Old railway sleepers can be reclaimed for garden use, but there are caveats, says Kya deLongchamps
Railway sleepers hold a special place in my heart, as my Nevada grandmother Sweetie lived all her adult life in a house made entirely from massive, reclaimed railway timers locked together, their surface pitted with a century of boring by sandy footed beetles. Those woody walls were so heavily insulated and the house so well placed in the desert environment it was one of the few in town that didn’t require air conditioning, simply an open front and back door for the wind to twist through.
Sleepers were made originally from the toughest woods, oak, and treated pine reigning supreme here in Ireland. These and other oily dense hardwoods like azobe, beech, jarra, and karri were used to support the rail networks throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and every year hundreds of thousands of sleepers are made redundant by line changes, upgrades, and closures. They would appear to be a supreme candidate for recycling as landscaping treasures, and up to 10 years ago the market was flooded with this robust, relatively cheap material, a darling for rustic-styled horticulturists and edgy contemporary designers alike.
The first thing you must determine with any reclaimed sleeper is if and how the timber has been treated, as you can unwittingly carry quite a toxic load into your garden. Salt and Coal Tar Creosote, (a by-product of reducing the tar), were used for decades to protect sleepers from the elements. Banned for all but commercial use in the EU since 2003, traditional Creosote really is unpleasant, poisonous stuff and contains Benzopyrene, a proven and stealthy carcinogenic that can leach off the wood into groundwater. Treated, reclaimed sleepers may have sloughed off some of their Creosote over time, but others can be seen to be still sticky with tar-like traces of the product and the odd dollop of oil or diesel from passing locomotives. As the sleeper warms up in hot weather it can ooze a poisonous, sticky mess. Just because a sleeper is not leaking material to your eye doesn’t mean it’s not treated; they appear regularly in the classified ads.
All Creosote-treated reclaimed sleepers are unsuited to vegetable and fruit plots and the Environmental Protection Agency has prohibited their sale for use in residential gardens since 2006. They are obviously not a good choice, where anybody might sit or by any means contaminate their hands and clothes — and that includes your pets. Don’t use suspect reclaimed sleepers for building benches or tables and don’t place them where skin contact or food consumption is likely, or ever bring them indoors. If you already have sleepers that you suspect carry Creosote installed in the garden, consider setting them back behind a bed or growing creepers such as ivy over the surface to reduce the incidence of the sleeper being touched or walked on in bare feet. If you handle or cut Creosote-treated reclaimed sleeper, wear gloves and a mask, and dispose of lengths of the material as toxic waste at your local amenity.
Untreated or salt-treated hardwood reclaimed sleepers are still available, and with their ruggedly attractive, honed surface can be used for steps, raised beds, path edging, lintels, gateposts, and as upright standing landscape pieces, recalling ancient standing stones. In reputable outlets, sleepers are graded according to their condition, the most expensive carrying the least amount of cracks, splits and bowing of their length, so expect to pay more for squared-up, straight examples. Prices will vary for size and grade from around €25-€38 per sleeper for kiln and air-dried 2.5m oak without delivery, but you may get a better deal for a bulk order. New treated (tanalised) softwood sleepers and untreated new hardwood products are completely safe to use anywhere outside, and over three to six months will bleach to an attractive silver colour. You can also stain them up or buy them pre-treated if you prefer a deeper, nutty tone.
Use these products for building raised beds, as hand landscaping, for patio elements, around water features, and even children’s play areas, but as with all timber, make youngsters aware that wood carries splinters. Cut into small sections, graduated upright edging in sleepers is eye catching and robust. Any metal left in a hardwood original sleeper can annihilate even a strong chainsaw. If in doubt ask your supplier to cut them for you. Look for round-edged varieties and interlocking cut pieces as well as the standard square-edged examples. Treat all new sawn areas to a slosh of wood preservative and if you want to separate your vegetables from tanalised wood, simply line them with plastic before filling. Prices for treated softwood start at around €22 per 2.5m length (200m x 100m rectangular profile).
Try this budget project recycling old scaffolding boards.
You will need: •
* 4 Matching timber boards, or two sets of two of same width to suit your area.
* 4 squared-off wood blocks to secure the corners, the same width as the boards.
* Hammer, drill and fixings Instructions:
1. Dig out your bed to about 10cm in depth, line with sand and plastic to prolong the life of your boards.
2. Set the boards on edge, propping them on stout stones. Join them together so that one end per board is visible and dig around the arrangement until the boards sit nicely level.
3. Place corner blocks inside the four corners and mark their position on two boards facing each other.
4. Set the boards down and nail or screw two blocks to either end of the planks you’re marked.
6. Screw or nail the whole arrangement together using your corner blocks.
7. Fill a few inches from the top with non-peat compost and well- rotted manure and get growing.
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