Railroad ties garden wall

Railroad Ties Landscaping: Everything You Need to Know

A railroad tie, also called a railway tie, a railway sleeper or a cross tie, refers to a rectangular support used for the rails in railroad tracks. They are placed perpendicularly to the ties and have various roles: holding the rails upright, keep them spaced at the right distance or transferring loads to the subgrade and track ballast. Usually, they are made of wood, but modern ones also use pre-stressed concrete. In the U.S., many people use railroad ties landscaping because it lends a certain air to your space.

What You Need to Know about Railroad Ties Landscaping

Railroad ties landscaping has been the solution for every American home for the past century. This happened mostly because this resource was and is quite abundant throughout the country. The railways have been expanding and along with them, more and more railroad ties were produced and then replaced.

Where Can You Find Them?

Many people use railroad ties because they simply have them lying around their garden. For example, if you buy a new house with a yard, then you might find a couple there, left from the owners that lived 2-3 generations ago. There is no legal way to purchase a railroad tie. Under no circumstances, it is allowed to take the ties from actual railroad tracks, since this may jeopardize public safety.

Of course, there is also the alternative of making or buying wood that resembles railroad ties. This is a safer and legal alternative, and it can be quite rewarding if you do it yourself.

What Can You Use It For?

People’s ingenuity made them find various uses for the railroad ties. They are great for basically everything you need. Here you have some of the most common uses:

  • Framing a tree;
  • Bordering a driveway;
  • Building natural stairs into a hill;
  • Creating a terrace;
  • Building a wall.

Railroad ties landscaping can also be built in combination with sand, brick, concrete, gravel or other large rocks. This can help you build a modern design. Moreover, it is a good idea if you want to combine both contemporary and traditional ideas by using landscape timbers.

You can cut them into any length you want for steps, bed borders or other things you may need in your garden. Some people also choose to make their mailbox posts out of them, for example. Other ideas are a mini-piazza made of squares which you can fill with white pea gravel or sand.

You can also use them indoors if you wish. A good idea is to create some artistic fireplace mantels or reclaimed wood flooring.

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How to Secure Landscape Railroad Ties

If you decide to go for railroad ties landscaping, then you should be aware of the security measures you need to take. Whether we are talking about the original railroad ties or some timber alternatives, you need to secure them firmly in their place. Here you have some basic steps for doing that:

  1. Dig a Trench

First, you need to excavate a trench to accommodate the first layer of railroad ties. It has to be deep enough to hold the entire row if you plan on using several. If you use just one row of tiles, then the trench needs to cover 1/3 or ½ of the timber height.

  1. Compact the Soil

Tamp the soil found at the bottom of the trench. You need to compact it in order to place the ties evenly.

  1. Place the Ties

Place the first layer of ties in the trench. Make sure that the timbers are even wherever two ties meet. If you want to correct some of them, put some more soil or cut down on it.

  1. Drill Holes

The holes should be a foot away from the ends into each of the railroad ties. Make an extra hole or two if the tie measures more than 4 feet.

  1. Use Steel Spikes

Use a 10- or 12-inch steel spike or a 12-inch rebar and place them through each hole.

  1. Mark the Position

Get some chalk and mark the position of each spike on the front side of the timber. Thus, you will be able to see where each spike is placed when you move on to the next layer.

  1. Place the Second Layer

Move on to the second layer of railroad ties. It’s best to stagger them so that you don’t align the ties between rows.

  1. Repeat

Repeat the above steps for each layer of railroad ties you intend to use.

What Not to Do When Building a Railroad Tie Retaining Wall

Now that you know what you need to do for securing a beautiful railroad ties landscaping design, let’s see what you shouldn’t do. There are some important tips you should keep in mind whenever working with railroad ties, and especially if you build a retaining wall, for instance. This is a great idea if you have a sloped landscape and some railroad ties available (safe ones!). Here you have a couple of mistakes often found in building a railroad tie wall:

  1. Uneven Ground

This is perhaps the most important part of building the wall. Make sure you have an even surface on which to build. Use a stamper and a level to make sure that the ground is even and solid.

  1. Unstaggered Ties

If you choose to use railroad ties, make sure they are cut to various lengths so that you can stagger them. The staggering element will make the wall more solid. This happens because each joint between them will be interlocked, not just sitting one over the other.

  1. No Anchor Ties

For any kind of wall, you need to have some tie between it and the ground. In the case of railroad ties, it is necessary to use a 4-foot long tie that rests on the wall but also enters the hillside.

  1. No Drainage

Before starting to build the wall, you should think about drainage. Use stones or a special drainage pipe under the first row of tiles. Alternatively, you can place them a couple of inches below the ground.

Should You Go for a Railroad Ties Landscaping?

Now you’ve seen that they can be useful if you use them in a safe manner. However, should you use the railroad ties? They are indeed a traditional element and probably you have seen lots of people using them. However, the railroad ties can be a real threat to your health, pets, or soil, not to mention the food you want to grow.

What you should keep in mind is that the wood used for railroad beds was initially treated with creosote. Creosote is a substance made up of more than 300 chemicals, many of which are toxic and persist a lot in the soil. Studies have shown that creosote can cause cancer. It is extremely expensive to have your railroad ties tested for hundreds of chemicals. Keeping in mind that this is how they did it before, you can assume your ties are not safe.

How to Remove Creosote

There are also a couple of solutions which you can use if you still want to choose a railroad ties landscaping. Here you have some of them:

1. Leaching

Some of the chemicals contained by creosote can dissolve in water. However, if you don’t have a deep ground water, you can risk contaminating it with the chemicals.

2. Solvents

Mineral spirits or paint thinners make for great solvents in removing dangerous chemicals from your railroad ties. Simply rub the creosote away with the solvents.

3. Safety Measures

These are basic safety measures you should keep in mind when working with railroad ties. Use gloves and outfits with long sleeves. Make sure you are working in an area that is well-ventilated. Hot areas can activate the creosote vapors. Don’t expose kids to the railroad ties.

Thankfully, there are some alternatives to the typical railroad ties, which you can safely use for your own garden. There are safer versions available on the market made of composite and recycled materials. As such, you can get the timber look and feel without jeopardizing your health. They look quite sturdy, so nobody will be able to tell the difference between these modern ones and the traditional ties.

A good idea is to use other materials instead. For example, if you want to build a retaining wall, you can go for pavers or rocks instead of a railroad ties landscaping. You can be sure that the rocks are safe since they are natural. In general, it is a good idea to use natural materials and not chemically treated ones.

Conclusion

Railroad ties landscape is a great idea. It looks traditional and natural and you can also combine the design with modern elements. However, it’s important to take into account the safety component. Most railroad ties used to be treated with creosote, which is a chemical component that can cause cancer. It’s quite expensive to test all the ties for more than 300 chemicals, which is why it’s better not to use them if they’re very old. They can contaminate the soil, water and endanger your health.

Thankfully, there are plenty of safer alternatives which you can use, including “fake” railroad ties that will maintain the same look of your garden.

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Bonnie Enos

I spend my time in my garden trying to create the greatest outdoor space possible. My garden is my happy place and where you will always find me on a nice day. I take my experience and share it here for you to read!

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