How to Control Erosion in Your Yard

erosion in a field

Water and wind might be washing your yard away, but that doesn’t mean you must surrender to erosion. Our erosion guide covers 19 erosion control methods for your yard, what causes the natural process in the first place, and why minimizing erosion is essential if we want to save the planet. 

Swales, rain gardens, french drains –– these terms might sound like landscape jargon now, but you’ll soon learn how to implement these features into your landscape. When the next rainstorm hits, you won’t have to worry about the destruction it may have caused to your sloped backyard. 

What is erosion?

Erosion is the movement of soil by water, ice, wind, or gravity. For example, the water runoff from heavy rainfall can dislodge and carry soil particles to a new location, such as a nearby river or stream. 

Erosion is a natural process that takes a physical toll on the land by removing the topsoil. When areas of your yard look like they’re slowly disintegrating, that’s a sign of erosion. 

Yard areas most vulnerable to erosion have steep slopes and no vegetation.  

19 erosion control methods for your yard

1. Native plants

Growing native plants in your landscape comes with a bounty of benefits, including erosion control. Native plants growing in previously non-vegetative areas help: 

  • Stabilize the soil with their deep root systems (non-native plants typically grow shallow root systems). 
  • Slow down rainwater runoff, minimizing the amount of soil the water dislodges. 
  • Protect topsoil that would otherwise be exposed to wind, rain, and ice.

2. Grass

Growing grass in non-vegetative areas is an excellent way to control erosion. Grass’s root system helps stabilize the soil, and the turf protects the topsoil from erosion. If you want to plant grass in your erosion problem areas, you have three options: 

  • Sod: Sod is a thick layer of grass growing on a 1- to 2-inch thick layer of soil that’s been sliced from the ground. When you roll sod out on the lawn, it provides you with immediate grass and erosion control. 
  • Seed: Although grass seed will eventually grow into thick turf that helps stop erosion, the seeds are vulnerable to erosion before they have the chance to germinate. Wind and rain will likely wash the grass seed away and create bald spots. 

If you choose to plant grass seed, roll out a biodegradable erosion control blanket over the seed. The blanket helps protect the seeds and the soil from erosion. 

  • Hydroseed: Hydroseed is the process of spraying a slurry mixture of mulch, fertilizer, grass seed, water, binding agents, and soil amendments. The mulch and binding agents offer erosion control and help the grass seed stick to the soil. 

3. Drip irrigation

If your water hose or sprinkler system is causing your flower beds or vegetable garden to erode, you may want to consider a drip irrigation system. 

A drip irrigation system delivers water directly to the root system without overwatering. Instead of splashing the planting beds with water (which ultimately leads to erosion), a drip irrigation system slowly releases the water into the ground, where it is absorbed. 

4. Terrace garden

Want to turn your hillside into a beautiful garden that combats erosion? Terrace gardening splits a hillside into small, level sections that slow down runoff, evenly disperse the water, and absorb it. This control method is similar to turning your hillside into a set of stairs for a giant. 

And you guessed it –– terrace gardening is perfect for growing gardens and flower beds on those level surfaces. If you install native plants in your terrace garden, you’ll be tackling erosion with two control methods. 

Pro tip: Unless you have prior landscaping experience and are in great physical shape, it’s wise to hire a professional landscaper to build your terrace garden. If you need help with the design plan, hire a landscape architect. 

5. Retaining wall

Building a retaining wall around a slope or raised land stabilizes and supports the soil behind the wall. Your retaining wall can be constructed from a variety of materials, including brick, concrete blocks, stones, and wood. 

Retaining walls are often built to create the terrace garden effect, but they can also be a single wall that supports a small section of land. Retaining walls are great for raised garden beds, too. 

6. Riprap

If you have a pond or lake on your property, you’re probably familiar with erosion’s effects. Year after year, the land surrounding the water appears to be receding, and the soil grows more bare and exposed. These vulnerable areas could use the help of riprap. 

Riprap is a layer of large, angular stones that stabilizes and protects streambanks, channels, and areas subject to crashing waves. Riprap is also helpful in places where it’s difficult to establish vegetation. 

7. Downspout extensions

Is mud oozing around your downspouts and home foundation? These mucky eyesores are the result of stormwater rushing down the gutter’s spout and slamming into the soil. 

How to fix this: Install a downspout extension to redirect the flow of water away from the foundation and toward an erosion-resistant area, such as a dry creek bed or French drain (which we’ll explain next). 

