movie.
  3. If you're building elevated gardens, you should probably limit yourself to a manageable size--King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had thousands of workers, but unless you employ a professional engineering team, you may want to build your walls only one to two feet high.
  4. Don't start at the top! A reliable trench dug at the bottom will anchor the project.
  5. Don't use timbers or stone or a pre-fab kit without reading the supplier's or manufacturer's instructions--they may recommend a maximum height.
  6. Don't start digging without calling your utility company or your city's public works department to determine if there are underground pipes, electric wires or gas lines on your property.

Your terraced garden designs will take longer than a weekend, but they'll be worth it--and it wouldn't hurt to call an electrician for the house.

How do I prepare and maintain soil for gardening on a slope?

Soils and Slopes

You may not be dirt poor, but your dirt is poor or rocky. The beauty of raised gardens and elevated gardens is that you can use any kind of soil. There are just a few tips for making your dirt as rich as you wish you were:

  1. Soil on an elevated slope drains even more quickly than in raised gardens. While a raised bed may need composting every few months, a terraced garden on a slope will probably need composting every week.
  2. If you build on clay soils and have sandy or granular soil strata on top, your soil can become wet and squishy quickly. When you're deciding how to build a terraced garden, decide whether it will need drainage pipes in retaining walls or elevated garden timber frames.
  3. Remember how you felt when you moved on up? Took some adjustment, didn't it? Your new soil in your terraced garden designs needs time to adjust--especially if you've moved the soil. Although you don't want too much soil compaction, with a terraced garden, the soil should settle for a few weeks or even months. Some gardening experts recommend planting annuals the first year.
  4. Plant lavender in sunny areas where the soil can dry out too easily. You're not nouveau riche, but you're comfortable--and finally, so are your elevated gardens.


Planning the dimensions of a raised bed

When planning the dimensions of a raised bed, it's important to remember that all gardens need maintenance. The stunning effect of a very high or very wide bed is lessened if it's choked with weeds or spent blooms; consider access points in planning. Wide terraces can include paths or steps for easy access, or decorative flat rocks can give the gardener a place to step.

What kinds of fruit trees are suited to terraced gardens?

Fruit on the Hillside

You'd love to have a vast orchard, but the only available planting space you own is your front yard slope. You're reading up on how to build a terraced garden, but none of your books on terraced garden designs mention fruit trees.

Fear not--you don't have to put up with lines at the grocery store for fresh fruit. You can even plant grape arbors in your elevated gardens--Thomas Jefferson did just that. Espalier apple trees can grow around or in your bottom terraced garden bed. We also like:

  • Pear trees
  • Peach trees
  • Cherry trees
  • Lemon trees

Read the directions and the pamphlets to determine how high your tree will grow--you don't want it to overwhelm your terraced garden. Dwarf fruit trees are an attractive alternative. While you may not own enough orange trees to put Florida out of business, you can freshly squeeze your own juice with citrus fresh from your elevated gardens.

How do I make terraced gardens accessible?

Accessibility on a Ramp?

While buildings with wheelchair ramps are mandatory and more common in California, say, than on the East Coast, too great a gradient is a barrier. Raised bed gardens are a boon to people with disabilities who love to garden, but what about gardening on a slope? Carry On Gardening offers several hints.

Many terraced garden designs feature gently sloping paths that are a 1 to 15 inch gradient--in other words, they rise one foot every fifteen feet. Also, shallow steps with four-inch risers are desirable, if you're frustrated over how to build a terraced garden that's accessible and enjoyable. When you're walking or riding on your elevated garden paths, you might want to stop and rest, or sit and compost your elevated gardens.

You can remove parts of the earth to provide flat areas. While you're resting, you might be worried over how to tend all of your terraced garden. Try interspersing rocky gardens on steep slopes with accessible raised beds and ground cover plants such as ajuga, berberis, lavender, and rock roses in inaccessible areas.

Now if your local movie theater would provide a ramp instead of steep steps, you'd be happy--after all, you can't spend every day in the garden.

Is it difficult to garden on a slope?

