Show Me Oz – As I was searching for something to write about this week, I came upon two articles I wrote waaay back in 2012 about the twin terraces (or twin terrors, as I used to call them) that “grace” our small backyard. When we first moved here, the two slopes were badly eroded and washing clay and rock against the house and down into the valley. It has been quite a challenge to tame the runoff, stabilize the soil, and grow something, anything at all, on these two steep clay hills, but a lot has changed in the last four years!
If you missed those earlier posts, you can check them out by following these links: The Terrace Project: Year One (part I) and The Terrace Project: Year One (part II). In case you don’t have time to read them now, I’ll get right down to it…
In 2011, the terraces in my backyard looked like this:
It hurts to even look at these pictures, doesn’t it?
After the initial stabilization work, the terraces looked like this:
Once we had most of the soil back on the hill where it should be, we built up a lip along the top edge or each terrace and dug sloped drainage trenches to allow the runoff to flow into the adjacent swale, not the backyard.
At this point the only things growing on the terraces were weeds, which we left because we needed all the vegetation we could get to help control further erosion.
Next, we covered the terraces with mulch, which included grass, leaves, and anything else we could garner from the surrounding valley and forest. We could have bought mulch and topsoil, but that would have cost us a lot of money that we didn’t have and would not entirely solve the problem.
Our next step was to start re-vegetating the hillside and over the next few years we allowed all manner of native plants and even weeds to take over while slowly incorporating ornamental perennials as they became available.
By the next fall, the terraces looked like this:
While not so pretty to the casual observer, to us, the large amount of vegetation on the terraces was a Godsend. At last, we didn’t have to worry about washouts every time it rained. In this photo, the terraces look ragged, but keep in mind that it was taken at the end of a very long, hot, droughty summer. Earlier in the season there were plenty of pretty native wildflowers and grasses, as well as several ornamental perennials that had been planted the year before.
In the years that followed, anything that grew on the terraces was allowed to stay whether they be native gems like cream indigo, toothwort, lyre-leaved Sage or their more wily cousins such as fox grape or yellow clover. If it grew, we let it grow.
In the meantime, we threw anything and everything we could get our hands on at the twin terrors including cuttings and divisions of ornamental perennials from our main garden or thinnings from the gardens of our friends and neighbors. We also brought in select natives from the nearby woods and meadows, and countless seeds of native wildflowers, garden annuals and perennials. And of course, we mulched, mulched, mulched.
What we didn’t do was water the terraces regularly, which naturally makes growing things difficult. Only the very toughest plants survived. We did this on purpose, because tending these sloped terraces is difficult, at best, and watering such a large area thoroughly every few days was out of the question. We also didn’t bring in much “good” soil is a commodity that we are not naturally blessed with here in the Ozarks and I refuse to pay for dirt, especially for a project of this size.
Naturally, many of the plants we tried withered and died in the harsh conditions found on the south-facing terraces where the hot sun baked them in the summer and the cold wet clay drowned or heaved them out in the winter. If a plant couldn’t survive on what was naturally available, then it died. If it did survive, we planted more just like it. The ultimate goal was to have the terrace gardens be self-sustaining.
One spring day, after three years of untold hours of hard work, the terraces looked like this:
What you see in this photo is the young leaves and shoots of many different garden plants that seemed to do well in the clay. Bearded irises, Autumn Joy sedum, daylilies, variegated vinca, daffodils, grape hyacinths and many other ornamentals mixed in with a number of native plants and grasses.
I was astounded by how well certain plants did in this harsh environment. As you can see from the photo below, the tall bearded irises were quite successful.
I thought I had more photos of the terraces last summer, but apparently I don’t. Suffice it to say that we are now very close to having both terraces fully vegetated with beautiful flowering plants, shrubs and grasses. After adding almost 100 new plants to the top terrace this winter, I think they are just about as full as they can get.
By next summer, all of the plants in the terrace project will be fully mature and blooming. A sight I can’t wait to see!
There was a time, not long ago, that I couldn’t dig a hole without worrying that the next rain would find the soft spot and wash it out. But today, there are so many plant roots holding the soil together, that I decided to risk digging deep into the the first terrace to add a much-needed stairway. The stairway will not only make it easier to access the upper terrace, but break up a long monotonous stretch and give us a place to sit and enjoy the view across the valley.
It’s tempting to think that the story of the twin terraces ends here, but it doesn’t. For, while we have come a long way to healing two of the most wicked slashes in the face of a rocky clay hillside that I have ever seen, a gardener’s work is never truly done. So until next time, I leave you with this partial list of plants that have thrived in this humble gardener’s most challenging garden.
- bearded iris
- Siberian iris
- variegated vinca
- naked lady lilies
- grape hyacinth
- Adam’s needle yucca
- sedum ‘Autumn Joy’
- golden current
- lyre-leaved sage
- American dittany (frost flower)
- various groundcover sedums
- white sage
- creeping thyme
- curled tansy
- cream indigo
- dianthus (pink)
- red clover
- yellow clover
- ornamental onion
- fleabane daisy
© 2016 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.