8. Dry creek beds

Not only do dry creek beds slow down rainwater runoff and protect soil, but they’re beautiful in the landscape, too. A dry creek bed is a small trench outlined with rocks and sometimes surrounded by plants. 

The rocks protect the soil from wind and rain, slow down rainwater runoff, and filter the water into the ground. Dry creek beds are easy to maintain –– once you install one, you don’t need to think twice about it.  

9. French drain

A French drain looks similar to a dry creek bed, but it has a slightly different function. French drains are also shallow trenches, but they contain a perforated pipe buried underneath rock or gravel. 

A French drain’s rocks help slow down runoff and cover the soil, but unlike a dry creek bed, a French drain redirects the runoff to a new area via the perforated pipe. The pipe fills with water and channels the runoff to where it needs to settle. 

Pro tip: The perforated pipe must contain a row of holes that faces down against the ground, not upward towards you. Otherwise, the water level will have to rise before it can enter the pipe. 

10. Avoid compact soil

When scooping a cup of brown sugar, the sugar often appears light and fluffy –– water and air can easily pass through the sugar grains. But when you start to press the sugar down into the cup with your palm or thumb, the sugar becomes so dense and compact that nothing can pass through the grains. 

Loose soil is similar to brown sugar –– if you press on the ground often enough, either with your feet or heavy lawn equipment, the soil will become solid and compact. When you have compact soil in the yard, oxygen and water can’t penetrate the ground. 

That’s why compact soil is a significant contributor to erosion. When it rains, the water can’t seep into the soil because the ground is so solid. Instead of getting absorbed by your soil, the water flows off the lawn and erodes your land. 

Here are three easy ways to avoid soil compaction:

  • Redirect foot traffic by installing a paver walkway or sidewalk
  • Choose lightweight lawn equipment over heavy models
  • Aerate the soil once a year with an aerator

Is your soil already compact? Relieve it with an aerator. 

11. Silt fencing

Have you ever driven by a construction site and saw fence poles holding up black geotextile fabric? That’s silt fencing. 

Silt fences are a temporary barrier used in construction sites to prevent erosion. If you’re building a new home or performing construction on your property, silt fencing helps keep the soil you’re digging in place. Otherwise, the wind and rain will have a field day carrying the excavated soil off your property. 

12. Trees

Trees have vast root systems, especially native trees. Planting trees along slopes and hillsides helps secure the soil. 

13. Ground covers

If you don’t want to plant turf, native flowers, or trees in areas with exposed soil, consider planting ground covers. The term ground cover refers to any low-growing plant that creeps along the ground as it spreads. 

Simply put, ground cover plants are a cozy cover for your soil. Ground covers protect the soil from wind, rain, and ice and secure the soil with its roots. 

14. Sandbags

Sandbags are a valuable tool for homeowners living in flood-prone areas. By stacking the bags in a brick-like fashion, you can create a defensive barrier that protects your home from a flood. 

If heavy storms and floods are washing away your soil, consider protecting the area with sandbags. Keep in mind that sandbags are a temporary solution and will need replacement every few months, depending on the bag material. 

If you need to build a tall barrier, stack the sandbags in the shape of a pyramid. A tall sandbag wall that has no support will quickly tumble down. 

15. Rain garden

infographic explaining how a rain garden works

If you’re an eco-friendly gardener, get ready to enjoy your new garden. Rain gardens aren’t just beautiful –– they serve a great purpose in the landscape. 

A rain garden grows in a small depression that catches stormwater runoff. The rain garden contains native plants and attractive river rocks. The river rocks help slow down runoff, the garden’s basin catches the water, and the native plants’ deep root systems filter the water and remove the runoff’s pollutants.  

By slowing down the gushing rainwater, the rain garden absorbs the water before the runoff has the opportunity to escape into a nearby stream, storm drain, or waterway. 

16. Swale

A swale is similar to a rain garden, but it serves a slightly different function. Rain gardens trap runoff and soak up the water. Swales, on the other hand, distribute the runoff and move it to a new location. 

Another difference: A rain garden is usually the runoff’s final destination, whereas a swale deposits the runoff to a different location (such as a rain garden!). 

17. No-till gardening

Tilling the soil is a routine chore among gardeners, but it’s better for the environment if we practice no-till gardening. Here’s why: Erosion is a significant threat to tilled farmlands.