Slippery Slopes?

You thought that beach house or house on a hill would be paradise, until you tried to garden on a rolling, rocky slope. Fortunately, you're not in a California mudslide area. Besides, rocky slopes with less-than-ideal soil are perfect for elevated gardens. Some of the advantages of terraced garden designs include:

  • Better views--the bay windows from that beach house will show off your sloping terraced garden.
  • When deciding how to build a terraced garden, you can choose a mix of shallow and deep-rooted plants.
  • You can use attractive circulation pathways for easy access to your elevated garden.
  • You can break a long slope into short slopes with slanting timbers or stones--just be sure to prepare the ground and soil composition the way you would for a raised garden on a flat slope.
  • You can use a drip irrigation system--works great for water conservation!

Now that you've built your new terraced garden, you can feel flush and relaxed as you lounge on your deck before tending your garden...unless it looks as if your beach is sliding into the ocean!

Can I use a prefab raised garden kit for a terrace garden?

Raised Garden Kits and Terraced Gardens

You'd like to construct an elaborate terraced garden on your hillside a la the Villa Gamberia and the Villa D'Este, but you don't have the lira--actually, Italy switched to the Euro. You don't have the Euro, but you do have a prefab kit for elevated gardens. Will it work when you're building a terraced garden?

Prefab garden kits tend to work best on level ground, unless you choose a "stepper" in which you would have to mound dirt and build a high timber base anyway. It's difficult deciding how to build a terraced garden when you have limited resources, which is why step-up kits are terrific for elevated gardens. You can also use tires and blocks of stone to form an elevated garden.

It's not quite the elaborate design scheme found in a palazzo or with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it will help you make the most of gardening on a slope without blowing your Euros. Ciao bella!

What can I plant in my terraced garden?

Terraced Garden Plants

Will tomatoes grow in your elevated garden or will they rock and roll down the slope? Talk about fast food! Part of the fun of deciding how to build a garden, especially planning how to build a terraced garden, is choosing what to plant.

Celebrity gardener Rebecca Kolls advises that if you have a steep incline that won't lent itself well to terraced garden borders of rock and wood, you can plant border flowers such as parahebe. Inside the borders of elevated gardens, you can plant ajuga.

Hostas are a huge topic, and a hugely popular plant. In your terraced garden designs, you can plant a hosta as a cover for golden bleeding heart. Just make sure that your terraced garden plants are perennials, which are easier to care for and low-maintenance the first year you plant.

As for those tomatoes, anchor them in enclosed beds with trellises or tepees to keep them from succumbing to gravity and you won't have to worry about scraping spaghetti sauce off the hill.


Planning the dimensions of a raised bed

When planning the dimensions of a raised bed, it’s important to remember that all gardens need maintenance. The stunning effect of a very high or very wide bed is lessened if it’s choked with weeds or spent blooms; consider access points in planning. Wide terraces can include paths or steps for easy access, or decorative flat rocks can give the gardener a place to step.

What should I do if I can't build a terraced garden?

Terraced Garden Alternatives

You couldn't use solar power and help the environment because you live in the rainy Northwest. Because of all the water on your slope, you can't build an elevated garden that will last. It's either move or find a way to respect the environment while battling the elements. Some terraced garden designs don't actually need a terraced garden.

DoItYourself.com recommends using groundcovers other than grass--you don't like to use your power mower and you can't, anyway, because your slope is too steep. DoItYourself.com suggests some attractive groundcovers that help the environment and improve the appearance of your lawn:

  • Heather
  • Partridge Berry
  • Periwinkle
  • Juniper
  • Pachysandra

These plants won't shrink from rainstorms or overcast conditions. Nor will a variety of perennial flowers, such as lily-of-the-valley, hosta and wild ginger, that you can plant in small mini-elevated gardens with strips of grass (perhaps mondo grass) as borders.

This technique of how to build a terraced garden is called stripcropping. These strp gardens are better than strip malls, will contribute to the health of the ecosystem, and will make you happy that you chose to live in a rainy climate.

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Guru Spotlight
Linda Handiak