Erosion occurs when the top layer of soil is swept away by natural or man-made forces, making it extremely difficult to grow any vegetation on the site. Erosion can turn once healthy, vibrant land into arid, lifeless terrain and further cause landslides and mudslides. Erosion often happens at construction sites and other areas where the land has been disturbed. There are different ways to control erosions depending on the terrain and the severity of the erosion and include consulting a professional to treating the erosion yourself.

Part 1
Part 1 of 5:

Understanding Erosion

  1. Erosion is a natural process that loosens and sweeps away soil and rock material. It is caused either by geological or man-made factors.
    • The process of erosion happens through natural forces including water, wind, and ice.[1]
    • Geological erosion and man-made erosion are the two major classifications of erosion.[2] There are two major classifications of erosion: (1) geological erosion, and (2) man-made erosion.
    • Geological erosion occurs naturally when the distribution of soils is disturbed in some manner, either through soil formation or soil removal.[3]
    • Man-made erosion happens when humans alter the land and it can accelerate the natural erosion process. This is a common type of erosion at construction sites.[4]
  2. There are many factors than can contribute to erosion including climate and topography. Knowing about the factors that cause erosion will help you identify the source of your erosion and develop the best plan to control it.
    • Factors than can contribute to erosion include soil characteristics, climate, rainfall intensity and duration, vegetation or other surface cover, and topography.
    • Understanding the factors that affect erosion makes it possible to predict the extent and consequences of onsite erosion.[5]
    • When people remove vegetation, disturb the soil, change natural drainage patterns, or cover the ground with surfaces such as buildings or pavement, this can also cause erosion.[6]
  3. Before you cultivate your land or undertake any construction projects, assess your land for erosion potential. Checking vegetation, drainage, and considering climate will all help you avoid any problems with erosion later on.
    • If you are comfortable that you know enough about erosion, you can make the assessment yourself.
    • You can also hire a professional to assess your land and identify any areas that might be prone to erosion.
    • If there are any areas on your land about which you’re unsure, consult a professional so that you don’t have any problems down the road.
    • It’s best to control erosion when you notice it. Early action will ensure that a small problem doesn’t become a big issue.
  4. Advertisement
Part 2
Part 2 of 5:

Checking Your Land for Erosion

  1. By checking your land often, you will be able to see the early signs of erosion and act accordingly before the problem occurs or deteriorates.
  2. Erosion appears differently depending on the natural features in your region, but there are a few fairly universal telltale signs.
    • Look near areas where the land has been disturbed by construction or natural occurrences that might have washed away the soil. You’ll often find erosion near culverts, pipes that move water under a trail or road.[7]
    • The best time to check for erosion is after heavy rains or other forms of extreme weather such as tornadoes or ice storms.
    • Check for spots without vegetation. Hillsides and slopes often have places where no trees or plants grow. You might see a buildup of soil below them.
    • Look for exposed plant roots. The soil might be washing or blowing off the top of roots that aren’t normally exposed to the elements.
    • Look for exposed rock. If you notice new boulders that seem to be getting bigger each year, the soil might be receding around them.
    • Look for channels and gullies. These are areas where water and wind have been able to cut through the soil, forming shallow channels or deeper gullies. This is a major sign of erosion that can lead to big problems if left unaddressed.
    • Look for muddy or dirty water. This is a sign that soil is running off and likely eroding.
  3. A heavy rain will indicate where the water is forming channels and washing away the topsoil. You need this information in order to know how to best protect your land from further erosion. Here’s what to look for:
    • Watch where the water runs. On healthy land, the blow of each raindrop is absorbed by a plant before it hits the ground, where it is then quickly absorbed. In problem areas, where there’s no groundcover, it pounds the ground and breaks up the soil, then washes it away. Watch which direction it seems to be running and where it collects.
    • Look for standing puddles that are muddy or dirty. Muddy puddles where the water isn’t being absorbed correctly could be a sign of erosion in that area.
    • Look at the color of the water in streams. In a healthy area, rainwater should be quickly absorbed into the ground and surrounding streams should run clear. In areas with erosion, you might see the streams get very muddy from soil runoff during a rainstorm.
  4. The only real remedy for erosion is stabilizing the soil and returning it to its natural state. The key point thing is to have vegetation on the land. The process by which you go about this task will be different depending on the state of your land and the location of the erosion.[8]
    • If you have light sheet erosion, which occurs on relatively flat areas of land, you can plant vegetation right away. You’ll start with temporary groundcover to hold the soil together, then gradually move on to adding native plants that will restore the land to its naturally healthy state.
    • You may want to protect certain areas from further erosion by erecting barriers, such as rock piles.
    • If you have channels on your land, they’ll need to be broken up in order to prevent them from creating gullies.
    • If you have gullies, it will be necessary to use structures and digging techniques to support the soil before you can plant anything. If you try to plant seeds in a gully, they’ll just wash away in the rain.
  5. If you’re not sure how to proceed, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can be a great resource for developing an erosion control plan.
  6. Advertisement
Part 3
Part 3 of 5:

