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Railroad Ties are NOT Legal for Home Landscape Use

Railroad Ties are NOT Legal for Home Landscape Use

Q: Pattie writes: “I recently bought a house just over the Pennsylvania border in Maryland. The previous owner had many garden beds, and the one he used for vegetables had old timbers surrounding it that looked questionable. I asked him if they were ‘treated wood’ and he said he didn’t know; that they were there when he purchased the house over ten years ago. The timbers are rotted and in bad shape. How do I find out whether they are treated wood; and if they are, do I need to remove all the soil? Is there a place I could take a piece of wood to show someone or have it analyzed?”

A. Pattie attached photos that show badly rotted timbers; some with a telltale green color—which might be mold, but more likely it’s a sign that the wood was treated with arsenic or other toxic wood preservative. So I went to the EPA to see what kind of advice they had for people who discover that they have the worst kind of wood on their property: Old railroad ties. And what I discovered was shocking.

(And I don’t shock very easily…)

Every EPA site said the same thing about the main preservative in old railroad ties: “Creosote is a possible human carcinogen and has no registered residential use.” So it’s actually illegal to use old railroad ties in a home landscape.

Again, I quote the EPA: “Creosote is not approved to treat wood for residential use, including landscaping timbers and garden borders. There are no approved residential uses of creosote treated wood. The Agency is aware that creosote-treated railroad ties are being used in the residential setting for landscape purposes and as a border around gardens. Such uses in residential settings are not intended uses of creosote. If you have creosote-treated wood in your yard, consult the handling precautions outlined in this document.”

Now—you may be scratching your head and saying, “but I think I’ve seen old railroad ties for sale recently.” And you probably have. I found one online seller who specializes in them, boasting on their website that “Used railroad ties are great for retaining walls and other applications around the house.”

…Which, since it’s an unapproved use of a registered pesticide, can’t be legal. But it doesn’t look like there’s any enforcement. I found old railroad ties for sale this month at the website of one of the ‘big box’ national home center chains (not modern ‘imitations’ either—”old railroad ties”).

If you see old railroad ties for sale, report the seller to the EPA; and warn your friends not to buy them.

And people like poor Pattie, who ‘inherit’ them?

They can have the wood and soil tested for arsenic, creosote, chromium and other worrisome wood preservatives, but the tests can be expensive, and the odds are so strong that old wood was toxic that I would just cut to the chase and spend the money on safe removal, following the EPA guidelines for old railroad ties: Don’t touch the wood with bare skin; don’t let animals or children near it; don’t let it get near a water supply; don’t inhale the dust; wear protective equipment when you handle it—including gloves that are “chemically impervious”; and don’t burn it—the fumes can be deadly.

Now: Back when I was younger, I might have felt comfortable doing this kind of removal work myself. But I am no longer younger; and I have become, as my Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors like to say, “Too soon old; too late smart”, which means I now realize that I might have been tempted to cut corners back in my youth thanks to the invincibility felt by all men previous to their third or fourth decade on this planet. (IF they get that far.)

Older, and thankfully, wiser (there was honestly only one direction to go in) I now realize that the cost of buying the right kind of protective gear would probably be close to the same as paying professionals to do it. So today, I would get bids from several local companies that do asbestos removal—they already have the expertise, the right protective equipment, and perhaps of equal importance: access to safe disposal options—and get pros to do it.

Have them remove all the rotting wood and the top inch of soil. Then the homeowner or a landscaper —wearing long sleeves, protective gloves and a heavy duty dust mask—can have soil brought in to level the area, lay cardboard over the soil, frame out raised beds, drop them on top of the cardboard and fill them with topsoil, compost and perlite (as discussed at length in our previous Questions of the week on raised beds—found under the letter R). You can use non-dyed wood chips or bark mulch to cover the two-foot-wide walking lanes between the beds, but nothing weirdly colored or bad smelling.

Then you’ll be growing in clean soil for sure. And there won’t be contaminated soil or sawdust blowing around for people to inhale or otherwise come into contact with. As we’ve stressed in the past, the big danger with treated wood comes from inhaling the toxins and absorbing them through your skin—so “just growing ornamentals there” as opposed to food crops isn’t a safe option. Do it right; you’ll sleep better at night, and you’ll also get highly productive garden beds out of the deal.

You can even take your time and build a few of the new raised beds every season—my ‘go slow’ approach for people who have just moved into a new place. But that’s just for building the new beds. I’d want all the old wood and that top inch of soil out of there right away. Otherwise, the people in that house are in danger of inhaling toxins every day.

