Taking the house my mom grew up in, the farm my grandparents shared for over fifty years and making it a home for us to grow old in.

How to DIY Build a small garden with railroad ties & the dangers of creosote.

I’m going to jump right in here and talk about creosote and the dangers of railroad ties immediately because I know that’s going to be the center of the conversation because just about everyone has heard that railroad ties are toxic. But how toxic? And at what extent is what we’re hearing fear mongering and panic? And why, on earth, if there is any question at all, did I choose to use them around my vegetable garden? You all know me and know that I ere on the side of caution when it comes to our health. (Milk could actually be bad for us? I’m never bringing it in our home again. Possible toxic substances in dryer sheets? Never using them again.) The list for me goes on and on and on. Our health ALWAYS holds priority for me. So, why did I choose to use possibly toxic railroad ties around our vegetable garden?

Upon extensive research this is what I know about creosote: The warnings and horrors when you read about it when you do a search in google is entirely based on HANDLING it, using wood that was JUST treated with it and being a worker in a plant that is TREATING lumber with it right now. There is little said about wood that was treated a long time ago with creosote. Most people just think “Well, it could be toxic, why take the risk?” And that would normally be me too. However, the alternative to railroad ties for us right now was not at all affordable (cedar etc) and I absolutely believe that green treated lumber is an even MORE toxic choice.

So, I found out how old the railroad ties we would be purchasing were (over a decade sitting outside in all the weather northern MN has to offer) and if you read through the panic and fear mongering out there the general consensus is thus: “When they’re that old they pose such a negligible risk that it is basically eating a non organic apple before washing it.” Here is a Houzz forum that really helped me make the decision. Near the bottom of the forum someone posted this with links supporting their statement:

” … in 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency completed a reassessment … Testing determined that:
1. plant-based creosote has increasingly been used for this purpose since the early 1980’s.
2. that its primary source of potential health risk is to the workers in the wood-treatment plants working with fresh mix but that even that risk is minimized by safe handling,
3. that creosote can be harmful to plants if it comes into direct contact with them … but plants will not absorb the substance into their root tissue.
4. … and creosote will generally not migrate far enough through the soil to reach plants that are a short distance away
5. and … you’re unlikely to have more than short-term direct contact with creosote, and because plants don’t absorb creosote through their roots, you won’t be exposed to it by eating vegetables grown near treated timbers.”

(Note: The poster mentioned “plant-based creosote” because it had been mentioned earlier and argued over in that forum. The newer plant-based creosotes that they are using on the majority of railroad ties now are far LESS toxic then the creosote that USED to be used on railroad ties that has caused the majority of the belief of their toxicity.)

A couple more links FYI:
Gardening question re: will old railroad ties kill me or not?
Are Railroad Ties OK to Use to Construct Vegetable Gardens?

In the end my determination was this: The fact that we chose to use green treated timber on our deck and EVER walk barefoot on it I believe posed a much greater health risk to us then using VERY old railroad ties for our vegetable garden. On top of that I know people who are totally healthy who have used railroad ties in their yards and for their gardens for not just years but for literally DECADES. This was my PERSONAL decision and I hope all that I’ve stated up to this point makes it very clear why I made this decision, you MUST do your own research and make your own choices for your family’s health.

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.
A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

Ok, so one Friday night very early this spring my lovely husband drove into the yard with the railroad ties we had planned to go get together the next day. He wanted to buy them and bring them as a gift to me 🙂 That man does know how to make this country girl very happy! He drove as close to our concrete slab as he could. (The slab was used for cleaning off equipment years ago and then just looked odd sitting there by itself in front of the barn – turned in to a perfect spot for our garden.) We stacked the railroad ties two tall and filled it halfway up with something we always have a lot of: HORSE POOP.

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

After that we purchased 40 bags of organic top soil at our local fleet store ($1.79 a bag) to complete filling the whole garden. We then drove in 5″ torque screws to lash the railroad ties together as best we could. These things were so heavy we really weren’t exactly worried about them moving but thought we should provide at least something to help them stay in place. At nearly $3 a piece we only purchased and used 12 of those torque screws and used my Dewalt Impact driver to get them in.

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.
A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

After that I headed for the barn and found four rough sawn 2x6s and one rough sawn 2×4 (thanks Grandpa!) to create my fence. Initially I had pouted quite a bit about putting a fence around the whole thing but after I got going on it my little garden began to look more and more like my Grandma’s garden and, of course, I loved that. With the posts in place (attached with six 4″ deck screws each) I started wrapping my fence around it and tacking it down with fence nails and a hammer. This is pretty much as straight forward as it gets and is not at all difficult to do. I will say to “wrap” the fence around your posts so it curls around the garden the same way it was rolled up (that helps a lot in wrangling it around) and keep it as tight as you can as you go. I let it overlap down across the top railroad tie about two inches and tacked it down all along that edge to help keep rabbits out too. (I would have appreciated another set of hands but this one woman project only took me a couple of hours and was not at all hard to do.)

