Continuing last month’s theme of landscape dividers is this month’s focus on retaining walls.
If you’re thinking, “My yard gently slopes; I don’t need a retaining wall,” I encourage you to explore how today’s retaining walls add depth and dimension to your landscape, literally carving out intriguing outdoor rooms, regardless of your property’s contours.
If you drive around our area looking for examples, you are likely to be left with the idea that there are only a handful of options: stone, brick, interlocking blocks, timber, and concrete. But, as with fences, retaining walls are limited only by imagination and budget. And, some of the options blur the distinction between fence and wall. So, regardless of what you call it, let’s take a look at some possibilities that are a bit more interesting than the status quo.
You might also come away with the notion that cracks, bulges, and outward leans are just a fact of life when it comes to retaining walls. But in fact, those flaws are indicators of poor drainage and walls whose construction is inadequate to do the job they were intended to do. So, first, a bit about construction.
As handsome as these barriers are, they are complex engineered systems that retain tons of soil and wage a never-ending battle with gravity and moisture. Properly constructed retaining walls put the hard in hardscaping. What goes on behind the wall is just as important as appearance—if not more so—and retrofitting an inadequately built wall is expensive and time-consuming.
Your landscape architect and contractor or builder will work with four main components: backfill, 4-inch perforated drain pipe, landscape cloth (to prevent silt and sediment from clogging the drain pipe) and deadmen anchors or tiebacks in order to vanquish gravity. In all likelihood here in Eastern Virginia, your hired professionals will need to install footings dug below the frost line for mortared or concrete walls. Non-mortared walls will typically be built on a gravel-filled trench below the frost line. Whoever does the work will also establish a desirable lean into the hillside, one inch for every foot of height. For all but the shortest walls, some kind of buried deadmen anchors or tiebacks will be used.
Now for the fun part…
If texture is what you’re after, emphasize it with alternating neutral colors of your chosen material or with overlapping blocks that create deep shadow pockets for an almost basket weave look. If your budget allows, or if your span is short, consider overlapping and stacked planter boxes for even deeper shadows and the opportunity to enhance with organic components. Believe it or not, tires give a similar effect and also can be used as planters.
If what you need is a taller wall, what about shorter stacked walls for a terraced or tiered appearance? A two-tiered design can create a wall with a planter box—or water feature or even fire pit—in front. Consider a different material for each wall and maybe even running one vertically and one horizontally.
Lots of homes in our area have retaining walls built of horizontal timbers. But what about placing vertical timbers like railroad ties or railroad sleepers tightly together and cutting off their tops to create a sweeping arc or maybe several intersecting crescents? If your retaining wall is tall enough to offer privacy, you might consider cutting out a long horizontal window to add architectural interest and frame the view on the opposite side.
In the right setting, large irregular rocks, artfully piled—perhaps with plants tucked here and there—are hard to beat for a rugged retaining wall with lots of organic appeal. Transition them to the surface below by nestling smaller stones and gravel along the base. If something more artful, but still natural, is more to your liking, create a mosaic with different colored and shaped stones. Be advised that sometimes these highly specific creations look dated over time or don’t evolve with the homeowner’s taste.
If you need both a functional retaining wall and a bit more of a boundary demarcation, why not top your retaining wall with a fence? If privacy is not an issue, wrought iron could provide a nice contrast to an organic material like wood or stone.
A low retaining wall with a flat top and deep dimension can provide additional seating for an outdoor party. Another thicker-type wall that is, admittedly, not everyone’s cup of tea is the gabion wall. Dating from Medieval times and making a comeback, these walls are constructed from stones encased in wire mesh boxes. If the mesh is wider and heftier, the stones can literally looked caged. But with a thinner wire, the stones appear to be almost magically held together. Gabions, though, need not be filled with rocks. Pieces of driftwood, terracotta pottery, and more could be substituted.
The most contemporary and sleek idea for retaining walls may well be steel. Allowed to rust, it takes on a warm tone that lends both industrial and natural elements to your landscape design.
Whether your retaining wall is necessary to prevent a landslide or just desirable for reasons of livability and style, I encourage you to insist on proper, long-lasting construction and to push the boundaries of aesthetics.
If you have a question about building, remodeling, or designing a handsome retaining wall, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council.