And if those people were to try and work in un-remediated soil without protection, they’d risk ingesting the chemicals through inhalation and skin contact; and even worse, getting a toxic splinter. No matter what kind of wood treatment was used, the splinters are nasty!

So get rid of it. The only legal use for railroad ties is ON a railroad.

EPA on railroad ties:

http://www2.epa.gov/ingredients-used-pesticide-products/creosote (as of 2016!)

Recycling railroad ties comes with benefits

A little-known fact: Some 21 million wooden railroad ties are taken out of service in the U.S. each year. What happens to them? Many of the used ties, which on average are 30 years old, are burned to produce heat and electricity, and the remainder are recycled as landscaping timbers or disposed of in landfills, according to Nicole Labbé, Pyoungchung Kim, and their colleagues at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Renewable Carbon. However, changing environmental rules on burning and reusing the chemically treated wood combined with the low cost of natural gas has meant railroad ties are increasingly being landfilled. This situation led the Tennessee researchers to work with wood-preservative company Nisus to develop a commercial-scale thermochemical process that increases the value of used railroad ties and reduces the environmental impact of disposing of them (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2017, DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.7b02666). The process involves chipping the ties and heating the material to extract creosote or copper naphthenate, which are commonly used preservatives added to railroad ties to ward off fungal invaders that degrade wood. The cleaned-up wood can be burned as boiler fuel or preferably can be pyrolyzed to create a bio-oil that can be converted to gasoline, diesel fuel, and chemicals. The leftover solid material, known as biochar, can be burned like coal or added to farmland to improve soil quality and sequester carbon. The researchers suggest the recovered preservatives and the produced fuel and chemicals can be directed back into preparing new railroad ties. “We have demonstrated that our approach can make a better use of the old ties, both economically and environmentally,” Labbé says.

Are Railroad Ties OK to Use to Construct Vegetable Gardens?

Yes, creosote does leach out of the ties and into the soil, but worn-out ties are generally not a problem, because most of their creosote has already leached away. Whether plants take up the creosote has not been settled. However, because creosote is toxic, new ties can cause growth problems for plants that are sensitive to it.

You can line your beds with plastic to prevent contact between the soil and wood, if you like. If the wood is oozing black creosote or has an odor, it shouldn’t be used. Gases released from creosote are also harmful in a closed space, so railroad ties should not be used in a greenhouse or indoors.

Many other materials can be used for constructing a raised bed, so there is no reason to give up the idea. Because chemically pressure-treated wood is expected to last up to 40 years, most folks turn to it first when building a raised bed. If you are concerned about safety, however, be sure to research your options. Although all wood preservatives have guidelines for safe use, some of them, such as ACQ, are thought to be safer than others.

To avoid preservatives completely, choose from among several woods that are naturally rot-resistant, such as heartwood-grade redwood, knotty red cedar, cypress, catalpa, juniper, or Osage orange. Construction-grade heartwood can last so long that you’ll probably want to redesign your bed before it falls apart. Availability often depends on your locale. The plastics industry has other options, including recycled plastic and plastic mixed with sawdust. They look and handle similar to wood, will last for years outdoors, and don’t leach any chemicals.

Railway sleepers are a timeless garden edging option. Their aesthetic is versatile, complementing any landscape design that you may imagine. Railway sleepers can be rustic, modern, contemporary, and virtually anything in between. You can treat the sleepers or leave them untreated, depending on the look you want to achieve. In any case, there is a railway sleeper concept that will make an excellent addition to your garden.

Use railway sleepers to edge your garden, use as retaining walls, create raised flowerbeds, or anything else you can imagine in your garden. The organic properties of the wooden railway sleepers are well-suited to stand the test of time. The average sleeper weighs a couple of hundred pounds, so it’s very sturdy, to say the least.

In this article, we will talk about some of the different ways railway sleepers can be used as edging in your garden. We will also provide an in-depth tutorial on how to install railway sleepers. Then we will give you some railway sleeper garden edging inspiration!

Reclaimed Railroad Ties

Reclaimed railroad ties mean that they were once used on a railway somewhere in the world. They served their time on the railroads, and are now available to meet your landscaping vision.

