As do-it-yourself home projects and creating a natural look to homes and commercial landscapes becomes increasingly more popular, many crafty and creative homeowners and property owners are incorporating recycled and no-longer-used products and materials into their design work.

One such material that is in hot-demand among gardens and professional landscape designers are old railroad ties. Their naturalness lends an authentic rustic look to an outside walkway and since they are recycled products, they strongly compliment today's green movement with its mission of reducing carbon footprint by repurposing products, namely natural materials, rather than creating something new.

In fact, the Spanish artist, Agustín Ibarrola has used recycled railroad ties, in many of his famous sculptural works. His ties came from the Spanish national railway system, RENFE.

A railroad tie is quite simply the long rectangular plank that is positioned along the base of a railroad track. They run transversally and provide the foundation for which the rail is laid upon. While railroad ties can be wooden, steel, concrete or even plastic or rubber, when it comes to their use in landscaping and decorative design, wooden railroad ties are by far the most popular and most coveted.

Here are some of the many uses for a railroad ties:

  • Outdoor fences
  • Encasements of flower boxes
  • Walkways
  • Borders for raised flower beds
  • Retaining walls

While there are many benefits to using railroad ties for landscaping purposes, one of the key advantages is that are easy to work with. And for someone who is undertaking a home or private landscape project on their own, easy of use is an attractive draw. Installing railroad ties requires only a hammer, a heavy drill, chisel and gouges.

With railroad ties, you don't need to too highly concerned with laying out the planks in even and straight lines. Remember, since it's the rugged look you are after, mistakes, under or over calculations are actually encouraged as they will add to the distinct raw charm of your design.

In addition, you don't have to be tied down to just using one tie. Railroad ties can be easily stacked on top of one another, and positioned in a variety of directions such as vertically, horizontally or on a diagonal. They can also be staggered unevenly for a unique broken-up look.

Other things to keep in mind when searching for the perfect railroad ties are their size, shape and thickness as well as the type of wood. Hardwood beams made from oak, maple or birch are likely to be more durable whereas softwood from cedar, spruce or pine may show the signs of weathering earlier. Railroad ties come in a variety of dimensions so while you don't need to be meticulous in your design, you do still need to measure your spacing needs and select ties that fit your design specifications.

Railroad ties are competitively priced with other landscaping materials like cinder blocks or bricks, but since they are installed quite easily, the savings is felt in the labor costs.

But since many used railroad ties also contain elements of residue from the track, such as coal tar, metals and mineralized salts, property owners should use caution when using them for gardening purposes as the soil can leach these elements and crops, whether they are flowers, plants, herbs or vegetables, may become infused with trace elements of these substances. In addition, if the structure will come in direct contact with skin, you also want to seek out a treated material or a new railroad tie that has made solely for decorative purposes to ensure your or your client's health safety.

But the good news is that because of the popularity of using railroad ties for landscaping and home décor purposes, new beams specifically created for such design projects can be purchased and readily found.

Railroad ties can also be used in construction purposes. They can take the place of brick materials, cinder block or other building materials. In addition, railroad ties can be combined with other construction materials to impart a unique design or look to a project.

Because of their versatility, ease of use, rustic look and cost-effectiveness, railroad ties are a creative, unique and natural way to makeover the design of your lawn, patio or porch area.