The Terrace Project: Year One (part I)

The Terrace ProjectBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

When Dean and I moved to our new place in August of 2011, we knew that we had a few landscaping challenges ahead of us.  The first was the hilly driveway, which was so washed-out I was afraid to drive on it.  The next was the vast expanse of rocky hillside on which our home was perched.  It not only had little in the way of leaf mast or groundcover, but also served as a major conduit for runoff during heavy rains.  The third challenge would be converting the small front and side yard, made up of solid red clay and weeds, into a herb and vegetable garden. But the ultimate challenge came in the form of a pair of terraces cut into the face of the hillside behind the house and the mud-fest that was the backyard.  If I thought the driveway was scary, the bare, eroding terraces were a downright nightmare.

When we first looked at the house, the driveway and the terraces didn’t look too bad.  But by the time we purchased the property almost a year and a half later, the situation had become critical.  Having tackled many landscaping jobs in the past, Dean and I believed that if anyone could mend the damage, we could.  Besides, the house and the land it sat on, were exactly what we had been looking for.

We especially love the way the house sits perched halfway between the top of the ridge and the small valley down below.  Every window in the house affords a new and interesting view of the forest, ridgeline or valley – each presenting a new angle from which to admire our little piece of Ozarks heaven.  That is, of course, unless you happen look out of the back door.   There, not 20’ away, looms two very noticeable 40’ long by 5’ tall red clay terraces that have been cut into the side of the hill.

Massive erosion of the hillside exposes layers of rock.

These terraces, or “berms” as we have come to call them, were made in order to create a level building site.  Most of the rubble and clay removed from the hillside was pushed forward and held in place by a boulder retaining wall.  This raised platform would act as a level yard.  While it is not uncommon to do this when building on a hillside, usually the raw portion of the hillside is also stabilized through retaining walls or vegetation.  Unfortunately, the previous owner incurred an injury that not only prevented him from finishing the work he had begun, but from doing something to stabilize the now very-exposed red clay berms, as well.

By the time we stepped into the picture, the berms had been neglected for at lease two years.  The erosion that had taken place over that time was evident in the three-foot deep washouts and exposed bedrock and in the sediment trail that led all the way down the valley and into a large creek that feeds into the North Fork of the White River.

When we first arrived, my first concern was not the environmental impact on the losing stream or even the much larger river beyond – but on the river of boot-sucking clay silt and the flood of water that had been pushed across the backyard and up against the house.

Massive erosion of hillside terraces caused by lack of vegetation.

Of course, when we moved into the house that August, the Ozarks had been suffering from a drought of Biblical proportions.  It was 114 degrees in the shade and it hadn’t rained in nearly a month.   The grass was bone-dry and the earth as brittle as a clay pot.  We knew that we had a lot of work to do in a short period of time and so we sat down one night to list the most pressing challenges in the order they should be tackled.  We decided that since it was so dry and the job so huge, that the terraces would not be first on the list.

After securing a few necessities – including a shovel and a metal-tined rake – we set to work repairing the long and dangerously gullied driveway.  Getting through just the first phase of this job took us nearly two weeks to complete.  And just as we were contemplating our first stab at repairing the terraces, it rained – hard.

That night we stood at the back window and watched with a strange combination of awe and horror as the runoff from the hillside cascaded over the edges of the terraces in a waterfall of rocks, clay and mud; enlarging the already deep funnels and gullies.  In the morning, the situation was even worse – the backyard was solid water almost to the foundation – the little bit of water that was managing to drain away ran in thick, red rivulets down the natural swale alongside the south-east side of the house.  Dean crawled underneath the house and found the ground soaking wet from one side of the foundation to the other.  It was at that moment that we knew there was no more time to waste.

Waiting for the water to subside was out of the question.   And so, after weeks of backbreaking labor on the driveway and armed with nothing more than our trusty $5 shovel and metal-tined rake, we dug a 40’ long ditch across the yard, hoping to drain the water from the swimming pool formerly known as our back yard.  From our very first step into this literal quagmire, we were covered in red, sticky mud from shoe to elbow – stopping only to chisel the clinging mess from the bottoms of our shoes and from the shovel so that we could continue to work.

As the weeks went on and the clay dried into its brick-hard form, we filled in the deepest gullies in the terraces with rocks and clay that had been washed down into the yard.  We dug more trenches along the flat parts of the terraces, trying to channel the runoff downhill towards the natural swale where the water should have been going all along.  We used rocks and wet clay to create curbs or dams along the lip of each terrace, hoping they would keep the water from spilling over the sides and down the naked face of the berms.

Repairing erosion gullies with packed earth and stone.

Every time it rained, we watched with bated breath to see which parts held and which parts failed.  In the morning we would be back at it – repairing washouts, filling in low spots, digging trenches, removing sediment and building ever larger curbs that would (hopefully) confine and re-direct the next rainfall.  We did this for weeks on end, until one day – one miraculously wonderful day – it rained hard and the berm held.

