Replacing a Retaining Wall

If you must use railroad ties in your landscape project, take care to adhere to these handling and placement precautions.

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Q. We need to replace a retaining wall because the railroad ties are disintegrating. How long do railroad ties normally last?

A. Although they're not considered a "green" approach to landscaping, railroad ties are sometimes used for retaining walls because of their density and price. Assuming your wall is well built, it should last several decades.

Although treated railroad ties are an economical solution to building a retaining wall, they are saturated with creosote or other closely related byproducts of burning coal; creosote is considered a probable carcinogen. A few caveats can't be overstated:

  • Don't use railroad ties as supports for raised beds for fruits and vegetables or in an area that drains into a garden area of edibles.
  • Don't use these railroad ties in a retaining wall that will double as a seating wall or where frequent skin contact is likely.
  • Wear gloves, long-sleeve shirts and long pants when working with railroad ties.
  • Wear goggles when you or someone nearby is sawing the ties to prevent getting particles into your eyes.
  • Avoid burning unused pieces. Instead, check your local landfill for their policy regarding disposal.

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