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Railroad ties and raised beds

October 26, 2005

I'm planning out next year's vegetable garden (my first! :-D ), and I'm kind of leaning towards building a raised bed for it. Would railroad ties work for that? Somewhere in the back of my mind, I seem to recall someone telling me that they're treated with something bad that can leach into the soil.


Comments (25)

  • lucky_p

    RR ties are treated with creosote. Probably less of a hazard than the CCA that used to be used for pressure-treated lumber destined for ground contact.
    Creosote is an organic material - a complex hydrocarbon - that is not especially water-soluble, so I wouldn't be too concerned about it, personally.
    Many folks over at the organic gardening forum would wet their pants or faint dead away at the thought of using RR ties to create a raised bed for veggies, but I've got no fear of my tomatoes becoming black, tar-impregnated cancer bombs.
    I'd say, if you've got access to some old weathered ties, you'd have no problems, but if you're still skeptical, I guess you could line the bed with a thick layer of plastic to diminish the possibility of creosote leaching(if it occurs at all) into the soil of your raised bed.

  • scotland1

    I've used RR ties for years. The one thing I hate about them is that all sorts of bugs like to eat them. I wouldn't use them next to the house for this reason. But until I get the time and money to build that beautiful stone wall I'm fantasizing about, crossties will have to do.

  • pam_3

    There are some timbers now that are made from recycled plastic (like milk cartons.) They are black and made to look like railroad ties, if you're looking for an alternative. They sell them at Lowes around here (Snellville), and maybe HD. Kinda pricey, tho. But I think they last pretty much forever.

  • sugarhill

    You can use plain old concrete blocks too. Sounds ugly, but they have advantages. One - you can plant stuff like herbs in the holes. Also, they eventually weather and look ok - a little mossy and gray. That only works if you think mossy and gray looks good. Cheaper than stone.

  • girlgroupgirl

    If you don't like the look of plain old concrete blocks, you can coat them in the plasticized stucco they put on the bottom of my house. It looks great, and is pretty sturdy. You can get it tinted any color you want.
    Another option is stacked pieces of old concrete, or turning them up on their side to create raised beds. This is my personal "stone" of choice. It looks great!


  • thedens

    Thanks for all the great suggestions! I'd originally envisioned a beautiful stacked stone bed, then I found out how much that would cost. :-o Then I looked into retaining wall blocks. Another :-o . How in the world do people afford this stuff!? Anyway, the railroad ties caught my attention because they're cheap, easy to assemble (no mortar or complicated instructions) and movable in the future, should I decide that some other landscape feature would look nicer there.


  • wildflower

    Several years ago we made a raised vegetable garden out of railroad ties since they were the cheapest way to go. Shortly afterwards I became paranoid about the creosote dangers and the veggie garden didn't last long there...Now it's a daylily bed. If I'd lined it with plastic to begin with, like Lucky suggested, I would have felt much safer about it...

  • jeff_al

    i think some can be sensitive to the creosote and develop a temporary rash if contact is made while handling, esp. if it is fresh, but probably not an issue if these are used or older pieces.
    might want to protect your arms when placing them, just to be safe.
    i have a configuration of them, 2 courses high, protecting my watergarden from excess storm runoff. been there for years and work well.

  • HoneyGum_SugarBush

    FWIW I was getting ready to use metal edging and then went to a stone dealer across from the midway mealhouse and bought all the stone I needed for about the same thing as the metal edging would cost which is $8 per 8' length of it. I had to hunt high and low for the stones I needed at the price I wanted to pay but if you go there, you may very well find that the stone isn't as expensive as you might think. I searched everywhere and started out with brick dealers for cultered stone but got frustrated when none of them had what I needed in a small quantity. So now I have the edging which matches my house facia and it ties in wonderfully.

  • thedens

    Hmm. I know where that is, although it's a bit of a hike from me. If the stone's cheap, it might be worth the drive, though. Besides, I haven't eaten at the Midway meal house since it was rebuilt, they had the BEST comfort food. :-9~


  • HoneyGum_SugarBush

    I don't live anywhere near there really but most places that sell stone only wanted to sell large pallets of it and I didn't need that much.
    It's sold by the pound but if you take a little postal scale with you (to measure one of the stones you want) and if you bring your measurements with you, you can pretty accurately guess how many you will need and the cost. In fact, I guesstimated without measuring and thought I was only going to have enough stones for half the project and wound up with all that I needed except for 8 measly rocks.

    What I bought is similar in shape & size to bricks but cost less than bricks, only about 30 cents each.