Using Plants to Control Erosion

  1. You can plant emergency cover immediately on bare soil that is relatively flat and doesn’t have deep channels or gullies. Emergency cover plants are usually grasses or other groundcover plants that grow very quickly, putting down thick roots that will hold the soil together so it doesn’t wash away during the next rain.
    • Check with your local nursery to figure out which fast-growing ground covers work well in your region. It’s best to plant a mix of plants, rather than just one, so that you have backups in case one type doesn’t take hold.
    • Use a hoe or garden rake to work compost or manure into the soil. You can also use a light fertilizer if you want. This will help nourish the seeds and give them the best chance of growing.
    • You can als put down erosion control fabric and then plant in that fabric, so that the plants are held in by it. Eventually, the plants will grow and send out their roots, while the erosion control fabric will dissipate and biodegrade into the ground.
  2. Mulches and mats will add a layer to your soil and help it retain moisture. They also promote an environment for starting and growing plants.
    • Mulches can be made out of grass clippings, leaves, straw, sawdust, bark chips and straw.
    • For hillsides and places where you fear the mulch will wash away, lay a brush mat over the area to protect the seeds.[9] Here’s how to make one:
    • Lay out long pieces of brush in a vertical pattern.
    • Lay more brush pieces horizontally across the vertical pieces.
    • You can attach them with small pieces of thin wire or twine or even use an organic glue or wood fiber.
  3. Once the groundcover has grown, you can plant structural trees to further stabilize the land. This will also help prevent further erosion.
    • Make sure to plant trees native to your area to ensure that they can survive in the climate. In general, willow trees, black locust trees and elderberries are good selections for this purpose.[10]
    • Space them so that the entire area under threat will be served by the tree root system. You don’t want to choose trees that require digging a big hole and disturbing the soil, because it’s still too fragile for that. Rather, choose a type of tree that roots easily from a cutting and grows quickly.[11]
    • Growing a line of trees around a farm, if possible, can be a good idea for preventing most mechanical methods of erosion.
    • A special modification of this is the riparian vegetation that is grown at the interface of any land and water line. The intention is to prevent the soils from migrating into the water line, or to prevent the water from seeping onto the land and carrying the soils away with it.
  4. After several seasons, when you’re confident the area is stable, plant more permanent vegetation. Make sure to plant native species in the area or that will thrive in your climate.
    • Talk with an expert at your local nursery to find out which plants and trees grow well in your region. It’s important to stick with native species, since they’ll have the best chance of surviving and preventing further erosion from occurring.
    • Trees, grasses, and shrubs are all excellent types of permanent vegetation that will help stabilize the land.
    • You can also speak to the NCRS about the most optimal vegetation to plant.[12]
  5. Advertisement
Part 4
Part 4 of 5:

