Alley cropping in a hillside terrace system

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $2,833.79
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Weston Lombard
Solid Ground Farm

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: garlic, cucurbits
  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants


  • Crop Production: cover crops, irrigation, no-till, nutrient cycling, application rate management, stubble mulching, contour farming, terraces
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, workshop, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: agritourism
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: mulches - living, mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, permaculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    Trying to grow annual crops on steep Appalachian hillsides can be difficult, dangerous, and damaging.  If the tractor does not flip over and roll down the hill, then the tilled topsoil and any added fertilizer certainly will.  Either way something gets damaged.  To remedy this situation, I would like to research a low-cost terrace system for growing annual crops.  The terraces will be  supported by earth berms that are planted with fertility building perennials used to hold in the soil, while fixing nitrogen and mining nutrients.  The result is a form of alley cropping modified to meet the needs of hillside farmers (Alley cropping is an agroforestry technique of growing alternating strips of crops and trees and shrubs.  Using nitrogen fixing trees, the soil is improved as they are pruned and the crops are shielded from high winds).

    With a Bobcat (a small excavator) I will create a series of 5-6’ wide, 70’ long earth-bermed terraces built on the contour of a hillside.  These flat cultivable strips will also efficiently collect and hold rainwater and prevent erosion of topsoil and added fertilizer.  These terraces will be held in place by berms made from the soil cut out of them and stabilized by deep-rooted perennial mulch plants.  The chosen plants are ones that fix nitrogen, accumulate nutrients from subsoil, or produce large amounts of biomass, and then when cut provide mulch that slowly decomposes and releases plant soluble nutrients from above and sloughs nutrients to the terrace crops through their roots below.  The nutrient rich mulch will provide the additional benefits of all mulch in helping with moisture retention, temperature moderation, and weed suppression.  In addition to aiding the growth of the terrace crop in these ways, many of the selected plants provide source materials for aerated compost teas, and medicinal teas and salves.

    With minimal cost and effort a fallow hillside is transformed into a productive, self-supporting, fertility building, terrace system.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    One objective of the experiment is to show the increased water, soil, and nutrient holding capacity of a flat terraced bed compared to a cultivated hillside bed on a slope.  

    A second objective is to test the nutrient cycling potential of various perennial plants in a cut and carry mulch system.  The theory is that the deep rooted perennial mulch plants will mine nutrients from the subsoil and accumulate them in their leaves.  When cut and placed as mulch around the crop plants they will suppress weeds, retain moisture, and slowly release nutrients in plant soluble form.  These crops may also be better adept at absorbing liquid fertilizers than some traditional crop plants.  If fertilizer were to run off the terrace or be leached away during rain, then the deep rooted plants on the earth berm below will quickly suck up the nutrients and retain them until these perennials are cut and used as mulch allowing for maximum use of added fertilizer.

    The experiments will demonstrate whether the cost of establishing such a system can be out weighed by a decreased need for fertilizer, irrigation, and other weed control methods.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.