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More Than Just Blocks

Matt Thomas | Landscape

ARE RETAINING WALLS CONSTRUCTED WITH THE SOLE PURPOSE of holding back soil and preventing erosion? You’d be surprised at what some landscape designers and homeowners are using them for instead.

Retaining walls are moving past their basic functionality and are becoming excellent ways of accenting or adding to a back yard. With the right materials and a dependable crew, you can beautify a residential landscape and also make additions to the property.

“One of the trends we’ve seen is that people have been moving to freestanding walls and concrete segmental retaining walls because they have found the benefit of having a nice look,” says Nancy Johnson, channel marketing manager at Anchor Wall Systems, Minnetonka, Minnesota. “It can be done on an affordable budget or it can be phased in over time.”

The concrete segmental block retaining wall is one of the more common types of retaining walls used today. These concrete blocks are stacked brick by brick and layered like most typical walls. They are available at an affordable cost and are ideal for building decks, patios and driveways.

Natural stone walls, on the other hand, provide the same functionality as concrete block walls but add more of an aesthetic design. They are, however, more expensive and take longer to install than the concrete segmental option. But a natural stone wall may blend better with a home’s overall style and design. They come in a variety of bricks and colors which can be mixed and matched, making it easier to meet your needs. One thing you should keep in mind when working with stone or concrete walls is to try to use material that will blend in with the house.


Shayne Newman, president of YardApes, Inc., New Milford, Connecticut, knows the importance of keeping the outdoor environment consistent with the style of the house itself. “If you have a nice older home, you’re not going to want to use anything but stone,” says Newman. “You don’t want to introduce products that aren’t natural-looking; it’s just not going to go well with the landscape design of an older home.”

Living in a mountainous region or on terrain that is sloped can influence what you can or can’t build. Let’s assume that you need to put up a retaining wall in the rear of a property. Once the wall is built, you can level the ground from the back of the house to the retaining wall. Once leveled, blocks can then be placed to form a foun dation.

The next step is to install whatever seems fitting. This can be a raised patio, a deck or even a pool.

Regardless of which style of block is chosen, retaining walls are built to be long lasting and require minimum maintenance or repair. How ever, the market is ever-changing and products evolve almost on a yearly basis, increasing the durability of the blocks and decreasing the time required for maintenance or repair.

“All concrete wall products have to meet a certain level of testing requirements and there’s an industry standard that everyone has to meet,” says Johnson. “When the walls are designed, they are designed to be structures that have a 75- to 100-year lifespan, but there could be a little bit of maintenance involved.”

Once a style has been chosen and the wall has been built, it should be checked periodically for mold, plant overgrowth and water damage. Many homeowners enjoy the aged look of their walls and believe mold or vines add to the wall’s appeal. Even though this may be a look they desire, they need to make sure these “accents” will not have a negative impact on the wall’s durability. Trimming vines will prevent a leafy takeover and washing walls will remove unwanted mold.

Perhaps the most important factor to consider when building a retaining wall is to make sure the structure maintains its functionality. A retaining wall will prevent erosion if it has a proper base and drainage. Though it may seem like a wall should be purely for visual appeal, it has to function in holding back the soil, otherw i s e i t ’ s pointless. A w a l l c a n look magnificent but if i t ’ s b u i l t incorrectly, o r i f t h e base is not i n s t a l l e d properly or if it doesn’t have adequate drainage, it’s not going to last long.

“Basically, the key to a proper wall is a proper base and good drainage behind the wall,” explains Newman. “You want to have a nice gravel base that can drain well. Generally, I would put PVC pipe and gravel behind the wall to make sure that all the water drains, so there’s no water pressure buildup.”

The sky’s the limit

Design is a key aspect in building retaining walls. After picking the style and color of the block, one must decide how to utilize it. Though most may just want to build a wall, there are actually many different ways to use the bricks. Entry walls can be built and placed by driveways or sidewalks, turning a normal pathway into something special and unique. Other possibilities to consider are pillars and columns, which can go alongside driveways and pathways, too. Water features such as ponds and fountains can also be made out of the retaining wall blocks.

“The homeowner can have a very creative idea, but he has to be realistic and know what can and can’t be done,” says Scott Lemcke, landscape foreman for R.M. Landscape Inc., Hilton, New York. “Usually, the sky’s the limit.”

For homeowners, the sky may be the limit when it comes to design, but they begin to realize that they need to hire an expert. One of the benefits of hiring a local landscape contractor is his knowledge of the local zoning requirements and building codes for neighborhoods. “It’s important to make sure you’re working within the required building codes of your area,” says Newman. A local landscape contractor will make sure anything built is up to code to prevent any problems from the city.

“Depending on the code—and it varies from town to town—if you’re building a wall that is taller than four feet, most likely you would need an engineer to sign off,” Newman says. “There might be some input from the customer on where they want the wall built, but generally we have to determine the exact place based on the terrain and our expertise.”


The use of planter blocks not only gives a wall a nice, green look, it can also be used to soften the harsh look of concrete.

“Every year there are new products coming out and there are multiple vendors, who each may have 10 different colors and five styles of blocks from which to choose. It’s kind of overwhelming,” adds Newman.

Expanding your home

Retaining walls can also be used to make additions to a house. No longer confined to the square footage of a house, a homeowner can add an outdoor room through the use of multi-purpose retaining wall blocks. This option is becoming one of the more popular trends in landscaping today. “You can add an outdoor kitchen made out of retaining wall block,” says Lemcke. “You can incorporate a gas grill, sink, refrigerator, fireplace or even a wet bar. It’s the new, upcoming way to enhance your outdoor living.”

Living walls

One of the newest retaining wall trends is the use of greenery. Some manufacturers of retaining wall blocks have allowed room to add plant material. These blocks are similar to the concrete block but have a hollow center to hold a plant. Just place soil in the block, plant the desired plant and watch it grow. The use of planter blocks not only gives a wall a nice, green look, it can also be used to soften the harsh look of concrete.

“Sometimes, people will plant vines at the base of the wall so they can grow and green up the wall,” says Newman. “Even when you do a stone wall it’s a little overpowering for the landscape, so you might want to soften it up a bit. We do that with plants or sometimes we plant vines at the base and it will grow over time to soften the wall.”

Living fences, if built properly, have the same functionality as conventional retaining walls; however, they do beautify the environment and offer a more pleasing look.

“People always would like a maintenance-free product, but all plants require some sort of maintenance,” Newman said. Though they require a bit more work, the idea of a green wall is fresh and can give a homeowner a unique structure with a look that cannot be matched by any other.

 
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