Landscaping with Railroad Ties

Landscaping with railroad ties can transform any yard – even yours.
Wooden Bridge Over Stone Stream

Landscape Makeover

The Hart residence in Lincolnshire, Illinois, with a stone fountain, stream and railroad ties wooden bridge, after a landscape makeover by license contractor Jason Cameron, as seen on DIY Network's Desperate Landscapes.

Photo by: Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

Jean-Marc Giboux/Getty Images

For more than a century, landscaping with railroad ties has been a quintessentially American solution to just about every garden quandary. As the railways expanded across our country, trees were cut for ties and ties were used and replaced in order to maintain the safety of the rails. Now, ties are everywhere. 

Need to build natural stairs into a hill? Frame a tree? Border a driveway? Create terracing? Build a wall? There's a tie for that!

When it comes to landscaping, railroad ties, it seems, can do it all.

Increasingly, railroad ties are being used in combination with brick, sand, concrete, large rocks or gravel to create modern landscaping designs that have both a traditional and contemporary feel.

Ties can be cut into any length to serve as in-ground steps, bed borders, mailbox posts or for other uses. 

Instead of traditional brick steps leading up to a home, ties are placed lengthwise over bricks to act as treads. For an old-world effect for a front patio, create your own mini-piazza with ties laid into squares filled with sand or white pea gravel. Design the ultimate terraced backyard garden with multiple two-tie retaining walls.

Ties are being used indoors, as well – from reclaimed wood flooring to artsy fireplace mantels.

Genuine railroad ties have had their share of PR problems, however, and you may wish to consider purchasing an alternative timber product instead of a used tie.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that creosote, the chemical used to treat the ties, can be hazardous to your health and to the health of some plant life. Ties treated with creosote are not recommended for residential settings. Bare skin should not come into contact with the treated wood; humans should not breathe sawdust from the cutting of the wood; the ties should not be used to frame an edible garden or come into contact with any source of water for humans and animals. Re-purposed ties haven't been banned for residential use and are still sold in many stores. You may have existing ties on your property. Just be aware of the risks.

Now that we've got the warnings out of the way, you'll be glad to know that a safer version of railroad ties made from recycled and composite materials exists on the market – and these timbers will give you the rustic feel and sturdiness of a traditional tie without the health risks.

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