Ancient Gardens of East Asia

When we think of gardens in Asia, particularly the Far East, it’s hard not to envision rice terraces. Terraces shape the landscapes of so many countries in East Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, India, etc. Many of them are over a thousand years old and remain in production today.

Rather than get into the particulars of each version of ancient rice terrace, we are just going to delve into some of the valuable ideas running through them. These concepts have been working for centuries to maintain fertility, protect soils, conserve freshwater, supply food, and support generations of people.

Undoubtedly, for us permacutluralists, many aspects of these ancient techniques will be very familiar, and in that, we might feel a little more reassured about the well-trodden and reliable paths we are traveling to create productive, self-sustaining gardens.



On Contour

One of the most striking aspects of rice terraces is the adherence to contour lines along sometimes quite steep mountain slopes. In order to pacify water flows, they were formed on contour with an understanding of how to work with the landscape rather than fighting it.

This technique helps with water management and conservation, as well as soil stability. As opposed to water running downhill, each terrace fills with freshwater when it rains, overflowing into the terrace below. Pacifying the water, of course, prevents the topsoil from washing away and soaks nutrients into the ground.

Level terraces, then, converted otherwise idle hillsides into production powerhouses.




Another benefit to working on slopes is that terrace gardeners were (and still are) able to take advantage of gravity for irrigating the crops. While today’s conventional farmers are heavily reliant on petroleum power to pump water, gravity-fed systems are much more sustainable means of irrigation.

This technique, storing water up high to feed gardens down below, is simple in concept and cleverly done throughout the terraces. Channels can fill and/or empty specific terraces from elevated water catchments with no electricity or petrol needed to move it around: Gravity does all the work for free.



Stacking Functions

Obviously, ancient gardeners didn’t have access to the agrochemicals and technology of today’s agriculturalists, but, no surprise, they grew food nonetheless. Not only do the terraces manage water—for irrigation and flood mitigation—and protect soils, they make the steep hillside more accessible, keep pests off of the rice plants, and provide habitat for aquatic life.

In other words, while it may seem labour intensive to form and maintain terraces, it’s important to realise the amount of work farmers get from the initial effort. Once in place, the earthworks create rich, long-wearing gardens with the capacity to hydrate the landscape, stockpile fertility, and put out huge quantities of food at the same time.




While hydroponics and aquaponics have been trendy over the last decade or more, fish-rice aquaculture is a more efficient means of getting higher sustainable production from each square meter of landscape. In the case of rice terraces, freshwater fish, eels, and shellfish can be raised right alongside the rice plants.

“Raising” fish, i.e. introducing them and loosely managing the situation, in the same space as the rice replenishes fertility and strengthens pest (insect and weed) control. The constant movement of the fish also oxygenates the water and keeps the microorganisms active. Fish production far exceeds land animals in protein per square meter of surface area, and even better, the fish feed themselves while providing all of these services.

Furthermore, the rice is providing services for the fish. They create protective shelter from predators and shade from the sun. The rice plants absorb ammonia and excess nitrogen from the aquatic bathroom business. And, the rice attracts herbivorous insects that the fish can feed on.




What is apparent, as well, when looking at rice terraces is that they are a community-organized system. No one farmer or family can cultivate the entire mountainside; rather, the community works together to take care of the resources involved—land, water, fish, forests, neighbours—in terrace upkeep.

The modern food system, as we know, has come far too reliant on international shipping, big ag companies, and processed choices. Rice terraces are a fantastic example of how community gardens create cooperation amongst people, respect for shared resources, and local sources of fresh food. Many of them are UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites.

Households are typically established within the terraces, and many villages are spaced amongst them.



Upslope Forestry

Part of a healthy rice terrace system is understanding the importance of forests upslope. The forests help to stabilize the land above the terraces, as well as soak nutrients down to the terraces, slow rain runoff, and provide building material. Everything that happens in the terraces starts with the forests above them.

In other words, rather than eradicating all forests in order to acquire more farming land, ancient terrace gardeners understood the value of maintaining and fostering forests amongst their mountainside rice paddies and especially above them. The mountaintop forests provided a reliable source of water even during dry season.




What all of this really adds up to is careful, clever design. Rice terraces were not something done hastily. Ancient terraces required lots of planning, a tremendous amount of labour, and (still do require) constant adjustment due to weather events and natural disasters like earthquakes. However, the systems continue to function some 2000 years later.

Terraces were sensibly developed in the mid-slopes, between stable mountaintop forests and flood-prone valley bottoms, and they moulded to the landscape as opposed to attempting to mould the landscape to them. Homes and villages were located right amongst their gardens, and communities came together to orchestrate it all to function sustainably.

While rice terraces are a largely Asian phenomenon, this ancient technique—for food cultivation, environmental conservation, and community building—could transfer well to other mountainous terrain in similar climatic zones. It’s up to us today to recognise the potential now for replicating what people were doing thousands of years ago.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I grew up in Liguria, Italy and now I live in Asia. Have a look at what the old people have done in Cinque Terre area, it’s a very similar job to the Philippines.
    My family farmed all life on terraces.
    Nice article, Greetings.

  2. In tropical climates, which is where rice terraces were mostly built, algae was a way of holding onto nutrients whereas in the tropics there is no thick topsoil to do so.

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