Landscape & Hardscape Ideas

No more working on the railroad – a safer alternative to toxic railroad ties

Raised garden beds and tiered garden walls in older home landscapes were often constructed using cast-offs from the railroads. However, the creosote-treated wood was never legal for residential use.

According to the website of the US Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), creosote, a chemical wood treatment and pesticide, is not to be used on any materials near residences: “Creosote is not approved to treat wood for residential use, including landscaping timbers or garden borders.”

The chemicals in old railroad ties has been shown to leak into the soil and be absorbed by plants. That means your vegetables could deliver a dose of a known carcinogen. Your children and pets may prove especially sensitive to tactile exposure to the chemicals, meaning that even playing around old railroad ties might harm them. The EPA pulls no punches about the danger of railroad ties in gardens. Even though some home centers still sell recovered railroad ties, they are not fit for home landscapes. If your landscape came with ties installed by a previous owner, consider removing them and any contaminated soil. If you are considering buying a house with railroad ties installed, consider requesting the owners remove them and the contaminated soil before you purchase the home.

The good news is there are safer options for your garden. Many homeowners associate block retaining walls for sloped yards or tiered gardens, but a raised bed made with landscaping blocks is a lovely way to bring up the sophistication of your landscape design. Block retaining walls are safe for children, pets, and edible or decorative plants. Unlike treated wood or railroad ties, paver stones and blocks will not deteriorate or leak chemicals into the soil. Plus, block retaining walls keep a neat, just-installed look. Wood ages and warps from exposure to the elements, but block garden walls stay intact for decades.

Manufactured stone blocks for garden walls are made specifically for stacking. The design includes an interlocking system and lipped-edge that make the wall sturdy without grout. Blocks with a slightly tapered design make a curved retaining wall easy to install. A wall cap paver block can be placed on the top edge of the wall to finish off the look.

Removing old railroad ties may seem like a big challenge, but it’s important to remove the toxicity from any space where you and your family and friends will be living. Contact a landscaping contractor for help. The experienced landscaper is familiar with the removal process and its specific requirements (e.g., burning ties is illegal in almost all municipalities because burning creosote releases toxic fumes). Removing the railroad ties and replacing them with a handsome block retaining wall will not only make your home safer but will increase your curb appeal. Depending on how many railroad ties you have, this could amount to a big project, but it is a project done only once. Your family’s health and safety, as well as your home’s value, will benefit from the effort.

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