When it comes to genuine reclaimed railroad ties, there is something important to consider. Real railroad ties are treated with a chemical called creosote to preserve and protect them from the elements. After all, railroad ties are subjected to the harshest conditions out there for decades at a time. Have you ever noticed that tar-like substance covering railroad ties? That tar is creosote.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers creosote a toxic chemical. What does this mean? It means that, if you opt for reclaimed railroad ties, you will neat to treat it and seal it to prevent the creosote from harming the surrounding environment.

This planter is supported by a stack of repurposed railway sleepers. Although they are old, they contribute a vintage aesthetic appeal to the garden.

Varathane Spar Urethane

Luckily, sealing old railroad ties is easy. Simply use a paintbrush to apply urethane that is made for exterior use to the entire surface of the railroad tie and allow it to completely dry. It is recommended to apply at least two coats to ensure that the entire railroad tie is sealed.

Reclaimed Railroad Tie

Lowes offers reclaimed railroad ties at an affordable price!

Treated Timber Garden Railway Sleepers

Treating railroad sleepers with stain and lacquer is a great way to give them a vintage but timeless aesthetic. This also helps protect them from the elements.

This concept makes use of new railway sleepers to edge the perimeter of planters.

Gardener’s Exterior Wood Stain

This wood stain from Gardener’s is intended for outdoor use, which means that it is perfect for your railroad sleepers. It is available in several colors — cloud white, graphite gray, lakeside cedar, and moss green.

Watco Crystal Clear Lacquer

After the stain is applied, apply a few coats of lacquer for added protection!

Pros and Cons of Using Railway Sleepers

Railway sleepers have a lot going for them. One of the pros of using railway sleepers for garden edging is that they are extremely strong and durable. Railway sleepers can endure extreme climates, so you need not worry about harsh winters and hot summers adversely affecting them.

Another pro of using railway sleepers in your garden is that they can often double as either steps or seats. This makes them remarkably useful as a garden edger.

One of the downsides to using railway sleepers for garden edging is that they can be difficult to install depending on the terrain. If the terrain slopes, digging might be required in order to make the sleepers level, making it a time and labor-intensive process.

Another downside to using railway sleepers is that, while they can last decades, they will eventually rot. This will attract termites, and it will make the sleepers lose their functionality. Once this happens and the railway sleepers need to be replaced, the removal process can be long and arduous depending on how many sleepers there are and how they are joined together.

How Much Does Railway Sleeper Edging Cost?

Believe it or not, incorporating railway sleepers as edging in your garden is not particularly expensive compared to other edging options. Take a look at some of the costs associated with using railroad ties.

The railroad ties themselves run about $20 for an eight-foot section. Consider the length of railroad sleepers you will need, and be sure to account for how high they will be stacked.

If you will be staining and sealing the railway timbers, that is another cost to factor in. The stain will cost around $30 or possibly more depending on how many timbers you need stained.

If you plan on sealing your railroad ties with lacquer, the lacquer itself will run about $50 for one gallon.

If you buy reclaimed railroad ties that have been treated with creosote at some point, you will need to apply polyurethane to them in order to comply with the EPA. Polyurethane can be a bit pricey depending on how much is needed. The can we mentioned runs for about $100.

How Do You Install Railway Sleeper Edging?

So how exactly do you install railway sleeper edging? Luckily, the process is mostly straight forward; setting the sleepers themselves is fairly simple. But when it comes to attaching two sleepers together, a small process is involved. Watch this video for a visual walkthrough of how to install railway sleepers. We have also included a text tutorial below!

  • Before you begin, you will need a broomstick or wooden dowel that measures 25 millimeters in diameter, a 25-millimeter flat wood drill bit, a long drill bit, wood adhesive, a four-inch wood screw, a rubber mallet, wax, and a hand saw.
  • Start by using the 25-millimeter flat drill bit to drill a hole at the junction of two sleepers. Make sure to drill through the sleeper perpendicular to you and into the sleeper running parallel away from you. Drill about two and a half inches directly into the sleeper.
  • Use a normal drill bit to drill a pilot hole into the railway sleeper inside the 25-millimeter hole. The goal of the pilot hole is to make it easier for the screw to be driven into the wood.
  • Drive the four-inch wood screw into the pilot hole. This will start to snug the two sleepers together.
  • Repeat the previous steps so that there are two 25 millimeter holes and two long wood screws joining the sleepers together. If the railway sleepers are particularly large, feel free to add more holes and screws if needed.
  • Cut a section of the broom handle or wooden dowel to a length of two and a half inches. Apply wood adhesive around the outside of the dowel, and insert the length of the wooden dowel into the 25-millimeter hole. If need be, use the rubber mallet to hammer it into place.
  • Once the dowel is fully inserted, use a saw to remove any part protruding from the sleeper.
  • Use a little bit of wax to rub over the end of the sleeper to cover any part of the wooden dowel that might be protruding.
  • Repeat this process at everywhere railway sleepers meet each other. It really is that simple!

