Railroad ties are made of thick timbers designed to withstand the pressure of a train and its freight rolling over them. Railroad ties also are treated so they will withstand weather in all types of environments. Because these ties are so sturdy, they are desirable for landscaping projects such as retaining walls and raised beds.
Obtain Ties Legally
When a railroad company repairs a section of track, workers often leave the old ties sitting alongside the track. Although it may be tempting to simply drive up to the track and pick up these ties, this is illegal. Many railroad companies sell them to a private contractor. The contractor collects the ties and takes them to be sold to landscapers and through garden centers. To avoid being charged with theft, purchase ties through legal means, such as directly from a railroad tie manufacturer, a landscaping supply company or a big-box retailer.
Railroad ties are treated so they will weather harsh conditions, including the baking sun of the desert, the humid environment of the south or the freezing weather in the north. When a tie is newly created, it usually is soaked in creosote, which gives railroad ties their black coloring. As a tie weathers, it exudes creosote. This preservative can contaminate soil in landscaping. To avoid contaminating the soil, select older railroad ties, which exude less creosote than newer ties. Additionally, look ties over for the presence of pests, such as termites or ants. In some parts of the country, spread of Formosan termites has occurred thanks to their presence in railroad ties.
Use Ties Properly
Because of their weight, railroad ties may be simply placed in the soil for some projects, such as small raised garden beds or stairs. Projects such as retaining walls or larger raised beds will require staking the ties. To construct a project of this size, dig a foundation for the ties that extends below the frost line of the soil. Place a tie in place and drive a stake through the hole in the tie created by the railroad spike. Place ties end-to-end to form the first row of a wall. Offset the second row of ties and drill holes through the first row so you can stake the second row of ties through the first and into the ground. Create adequate drainage behind the ties so the weight of waterlogged soil does not push the ties outward.