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

May 01 2017
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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 husband (now ex husband) drove into the yard with the railroad ties we had planned to go get together the next day. 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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54 Comments on "How to DIY Build a small garden with railroad ties & the dangers of creosote."

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Jess
Guest

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!

Gentle Joy Homemaker
Guest

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

LauriePOP Ideas That POP
Guest

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

Sandra L Garth
Guest

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.

Heidi Villegas
Guest

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

Cassie Smallwood
Guest

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

Helen at Pleasures of the NW
Guest

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

Ann
Guest

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

Barbara Beyer
Guest

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

Diana
Guest

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

Lori
Guest

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

Pili
Guest

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

Lowanda J
Guest

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!

Julia
Guest

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!

Ann@SumoGardener
Guest

Sweet garden 🙂 I see a lot of your effort here to make this garden.

Lauren
Guest

I love your method of fencing in the garden! I think I might even be able to do this to my garden! Thanks so much for sharing this at The Creative Corner Link Up party on Mom Home Guide!

Brenda E Young
Guest
Adorable project, My dad relandscaped our entire front yard with old soaked telephone poles back in the 80’s and It turned out fabulous! Reforming our front yard into an entirely new place with terraced bed mounds planted with full sized trees, bushes and huge coral rocks, we always received compliments on our landscape. Stairs lined with poles and boat rope. a perfect setting for a Florida home. Looked very dock inspired, like it belonged in the Florida Keys. We all grew up there with no long term ill health effects… so reusing old salvaged timber has my major stamp of… Read more »
candy
Guest

We made our garden out of railroad ties that were free. We fenced it in as well. Been using it for 17 years. Found you at Bloggers Pit Stop

Kathleen - Bloggers Lifestyle
Guest

Thank you that you did some study on creosote, that is a hard one. We used it on our house that was made from bush timber. That was about 25 years ago. We did not want the bugs to eat our house but we were concerned about using chemicals too.
Your garden looks ready to start production. thanks for sharing it on the Blogger’s Pit Stop, feel free to come and comment on other’s great posts too.

Kathleen
Blogger’s Pit Stop

Sara Beth
Guest

Hi, Tarah.
I when I read railroad ties I was thinking something completely different.
It seems you did your research and are very confident in your decision.
Your little garden looks like it will be a joy to tend.
Awesome Granpa too. ^_^

Leslie Supkoff
Guest

Nice vegetable garden, lots of thought went into it,, and it is protected from creatures who nibble!!
It looks very professional indeed.
Excellent and thought out well!

Best –

Leslie –

Julie
Guest

Great idea! I also appreciate how you took the time to address the concerns around treated wood.

Amber Harrop
Guest

You are so right to research it Tarah and I think you made the right choice – and they look great for your vegetable bed

Kate
Guest

It’s a very nice vegetable garden, I am sure it will look even more stylish when the greens and vegetables will start growing!
I have a question though: why do you think that green treated wood is more hazardous than the ties? Thank you.

Natalie A
Guest

You did an amazing job on building your garden! This is something that my husband would LOVE to do, and wants to do. I had never heard that railroad ties are toxic. That is new information to me.

Mandy Yanga
Guest

I love how detailed you are! Now I’m thinking of having my own vegetable garden too. Thank you for sharing this!

Tiffany Locke
Guest

I like that you talk about how railroad ties are an affordable alternative to cedar and other options. I also like that you explain how the wood is older and was treated long ago, making them less dangerous than ones that have been treated more recently. When choosing railroad supplies for your landscape, you’d probably want to research the different options and suppliers by looking online to find ones that can provide you with what you need.

Iris Nacole
Making a shoe rack and closet storage out an old ladder

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