The advanced landscaper is inclined to regard the retaining wall as a kind of engineering masterwork, an invaluable tool for crafting an outdoor space with optimum beauty and enjoyment in mind.
Designed for preventing soil and plant life from escaping or overrunning elevated terrains, retaining walls serve a dual purpose: containment and refinement.
And thanks to today’s style-savvy array of retaining wall ideas, you can shape your environment to suit your personal tastes and outdoor needs alike.
From natural piled stones to industrial sheet metal, as well as wood-paneled boxes and raw concrete, there are a number of retaining wall styles that evoke a decidedly modern edge without detracting from the natural beauty of one’s outdoor space. Retaining walls can be simple and unobtrusive or eye-catching works of landscaping art; there is no right or wrong when it comes to creating your own outdoor perspective.
Your front and back lawns are extensions of your home and/or work, and often leave the first and final impression. All the more reason to invest a little extra time and effort into elevating it into one worth remembering, right?
Practical but undeniably attractive, retaining walls maintain a vista’s natural elements while cleverly solving some of the most common landscaping issues. An expert retaining wall not only controls but creates unique new planting opportunities that only a multi-level landscape can offer.
More than just a casual necessity, a retaining wall is your chance to construct and enhance your outdoor panorama. In the end, no detail is too insignificant when it comes to curating your own personal Eden.
1. Stone Retaining Wall Ideas
Stone retaining walls are very strong and super attractive, so it’s no wonder they’re as popular as they are. There are several varieties of stone retaining walls, but for this category we’ll stick to natural, fieldstone retaining walls. If you have the fieldstone already, they’re an affordable and effective way to hold back some earth.
Depending on what your needs are, you might be able to get away with building a stone retaining wall by strategically stacking stones in place, choosing individual rocks for both appearance and fit. A slight backward pitch is a good idea for a wall like this, so if the ground heaves and settles, it can do so without pushing the stone wall over.
If you’re holding back a large amount of earth, you probably shouldn’t be dry-stacking stones you’ve found in your yard or woodline. A wall that retains a heavy load will require flat stones that will stack nicely and securely. In this case, the best course of action is to have some loads of the proper stones delivered, or call in a professional to build a strong, stable wall.
Get an idea of the difference in design between small walls and large ones by checking out these pictures.
2. Wood Retaining Wall Ideas
For an entirely different look than stone, wood retaining walls look great in rustic settings, as well as the yards of modern homes. They can serve as simple garden beds or be used to hold back a lot of land. Landscape timbers are ideal for these applications as they’re strong and treated to fight rot and insect damage.
One of the appealing things about wood retaining walls is they aren’t that expensive to build, and don’t require many tools. You can create a reasonably attractive wall with tools you probably already have in your shop. The downside is that these timbers are very heavy, so you may want to call in a few favors if you’re doing this job yourself.
There are some techniques that are specific to building wood retaining walls. One of these techniques includes installing a “deadman” to keep the wall plumb and from moving under pressure. The deadman consists of two pieces of timber fastened to each other in the shape of a tee.
The top of the tee gets buried behind the wall, securing it in place. The bottom of the tee gets fastened to the wall with long, specifically-rated lag screws. A few of these and your wall will be held securely in place.
3. Concrete Retaining Walls
Another popular choice for a retaining wall material is poured concrete. A poured concrete wall can take nearly any shape, and with the right reinforcement, they resist a lot of pressure. Once you pour it, you can paint it to match your style, or you can stamp designs into the side of the wall.
After building the forms to pour concrete into, it’s really important to use the rebar in your retaining wall to ensure that it maintains the strength it needs. You can find tutorials about rebar on YouTube, but the idea is that you use strong metal rebar to build a framework that will be encapsulated in the concrete. This will help the wall from cracking and pushing outward under a heavy load.
Our favorite use for concrete retaining walls is to create raised garden beds. You can make the bed flow in whatever shape you like, plus a wide concrete ledge is more comfortable to sit or kneel on than a 2×6 when pulling weeds out of the garden.
4. Stacked Stone Retaining Wall Ideas
Stacked stone retaining walls can be an incredibly beautiful touch to a rustic yard. While all stone walls are stacked in some fashion, here we’re referring to walls consisting of smaller, flat stones that marry up nicely with each other.
These retaining wall designs are reminiscent of the stone walls that run through the woods in the North East, designating ancient property lines and farm boundaries. They look incredible when used as long walls in medium height, and they can do a fair job of staying put.
While stacked stone walls can be mortared in place, traditionally they are dry-stacked. There are some benefits to this technique. With a dry-stack, there’s less of a concern of water being trapped behind the wall due to the inherently porous nature. Also, if the ground does in fact heave, a well-built wall will have enough flexibility to move slightly. The downside is that dry-stacked stone walls cannot be very tall.
If you’re looking for a retaining wall around your cabin, garage, or backyard patio area, consider a stacked stone design. They’ll add color, texture, and a rustic feel to the space.
5. Raised Garden Bed Retaining Wall Ideas
Using retaining walls to create raised garden beds is a great way to accomplish a task while making it look good. Everyone loves the look of a raised garden bed. Imagine enhancing a bed’s look with a handsome stone, brick, timber, or concrete retaining wall.
