Railway sleepers are used in gardens across the UK for a variety of different horticultural purposes. From creating rustic pathways to long-lasting raised flower beds, these heavy slabs can add a bold and striking feature to any landscape.
But what are railway sleepers?
Traditionally made from timber, sleepers are the rectangular beams used to support the rails on railroad tracks. Laid horizontally, perpendicular to the rails, they ensure the tracks are spaced to the correct gauge and remain upright. To this day, millions of sleepers are used across the country, forming the backbone of our railway system.
However, quite aside from their purely functional use in the railway industry, sleepers have also now become a staple of UK gardens. In this post, we will run through some of the most common queries and provide our top tips for making the most out of laying sleepers in your garden.
How to lay garden sleepers without concrete
Although the use of concrete is the most recommended method when the question of how to secure garden sleepers is raised, there are several other options. For one, you can simply place your sleepers directly onto soil, allowing the heavy sleepers time to bed in. However, it’s worth noting that this method could lead to water pooling around the sides of your sleepers, potentially causing the timber to rot more quickly.
The use of gravel or sand to secure sleepers is a popular alternative to concrete. Whether you’re using sleepers to form new edging around your landscape or are building a raised planting bed, gravel and sand foundations are certainly worth considering. These materials are great for draining excess water, meaning moisture is less likely to pool around your sleepers, helping to preserve the timber. When making use of sand or gravel, it’s also much easier to manoeuvre and make your sleepers level during the laying process.
Once you have decided which material you’d like to use, laying and securing your garden timbers is relatively straightforward. Simply dig a shallow trench and place your sleepers down onto your newly created gravel or sand-based foundation.
Be aware that, when building raised planting beds, ponds or retaining walls, it might be necessary to use screws in each overlapping corner to produce a rigid frame, and to install steel corner brackets to further secure the sleepers. Finally, if your feature is taller than three or four sleepers high, ensure each heavy layer is fixed to the bottom sleeper using deep sleeper screws, and consider installing steel retaining posts to ensure the structure is sturdy.
How long do garden sleepers last?
While it depends largely on what type of timber your sleepers are made from, as well as how they are treated, wooden sleepers should generally be considered a long-lasting addition to your garden.
As a rule of thumb, traditional hardwood sleepers will tend to last the longest, with reclaimed oak railway examples having an expected lifespan of around 100 years. At the other end of the spectrum, an untreated softwood sleeper will tend to only last between two to five years. The most common sleepers used for landscape gardening nowadays tend to be made from specially treated softwood and will survive between 15 and 30 years, if correctly maintained.
How to treat garden sleepers
Once again, this depends on what type of sleepers you select. Traditional sleepers reclaimed from the railway are usually made from study oak and more often than not have been treated with creosote or tar. While this makes them very durable and likely to last for decades in any garden without additional treatment, it is worth remembering that creosote can be harmful to skin and should not be used in any areas where human contact is common.
Purpose-made new garden sleepers are often made from softwood, and can be bought from suppliers in both untreated and pre-preserved states. Depending on the quality of the treatment, pre-preserved sleepers should last a few decades, though this lifespan can be extended by simply applying a wood preserver and an exterior wood oil before laying.
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