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Used crossties or railroad ties are cost-effective options for landscaping your yard and building raised garden beds, and they also make great walkways and driveway markers. If you are thinking about using this recycled wood for your landscaping project but are unsure how long it will last, this article is for you.
Railroad ties can last 30 years or more in landscaping. However, exactly how long the wood lasts depends on the moisture content of the soil in your yard or garden. Chemically-treated railroad ties typically last longer, but chemicals make the wood unsafe for domestic use.
Although railroad ties are great for landscaping, there are a few caveats to consider. Keep reading to discover these and a few good railroad tie alternatives.
Factors That Make Railroad Ties Last Long
Before you order railroad ties from an online store or buy them from your local supplier, it is important to know that not all of them are created equal.
Some will last longer than others, and some are safe for residential or domestic use, while others are not.
I’ll get into the safety concerns about railroad ties in a bit, but let’s consider what makes the wood last longer and what can affect its longevity.
Traditionally, railroad ties are pieces of rectangular wood that support rails on railway tracks, and about 60% of these are hardwood, such as hickory, oak, and sycamore (source).
Still, they need chemical preservatives to protect them against pests and other harsh weather conditions.
Creosote is the common preservative for crossties treated in the US, although other chemicals, including ACZA and copper naphthenate, also work well.
Here’s the point.
Chemically-treated railroad ties will last longer than ties without preservatives. There’s one drawback, though. The preservatives make the ties unsafe for domestic use, so you shouldn’t use chemically-treated crossties in your garden or yard.
Soil Moisture Content
Another factor that can increase the longevity of railroad ties is the moisture content of your soil. As you probably already know, wood doesn’t last too long in damp environments.
Installing crossties in areas with poor drainage can affect how long the wood will last in landscaping. You want to install railroad ties in areas with fairly dry soil and a proper drainage system.
Additionally, the amount of rainfall in your area per year may reduce the lifespan of these recycled pieces of wood. If you live in a place with high rainfall, your crossties may not last as long as they would in areas with moderate rainfall.
Even creosote-treated crossties may lose some of their protective qualities over time if exposed to waterlogged areas. Some of the components in creosote are water-soluble, so they will deplete after several years of contact with underground water.
The terrain in your yard where you install railroad ties can affect how long the wood will last. Typically, a retaining wall or raised garden bed on a hilly terrain will last longer than one in a drain-off area.
In other words, ensure to carefully choose your installation location to make your railroad ties last as long as possible.
Are Railroad Ties Safe for Landscaping?
Railroad ties are safe for landscaping, provided they are untreated. It is also safe to use crossties for domestic purposes but only after extracting the chemical preservatives in the wood.
Chemical preservatives, such as copper naphthenate and creosote, protect railroad ties against fungi, mites, and termites. However, the preservatives are not safe for humans and the environment per the EPA (source).
The good news is that you can make cross ties safe by removing the chemical preservatives. Removing creosote from chemically-treated railroad ties involves chipping and heating the wood using a thermochemical process.
While some homeowners use creosote removers to clean the chemical, it is usually not a very effective approach.
Thankfully, some companies use commercial-scale thermochemical processes to extract creosote, minimizing its environmental impact and making it safe for landscaping homes (source).
Remember that creosote-treated railroad ties can be hazardous, particularly if you use them in your home.
You may experience some not-so-pleasant effects if your skin comes in contact with chemically-treated ties during installation as landscape edging or retaining walls. Some of the negative effects include:
- Skin peeling
- Respiratory issues
Apart from potential health problems, creosote can cause environmental problems if it leaks into groundwater. You may end up with contaminated water if the chemical leaks into your soil.
What Can I Use Instead of Railroad Ties?
Building raised garden beds or landscaping your yard can be an exciting proposition, but sometimes it can be difficult to find the right materials for the project.
So, what should you use if you don’t have railroad ties?
What if you suspect that the crosstie available contains creosote? Are there creosote-free alternatives for your garden and landscaping purposes? Fortunately, there are other alternatives to railroad ties.
You can use pressure-treated lumber instead of railroad ties for landscaping. However, this alternative might not be suitable for creating planters if you grow edible plants. Pressure-treated lumber can potentially contaminate food due to chemical preservatives, making it unsafe for planters.
Read our guide on the 7 Best Wood Options For Raised Gardens (And 3 To Avoid).
Remember that pressure-treated lumber is generally pricier than railroad ties, so you might have to shell out if you opt for this option.
Paving stones or blocks are another great railroad tie alternative for creating walkways in your yard or garden (source).
These blocks are available in various options, including:
The good news is that installing paving stones is a pretty straightforward task, no matter your choice. You can even use pebbles to create beautiful walkways in your yard and garden.
Keep in mind that, like pressure-treated lumber, some paving stone types can be more expensive than railroad ties.
Railroad ties are a cost-effective solution for building retaining walls, designing landscape edging, and creating garden planters. They can last a few decades, particularly in dry climates and relatively dry soil.
It is important to choose creosote-free railroad ties for domestic use to avoid potential health effects and environmental impact.