Have a Catalog offer ? Click Here

How to Safely Use Railroad Ties for Landscaping

For decades, railroad ties have been used for gardens and landscapes. Their natural, worn look makes them ideal for raised garden beds, steps and retaining walls. They're also used to construct rustic benches and decks.

Some of the railroad ties used for these projects are creosote railroad ties reclaimed from railroads—and others are look-alike railroad ties made with soft or hardwood or composite materials. Reclaimed railroad ties most likely have been treated with creosote, a wood preservative that protects against insect pests and that has been used since the 1800s. According to the EPA, coal tar creosote is a probable human carcinogen.

Read on to learn about more about railroad ties for home landscaping, are railroad ties toxic and alternatives to creosote railroad ties.

What Are Railroad Ties?

Railroad ties are the support for railroad tracks. They're laid perpendicular to the rails and hold the rails upright. Usually, they are made of wood that's been treated with creosote. When railroad tracks are removed, the railroad ties may be repurposed for gardens, landscapes and other uses.

Gardeners and homeowners who want to avoid using creosote-treated railroad ties have several look-alike options, including:

  • Railroad ties made from wood that's naturally resistant to pests. These include cedar, redwood, Cyprus and black locust.
  • Timber treated with other preservatives approved by the EPA.
  • Railroad ties made out of wood-alternatives or composite materials.

Are Railroad Ties Illegal or Dangerous?

While railroad ties can legally be used in some areas (check with your state and municipality), creosote is a probable human carcinogen.

According to the EPA, while creosote pesticide products are not available to homeowners, "reuse of creosote-treated wood is not subject to regulation by EPA under pesticide laws." For more information on creosote, visit the EPA site here.

There are some uses where creosote railroad ties are not recommended because it could be dangerous. For instance, because creosote may leach into the soil, creosote railroad ties are not recommended for raised vegetable garden beds or near children's play areas.

To avoid the possibility of inhaling toxic chemicals, do not use creosote railroad ties indoors or in greenhouses. Also, do not burn creosote-treated or other treated wood.

How to Use Railroad Ties Safely

Railroad ties can be re-purposed for a variety of landscaping projects, including use as fence posts, steps and retaining walls. Some recommendations include:

  • Avoid using them near water supplies and avoid using them where humans and animals will be touching them with their bare skin.
  • When working around creosote railroad ties or removing creosote ties, wear long sleeves, protective gloves, and a heavy-duty dust mask. Avoid inhaling dust from the ties and don't burn them.
  • While railroad ties have a rustic look, you may also want to consider alternatives to creosote treated railroad ties such as using naturally pest-resistant wood, wood alternatives, composites or timber treated with other preservatives.
  • If using treated wood for raised garden beds, many gardeners line the beds with plastic so there is no contact between the wood and the soil.
  • If removing railroad ties from your property, check your local ordinances about how to dispose of creosote railroad ties. Because of their bulk and the need for protective clothing, you may want to consider hiring professionals to remove them.

Expert Advice

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 EPA informational 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:

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


Item added to cart