    As for the mealhouse, I've been inside but never eaten there... Something about that sanitation score made me not so hungry. Of course that may have changed by now.

  • HoneyGum_SugarBush

    One more thing I should add is that although I feel like I got a great deal on the stones themselves, I've had to mortar them together and lay them out a special way so all in all, I've spent a great deal of time on that. If I were to hire someone to do that, it would be expensive, I'm sure.

  • rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

    Do NOT use railroad ties for your edible crops.

  • sugarhill

    There is a stone dealer near me - they're on Suwanee Dam Road near Hwy 20 - that doesn't make you buy an entire pallet. You can buy any number of stones you want. I once bought just 7 stones there to make a tiny wall-like accent in a slope. Their prices were pretty reasonable. If you want stone and live anywhere near Forsyth or northern Gwinnett counties, let me know and I'll give you directions to the stone place.

  • HoneyGum_SugarBush

    Sugarhill, I'd like to know where they are. I need 8 more stones and don't want to go all the way back to the other place for a $3 purchase. Please click my page for my email address or post the info here. Thanks!

  • sugarhill

    I'll take a ride past there in the next couple of days and get exact directions for you. Will you be coming down Hwy 20 from Cumming or from Buford?

  • thecaretaker

    What GGG said. If you find a construction site, it can be a gold mine provided you're bold/creative/strong enough.

    I was sad last month when I had no means to get the broken concrete from our new church, which was having it's concrete parking lot ramp redone. Beautiful 12x18x9 hunks of concrete with 2 flat surfaces filling a dumpster. Sob.

    Oh well, after the Great Woodchip Mountain episode my wife would've bashed me with a fry pan at the sight of several tons of riprap. At least I still have my back. And a working transmission.

    The new church is

  • HoneyGum_SugarBush

    LOL. Someone hand the Caretaker a Kleenex.

    Sugarhill, I would be coming south on Highway 'Bufordii'

  • konfuzed

    Just remember, RR ties get to be heavy after a while. If you are lifting them and they're light-weight, the core's already been eaten out by termites.

    RR ties are fine in some areas, I don't recommend them around your house just because of the termite vector, especially here in the south.

    If it's a large, mounded bed, veggies up in center where water's always washing down really isnt a problem. But I would not plant veggies immediately behind RR ties. At least a few rows back where you have maybe marigolds and garlic and onions in front as pest deterants would be the minimum distance I'd put tomatoes back from RR ties, just knowing cresote chemistry and leaching.

    But again, a raised bed with mounded soil will limit much of the back-leaching and instead have it flow down and away from your plants anyway. The more vertical clearance past the RR ties down to the ground the better, as it will encourage a 'safer' removal of the cresote.

    Otherwise, busted up concrete and hauling off rocks from construction sites works for me. I've only bought some cobblestone pavers to edge out central areas I'm around a lot, and use the rougher stuff elsewhere.

  • daphneb

    Does anyone know where I can get railroad ties for very cheap price? I have a hill that is eroding and thought I would put some to keep it together. I have some railroad ties on my property already so I thought I would continue it to keep my hill from destroying my hard any more. Please help :)

  • darcylynn

    I just want to say that these posts are all great. I am helping my boyfriend build a house right now and it is on an unconventional lot so currently we are brainstorming how to build a retaining wall that is 80' long and 6' tall!! Quite a project...we were considering RR ties or using mortar and the natural stone dug up during excavation. I am leaning toward the latter, but understand the labor is intensive. Can anyone provide further insight into either choice (HoneyGum?)? Thanks so much!

  • dorothyp

    Help iam very confused i just planned a veggie garden useing rr ties now a friend tells me there toxic i dont no what to do now should i remove them use something else or what the garden is already planted please help me

  • heg4

    Don't pull them out of your garden. They are FINE. Creosote evaporates into air; it doesn't leach into your soil. It's a (very popular) wives' tale. Lots of people use railroad ties to create fabulous gardens. I am planning a garden right now and will be using them as well. Congratulations on planting your garden.

  • heg4

    Just wanted to add:
    You should try to find older ties that are less black (black tar-looking coating = more creosote) and not visibly oozing.

  • dirtdigr

    Here is a helpful site- not sure how accurate it is, so some research would be good. The creosote that is derived from natural substances is not widely used in the US, according to this site. They advise not using it in the vegetable garden. I have recently moved and my veggie garden and on one side the whole back yard has RR ties on the edges- I'm considering moving them. This year the soil that is directly in contact with them and about a foot out will be planted with flowers and then vegetables. Next year, the ties will have to go, and the soil that was near it.


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