Erracing edible gardens

Steep learning curve: Even if your property resembles the Hillary Step on Mt Everest, don’t let that put you off creating a terraced vege garden.
Steep learning curve: Even if your property resembles the Hillary Step on Mt Everest, don’t let that put you off creating a terraced vege garden.

Looking out at the Waiheke landscape got me thinking about the challenges you face when your garden has the kind of terrain a thar would happily reside in.

Having to don crampons every time you want to pluck some veges for tea probably doesn't appeal that much to most people - unless you are super fit, under 50 and sport buttocks of steel, that is.

Terraced gardens and orchards are necessary to make the most of our mountainous geography though, and many plants and trees do just as well on a slope as they would on the flat.

Trees especially are good to plant on hillsides as they reinforce the geological structure, drink up a lot of the rainfall and prevent the soil from eroding in the wind and sun.

The best way to make the most of a hillside or multi-levelled garden is to terrace it. That is to construct wide or shallow level strips that are formed with the use of any manner of reinforcing materials such as wooden retaining walls, ponga logs, bricks, stone, recycled materials such as corrugated iron, fencing panels, straw or hay bales, even wire mesh back filled with rocks or chunky, soil retaining mediums.

The options are endless and vary hugely in cost, so don't be put off if your garden resembles the Hillary Step on Mt Everest.

If you are going to build the structure of your terrace garden yourself, ensure the retaining walls are solidly fixed into the ground so they don't collapse and transfer their load into your back rooms. Also, think about the eventual height and vulnerability of trees if they are planted close to the house - brittle trees such as plums can reach five metres in height.

Windbreaks of trees such as olives work well and grow reasonably fast, with a strong root system that anchors them into the hillside.

Planting edibles in order of need is an efficient way to garden. For instance, lettuces and everyday herbs should be located nearest your kitchen door, then high maintenance plants like courgettes and beans after that. Climbing beans can be grown up banisters or hand-rails for maximum space-saving.

Fruit trees such as peaches and apricots enjoy air movement so a breezy, but not gale-force, sunny hilltop can be the perfect site for them. Citrus need full sun and good air movement as well so could lend themselves well to a shelter belt of sorts.

Pears, apples and plums can be fragile as they mature, especially when heavy with fruit so consider espaliering them against walls or fences - the only draw-back to this method, though, is fewer fruit but, if you are growing for your own use, chances are you won't need 100 kilograms of apples every season.

Consider how you are going to maintain your terraced garden. It's all very well building fancy steps, dug into the hillside straight up the side or middle, or even building a funicular, but how are you going to cultivate the terraces themselves safely? Thought should be given to permanent plants or trees on the trickier levels with temporary platforms to safely place a ladder or wheelbarrow to harvest and prune etc. The more accessible levels can be used for annuals and plants that are needed regularly.

If your slope is extreme, you could always build a rest landing of sorts upon which to place a comfy bench with a drinks station so you can catch your breath on the way to the top and admire the view at the same time. That's assuming, of course, that you are as fit as me, which is not much - I am psychologically safe if I assume that most people have the same level of gardening fitness as I do, that way I don't beat myself up for puffing and panting my way up the hill because it's normal.

There are some stunning examples of terraced gardens on the internet, most of which are achievable for many of us. The only thing they miss - and one which I would definitely write into the structural brief - is a flying fox upon which to descend into my Hillary Step-style garden with maximum hilarity and no panache whatsoever. It could always be replaced with a luge track once I am too decrepit to swing from my arms - a stop barrier made from springy camomile and arnica to soothe any crashes.

Whoever said gardening wasn't fun?


A website I found most inspiring: