Retaining Wall Ideas and Designs

There are different applications for retaining walls and the types of materials that you use will depend on the look you are after.  Both stone and masonry products make up a big portion of what is used today, though some wood applications exist, too.  Different designs and looks exist that can provide you with a variety of front yard and backyard landscaping ideas.  Wood retaining walls consist of several types. (SEE PHOTOS BELOW)

One is to create a type of ‘panel’ where there is a span of wood – with support posts – holding back the dirt.  In another type of wood wall, the use of railroad ties side-by-side creates the wall.  Railroad ties are a bit more of a dated look and can carry the risk of having the harmful chemicals used to preserve the wood leech into your soil.  If you’re using your ties for a raised garden bed or other planter for trees or flowers, this carries the risk of getting into those plants.

Retaining wall ideas need not be limited to these choices, but they do need to support the large mass of dirt, stone, plants and perhaps water, that exists on the other side of that wall.  There’s more to most wall styles than a simple barrier for your mulch from sliding off your yard.

As we discussed in our article on landscaping ideas for small yards, creating depth and dimension is what it’s all about.  Tiered designs influence where the eye is drawn.  Even in a small space, you can use a retaining wall to give you another dimension or height element where there may have been none before.  For the purposes of our discussion here, we’ll be limiting the subject to front and back yard applications and give you some photo examples of possible designs.

Retaining Wall Construction

There’s really no way around it – landscaping retaining walls are costly.  Depending on the materials you use, you can save costs on both those and the labor that goes into construction with them.  In many cases, the labor is the biggest piece of the price.  There is a lot of digging, cutting and laying that goes into many designs.  Even with a poured wall, there is still the labor of laying it out and building the forms.  A complete wall of any length can run into the thousands of dollars.  While necessary, sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the payoff when it’s all said and done.

If you will be doing the work of creating your landscape yourself, then you need to know a few specific things.  First of all, drainage is a big issue.  Not only will your wall be holding up the dirt and matter behind it, but it also needs to be able to drain the water buildup properly.  In some cases, the wall itself may let the water through.  In other cases, like near a driveway, drainage must be built into your design. (see photos below)

If you’ll be the one building a retaining wall for a driveway that requires proper drainage away from a home or your neighbor’s property, get the professional advice or permits you need.  Water leakage and drainage problems can be your worst nightmare.  There is an amazing force to water, even when it is “only” a little bit at a time.  Over time, this will lead to large moisture and water problems.

When you are doing a project that is less grand in size and scope, buying your retaining wall blocks from your local home improvement warehouse might be all you need to worry about.  All the big stores have different block options, often located in the garden center area.

Retaining Wall Design


As we’ve talked about, wood is one way to build a wall.  If you take great care, it can last for quite some time.  However, wood will break down.  It deteriorates even with the best of care.  It’s an organic material and this is what happens to them.  You can slow the process by using treated lumber and woods that are more resistant to rot, but this can only buy you so much time.  There’s just one problem, wood is so great looking!  You can achieve looks with wood that the stone and masonry products just can’t produce.


There are natural stacked stone, dry stone, mortared and stone facade styles of walls.  The style of stone you choose will depend on your tastes and also the budget you have.  You may also be able to source your rock retaining wall materials from your own site or nearby.  Some natural materials are more costly than others.  Another option is to go for a cultured stone product.  This is the style that is laid on top of some backing – either a moisture-proof plywood or backer board or right on top of  a poured or block concrete wall.  This achieves a natural stone look, costs less and is relatively simple to install.

Poured Concrete

This is what will typically give you a more modern or smooth, finished look – depending on the forms.  With a typical form, the concrete is poured between the walls and you wait until it dries.  Once complete, the forms are removed and you’re left with a relatively smooth finish that can be treated with a variety of applications, like an acid stain or paint.  These types of concrete designs are becoming more and more popular.

Another way is to use more ‘rough’ forms.  With these, the wood may leave a pattern or grain on the concrete as it cures.  Then, when finished, the concrete will retain that pattern.  You cannot achieve this look with a pre-formed concrete retaining wall block.  Similar patterns can be achieved on patio floors.  If traditional patio pavers are not your style, then consider this option to blend in with your wall.

Recycled and Urban Materials

What we’re discussing with this style is the use of materials like tires, bottles and other objects that can be used to retain the land.  These have been used in many building applications, commonly called ‘Earth ships’.  Entire homes have been built this way.  With the trend in home and landscaping towards more sustainable designs, these materials make great sense.  You may also opt for a steel wall that develops a rusty ‘patina’ as it ages.

Another eco-friendly look is the gabion.  This is a wall that is made of river rock that is enclosed in a metal cage.  The same great urban look can be achieved by using a steel that is not galvanized, so it will be allowed to rust.  These walls look great in a variety of settings.  Experts often fill the central portion of these walls with other dense materials, saving the outer ‘visual’ aspect of the wall for the more expensive and heavier river rock.

Retaining Wall Pictures

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This alternating river rock and flat stone design gives an almost ancient or beaded design to this retaining wall.
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Here is a native stone stacked style. Using native stones help the walls ‘blend’ in more with the surrounding landscape elements.
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This Asian-inspired design is enhanced with the dry stone style used here.
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This is a commonly used concrete retaining wall block. There are different colors – like browns and red hues, too – grey is one of the more accessible choices.
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This yard has a xeriscaping element that is kept separate from a higher bed with other drought tolerant plants – typical of the southwest.
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The retaining wall is in the background here – note the use of the large stones for the steps and the plants and mulch to soften the stone hardscape features.
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This wood ‘panel’ style creates both planting beds and a retaining wall for the land in the background.
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This is a modern looking wood retaining wall – that unique offset appearance is what makes it.
Now, here are some ideas regarding the drainage and cut-away issues exposing some of the principles behind the use of, or building of, one of these types of walls. These same principles apply whether you are looking for landscaping ideas for front yard spaces, side yards or backyard areas.
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This cut-away drawing and description gives you a good idea of what is involved.
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Again, here is a drawing and cut away view of how a wooden retaining wall might be constructed.
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This image is showing the drain placement and how it is being set within the stone layer beneath the surface of a driveway installation.
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This is a photo of the gabion retaining wall made of river rock and the steel ‘cage’.

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