Railway Sleeper Inspiration

Now that we have gone over some of the specifics about integrating railway sleepers as edging in your garden, check out some photos that will inspire you!

Built-in Bench Garden Edger

One of the great things about using railway sleepers for garden edging is that you can do things like this — make a functional, built-in seat into the flower bed. This setup contains the dirt and mulch while giving the garden a crisp look and a beautiful woody aesthetic.

Multi-level Railway Sleeper Setup

In this garden, railway sleepers are used to make a cozy lower nook underneath the main flower bed. The wood adds aesthetic value to the scene without detracting from the beauty of the surrounding plants and foliage. It also serves as a small retaining wall, giving your landscape for shape and structure.

Railway Sleeper Stepped Border

If your back patio sits below your yard, railroad ties are a great way to make a small retaining wall that functions as a border between the patio and the yard. Railroad ties can easily be turned into a small set of steps for your convenience.

Railroad Ties with Geometric Intrigue

Railway sleepers do not have to be set in a typical rectangular orientation; feel free to get creative with it! In this yard, the railway sleepers are arranged to create several triangular sections. A design like this is sure to make your garden unique!

Tiered Railroad Tie Stairway

This garden is hands down an incredible sight, and the railway sleepers play a big role in making it so. The sleepers transform the sloped lawn into a three-tiered garden with a ton of dimension. Railway sleepers are a great way to delineate sections to create depth. As an added bonus, the sleepers form an elegant stairway all the way to the top!

Neat and Orderly Flower Bed Border

Sometimes simplicity is great. Railway sleepers do a great job edging flower beds that are connected to structures. One of the good things about using them as edging is that they can be stacked to attain the desired height. This gives you a lot of flexibility to design and create.

Rustic Vibes

Reclaimed railway sleepers are a great way to add an old rustic vibe to your garden. The dark patina that these pieces develop will complement the color scheme of virtually any garden. Their immense size and bulk are perfect for defining the landscape. As a bonus, because of their size, they’ll stay in place.

Railroad Tie Flower Bed

One of the best uses of railway sleepers is for elevated trough-style flower beds. The thick wood acts as a great barrier surrounding the flower bed. Simply stack more sleepers on top of each other to get the flower bed to the desired height. This option is great for building a raised vegetable garden.

Treated Vintage Flower Bed Edger

This flower bed showcases the added aesthetic appeal of railway sleepers that have been treated. Stain and lacquer can make a world of difference in terms of visual appeal. Treating the wood will not only make it look cool and vintage, but it will keep it protected so that it can be the pride and joy of your garden for years to come.

Dark Wood Accent

Railway sleepers can be used to edge small flower beds too! A single sleeper perimeter can complement the foliage. Dark wood like this really makes vibrant greens pop.

Here are some insights about the types of Edging for gardens.

Are Railroad Ties Safe For Gardening: Using Railroad Ties For Garden Beds

Railroad ties are common in older landscapes, but are old railroad ties safe for gardening? Railroad ties are treated wood, steeped in a toxic stew of chemicals, chief of which is creosote. You can find old railroad ties for sale even at garden centers, which makes the question confusing. The EPA has denounced these repurposed barriers as toxic and not recommended for the garden. Let’s explore why and what alternatives for railroad ties for landscaping are safer and just as effective.

Should I Use Railroad Ties in My Garden?

If you have just purchased a property and want to build some raised garden beds, railroad ties seem like an inexpensive easy option. However, you might ask yourself, “should I use railroad ties in my garden?” True, you have probably seen them in friend’s landscapes and neighborhoods are rife with the wood. Unfortunately, what we traditionally have done in the past we are now discovering was a mistake. Using railroad ties for garden beds can pose a threat to your soil, pets and children, as well as the food you grow.

Railroad ties are thick, durable, cheap, recycled wood that forms long-lasting barriers for beds, paths and retaining walls. You see them everywhere and many consider their distressed appearance naturally attractive. The wood is preserved by soaking it in creosote, which is composed of over 300 chemicals, many of them toxic and persistent in soil.

