Retaining walls were first created to perform the simple and necessary task of holding back earth. And with good reason: Erosion is a natural process, but when it means soil being washed off your property — or worse, accumulating against the side of your home — serious problems can result.
Of course, nowadays, we also are using retaining walls for aesthetic purposes. Known as garden walls, these retaining walls aren’t only functional, but they also can expand usable surface area, making them an essential component in many landscaping designs.
Traditionally, retaining walls were made from railroad ties and found stone. The land was dug back; the stones or wood were placed as a wall; and the land filled back in behind, creating two flat surfaces where there once was a hill.
The process is no different today, but the uses and materials have changed.
Railroad ties, and now treated landscape timber, are still used. But it’s well known that improperly installed or improperly treated wood is likely to rot when it’s placed directly against soil.
Stone offers a natural, classic look — particularly when installed by a skilled stonemason. And brick can offer a staider look, while concrete blocks are inexpensive and simple. Other options include poured concrete and steel.
Ultimately, the best material for your project will depend on what you plan to do in front of the wall.
Use of the land
Retaining walls still are most often used to keep back or move earth. This frequently means leaving cut grass in front, offering more usable yard for the property. Of course, this decision leaves the walls exposed, which places a lot of importance on aesthetics.
A cheap masonry job will become an eyesore and a concrete flat wall will look industrial, while a quarried stone retaining wall will become something you want to show off.
The purposes of these walls vary. If your intent is to retain earth or create more yard space, you’ll want to match the design to your home’s exterior design. And if it’s to create a layered landscaped look, then it’s less about the walls and more about the elements placed after the retaining wall installation.
A garden wall is a type of retaining wall that encloses a garden. Also called a screen wall, it’s often used as a device to create a tiered or terraced garden.
A garden wall isn’t a structure that is designed to hold the weight of soil. This can be an elegant addition to any home design, creating a wall of flowers and shrubbery where there was once just a hill of hard-to-mow, hard-to-grow grass. Next to a pool or patio, it might brighten your summer days. Outside a home’s garden window, it can even make a tremendous difference in the everyday feel of your home.
When looking into the type of retaining wall you want, be sure to also consider environmental concerns. Railroad ties and treated timber have fallen out of favor due to the chemicals used, while flat concrete walls don’t allow proper drainage.
More common now because of its aesthetic options, low cost and environmental friendliness is the segmental retaining wall, or retaining wall blocks. These concrete slabs are pre-made to create a specific design feel while also allowing for drainage.
Whatever materials you choose, a retaining wall will offer you more use of your land with the added benefit of creating a unique, elegant look for your landscape design.
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