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Creating soil in a new garden on the side of a hill

Posts: 26
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I am wising to turn the side of a hill into a garden.  Can anyone tell me how best to build up the soil?  I know it involves cardboard, soil, compost and maybe Azomite, but can you tell me in what order?
Posts: 1474
Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
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The first things I did when I got started were ....
...get a comprehensive soil analysis.
...invite the local ag agent out to tell me about my soil and my region.

While using compost is seldom ever a mistake, I'd like to know what I'm starting with before adding cardboard, azomite, or whatever else. What's growing in the spot now? What's the drainage like? Any run off problems? Sun, shade, or partial shade? Wind? What's your rain pattern like? How steep is the hill? Which direction does the hill face? (East, west, north, south). What do you intend to start out growing? Are rocks an issue? Do you plan to terrace, create swales, create hugel trenches or mounds?
Posts: 40
Location: Dublin, Ireland
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Hi Pavel.
Su asked you what's growing now? Bill Mollison says that "observation" is the first task. So, do a detailed survey. Draw a map in the largest scale you can manage.
What plants are growing? Trees, shrubs, ground cover etc.
What animals use the land for good or ill.
What's the underlying soil like.. acid or alkali (Su's soil test will confirm)
Where does the sun rise & set relative to your plot?
What the primary wind direction. Where do storms come from?
Is there any fire risk in the area?
If you have this info down on paper by the time the Ag rep gets there, s/he'll have a lot more to work with in giving advice.
First thing plant something, anything, to make a start. Nitrogen fixer maybe. Beans will give nice flowers, beans and
Good luck.
Posts: 145
Location: Courtrai Area, Flanders Region, Belgium Europe
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Yes observing is the best start.

Adding to what Robert and Su said.

- Add heavy metals to the soil analysis.
- Check the drainage (how fast does water sink into the soil)
- Check the water level in the ground, this determines what you can grow. If you cannot construct a well. Dig holes in the ground. The color of the soil 'layers' is indicative of the groundwater level.
- Check the soil granulometry (what percentage is clay, silt, sand, gravel or boulder). As a rule small particles wash down and build up near the semi permanent water table. So do iron, manganese, etc.....
- Can you compact the soil to build a pond ?....
- Do not add stuff to the soil you cannot take out again. If you want to experiment with your soil and 'additives' such as biochar, use containers because once you add something to the soil, you will not get it out. So make sure you don't add stuff you may not want later.
- If you are operating in Eastern Europe you may want to know the soil type (Loess, Dekzand, ...)

Soil is seldom uniform over a plot of land and it certainly is not uniform in a vertical sense. Drainage, groundwatertable, groundwatercomposition are not constant. They change with the seasons.

You may want to consider using hedges, terraces, swales, .... You need to know the above to decide where you those structures are placed best.

Compost heaps are not all the same. Some work well with certain organic wastes that supposedly don't compost well f.e. citrus. My compost heap does very well with citrus. I used harvested, rough compost from my pile to seed other compost heaps. I hope to see later this year if that works well.

Also look at your local wild and usefull plants and talk to the locals growing plants and/or harvesting wild plants.

ABOVE ALL :       TAKE NOTES, MAKE PICTURES. The memory is unreliable.

Posts: 25
Location: Cobden, ON
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Organize the beds on contour
Raise them at least 12" by bringing path material onto bed top
Apply manure
Cover crop with winter rye and red clover
Mow the rye
Let Clover come through
Cover with a weed barrier (it's been a year now)
Fry the clover with weed barrier
Apply compost
Begin Guild cropping

Yes analyze soil
Yes plan to integrate trees and annuals
Yes cover Crop over winter

[Thumbnail for IMG_7776.JPG]
Guild Crop Rotation from book
[Thumbnail for IMG_3305.JPG]
Posts: 1376
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Everything goes down the hill - especially water and soil. That is the reason why all ancient farmers did terraces and they used to slope towardes the hill slightly.
Now that is a pain but if yuo really want to grow something keep in mind that after all the hard work it is easier to work on a terrace than on a steep hill....
Posts: 1354
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Ditto to what's been said above.

You build in the order of greatest longevity, so your earthworks/swales are first.

Then mulch.  If you want to build soil, you've got to get as much carbon onto the soil surface as you can scrounge.  Plant a cover crop and then chop and drop it.  Get wood chips by the truck load and spread them thickly over the surface of the soil.  Keep every single leaf and twig on your property -- never let a single carbon molecule go to waste.

Whatever the question, mulch is the answer.  Carbon feeds the entire soil food web.  After a year or two of heavy mulching, you'll be astounded with what a difference it has made.
Posts: 450
Location: Western Kenya
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I just finished planting a west-facing and extremely eroded hillside.  It wasn't part of the plan, but the boy I hired to hand plow the valley misunderstood (or ignored) the boundary and continued right up the hill.

I don't have the time of the money for major restorative work in this marginal hillside so I made a series of mini terraces, sloping back toward the hill, on contour (eyeballing, not perfect) and planted with bambura groundnut.  Nitro fixer that doesn't mind crap soil.  If it does well, I'll harvest it.  If not I'll just leave it to rot.  I mulched the rest of the terrace area with semi composted weed mulch which will hopefully hold the soil in place when the rains really start.  We had a storm last night, and I am pleased that there doesn't appear to be any erosion damage.  Once the groundnuts are sprouted, I'll apply more mulch.

Anytime you are working on a hillside I think erosion control has to be your first concern, or all the good stuff will wash down and away.  I prefer this mini terrace method to control water and to create a textured surface that will hold your new soil in place.

Good luck! Please post pictures of your progress!
Posts: 21
Location: Portland, United States
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Water + Carbon. Together.

This is the secret.  Others have given you good advice to start with water redirection for increased infiltration.  The next level is to use coarse woody debris (logs/stumps, "CWD") to support your earthworks, so that water soaks into the wood (a better sponge than even the densest clay).

Prepare for a cascade-and-pool dynamic as you intercept water; on a slope it is easy for rodents to burrow-drain your swales.  So don't get your hopes up too much about your ability to control/contain water for long.  So it goes.  Or figure out how to become the bane of rodents.

Also, there's lots of talk of mulch, but really, plant roots live and die and inject more carbon *down in the soil* than mulch+worms.  And obviously there's the slope stabilization benefits.  So go low-disturbance, long-lived crop plants (tree/shrub/bramble/vine) if you can.  Yes mulch is great, but don't forget the roots.  Super important.  IMO, mulch's highest contribution to the system is hosting beneficial fungi that network plant roots and CWD.  Think how the internet is a bunch of dispersed users (plants) connected via fiber-optic communication lines (roots + fungal mycellia running through the humic (mulch) layer) and server nodes (CWD).

Have fun!  

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