What Is a Retaining Wall?

A retaining wall is a landscape feature that increases the usable space of a property

It does this by decreasing the slope of a yard and holding back soil that would otherwise wash away with rainwater.

Along with their functional purpose, retaining walls serve aesthetic purposes. They’ve become increasingly popular tools for creating visual interest in landscaping design. Some homeowners even consider a retaining wall the focal point of their front yard.

Retaining walls are used in commercial settings, too – sometimes by civil engineers trying to improve the usability of roadways or prevent erosion hazards in residential communities.

The Soil Science Society of America defines four basic types of retaining walls:

Gravity WallA standard kind of retaining wall commonly used in home gardens

Holds the earth back with its weight

Typically used for low retaining walls under 3 feet tall
Piling WallA long columnar wall that’s driven deeper into the ground for added support

Soil holds the lower portion of a piling wall in place, allowing it to withstand a heavy backload

Piles, or “poles,” are typically metal or lumber
Cantilever WallA cantilever, or horizontal arm, extends back into the soil and “uses the same earth pressure trying to topple it to stabilize itself.”
Anchored WallExpanding anchors are driven through the wall and held in place by cables

The strongest type of retaining wall

Do I Need a Retaining Wall? 

You might be interested in improving your home’s curb appeal with a beautiful retaining wall – but do you actually need one? The answer depends on your yard and the location of your home.

Here are some indicators that you need a retaining wall:

  • Your property is on a hill – A retaining wall increases the usable space on your property by reducing the slope. The wall will hold back soil from a hill to create flat, functional ground for patios, driveways, gardens, etc.
  • Rainwater flows across your property – Excess rainwater runoff can flow around your home and cause leaks, flooding, and foundation damage. Retaining walls function as drainage systems that divert runoff away from your home. 
  • You’re noticing soil erosion – If your home is on a slope, soil erosion can pose a significant problem. As soil erodes from your yard, it can also shift out from under your house. A retaining wall holds back shifty soil, leaving your home’s foundation on solid ground.

Tips For Building Retaining Walls

Whether you’re building a DIY retaining wall or hiring a professional for the job, there are a few things to consider. 

You should hire a landscaping company if your yard has a sharp slope greater than 3:1 – meaning it declines 1 foot for every 3 feet of distance. Trying to excavate the area by yourself could cause more harm than good.

Also, consider the function your retaining wall will fulfill.

Retaining walls fulfilling decorative purposes can often consist of any material. If your wall fulfills a structural purpose – blocking erosion or stabilizing a hill – it needs a durable, well-established material.

The Oregon State University Extension Service offers tips for building long-lasting retaining walls:

  • Wall height – Use geogrid fabric for walls over 4 feet tall. Geogrid fabric is a lattice of durable composites that support the structure of a wall.
  • Block designs – You may need to select a retaining wall material based on the anticipated height of your wall. Some block designs only work for specific sizes.
  • Compaction – Build your retaining wall on heavily compacted soil to prevent it from shifting or sinking.
  • Drainage – Ensure your wall isn’t negatively affecting your yard’s drainage. Add drain piping, filters, or weep holes to help the water drain properly. Check out other effective yard drainage enhancements.
  • Backfilling – Backfill each layer of your retaining wall by packing in gravel or another aggregate. Backfilling improves stability and drainage.

10 Retaining Wall Design Ideas

With these retaining wall basics in mind, you’re ready to explore some designs that will amp up your home’s curb appeal and expand your outdoor space.

Whether you need front or backyard landscaping ideas, we’ve got you covered with these 10 retaining wall designs.

Wood Retaining Wall

Building a retaining wall for your property could be as simple as installing a wooden fence.

Wood is one of the most inexpensive retaining wall ideas on our list, but it’s also one of the least durable. Wood retaining walls aren’t best suited for runoff prevention purposes. Wood can rot when it stays wet for too long, causing the material to crumble. 

Choose treated timber to give your landscape a rustic touch. This lumber variety is treated with preservatives to deter damage.

Line your timber retaining wall with a gravel aggregate or plastic moisture barrier to help it last longer. Waterproofing the wall will keep it strong against pressure and prevent rot and fungus from causing deterioration.

Gabion Wall

A gabion retaining wall is another cost-effective option for your property. 

These sturdy, hardy structures will add a unique touch to your landscaping.

These retaining walls consist of gabion baskets – wire containers filled with stone, concrete, or rocks. The history of gabion baskets is a testament to their strength. Ancient Egyptians used the structures to prevent flooding, and World War II soldiers used them as barricades from bomb explosions.

Consider stainless steel gabion for a modern retaining wall design. Or, choose galvanized steel gabion for a low-maintenance, rust-resistant structure.

Railway Tie Retaining Wall

Wooden railway ties are another inexpensive retaining wall idea for your yard.

Railway ties – also known as “sleepers” – are the wood planks that sit under steel train tracks.

Before use, authentic railway ties are inspected for several characteristics like decay, holes, knots, and splits. They’re dried and treated with preservatives to improve the wood’s life span. 

These ties are “engineered to perform under heavy load conditions,” making them an excellent choice for an erosion control wall.

Create a railway tie retaining wall by stacking the planks horizontally and staking them in place with rebar or steel spikes.

You can find sleepers at home improvement stores or online. If you’re lucky, you’ll find authentic ties to give your wall a touch of vintage charm.

Concrete Wall 

Build a DIY concrete block retaining wall out of pavers for an easy landscape makeover. 

Pavers work well for retaining walls less than four feet tall. We recommended a DIY approach for short retaining wall projects anyway – projects for tall retaining walls with a heavy backload require professional assistance. 

