Topography is the study of land forms, or the terrain. I goofed and used the word topography in a previous post when what I actually meant was terrain. In an ideal world, the terrain of your homestead would have relatively flat south-facing land, with some shelter from winds provided by hills or trees. The topsoil would be deep and erosion potential minimal. In the real world, things will be different. Steep slopes affect your ability to grow crops – running heavy equipment over sloping land increases your risk of an accident and plowing on slopes increases the potential for erosion. Steep slopes are often rocky as well. Low-lying flat land in a wet area will be more likely to flood. This sort of terrain may also have marshy areas and vernal pools, as well as chronic drainage problems. However, it may be an ideal place to dig a pond. Swamps and marshes are often rich in organic matter as erosion brings in topsoil and plants such as reeds and cattails die and decay.
Our Ranch Terrain
I mentioned in an earlier post that our location increases the chances of adequate rainfall over the long term. We are also high enough that we get snow most winters. Snow is better than heavy rain because it means less run-off and erosion. We don’t need to worry about floods (frankly, I consider anyone who builds right beside a river or anywhere in a known flood plain as mentally deficient). However, our land faces north, which means less sunlight. That’s why our kitchen garden is on a south-facing slope of the hill below the house. The terrain of the property is such that while we have some steep slopes, we also have gently sloped or flat areas good for pasture and orchards. Even the steeper slopes offer some grazing, and they are also where most of our trees grow.
Water and Terrain
In dry areas, my first criterion would be terrain that supports increased rainfall, as I noted in the previous post. Since that often means relatively steep slopes, study the work of farmers in Israel or the Far East, who create terraces on the hillsides to increase flat land with maximum sun exposure. Terraces also allow water collection when it does rain. Interconnected drainage systems between terraces promote better water distribution. In wet areas, terraces can reduce erosion by helping to prevent heavy runoff. Areas with poor drainage can be successfully reclaimed, although it often means a considerable investment of time, labor and money. Land is rarely perfectly flat, so trenches, canals and underground perforated pipes can move the excess water somewhere else.
Terrain – Hedgerows and Shelterbelts
Flat areas are more prone to erosion and may suffer from cold or harsh winds. If the land is flat and there are no hills, you can plant windbreaks to shield your home and garden from the wind. During the Dust Bowl years, the federal government planted millions of trees to form a shelterbelt reaching from Texas to Canada. Mixed flora windbreaks can also help support beneficial insects and pollinators. One of the best features of old rural England was the hedgerows. Full of nut and fruit trees, flowering shrubs, brambles and other vines, they offered food, cover for small animals and nesting spots for birds. Hedgerows also confined farm animals and could last for centuries if properly maintained. Hedgerows decrease the need for lumber or metal fencing and are – to my mind – infinitely more attractive.
Adapt Rather than Fight
My final word on terrain – work with what you’ve got. Accept that you cannot change the basic terrain and adapt accordingly. North-facing property? Make sure the kitchen garden faces south, preferably on a slight slope, to maximize sun exposure. Best house site is in the full glare of the summer all summer? Plant mixed deciduous trees for shade. Hilly pastures? Go for milk goats rather than cows. The goats can forage more effectively and will be less destructive to the ground. They also require less feed. Gullies from erosion? Improve the drainage and fill the gullies with brush or tree trimmings. The brush slows the force of running water and traps silt, which will gradually fill the gullies. You might not be able to change the terrain, but working with it results in a more productive and more beautiful homestead.