Exposure to creosote has been shown to cause cancer. Even topical contact with creosote can be dangerous. For this reason, it is unwise to use railroad ties in vegetable gardens where contact is inevitable. Additionally, as the wood slowly breaks down, it will release this toxic brew into your soil, contaminating it and your food.

The best idea if you already have the wood in your landscape is to remove it. Many experts recommend removing several inches of the soil in the area as well. However, removal can be tricky and dangerous. Wear long sleeves and pants, a mask, eye protection and thick gloves. If the wood is likely to break apart, consult with a professional team that can ensure removal of all the pieces safely.

Once the ties are out, they should be disposed of. Whatever you do, don’t burn the ties! This releases toxic gases that can be even more dangerous than simple topical contamination. The railroad ties in vegetable gardens that are so common as raised bed barriers pose the worst threat. In these areas, the soil should definitely be removed to a depth of several inches. Dispose of the soil and install fresh uncontaminated soil for growing your foodstuffs.

Alternatives to Railroad Ties for Landscaping

Borders for beds that won’t decompose quickly are hard to find. You can try using a pressure treated product from your local lumber store but, honestly, these will contain potentially hazardous chemicals.

A safer option is to use pavers or rocks to build retaining walls. In an abundance of caution, the rocks seem the safest choice, as they are of the earth and have no toxicity. Cement pavers may break and crumble and may include unwanted additives as well as low concentrations of natural radioactive elements. Stick with the natural options, especially around the vegetable garden where potential contamination to soil can be taken up into your food.

Is It Safe to Use Treated Wood in Planter Boxes?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Nathan DonleyFollow Jun 25, 2018 · 4 min read

Dear Dr. Donley,

I would like to put some raised planter boxes in my yard to grow vegetables and herbs. I was going to use pressure-treated lumber so they’d last a long time, but a friend told me it might be dangerous to grow food near treated lumber. Is it safe to use treated wood in planter boxes?


Thyme to Turnip Some Answers

Lettuce Begin,

Wood treatment is simply meant to prevent the natural process of decomposition. Most lumber doesn’t last very long in the wet, outdoor environment, so builders often seek out wood pretreated with a pesticide that prevents fungi and insects from breaking down the wood fibers. This is referred to as “treated” or “pressure-treated” lumber, and it’s one reason many homes still remain attached to their foundations.

While treated wood has its uses, it’s important to know when not to use it. Until recently most treated wood was coated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which is just as bad as it sounds. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, makes up about one-fifth of the CCA mixture, and unfortunately it took us about 60 years to realize it may not be a good idea to have arsenic-coated wood in everything from outdoor play equipment to picnic tables.

In 2002, with a backward power dynamic on full display, the Environmental Protection Agency nicely asked the pesticide industry to phase out CCA. It agreed to do so — but just for residential uses. Sadly, this is just one of many examples of the EPA failing to impose complete bans on harmful toxins in favor of partial, “voluntary” bans from morally bankrupt industries. Nevertheless, the residential ban was a significant public-health victory, and there are now fewer children running around with arsenic on their hands after playing in the playground.

Since then, numerous wood treatments have been approved to replace CCA. The EPA has opted not to assess the dietary exposures from treated wood in picnic tables or planter boxes. However, some wood treatments, like copper naphthenate, specifically state on the pesticide label that they are not suitable for garden applications where fruit or vegetables will be grown.

So, depending on the wood treatment, it’s either unsafe to grow food in treated wood planters or the safety has not been determined. I’d say stay away from treated wood in the garden, and that includes railroad ties — those are soaked in creosote (and you don’t even want to know what’s in that).

But don’t fret, because you have plenty of other options available to you. You can use traditional lumber and accept that you’ll have to replace it in about 5–8 years. If you go to a construction-material recycling center, you’ll have access to an endless supply of affordable untreated wood looking for a second life.

Or, if you’re looking for something that will stand the test of time, rot-resistant wood like cedar or natural stone are two options — but they tend to be pricey and, unless you can gather stones near your home or find previously used cedar (which can be tough), are not the most environmentally friendly way to go.

Often people believe they need to build raised beds, when actually they’d be better off planting directly in the ground. But if planting directly in the ground isn’t an option for you, go to the local recycling depot or throw a party and collect a bunch of wine bottles. Bury the necks of the upside-down bottles in the ground and line them up in a rectangle, with the large base sticking out of the ground. That will give you about 10 inches of rise that you can fill with soil. If you need to, you can run a strap around the outside to prevent the bottles from bowing out over time. You may look like the neighborhood wino, but your repurposing cred will be unmatched.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley

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