Tilling is the intentional disruption of the soil, and it typically requires garden hoes, spades, rototillers, and plows. But this disruption of the soil makes the land highly vulnerable to erosion. 

By tilling the ground, you are actively loosening the soil and making it more susceptible to disruption caused by rain, wind, ice, and gravity. Practicing no-till gardening keeps the soil undisturbed and protects it from erosion. 

18. Mulch

If you don’t have mulch in your landscape, you’re missing out. Apply a layer of mulch in areas susceptible to erosion. Not only does mulch provide superb erosion control, but it also: 

  • Adds texture and beauty to the landscape
  • Stabilizes soil temperatures
  • Retains moisture in the soil
  • Adds nutrients to the soil (if organic)

Examples of organic mulch include: 

  • Wood chips
  • Shredded bark
  • Pine needles
  • Shredded leaves
  • Compost
  • Grass clippings
  • Newspaper
  • Cardboard

Examples of inorganic mulch include: 

19. Winter cover crops

After enjoying a plentiful summer harvest, the next order of business is to clear your garden of spent plants. Removing the debris often creates bare soil in winter that’s vulnerable to runoff. 

How to fix this: Plant a winter cover crop in your garden beds, such as winter wheat and rye, to prevent erosion. 

Why is controlling erosion important?

The Earth’s soil plays an essential role in a vast ecosystem and is a valuable resource. Yet half the Earth’s topsoil has been lost in the last 150 years, and erosion is a major contributing factor.

Land fertility

Topsoil is the outermost layer of soil that lies on the Earth’s surface. It contains high levels of organic matter and nutrients that deeper layers of soil don’t. 

Topsoil is exceptionally vulnerable to erosion. The more topsoil we lose to erosion, the less fertile soil we have available to grow crops. 

Toxic runoff

Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides –– these chemicals are entangled in our soils. When stormwater runoff jets through our gardens, lawns, and slopes, it collects these chemical pollutants and carries them to local waterways. 

As fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides infiltrate water ecosystems, aquatic organisms often die from toxic exposure and harmful algae blooms. 

The more we can minimize erosion and rainwater runoff, the healthier and safer our precious bodies of water will be. 

Sediment pollution

As erosion breaks down soil, it produces a product known as sediment. The sediment is transported to a new location and often settles in lakes, streams, ponds, and other bodies of water. Here’s why sediment pollution is harmful to aquatic ecosystems: 

  • Sediment raises water levels and increases the threat of floods
  • Sediment smothers the eggs of aquatic organisms
  • Sediment increases the water temperature by absorbing and releasing heat from the sun
  • Sediment clogs fish gills and prevents them from breathing
  • Sediment clouds the water, making it difficult for animals to find food
  • Sediment increases the cost of treating drinking water
  • Sediment makes recreational use difficult, such as kayaking or swimming
  • Community safety

    Erosion causes devastating mudslides, landslides, and flooding in populated areas. These natural disasters destroy community structures, including homes, schools, and hospitals, and take away lives. 

    FAQ about erosion

    1. How does erosion affect climate change?

    Growing more plants is a vital step toward combating climate change because plants absorb carbon dioxide. 

    But as topsoil erodes, the Earth can support fewer and fewer plants. And the fewer plants we’re able to grow, the more challenging it will be to control climate change and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

    The relationship between climate change and erosion creates a tumultuous cycle. As climate change worsens, it also accelerates erosion. And as erosion continues to accelerate, so does climate change.  

    2. How much soil is eroded in the world each year?

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 billion tonnes of soil is lost from arable land each year worldwide. Arable land is land capable of producing crops. 

    3. How quickly is the United States losing soil?

    The world is losing its topsoil due to unsustainable agricultural practices –– fast. Farmers in the U.S. could lose a half-inch of topsoil by 2035, which is more than eight times the amount of topsoil lost during the Dust Bowl. By 2100, U.S. farmers could lose nearly three inches of topsoil. 

    Turn to the professionals for help

    Erosion is a serious environmental concern. When you see it happening in your backyard, take action and protect your local ecosystems. Remaining passive and not correcting the situation contributes to the pollution in your local waterways and the loss of precious topsoil. 

    Need help installing your new rain garden or ground cover? Contact a local landscaping professional to get the erosion under control. While a pro installs your new native plants, you can feel good knowing you’re making a difference for your landscape and the environment. 

    Main Photo Credit: Andreas Rockstein | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

    Jane Purnell

    Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.