The terraces after most of the major repairs had been made.

We jumped for joy that day.  All our backbreaking work had finally paid off.  The berm was holding and the runoff was being directed neatly down the swale and into the valley below.  At last, we could finally enjoy hearing the rain fall over the parched landscape and sleep well, knowing the dam had been plugged – at least for now.  Unless we could stabilize the bare earth, all that we had done to stop the erosion would only be a temporary fix.  Our work was not yet finished and many more months would go by before phase two could be completed.

Next week, I will share with you how we managed to stabilize the berm and how it’s faring now.  I hope to see you then.

© 2012 Jill Henderson
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
Jill’s work appears in several publications, including The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.  Her books on gardening, herbs and nature can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.

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9 responses to “The Terrace Project: Year One (part I)

  1. You are such hard-workers. These situations are everywhere in the Ozarks & can really do damage to foundations, yards & driveways. Can’t wait to see the “after” and how you did it. Love, Jerre

    • Thank you, Jerre. We do the best we can with limited resources. We’re just thankful we were able to handle the situation ourselves…at least so far. 🙂 And you’re right, these types of situations occur more often than we might imagine. Quick and sure-handed remediation is crucial for protecting watersheds and connected ecosystems – and in our case, our home. Seeing that kind of damage first hand, I’m much more aware of cuts in highway embankments, around ditches and road construction sites.

  2. I find it interesting that you tackled a project like this shovels. Typically, a backhoe or some such piece of heavy equipment would be prefered. This Fall, I found myself waiting for a neighbor to finish with his compact excavator so I could do a small project. As usual, he had issues and never quite made it. Frustrated with the delay, I began getting the site ready when my son showed up with a shovel and said let’s go. Two people, two shovels can move an amazing amount of dirt without the hassels of waiting on a neighbor, breakdowns and so on. That said, I’m glad that I have a small tractor with a bucket to help with the heavy work, however, never underestimate a shovel in determined hands.

    • Thanks, Bob. You’re right; ‘two people, and two shovels can move an amazing amount of dirt…’ and did we ever! We talked about hiring someone to come in and do the job, but our problem was two-fold: First, since we had just bought our place, we didn’t have the money to hire a landscaper/heavy equipment operator (plus we’re just cheap! LOL). Secondly, the area in which to maneuver was relatively small and we felt that a front end loader, even a small one, would do more damage in the long run. It took us longer and was definitely harder, but in the end, we were able to maneuver around what little vegetation still existed and spot fix the smaller problem areas as needed. But you nailed it when you said ‘never understimate a shove in determined hands!’

  3. I already read Part II, so I know this has an even lovlier ending. Yay! Very interesting story to read. I, too, have had several adventures trying to divert water – usually in the thick of the deluge – and it’s always a battle. Sump pump repairs, gouging ugly trenches thru the lawn in the downpour, finding out your only paid of men’s rubber work boots are no longer waterproof, finding the last water pump on the shelf after running all over town, gutter replacements, foundation crack filling, and dreaming that the French drain fairy will bless you while you sleep. After you deal with the water successfully, then you have to deal with the damage. But, even thru the worst of it, I never cursed the rain. 🙂

    • Thanks, Karla. Having spent some time at your place when Ida was there, I know exactly what you’re talking about and I don’t envy you the task of having to attempt to redirect the water flowing down the hillside and into and around the house. Too many homes in this area were built that way. I always wonder if they gave much thought as to how the water would act once obstructions were put in its place! But I’m glad you’re anger isn’t directed at the rain! In the extreme drought we’re in, I think everyone says a quiet ‘thank you’ any time we get measurable precipitation…even if it means hassels dealing with the runoff! If we can ever help in any way, please let us know.

  4. Jill, the scary part of your {otherwise charming & eloquent} story is that it is repeated so many times throughout Arkansas. -And that was BEFORE they began ‘fracking’ our central shale ridges!

    In just 5 years I’ve seen hundreds of places being carelessly strip-mined just to get fill for the drill pads and roads. Then, up go the signs: “For Sale by Owner,” which should Also be legally required to say, [in large letters:] “Buyer Beware!!”

    • I hadn’t heard that. As you probably know, I’m no fan of fracking and this is just another in a very long list of environmental degradations that are inherant to the practice. It’s one thing to have a small area of exposed land -like I have- to deal with, but to have large tracts of private land that have been stripped to the bones for fill dirt without any promise of reclamation should be illegal. This is where the notion of “property rights” goes down the tubes. Those bare tracts will dump thousands of tons of sediment into small creeks and sinkholes and migrate to public waters, including aquifers, which will affect hundreds, if not thousands of people. I really feel for you and for the future of Arkansas.

  5. Pingback: The Terrace Project: Year Five | Show Me Oz

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