Build your paver retaining wall by stacking concrete blocks in rows to form a barrier. The key to creating a sturdy concrete wall is to build it on a heavily compacted base. We recommend renting compaction equipment from a home improvement store to get the job done.

If you’d like a cheaper option than concrete blocks, try a retaining wall made of poured concrete. Build a mold out of wood planks and pour concrete in to form a wall.

Tiered Retaining Wall

Add a tiered retaining wall to your property to increase your home’s curb appeal and usable space. 

Tiered walls cut into a hill or slope in a stair-like pattern, creating different levels of flat ground. They’re an excellent way to add dimension to your landscape. 

We suggest turning your tiered retaining walls into a multilevel garden.

Add mulch to the space between each wall to improve drainage and create a spot suited for plant growth. Then, level up your garden space by filling each tier with flowering plants and shrubs. Create a stunning design with a water feature that cascades from level to level. 

Planter Retaining Wall 

A planter retaining wall is the perfect choice for those seeking enhanced garden space without a multitiered wall.

Use a small retaining wall to create a raised garden bed. 

The area your wall is holding back will serve as your garden space. Once you’ve constructed a sturdy retaining wall, plant flowers, shrubs, and greenery on the elevated level. We suggest mulching around the plants to improve soil drainage behind the wall (you might want to try other alternatives to standard mulch).

Some people see the area behind a retaining wall as wasted space, but this landscaping idea turns it into an eye-catching flower bed.

Brick Retaining Wall 

Brick is a sturdy, long-lasting material perfect for retaining walls.

We suggest building a brick retaining wall if you’d like a classy, traditional landscape feature that can withstand pressure. Bricks adhere to one another with mortar, making them a sturdier option than freestanding wall blocks.

You can build a DIY brick retaining wall using the same process you would for other block walls. Ensure you compact the ground under the wall before building. 

Brick walls can be pricey – around $20 per square foot – but they’re likely to last through conditions that damage other materials.

In addition to its durability, brick is also low maintenance. 

Use a leaf blower to remove dust, pollen, and dirt, and then rinse the surface with a watering hose. With this simple cleaning routine, your brick wall will easily last decades. 

Natural Stone Wall 

Add a natural stone retaining wall to your property for added curb appeal and functionality.

Stacked stone is commonly used to build gravity walls through “dry stacking.” Dry stacking involves building a wall out of heavy stones that retain the earth with their weight, angle, and backward force.

You have several options when choosing the material for your rock wall.

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension recommends using natural sedimentary rocks in your hardscape.

Flagstone varieties like bluestone and limestone are excellent building materials because they form “in horizontal layers resulting in flat, parallel rock surfaces.” Their even surface makes them popular materials for walkways, stepping stones, or sleek retaining walls. 

Fieldstone is another option for your rock wall. These stones form in rougher, rounder shapes that work well in dry-stacked formations. 

Stone Veneer Wall

Stone veneer is an affordable, durable option for your retaining wall design.

Masonry veneer is a thin layer of artificial brick or stone. Veneer rarely serves a structural purpose. Instead, veneer pallets are adhered to structurally sound walls to give the appearance of solid masonry.

According to the National Concrete Masonry Association, manufactured stone veneer is a durable, long-lasting “choice for nearly any construction project.” 

It’s a much cheaper option than its authentic counterpart – stone veneer costs around $15 per square foot, while natural stone costs about $40 per square foot. 

Refresh an existing retaining wall by resurfacing it with stone veneer. The new layer of manufactured stone will cover any stains, blemishes, and cracks on the old wall’s surface.

Cover poured concrete with a layer of stone veneer for a cost-effective retaining wall design. You’ll get the deluxe aesthetic of natural stone without blowing your budget.

Vertical Garden Wall

Enhance your retaining wall’s appearance and functionality with a vertical garden wall.

Create a vertical garden by building planters or shelves into your retaining wall. Alternatively, attach hanging containers to the wall once it’s complete. 

Increase your plant wall’s usability by turning it into a vertical vegetable garden. The structure that’s already reducing erosion, preventing harmful runoff, and increasing your home’s appeal will also provide you with fresh produce.

We recommend calling a pro to construct your vertical garden retaining wall. The structure will need proper anchoring to restrain soil on one side and support plant containers on the other. 

Final Thoughts

Whether you need to stop erosion or want to increase your outdoor living space, a retaining wall will do the trick. These versatile structures improve your yard’s functionality while increasing curb appeal. 

If you want a retaining wall but don’t know where to start, call a landscape engineer for the job. A pro will give you a retaining wall that improves your property and looks good. 

Build a DIY retaining wall for minor projects. After all the stacking and digging, you’ll undoubtedly feel proud of your charming new landscape feature.

We hope these 10 retaining wall ideas help you design your dream outdoor landscape. With the right option, you’ll be well on your way to a better backyard. Just in case you want to learn how to deal with grass fungal diseases on your lawn, check out our guide to tackling grass fungal diseases for more insight.

Editorial Contributors
avatar for Elisabeth Beauchamp

Elisabeth Beauchamp

Senior Staff Writer

Elisabeth Beauchamp is a content producer for Today’s Homeowner’s Lawn and Windows categories. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in Journalism and Linguistics. When Elisabeth isn’t writing about flowers, foliage, and fertilizer, she’s researching landscaping trends and current events in the agricultural space. Elisabeth aims to educate and equip readers with the tools they need to create a home they love.

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Lora Novak

Senior Editor

Lora Novak meticulously proofreads and edits all commercial content for Today’s Homeowner to guarantee that it contains the most up-to-date information. Lora brings over 12 years of writing, editing, and digital marketing expertise. She’s worked on thousands of articles related to heating, air conditioning, ventilation, roofing, plumbing, lawn/garden, pest control, insurance, and other general homeownership topics.

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