One of the most cost-effective and dramatic improvements you can make in your landscape is to define your planting beds with retaining walls. Landscape walls can “tie together” your foundation plantings and extend your home visually, enhancing its value and making maintenance easier. They can solve landscape problems such as slopes along the foundation, bringing plantings up level with the house for a more professional look. You can also use them to visually “link” outlying beds such as driveway entrance plantings with the rest of your landscape.
For homeowners with clay soil or drainage problems, retaining walls can be a lifesaver because they allow you to build beds with well-drained soil. This is much better for plants and easier for the gardener. You can create giant “planters” filled with nice fluffy topsoil, and there’s no danger of your lawn eventually taking the beds over because there’s concrete between the lawn and the beds. The wall even gives you a place to sit while you garden!
Walls can be made with interlocking blocks available in many shapes, colors and sizes, or made with natural stone. Wood products like railroad ties, “landscape timbers” or pressure-treated wood are also used to make walls, but we like to say that “anything wood in contact with the ground is temporary.” Stone or concrete walls will last for the rest of your life, if they’re built correctly.
The most important thing is to get your walls level. This means you have to start at the lowest point of your wall, which can be a bit tricky. The first course of blocks is the most important to get exactly level, front to back as well as side to side. The slightest mistake is multiplied with each course you add, so you must take your time and get it perfect.
Picking the right block is an important step. Taller walls should be made with larger block or they can easily shift. Using small (one foot long by four inches high) blocks for walls taller than two feet is common mistake, and it’s not really any cheaper. The bigger blocks are heavier to work with but their weight helps keep them from shifting. There’s not much difference in cost per square foot of wall face between small and large blocks.
Natural stone gives retaining walls more character, and fits better in natural settings. Dry-laid stone walls (walls without mortar joints) are very popular, but it takes some skill and experience to build them strong so they’ll last. Making walls with random sizes and shapes of natural stone takes patience. Quarried stone is available “snapped” (cut to block-like sizes and shapes), which makes wall-building much easier.
Well-designed, professionally built hardscaping really enhances your landscape and increases property value in proportion with its cost. Once you’ve built a retaining wall and see how nice it looks, you’ll want to build more.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.