All I Want for Christmas is a $20,000 Dry Stack Stone Retaining Wall

We are lucky enough to have a backyard swimming pool, which is a total blast for our family in the summertime, and which by default becomes the visual center of attention for the whole backyard. Much of my “intensive gardening” takes place around this pool, since I like to make its environs as inviting and floriferous as possible in the summer.  Unfortunately, the pool is surrounded on two sides by nearly 100 linear feet of retaining wall made from those god-awful wooden railroad ties.

A glimpse of the timber wall. The sight of it even makes Max feel morose.

These railroad ties must have been all the rage with builders and landscapers back in the early 80s, because they are ALL OVER my neighborhood, which was constructed at that time.  I suppose they’re okay for some applications, but I really don’t think they should be “featured” in a garden as ours is  in our pool area.  Especially when they begin to rot, as our wall has.  It seems each year a new section of wall either collapses or is gnawed from the inside out by carpenter ants, and we’ve had to replace parts of it three times now.  This year, the corner section is going:

This part is totally deteriorating.

As you can see, I had the clever idea to grow cotoneaster over the wall in order to conceal it, or at least to distract the eye with something more comely.  Unfortunately, the cotoneaster is nearly as hideous as the wall, so that plan didn’t exactly pan out.  This summer, as I observed the timbers in this section of wall gradually decaying like teeth on a corpse, I decided , damn it, I’m going to get some estimates for a stone wall to replace this thing!  Stone…lovely, earthy, beautiful, weatherproof, ant-proof stone…once I began to imagine it, it was hard not to become completely infatuated with the idea of a gorgeous stone wall gracing my backyard.

For several weeks I gazed at images of stone walls on the internet.  I measured my site.  I sketched ideas: the wall would sweep around the pool in a gorgeous S-shaped curve, it would be mostly shades of gray but with some hints of orangy-earth tones to match the color of existing rock already scattered around.  It would be the prettiest wall ever.  It would be the Scarlett Johannsen of walls.

Time to get an estimate.

The first place I called was a local landscape maintenance company that I like.  Their estimate was around eight grand.  Pricey, yeah, but I knew it was probably on the low side.  I think this company would have built a good wall, but the vibe I got was that it wouldn’t necessarily have been an artful wall.  That’s what I want.  Artful. 

So then I called up another contractor I knew.  I became familiar with this contractor during my brief stint working for a local landscape designer in DC, and I knew the company did beautiful work and that they could definitely build an artful  wall.  So one of the guys came out, and he talked to me about what I wanted, and being the geek that I am, I described to him my “dream wall” and I even did a little sketch on his notepad.  And he was very nice, and he said we could go to the stone yard together to hand pick the stone, and he said, “maybe in the future we could consider some low-voltage lighting,” and he wove me a beautiful fantasy about the building of this wall. 

The last thing he said to me was:  “So I’ll call you in a few days with the estimate and we’ll go from there!”  Then he gave me a warm handshake and left me with an array of glossy brochures.

That was four months ago, and he still hasn’t called.

I was stood up by the stone wall guy!

The truth is, I suspect he was waiting for me to call him before he took the time to work up the estimate.  I suspect that, when we met, he glanced around and deduced from the plastic lawn furniture and cheap reed fencing that selling me an exquisite stone wall was probably unlikely.  So he gave me the brush off – sort of like in high school when the guy stops calling the girl once he realizes she’s not going to put out.

But he was right, damn it.  The reason I didn’t call him and ask “hey, where’s my estimate?” is because I’m pretty sure a beautiful stone wall built and installed by this company would set us back at least twenty thousand dollars.  Perhaps much more.  Even if I had that kind of money sitting around, I don’t know if I could bring myself to spend it on a retaining wall.  I have a good dose of thrifty Scottish blood in me which is constantly at war with my shameless and extravagant desire for a beautiful garden.   Twenty thousand for a car, a college education, emergency open-heart surgery – yes.  Twenty thousand for the wall? 

The railroad timbers aren’t THAT bad.

So in the meantime I will be taking suggestions for better plants to spill over my timber wall in order to camouflage it.  And I will be adding this book to my Amazon Wish List:

 It’s not as good as the “dream wall”, but it’s $19,975 cheaper.

19 thoughts on “All I Want for Christmas is a $20,000 Dry Stack Stone Retaining Wall

  1. Robert Frost said, “something there is that hates a wall.” That would be gravity and carpenter ants. I love the richness of this post. Been there, done that with estimates and contractors. You’re right that railroad ties are so 1980’s. I did a couple of raised beds for a sloping area beside our front stoop this summer and while they have a nice terraced look, they scream, “I’m from the 1980’s!” Of course,the rest of the house whispers, “I’m from the 1960’s” but I hope new siding (in progress) will dampen that sound.

    As for doing it yourself, there are tons of how-to videos online, several books and articles, and my impression is that with a little practice and a small crane, you could do something like what’s shown in the first picture. Start small and do a short Robert Frost “Mending Wall” wall. (That’s a horrid inadvertent triple rhyme, I know.) I have a run of a brick retaining wall around a patio about 20 feet long and a foot high that is coming apart. I think I’d like to try a dry stone version of it…next spring. You’d be welcome to come practice on it! (JK but it’s an idea.)

