Contour Gaardening for Efficiency
Image courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Contour gardening is a way to use the land’s contours to maximize the use of available resources for abundant harvest yields. Here’s what contour gardening is and how you can pull it off.
HOW CONTOUR GARDENING CAME TO BE
As long as agriculture has been around, farming flat land has been ideal. Gravity, after all, can turn a lovely hillside into a grueling challenge. As population densities increase around the world, however, global agriculture is being pushed from the flat prairie lands to less-than-ideal, sloping terrain.
Unfortunately, flat land growing practices like tilling–which were appropriate on flat lands–have been transferred to the slopes. An inappropriate use of farming techniques the world over has caused an increase in soil erosion and an astounding loss of soil fertility.
Contour farming is a cultivation technique that is appropriate for gently sloping lands. It is a way to take advantage of contours to mitigate erosion and maximize the absorption of rain and nutrients.
In contour farming, crops are planted across a slope following the natural elevation contour lines, rather than up and down the hill. When planted along the natural curve of the land, gullies and soil erosion are reduced. In this way, water can more easily infiltrate the soil and be absorbed. This technique of farming the contour lines can be used for both annual and perennial crops.
Image courtesy of Carl Wycoff
As more and more people are looking for effective solutions for gardening in small or challenging areas, the idea of contour farming has been converted to the backyard scale.
Let’s take a look at how contour gardening can be used at a small scale.
In the backyard, raised garden berms built along the contour can be used for either annual or perennial crops. The berms can even be lined with stones or rocks, if desired, for added erosion prevention and moisture retention. I like the aesthetics of a stone border, too. In a vegetable garden, permanent raised beds can be built along the contour for the same purpose.
Swale trenches could be dug in the pathways for even more water retention, but this isn’t necessary. A raised planting berm (with or without the trench) along the contour offers an elevated gardening solution for plants that don’t do well in waterlogged soil, or in areas where soil is unstable and prone to erosion.
Raised beds along a contour will create microclimates of sun and shade, creating diverse growing areas and improving soil ecology and rainwater infiltration even more.
HOW TO CREATE A CONTOUR GARDEN
1: MARK THE ELEVATION CONTOUR LINES.
An A-frame level is a simple, handmade tool that can help to identify an elevation contour. To see what an A-frame level looks like and how to use it, see the video in my post How to Construct a Swale.
2: BUILD A RAISED BED OR OUTLINE A BERM ALONG THE CONTOUR LINE.
Construct raised beds along a contour line that are 3- to 4-feet wide. The bed can be as long as you’d like it.
Alternatively, to form a berm, outline the proposed garden space with more stakes or flags.
3: SHEET MULCH THE PROPOSED GARDEN AREA.
Before filling the raised bed or berm with soil, use a digging fork to aerate the existing soil. Then cover the existing ground inside the bed with cardboard. Overlap the ends so that weeds can’t find any openings.
Now, fill the raised bed or form the berm with compost soil. It is likely that you will have to import some soil, but to reduce costs you can layer purchased soil with other organic materials such as aged manure, shredded and aged leaf mulch, and/or composted wood chips. Be sure the top 6 inches is compost soil.
4: FINE-TUNE THE CONTOUR GARDEN.
If you have created a berm, line it with stones or rocks if desired. Let the new beds rest for at least two weeks before planting; three months is ideal. For this reason, building a contour garden in the fall is a good strategy.
During this resting time, expect the soil to settle, so retain extra soil to add to the beds before planting.
Now you’re ready to plant! This will be an excellent growing area for both perennials and annuals alike.
Contour gardens will reduce irrigation time, mitigate erosion, and retain nutrients on site for a highly productive and efficient garden.
What will you do with your extra time now that your irrigation time is reduced?
Via Tenth Acre Farm