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Can You Use Railroad Ties for Raised Garden Beds?

Can You Use Railroad Ties for Raised Garden Beds?

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Willie Moore
Latest posts by Willie Moore (see all)

D.I.Y. projects like making raised garden beds are becoming increasingly popular as a way to take old materials and repurpose them in new and exciting ways. One material that may come up when finding lumber for your next project is railroad ties. So, can you use railroad ties for raised garden beds?

You should exercise extreme caution when using railroad ties for raised garden beds. Railroad ties are generally treated with numerous chemicals, one of which is generally thought to be a carcinogen called creosote. If you must use railroad ties, you should try to use untreated ones.

This article will take a look at why you should avoid using railroad ties for raised garden beds, cases where it may be ok to use them, and some alternatives to using railroad ties in your garden.

Why You Should Not Use Railroad Ties for Raised Garden Beds

There are numerous materials that you can use to construct raised garden beds. One popular option over the years has been railroad ties. However, this is not the best idea, especially if you are growing plants you intend to eat.

The reason is that the ties often feature creosote, which is potentially extremely harmful to wildlife. It is also dangerous to your health if it is ingested or breathed in (source). 

Some scientists and researchers will tell you that the amount of creosote in used railroad ties is insufficient to cause significant damage.

They say that much of it has washed away and does not necessarily present a high risk of seeping into the soil. Still, there is not enough research done to prove that this is true (source). 

The C.D.C. and E.P.A. are government organizations that warn against overexposure to creosote. While there is not enough research on wood creosote, there is enough evidence on the breakdown of coal tar creosote in the soil to suggest that it may take many months to disappear entirely.

Therefore, the effects of consuming creosote are potentially devastating if the exposure is in large amounts (source).  

It is not advisable to use railroad ties for building raised garden beds, especially when growing edible plants. This recommendation is because there are enough ill effects in one of the main chemicals used to treat most commercial railroad ties, and there is no significant research conducted that quantifies how much leeches out into the soil.

When Can You Use Railroad Ties for Raised Garden Beds?

Not everyone intends to grow edible plants in their raised garden beds. However, there may be cases when it is acceptable to use railroad ties for garden beds featuring certain plants, depending on their intended use. So, when can you use railroad ties for raised garden beds?

You could use railroad ties for raised garden beds if you were using them for nonedible gardens. However, it is still recommended that you use ties that are weathered enough that most of the creosote is gone. Still, be aware that there is always some risk of dangerous chemicals. It is best to avoid these. 

It would help if you chose old railroad ties so that you are not infecting animals or insects that may carry the chemicals along through the food chain. Although almost all the risk of hurting plants or wildlife is diminished over time, you should take the necessary precautions and ensure that there is no visible evidence of the chemicals that could potentially affect animals or plants (source).

Although it is probably not dangerous, using railroad ties in most edible gardens is generally frowned upon. There is less concern when dealing with flowers and plants you do not plan to eat. However, it is probably best practice to avoid using railroad ties for your garden altogether if you are environmentally cautious and concerned about the potential hazards they may cause. 

Will the Chemicals From Railroad Ties Stay Within the Raised Garden Bed?

If you are aware that some chemicals may be leftover but are not too concerned that it’s a large amount, you may be interested in the substances in the garden bed. For example, you might ask yourself: Will the chemicals from the railroad ties stay confined to the garden bed area?

The chemicals from railroad ties may escape the perimeter of your garden bed. You could be exposed by brushing against them. The chemicals may also seep into soil that is shared with other areas of your yard. The best choice is to avoid using them in your garden altogether.

Even though the risk of exposure might be low, it is still something that you need to consider. For example, there is a chance that rain or other weather events may move the soil from one area to another within your landscaping space.

It is difficult to precisely predict how much of the chemicals will move around, but there is a possibility that some will, so it may be best to avoid using them in your garden (source). 

What Are Some Alternatives to Railroad Ties for Your Raised Garden Bed?

Now that we know that railroad ties are not the safest choice for your garden, you may be curious about what you can use instead. The good news is there are plenty of other options. So, what are some alternatives to using railroad ties for your garden?

Lumber, reclaimed wood from various sources, and driftwood are all great alternatives if you want a similar look to railroad ties for your garden bed. 

You have numerous options besides railroad ties for constructing your raised garden bed. For example, you can do D.I.Y. with wood that you have found or purchased, or you can choose to buy an assembled product. 

One sustainable option with a great aesthetic similar to the wood you see with railroad ties is the Rectangular Garden Planter (available on Amazon), which is made from recycled timber.

Final Thoughts

While it’s tempting to use railroad ties for your raised garden bed, it is not recommended. This is especially true for plants you intend to eat. However, there are environmental considerations to acknowledge. 

The best choice is to consider other materials when building your raised bed garden. However, you can still repurpose wood from different sources and make a responsible and attractive raised bed garden.  

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