    As for drywall, I’ve been trying to do a decent job with that for 40 years and it ain’t happening. Doing that well takes thousands of hours of practice and a touch that I don’t have. More’s the pity…

    Thanks for an evocative post. We used to have a pool when the kids were small but had it filled in about ten years ago. The back yard doesn’t look as cool but it takes a whole lot less maintenance…

    • Mr. Verner, your comment should be a post unto itself. I was actually trying to figure out a way to work “Mending Wall” into my post but I just couldn’t find the angle! Actually, “Mending Wall” probably deserves its own post, perhaps updated to “Leyland Cypress Wall” for the modern homeowner. Hm, now the gears are turning….

      We actually considered filling in our pool a few years ago, when it was constantly leaking and soaking our neighbor’s yard. Not fun! After several angry encounters and much gnashing of teeth, we fixed the leak, and have our fingers crossed.

  2. Oh, you asked about plants to cover the railroad ties. I’ve seen combinations of vines and flowers that look nice but am so botanically challenged I can’t tell you their names. No doubt you would know of several.

  3. I’d use some of the annuals that drape and are used in flowerpots. They are colorful and full. They have to be replaced each year but that is cheaper than a new wall. Another suggestion – grow some grasses or hydrangeas on the lower bed that stand over the winter and give interest most of the season. It looks like you may have a few of those cut down in one photo? I like your big clay pot – good camouflage. I have creeping Jenny in one area and it cascades well over a wall and is a nice lime green but it does creep. Mine is next to the house so stays in place.

    • Thanks so much for the suggestions. I like the idea of annuals in that area since the family is out there every day in the summer to enjoy the garden. The big challenge is that it’s pretty shade over there in the summer, which cuts down the number of options for summer flowers. I’m totally okay with that, since I’m not obsessed with flowers. I DO plant impatiens in those beds every summer…if you know of any other shade loving annual — other than begonias — I’d love to get your suggestions.

  4. These are perennials, which means they should come back every year. They take a few years to get going well. “The first year they sleep, the second they creep, the third year they leap”.

    Japanese Forest Grass: Hakonechloa macra
    This doesn’t quite cascade but should overhang a bit.

    Creeping Phlox or Moss Phlox: Phlox subulata
    A neighbor has the blue cultivar cascading through a white picket fence and down a wall. A friend has white ones cascading down a wall.

    This would be good for in front of the wall. In the fall the seed heads look like a purple cloud.
    Muhlenbergia capillaris:

  5. I can speak with authority that those blasted timbers are as much an artifact of the Eighties as shoulder pads on blouses or hair metal. My parents decided to terrace my old house’s back yard with these, and guess who got to do all of the work in moving them in and setting them into place? (Another joy is that if they weren’t pressure-treated, the ants and fungus turned them into punk wood. If they were, it was usually with one of several very toxic chemicals that prevent you from using the space for vegetables.) At my current house, I just ripped out a whole line of those in the front yard, from where the owners put them in back in (wait for it…) 1989. They were all of the consistency of wetted and then dried toilet paper, and bearing about half of the strength.

    And now a lecture from your least favorite superhero, Captain Pedantic. Technically, what you have are called landscape timbers. Real railroad ties are usually about four feet long and 18 inches side and thick, and they’re usually solid black from the tar and pine pitch used to seal them up. On the bright side, they’re nearly indestructible, and they can be used, with a bit of shoring, for walls with quite a bit of weight behind them. The bad side is that real railroad ties don’t scream “My garden was built in the Eighties.” They scream “My garden remembers when Nixon was still President.”

  6. Mary,
    An idea you may want to consider, SmartSlope, living retaining walls, easily installed, aesthetically appealing and environmentally conscious. Happy to help, if interested, good luck.

  7. I found you from Thomas’s blog and am enjoying your wickedly humorous posts. Re: the landscape timbers, I think it’s going to be hard to disguise those with draping plants. Have you priced Cor-Ten steel to hold back your slope? It’s not as “timeless” as stone and it ain’t cheap either, but it looks very cool, and its slim width means you have more room for plants in front.

    • Oooooh, I love Cor-ten steel. I suspect it’s just as expensive as stone, and I’ve heard it’s hard to find installers. Have you ever designed with it? by the way, I just checked out your blog and and your website — good stuff!!! Thanks so much for reading!

  8. Mary, Cor-Ten is readily available in Austin and quite popular here. I have incorporated it into some of my designs, but I don’t do installations myself, only point clients to professional installers. Thanks for visiting my blog too!

  9. I noticed that inyour pictures you have a bit of space in front of the wall. Why not hide the wall from the front rather than trying to drape it. Actually you can do both. You can chose shrubs that re evergreen in different shapes and sizes so it doesn’t have to be commercial or boring. I don’t know your zone at all but if you chose something like gardenia that is evergreen, blooms and is scented then you have great appeal around your pool. Anyway, just a thought.

    • Thanks for the tip, SJT! I think some sort of hardy gardenia in the sunnier areas around my pool is a fantastic idea. I’m on the verge of ripping out the macrantha azaleas that are there right now, so I will keep your gardenia idea in mind as a replacement.

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