Using Barriers to Control Erosion

  1. If the erosion on your land is serious, you may consider using barriers to control erosion. But this can be a risky measure that further damages your property or that of your neighbors. It’s best to consult with professionals on that matter.
    • The NCRS local service office can suggest a professional to help you deal with the erosion on your land.[13]
  2. If you decide to erect your own barriers without the help of a professional, you need to choose the appropriate kind of barrier for your land. Erosion controls often involve the creation of a physical barrier, such as vegetation or rock, to absorb some of the energy of the wind or water that is causing the erosion.
    • On construction sites they're often implemented in conjunction with sediment controls such as sediment basins and silt fences.
    • Other types of barriers are: dikes, dams, rock lining, sediment traps, and storm drain outlet protection.
  3. Rock lining, also called riprap, will protect channel or waterway banks from water flow that erodes it.
    • Use riprap to stabilize stream banks or below concentrated flows of water. You can also use it on slopes.[14]
    • Riprap is made of from different kinds of rock including granite or limestone. Some places may also use concrete as riprap.[15]
  4. This technique is useful if you’re worried that water runoff will wash the seeds and mulch away down a hillside. A contour trench is a shallow trench dug along the contour of a hillside so that it runs perpendicular to the flow of water. The purpose is to catch the water and give it time to sink into the soil before it runs off the hill.
    • Dig a few short trenches around the side of the hill. Each one should be 6 inches (15.2 cm) deep and 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m) apart.[16]
    • Groundcover can be planted below the trenches and this will protect them from being washed out.
  5. A channel is a spot where running water cuts into the soil and forms a rut. By filling the channel with compost or manure, you will help prevent further erosion.
    • If a channel increases in size with each rain, it can eventually form a gully, which is harder to address.
    • Stop a channel before it turns into a gully by using a hoe to break it up. Fill it in with compost or manure and rake the area so that it’s flat and smooth.
    • After breaking up a channel, replant it with vegetation according to the system outlined above.
  6. Gullies are channels that have cut deep into the earth. By reducing gullies, you’ll not only control erosion, but also allow the surrounding vegetation to thrive.
    • Once enough topsoil and subsoil has been washed away, there’s no barrier to keep heavy rains from washing away soil. When a gully cuts below the water table, it sucks away the water from the surrounding area, killing trees and vegetation on either side.
    • Reduce the amount of water pouring into gullies by addressing the situation at the top of the gully. There are probably bare spots and other signs of sheet erosion that you can work to fix by planting groundcover immediately. This will help the water absorb into the soil instead of flowing into the gully.
    • While some people recommend building diversion channels to make the water flow elsewhere, this usually just creates a new problem - namely, a new channel that could become a new gully. It’s better to work on fixing the gully once and for all.
  7. In addition to controlling water, it’s important to stabilize the land, including the bottom of a gully, to keep it from getting any deeper. To do that, build a check dam, which is a small series of dikes that slow water flow so that the ground can recover.
    • Choose your dam material. You can use rocks, poles, planks, or another sturdy material. You can pack holes with straw or brush. Each dam will be about 2 feet (0.6 m) high.
    • Dig the first dam into the sides of the gully. Construct your dam by placing material across the gully so that it touches the bottom and digs into the walls on either side, so that the water can’t flow around it.
    • Make a notch in the middle. The middle of the dam should have a space where water can get through; otherwise it’ll just find a way around the dam.
    • Make a rock apron on the other side. The water needs a place to land on the other side so that its impact is reduced. Put a bed of rocks in front of the dam.
    • Construct more small dams or dikes to form a series. Depending on the size of the gully, put in several more dams. The system works most effectively if the dams are close together, so the water can’t pick up much speed in between them.
  8. Once your check dam is in place, level out the gully. The aim is to gradually level the gully by grading the sides so that the bottom fills in over time.
    • Use a shovel, a pick axe or another appropriate tool to begin knocking dirt from the sides of the gully into the bottom. It can take weeks or even months to finish the job, because each new rain is a bit of a setback.
  9. Any time there is bad weather, check your work to make sure it is holding and not causing more erosion. If more dirt slides down the sides of the gully, keep working to level them to a gentler angle.
    • Make sure the check dams are working sufficiently. You might need to add more small dams, adjust the length of the sides, replace the aprons, and so on to ensure that water isn’t still cutting the gully deeper when it rains.
  10. When your dam and leveling work has sufficiently slowed the gully’s growing cycle, you can plant it using the process above. Start with groundcover, use fast-growing trees to stabilize the area, and after a few seasons of healthy growth, plant native species that will return the land to its natural state.
  11. Advertisement
Part 5
Part 5 of 5:

