How to Landscape a Terraced Garden


For impact, it is hard to beat a well-designed and well-maintained terraced hillside. The trees, shrubs and flowers towering above the viewer make the entire garden an impressive sight. When creating your terraced garden, select plants for their ability to hold the soil and improve the soil so it will absorb more water. Use drip irrigation and water harvesting techniques that give the terraces adequate water without runoff. Add steps and paths allowing access the garden for maintenance. All of these practices will keep the terraces attractive and the plants healthy.

Plant Selection

  • Prostrate plants with deep, extensive root systems, such as creeping rosemary, planted at the front of terraces can hang over the walls. Behind them, colorful flowering perennials and shrubs with deep root systems, like ceanothus or California lilac, will hold the soil and add variety to the landscape. Trees and large shrubs planted at the back of the top terrace will hold the soil above the terraces and provide a backdrop for the other plantings.

Irrigation and Rainfall

  • Drip irrigation is the most appropriate way to irrigate terraced hillsides. It will deliver water to the root system without allowing runoff that could produce erosion. Sculpting the terraces with a small dip in the center will hold rainwater so it can soak in, reducing the need for irrigation. Areas where water runs off in heavy rains can be landscaped with rocks to slow runoff and reduce erosion. The top terraces will be dry, while lower terraces will get more moisture.

Soil improvements

  • Covering the soil with 3 to 4 inches of compost or aged manure and tilling it in before planting allows the organic matter to act as a sponge, absorbing and holding water that will be released to the plants when the weather is dry. It also makes more nutrients available to the plants. Organic mulches between plants, like shredded bark or vineyard mulch, are less likely to wash or blow away.

Access and Maintenance

  • The terrace landscaping will need regular maintenance. A narrow path along the back of each terrace with steps at one end will offer access. This path can be used to reach both the plants in the back of the terrace it is on and the front of the terrace above. If the terraces are more than 5 feet wide, stepping stones can be placed between the plants to provide access to the center of the terrace.

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  • Photo Credit Saint Emilion Gardens image by Marta Reimpell from
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