Terraces: how to make them in your garden

Reshape your lawn

Inspirations / How to

11/05/2021

Estimated reading time 5 minutes

If you have a sloping garden, you can choose to either keep its natural shape, or tame it by levelling the ground to create a terraced garden. This latter solution continues an ancient technique: agricultural terracing has been practised all over the world (and still is) to grow crops in inaccessible areas where other systems would not work, such as along coasts or in valleys.

In Italy, when the conditions for growing are extreme—as is the case with terrace farming—we call it "heroic agriculture". Throughout the country you will find extraordinary examples of agricultural terraces in different localities, from north to south: for example in Liguria, Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino, Veneto, Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, Basilicata, Apulia and Sicily. Today we explain how to make the most of a sloping garden by turning it into terraces.

Ideas for a sloping garden: terracing

Much of Italy is hilly and mountainous, and terraces are a typical example of “making a virtue of necessity”, as we like to say, which means making the best of a difficult situation, for example by growing things on land that is usable for little or nothing else. Terracing a plot means, on the one hand, smoothing it out to create useful surfaces and, on the other hand, building retaining structures to keep the levelled soil in place.

But let's get back to your garden: how can you level it if the surface is sloping? Terraces are not only used for farming, they are also a good solution for styling a garden: to make it more stable, more useful and accessible or, simply, to achieve a precise aesthetic effect.

So, with terracing you can get the most out of your sloping garden and optimise the available resources (soil and water). Here, in detail, are all the benefits of terracing a garden:

  • Reduces the steepness of the slope.

  • Stabilises the soil.

  • Creates useful surfaces that you can repurpose as lawns or areas for relaxation, entertaining, sport, children's play etc.; or cultivate with decorative flower beds, vegetable patches or by planting ornamental or fruit trees.

  • Limits soil erosion caused by rain.

  • Preserves the fertility of the soil, protecting it from the impoverishment caused by erosion.

  • Controls rainwater by slowing it down and channelling it.

  • Makes the habitat conducive to plant growth: each terrace ensures better exposure to light and air, the soil stays fertile and retains moisture, and the supporting walls store the sun’s heat.

How to terrace a garden

Let's start by seeing how terracing is done. A terraced garden is comparable to a staircase, where each terrace is a step consisting of:

  • Flat or gently sloping cultivation plane, supported on the downhill side by a retaining wall. Generally speaking, the steeper the slope, the narrower the cultivation plane and the higher the wall. The opposite is true for gardens with a gentler gradient.

  • Retaining (or support) wall: formed by the above-ground structure and the foundation under the ground surface, which is essential for the wall's strength. Retaining walls are generally not vertical, but rather inclined towards or away from the retained earth, depending on the user’s needs and the construction technique. The thickness of the wall must be proportionate to the load it sustains, i.e. the backfill and free-draining material interposed between the wall itself and the terraced soil.

  • Backfill and free-draining material/system: free-draining material, which can be gravel, is used to drain rainwater absorbed by the terraced soil and distribute pressure evenly throughout the retaining wall. Backfill, consisting of soil excavated to make the terraces, fills the empty space between wall and terrace, up to ground level.

Terraces also include the links between levels, such as stairs, steps and ramps. In particular, steps and ramps allow you to easily access terraces even with garden tractors, transporters and other gardening equipment necessary for maintaining your terraced garden.

Thanks to their tracks, Oleo-Mac compact transporters and professional transporters can climb a maximum gradient of 17% with a heavy load — up to 350 and 550 kg respectively. Whereas, with a professional garden tractor you can move, transport (with a trailer) and mow on steep routes and terrain: in particular the APACHE 92 EVO 4x4 with all-wheel drive can climb gradients of up to 32%.

How to terrace your garden? After removing existing vegetation, here are the steps you need to follow for each terrace:

  • Dig a trench for the retaining wall’s foundation, following the elevation of the ground surface.

  • Build the foundation, which must be wider than the wall itself.

  • Proceed to build the above-ground portion of the wall.

  • Fill the space between wall and terrace with free-draining material and backfill until you have a level growing surface.

For the terrace retaining walls you can choose between different construction materials and systems. Traditionally such walls were typically made of “dry stone”, i.e. stone blocks laid without mortar to bind them together, but this is a technique that few people practice nowadays. Alternatively, you can make the walls with elements of stone and/or bricks bound with mortar or concrete. You can pour the concrete in place, inside shuttering, or use precast interlocking concrete blocks, which should be dry-mounted.

You can refine the appearance of concrete retaining walls by treating or colouring them, cladding them in stone or porcelain stoneware tiles or, if they are made from precast blocks, using them as containers for sown or transplanted plants, thereby transforming them into a living ornament.

Although dry-stone walls are permeable and allow good drainage of the soil they support, you should install a drainage system to prevent heavy rain saturating the ground and thereby overloading the wall (whether made of concrete or mortar-bound stone or brick) with the risk of damaging it.

Earlier we mentioned garden tractors: find out which ones have the perfect turning radius for manoeuvring and navigating even confined spaces, such as terraces, in our article on garden tractors for the vegetable plot, vineyard or orchard.

Thinking of buying a transporter? Here you can find our guide to choosing a transporter and 3 good reasons for buying a transporter.

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