Terraced Garden Beds in 8 Simple Steps
Most of the gardens I’ve built have been on hillsides or slopes. Especially here in West Virginia, flat land can be hard to come by. To create productive garden beds that don’t erode, we build terraced garden beds. These beds are quick and cheap to make with a bit of work. Create terraced beds on your property to make the most of sloping land and avoid erosion in your garden beds.
Gather some materials for your terraced garden beds.
You’ll need something to form the wall of your terrace. We generally use logs or slabs from our sawmill. They will eventually rot, but they’ve worked well for us. Using bricks or stones would be more permanent but will require more time and possibly money if you buy materials. These aren’t the same as traditional raised beds. You only need a wall on the downhill side.
If you’re using logs, boards, or slabs like us, you’ll also need stakes to hold them in place. We’ve made stakes out of straight, sturdy branches and scrap lumber. Cut stakes to about 2 feet in length. You can use a shaving horse like the one pictured above and a draw knife to create a pointed end on your stakes. Alternatively, use a saw or an ax to angle one end so that it will be easier to pound into the ground.
If you’re working with a steep slope you may wish to make the stakes even long so that you can make the bed taller.
To begin building your bed, first place your stakes. Your bed should be roughly perpendicular to the slope of the land. If you are particular about how things look, I suggest laying out beds with small stakes (like tent stakes) and string before you begin pounding in larger stakes.
Usually, I eye-ball it. I begin by laying my board or log where I’d like it to go. Then I pound in a stake on one end and push or lean the board or log against it to get an idea of where to place other stakes. For 8 foot lengths of board on a mild slope, I can usually get away with just two stakes, but you may need more. You want your new beds to be sturdy!
Our beds are generally about 3 feet wide with 1 1/2 foot paths between them. Though we have made larger beds in the past, I prefer this size because I can easily reach across it for planting, weeding, and harvesting without stepping into the bed. The paths allow us to walk and use a wheelbarrow between beds easily. If possible, you want to avoid walking in your garden beds as it compacts the soil.
Attach your board or log.
Depending on what you’re using, you may just be able to set your board or log against your stakes. Eventually, the soil behind it will help hold it in place.
However, you can also attach your board to your stakes with screws. This step is necessary if you’re building a wall that’s two or more boards tall.
Begin loosening the soil.
We generally begin by loosening the soil with a garden or broadfork. Our friend bought Scotty a Meadow Creature Farmer’s Broadfork a few years ago, and we love it (they’re not a sponsor. We just like it).
We have heavy clay soil that can be tough to work by hand. Lifting and loosening with a garden or broadfork makes the next steps much easier. However, if you live somewhere with really sandy soil, you may not find this as necessary.
Create a level planting surface.
Basically, you want to move soil from the uphill side of the bed to the downhill side of your bed against your logs or boards. It may seem odd at first, but this is how you will create flat beds and eliminate erosion.
If I’m working with loose soil, a garden rake sometimes does the job, but generally, I use a grape hoe, which is sturdier than a standard garden hoe, to break up clods of soil and pull them towards the downhill side of the bed. Then I may switch back to the rake to further break up the soil and smooth the bed.
Add organic material.
It is possible to skip this step and begin planting in your bed immediately after it’s complete. However, I prefer to add some organic matter to improve the soil.
One option is to add a couple of inches of finished compost. This is probably your best option if you want to plant your new bed right away. Finished compost will provide nutrients and add organic matter to the soil without tying up nitrogen or burning your plants.
You have other options if you’re building these beds ahead of the season. We like to build the bed and then add organic material like leaves, manure, and hay from the chicken coop, grass clippings, and litter from our rabbit’s litter box (we use hay and natural wood pellets) as we come across it. This material breaks down right in the bed and improves the soil.
Plant your terraced garden beds.
There’s no limit to what you plant in terraced beds. We’ve planted sweet corn, tomatoes, garlic, peas, strawberries, beets, potatoes, and more. If you’re growing in a newly created bed, the downhill side of the bed will generally have the loosest soil, which is ideal for carrots and other root crops. I also like to use cattle panels and metal tea posts to create trellises on the downhill side. We’ve grown peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans on these trellises.
Maintain your terraced garden beds.
As I mentioned above, you may eventually need to replace the wall of your bed if you’re using a material that will rot like boards. Other than that, maintaining your beds is all about improving the soil.
- Always rotate crops in your beds. We use a four-year rotation by plant family to prevent nutrient depletion, pest, and disease issues.
- Continue adding organic matter. Make your own compost and add it and mulch to your beds every year!
- Plant cover crops. Always sow fall cover crops to keep the soil covered in the winter. Allow your beds to rest for a season if possible and sow them with cover crops.
That’s all it takes! These simple terraced beds have allowed us to grow big harvests on hillsides while avoiding erosion. Do you have a hillside farm or garden? Let us know about your experience in the comments!