Preventing Erosion

  1. As much as possible, try not to disturb the soil in the area under concern. Removing trees and plants, driving heavy equipment over the area, clearing an area larger than you need, and many other practices used on construction sites can lead to erosion.
  2. The predominant technique agriculturists use for erosion control is the no till method. This method, also known as conservation tillage, is farming practiced with a minimum amount of tilling.
    • The tillage process, while enriching for the crop, also displaces the soil layers and makes it loose. Such a loose soil layer is more prone to erosion. Agricultural practices that can produce a good crop without necessitating tilling are being put into use as a measure for erosion control.
  3. Contour farming is very commonly practiced on sloping land areas. This form of agriculture is effective at controlling erosion because it slows the runoff of rainwater considerably.
    • In contour farming, planes of land are constructed by cutting off the land according to its contours. Small plane walls, called bunds, are erected along the contours of the land. Agriculture is practiced in the areas that these contours create. The effectiveness of this form of agriculture lies in the fact that the horizontally flat lands, together with the bunds, slow the runoff of rainwater considerably.
  4. Erosion control is not just about preventing the soil from getting washed or swept away. Methods to enrich whatever soil is present are also covered under erosion control practices.
    • One example is keeping the land fallow. Here, after three or four successive seasons of farming, the land is planted with a cover crop for one season. During this time, the soil can regenerate, gaining back some of the nutrients lost in the previous seasons.
    • Another method is to grow a single crop before the main cropping season in order to provide nutrients to the soil. Growing a leguminous crop can provide nitrogen to the soil because these crops can harbor the beneficial nitrogen-fixing Rhizome in their root nodules.
  5. Methods like adding mulch, fertilizers, etc., all contribute to increasing the productivity of the soil, and are also covered under erosion control.
  6. Advertisement

Community Q&A

  • Question
    Do trees, plants, and rocks help prevent erosion?
    Community Answer
    Community Answer
    Yes! The roots of the plants and trees will help secure and hold onto the soil firmly, establishing an ecosystem by introducing soil organisms. Rocks also help keep the soil in place. Without rocks, the soil would become too loose and flow all over the place.
  • Question
    How can I stop heavy soil erosion in river land areas?
    Community Answer
    Community Answer
    Heavy rain is one of the major causes of soil erosion. One of the ways to control this is by planting trees. The roots of the trees will hold the mud beneath it very firmly, thus preventing erosion.
  • Question
    How can minimizing the use of fire help in the control of soil erosion?
    Community Answer
    Community Answer
    Fire can leave the land bare, and after it passes through (especially if burned fiercely), the soil becomes exposed to wind and water erosion with no plant roots to hold it in place anymore. Also the humus, the moisture content in soil, can be destroyed by a fierce fire. By minimizing the use of fire, this can give the soil a cover from fallen leaves and vegetation in general.

Expert Interview

Thanks for reading our article! If you’d like to learn more about landscaping, check out our in-depth interview with Reese Baloutine (she/her).

About This Article

Reese Baloutine (she/her)
Co-authored by:
Eco-Friendly Landscape Designer
This article was co-authored by Reese Baloutine (she/her). Reese Baloutine is an Eco-Friendly Landscape Designer and the Owner of Seedlings Gardening in Austin, Texas. With over 13 years of professional experience, Reese specializes in custom-designed landscapes for residences, focusing on both the aesthetic and environmental impacts of the project. She received her Master of Architecture from Texas Tech University where she graduated with honors. This article has been viewed 442,010 times.
2 votes - 100%
Co-authors: 48
Updated: December 19, 2023
Views: 442,010
Article SummaryX

To control erosion, start by planting grasses or groundcover plants that grow quickly and put down thick roots, which help hold soil together. Then, add a layer of mulch or brush to help your soil retain moisture and promote a good growing environment. When your groundcover has grown, plant structural trees, like willow or black locust, to stabilize the land and prevent further erosion. After several seasons with limited or no erosion, plant the grasses, trees, and shrubs that you want permanently on your land. To learn how to use physical barriers to control erosion, keep reading!

Did this summary help you?