There are a few ways to incorporate a raised garden bed into your retaining wall project. One way is to use a heavy-duty retaining wall to hold back the soil, rocks, and grass, and using it as a backdrop for a raised garden bed. If you build both the retaining wall and garden bed with the same material, the end result appears as if two, or more, tiered retaining walls are holding back tons of earth, when the reality is the garden bed is completely separate and stable.
Another way to incorporate a raised bed into a retaining wall project is by using smart back-filling techniques. Plan your retaining wall while leaving enough space behind it to put in a decent sized garden bed. When you backfill the space, use paver base, gravel, and a tamp to flatten and solidify the base. Now fill the remaining space with garden soil and plants, flowers, and trees.
6. Block Retaining Wall Ideas
One of the most popular choices for building retaining walls, landscaping blocks can be used for a wide variety of applications. Homeowners, landscapers, builders, engineers, and municipalities have been using blocks to rearrange and repurpose land for years.
Block walls are very versatile. They can be simple, with only a few courses of blocks, or very tall, holding back mountains of soil that result from cutting away land for a road, home, or a number of other projects.
There are many types of blocks that you can use for these projects. Home centers usually have a large selection of blocks that you can choose from in different colors and sizes. Small blocks are ideal for shorter walls and garden beds, while the larger blocks have lips built-in to hook the lower course. These lips increase the strength of the wall tremendously, while also pitching the wall back slightly to counteract heave.
One tip you’ll find most manufacturers suggesting is that you should use landscape fabric behind the wall, overtop of the gravel drainage. This will keep loose soil from clogging the drainage and also from seeping through the front of the retaining wall.
There are some great examples of block retaining walls in the photos below, from basic cinderblocks to intricate masonry work. Take a look to see if you can make one of these styles work for your project.
7. Boulder Retaining Wall Ideas
Retaining walls built from boulders are practical and extremely effective. They do a great job of holding back land without looking perfectly manicured or requiring the painstaking selection of interlocking stones. They’re rustic, and they put large rocks that would otherwise propose an issue to good use.
During large construction projects, some degree of excavation is required before the building can begin. Many times, this excavation uncovers large boulders that were buried in the soil. The contractor has a few options; break and cart the stones away, leave them for the homeowner to deal with, or use them for a project at the homeowner’s request. What better project for these huge rocks than a retaining wall built from them?
This can be particularly ideal if there’s a slope to the property that the homeowner would like to level off for a yard or driveway. It’s an attractive option that can make excellent use of a natural resource that the homeowner already has.
There are some examples in the images below, but if you’d really like to see how this is done, check out this video. It explains what to look for, how to set the stones, and has some great shots that show you how a landscaper manipulates these huge stones with heavy machinery.
8. Tiered Retaining Wall Ideas
It may be impractical to build one very tall retaining wall to level out a large, severely sloped section of land. If this is the case for your property, there are a few designs in the following photos that might strike your eye.
By building tiered retaining walls, you can split the job between several sections of walls, while adding visual interest and individual spaces for driveways, patios, and game areas. Having a section of your yard cordoned off for horseshoes, lawn darts, and bocce is pretty much a life-goal for lots of guys. This project can do that for you.
Tiered retaining walls can be built with most wall-materials. They’ll most likely require large blocks or stones, as smaller options may not create a strong enough wall. Proper drainage will be paramount, especially as you get to the lower tiers. Since water runs downhill, it will pool at the lower tier if there’s not enough drainage to handle it.
Tiers don’t have to be reserved for large properties and steep slopes. You can also build tiered garden beds, which you’ll see in some of the photos below. This is an excellent way to use small stones, rocks, and blocks to add some visual interest to your yard.
9. Alternative Materials for Building Retaining Walls
You don’t always have to choose stone, concrete, or landscape timbers to create a retaining wall. Your needs may not require the type of structural integrity these materials offer. If you just wanted to build some small garden beds, break up a small portion in your yard, or level out a corner of your patio space, there are alternative materials worth trying that might appeal to you.
The pictures below will have a few different types of materials that you won’t typically see being used as retaining walls. It’s not common to see a set of raised garden beds built with steel sheet metal, but it’s effective and quite frankly, it looks pretty good.
There are recycled materials that you can use for these projects as well. We’ve seen small retaining walls built from pipes, old tires, and other out-of-the-box materials. If your home or driveway doesn’t depend on your wall’s integrity, don’t count out using something new and different to create the look that you want.
Retaining Wall FAQs
Do retaining walls require mortar to hold them together?
There are several types of retaining walls, each with their own method of construction. For stacked stone and natural stone retaining walls, you may find that mortar is your best bet for holding the stones in place. For a retaining wall that uses wall blocks, the blocks have lips that fit into the course below, locking them in place. Between the lip and their sheer weight, this is enough to hold them in place without mortar.
Do I need drainage behind my retaining wall?
This question has a plain and simple answer: Yes. Water that pools near a retaining wall can mean disaster for your wall’s integrity. The biggest concern that you need to think about is cold weather. If it were to get cold enough, that water trapped behind the retaining wall will freeze and expand, pushing the wall outward. After a few seasons, the wall’s integrity will be compromised. Proper drainage behind the wall will intercept this problem before it can occur.