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

With both fence rows up all I needed to do then was build a little gate. I did this by cutting two 2x4s at four feet and two 2x4s the width of the gate opening (27 inches) and then stretching my fence over them. To help keep the fence in place on the gate I sandwhiched it between the top/bottom and side 2x4s and then also tacked it down with a couple of fence nails on either side before trimming the fence to fit the gate. With that done I used hinges to put it up and, BOOM, all done!

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

This little vegetable garden of ours is not going to be winning any beauty contests but it certainly wasn’t intended to. Our wild life would have eaten my garden down to nothing (the fact that we feed deer close by probably doesn’t help lol!) so the fence will protect our hard work for years to come!

As always, thanks for coming by guys! I’ll be posting about planting our seedlings here in a few weeks and how I plan to mulch them with hay, shredded paper and newspaper to (hopefully) cut down on my weeding this summer!

A new vegetable garden made of railroad ties and how I made the gate and put a fence around it. Balancing the choice of toxic railroad ties for a garden.

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28 Comments

  1. May 2, 2017 at 2:37 am

    What a neat idea!! 🙂

    I would love for you to share this with my Facebook Group for recipes, crafts, tips, and tricks: https://www.facebook.com/groups/pluckyrecipescraftstips/

    Thanks for joining Cooking and Crafting with J & J!
    Jess recently posted…Cooking and Crafting with J & J Link Up #95 and #94 FeaturesMy Profile

  2. May 2, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    So many decisions to make… your garden bed looks great! 🙂

  3. May 3, 2017 at 1:48 am

    This is SOOOO cute! I just heard about creosote dangers. Love it when other people do my research haha.
    Laurie

    • May 3, 2017 at 3:07 pm

      Hey Laurie, thanks for commenting and coming by! I plan on mulching (newspaper and old hay) over the railroad ties to keep the plants from laying on them so I really think we’re out of danger! 🙂

  4. May 3, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Cheers to doing research and making informed decisions! I’m looking forward to seeing how your garden grows. Thank you for sharing with us this week at Celebrate Your Story, and I hope your week is going great.

  5. May 4, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    My dad always used old railroad ties for everything—even our horse corral when I was a kid. I think your research is spot on! It is seriously a great idea to research everything, like you do, then make a good informed decision! 🙂 Looking forward to seeing progress on your garden if you share it!

    Heidi

    • May 5, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Thank you Heidi! I’m still going to probably cover them up with newspaper and hay (what I’m going to use for mulch) to keep the plants from laying on them but I think we’re very safe!

  6. May 7, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Great post! I’ve been wanting to start a garden, but it seems like such a huge undertaking. Thanks for breaking down how you put it together! Seems simple enough. My biggest hurdle would probably be keeping the plants alive. LOL

    • May 8, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      lol yup Cassie my biggest hurdle is definitely going to be keeping the plants alive! I just planted the garden yesterday actually and I went out there this morning thinking, “Oh goodness please be alive!” And they do look ok *crosses fingers* We’ll see how it goes!

  7. May 7, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    I can’t wait to see it with plants in it!! Thanks for sharing at the DIY party!

  8. Ann
    May 7, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Love the garden! Hubby said to watch closely and just plant a couple things to try first. His concern was so much fertilizer at the bottom may heat and destroy the plantings. Other than that, great idea and fun to do too

  9. May 8, 2017 at 3:09 am

    How do you plan to get in and out of your garden I had the same garden up against a cinder block fence I had a removable front I put my chicken wire in a frame and removed when I needed to get in and pick placed it back on to keep out the bunnies love your blog

    • May 8, 2017 at 3:00 pm

      Hi Barbara, thanks for coming by – I mad a little gate if you look close on the backside of the garden 🙂

  10. May 10, 2017 at 3:27 am

    Wonderful tutorial, Tarah–easy for almost anyone to follow. Thanks for sharing your project with us at Vintage Charm 🙂

  11. May 11, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Great garden! Looks like you did your research. Good for you! Thanks for sharing at Dishing It & Digging It! 🙂

  12. May 12, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Love the garden! It is great you can grow your own veggies there. You are doing a wonderful job with the house

  13. May 16, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    I am just getting an interest in gardening and appreciate how you broke this down. I don’t think I will have anything like yours when I begin, but who knows how far I’ll go over the years!
    Lowanda J recently posted…Glossies Made Me Do It: Whole BlendsMy Profile

    • May 17, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      Good luck on your gardening adventures Lowanda! There’s a part of me that wishes I had just built a few tall planters for my deck, but we’re gonna try this for now!

  14. Julia
    May 17, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Just started reading your blog! Thanks for the tutorial – I’m showing this to my husband – the wire around the garden is what we need!

    • May 17, 2017 at 3:28 pm

      Thanks Julia for coming by!!

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