Trees, shrubs, and groundcovers can maintain slopes and reduce erosion from surface water, shallow groundwater and, to some extent, coastal processes. Evergreen trees and other vegetation are most valuable and able to protect soil and remove water during the winter months when deciduous plants are dormant. A diverse mix of both evergreen and deciduous plants provides the greatest protection.
Plants can also have value as sight and sound barriers, discourage access to hazardous areas, and define space in a yard. Native plants enhance wildlife habitat by providing nesting and hiding cover, food, and safe travel corridors. Once established, native plants require little maintenance or care. Species should be chosen for their ease of establishment, adaptability, usefulness, and availability.
Extensive lawns, especially in the vicinity of the bank crest, should be avoided because grass tends to increase surface-water sheetflow during wet conditions when soils are saturated. Low-growing evergreen or perennial plants should be established on the upper crest of the bank.
The Value of Vegetation in Stabilizing Slopes
- Foliage intercepts rainfall, causing absorptive and evaporative losses that reduce surface water runoff and erosion.
- Evergreen trees and shrubs continue the metabolic activity known as evapo-transpiration, which extracts moisture from the soil, throughout the year. As logging or clearing occurs, water table levels rise, and soils remain saturated for longer periods, reducing soil cohesion and increasing the rate of land slides.
- Roots reinforce the soil, increasing lateral soil sheer strength and cohesion during saturated conditions. Many slopes can persist beyond their angle of repose and remain stable as a result of the complex root networks within soil blocks.
- Tree roots anchor soil strata vertically and laterally by means of large-diameter structural roots. These roots may extend well beyond the tree’s canopy or crown.
- Roots, especially the fine feeder roots of trees, shrubs and groundcovers, bind soil particles at the ground surface, reducing their susceptibility to surface erosion and slumpage during saturated soil conditions.
- Large trees can arrest, retard, or reduce the severity and extent of failures by buttressing a slope. This works in much the same way as retaining walls. In the case of trees, though, the system is to some extent self-repairing, and it becomes progressively stronger over time, whereas engineering structures are strongest when installed and become progressively weaker over time. Obviously, planted trees need adequate time to develop root systems and become effective in stabilizing slopes.
Limitations of Vegetation
The limitations of vegetation in preventing, reducing or arresting slope failures and erosion is often due to previous land management practices such as logging, topographic alterations, increased or channelized surface water flow, and wholesale clearing. Once initiated, slope failures require an expenditure of time, effort, critical planning and money to stabilize them successfully. The use of vegetation in particular requires foresight and several years of monitoring and maintenance until plants are established and effective. Establishment can take up to three years. It can take up to 15 years for shrubby vegetation to develop the values discussed above, even longer for trees to reach sufficient stature to be effective. The impacts of tree cutting on steep slopes can take several years to become apparent, as illustrated in figure 2.
Landowners need to be aware that not all vegetation provides effective erosion control. Just because it is green does not necessarily mean it works. Such common species as Himalayan blackberry, horsetails, English ivy, and red alder are often present on disturbed slopes and have limited erosion control value. Blackberry and ivy, in particular, tend to discourage more desirable vegetation from becoming established.
In some situations a combination of geotechnical engineering and vegetative techniques are required to assure a practical solution to slope problems. The best time to employ inexpensive relatively vegetative means is before severe failures occur. Note: It should be clearly understood that unusually harsh climatic conditions prior to full development of a vegetative root matrix could result in failure or partial failure of such a slope stabilization system. Landscape contractors should have an understanding of the processes affecting slopes, techniques to be employed to ensure success, and the potential hazards of working on steep slopes in vulnerable areas.
There are several situations where vegetation is relatively or completely ineffective in protecting a slope from failure. These include: (1) lower banks subject to wave attack; (2) areas of deep-seated geologic instability; (3) bluffs near vertical; and (4) unstable areas too wet or dry for vegetation to become established.
Plantings in areas that have not recently been subjected to slope failures are a wise investment. Preventive measures, employed before serious problems occur, are relatively inexpensive. Bear in mind that plantings of more desirable species to replace existing species such as red alder should be well established (2-3 years) before alders are removed, in order to maintain adequate soil-binding benefits within the effective root zone (ERZ) of the cut trees. The ERZ can be approximated as a one-foot radius of lateral root extent for every inch of diameter of the tree’s trunk. Preparatory to planting, alders (as well as cherry) can be thinned to a spacing that will not compromise slope integrity during the establishment period. Tree cutting on slopes without replanting can have serious future consequences as illustrated in figure 2.
Proper selection of shrub and tree species for position on the slope will minimize view maintenance requirements while greatly improving slope stability. Care should be taken in selecting species that thrive under site-specific conditions found locally on the slope. These include soil moisture, light/shade, and rooting type.