On Terracing Lands, and preparing the Sides of Hills for Cultivation.
THE Chinese form the sides of their hills into terraces before they bring them into cultivation. The same practice obtains in other countries. At the island of Madeira, many of the vineyards occupy terraces, of this sort, from the summit to the base of mountains, where the declivities are equally abrupt as the eastern side of Ladder Hill.
Sir George Staunton, in his Account of the Embassy to China, describes those terraces in the following words :—
"Throughout this short land journey, and far from all great roads, not a mile was travelled without a village ; nor a spot observed, except mere rocks, or perpendicular heights, that was not under cultivation. The villages were not surrounded by walls, but were adorned with handsome gateways at their extremities. The rocky places appear to have been denuded of the earth which had covered them formerly, in order to place it on a surface where it might become more conveniently a medium for the nutriment of plants. Where the face of the hill or mountain is not nearly perpendicular to the level surface of the earth, the slope is converted into a number of terraces one above another, each of which is supported by mounds of stone. By this management it is not uncommon to see the whole face of a mountain completely cultivated to the summit. These stages are not confined to the culture of any particular vegetable. Pulse, grain, yams, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, and a variety of other culinary plants, are produced upon them. A reservoir is sunk in the top of the mountain. The rain water collected in it, is conveyed by channels successively to the different terraces placed upon the mountain's sides. In spots too rugged, barren, steep, or high for raising other plants, the camellia sesanqua, and divers firs, particularly the larch, are cultivated with success.
"The collection of manure is an object of so much attention with the Chinese, that a prodigious number of old men and women, as well as of children, incapable of much other labour, are constantly employed about the streets, public roads, banks of canals and rivers, with baskets tied before them, and holding in their hands small wooden rakes to pick up the dung of animals, and offals of any kind that may answer the purpose of manure; but above every other, except the dung of fowls, the Chinese farmers, like the Romans, according to the testimony of Columella, prefer soil, or that matter which is collected by nightmen in London, in the vicinity of which, it is, in fact, applied to the same uses ; as has already been alluded to in describing a visit to the Lo-wang peasant, in a former part of this work. This manure is mixed sparingly with a portion of stiff loamy earth, and formed into cakes, dried afterwards in the sun. In this state it sometimes becomes an object of commerce, and is sold to farmers, who never employ it in a compact state. Their first care is to construct large cisterns for containing, besides those cakes and dung of every kind, all sorts of vegetable matter, as leaves, or roots, or stems of plants, mud from the canals, and offals of animals, even to the shavings collected by the barbers. With all these they mix as much animal water as can be collected, or of common water, as will dilute the whole; and in this state, generally in the act of putrid fermentation, they apply it to the ploughed or broken earth. In various parts of a farm, and near paths and roads, large earthen vessels are buried to the edge, in the ground, for the accommodation of the labourer or passenger who may have occasion to use them. fit small retiring houses, built also upon the brink of roads, and in the neighbourhood of villages, reservoirs are constructed of compact materials to prevent the absorption of whatever they receive, and straw is carefully thrown over the surface from time to time to stop the evaporation. And such a value is set upon the principal ingredient for manure, that the oldest and most helpless persons are not deemed wholly useless to the family by which they are supported."
The Chinese mode of terracing is, however, attended with great labour. It seems to me that the object of retaining the rains and moisture on the sides of sloping grounds, might be nearly as well attained by easier means. If land have only a moderate descent, it may be ploughed uninterruptedly from the lower to the higher parts ; and if double furrows, or channels, were made on level lines, at distances of 12 to 24 feet, (varying according to the declivity) the water might be intercepted as effectually as by the more expensive mode of terracing. The steeper the side of the hill, the nearer to each other should these furrows he made.
On very steep hills, I would advise, instead of terraces, that belts of the sward (5 or 6 feet in breadth) should be left at the time of preparing them for cultivation. These belts might be accurately marked out by a mason's level, in a level direction, leaving spaces between them 12 to 16 feet broad : which alone should be ploughed or trenched.
By this method of preparation, not only might all the rain water which falls within an inclosure be retained, but the soil would be prevented from sliding down ; which it is apt to do in very steep places, when it is fully saturated with water.
Those belts would also yield occasional cuttings of grass for cattle, &c. ; so that, although the whole field would not be in cultivation, yet no part would be useless.
Whoever has attentively observed the difference between a crop at the upper and lower parts of a sloping field, must be convinced of the advantage of retaining throughout an equable portion of moisture. The upper part is always poor; because it has been deprived of moisture, by the natural tendency of water to descend : on the contrary, the lower part is the most exuberant, as it becomes the repository of almost all the rain that falls within the inclosure. This fact may be perceived in several parts of this island : and it might be further exemplified by an easy experiment.
Let any one cultivate a square rod on the natural slope of a hill, and let him take another square rod adjoining, and make it perfectly level, plant them both in the same manner with potatoes, or corn : and it will be found the level spot will be infinitely superior in produce.
In regard to manuring, a great deal might be done without too servile an imitation of the Chinese practices. Manure, indeed, is deserving all possible attention : because it is the best means of ensuring good crops; and of obtaining, proportionally, a larger profit from the labour bestowed in cultivation.
I hope these observations may be serviceable to those at present engaged in breaking tip the new lands. I cannot, however, conclude them without strongly recommending, that where the terracing mode is not adopted, furrows, or belts, should never be omitted : no field, upon a sloping surface, can properly be culti-vated without one or the other : but as I have before observed, they must be carefully made upon perfectly horizontal lines ; for if these furrows or belts, were to deviate from a true level, they would operate as drains and carry off the water : and thereby defeat the very purpose for which they are intended.
24th September, 1812.