How To Lay Garden Sleepers: The Easy Way

Garden landscaping projects can easily add more character to a previously dull corner of a garden when done right. If you plan to redo your garden’s overall look, think of a rustic and evenly placed sleeper edging close to the pergola. Sounds interesting, right? 

Laying sleepers is one of the most popular techniques, thanks to their practicality and ruggedness. No worries if you’re overwhelmed by the idea of laying the entire edging of your garden beds by yourself, we are here to help. 

stepping stones leading to steps and a raised patio with a wooden gazebo

This guide will discuss different steps, methods, and tips to lay your own from scratch. So keep reading, and get ready for a little garden project even with garden steps<span style=”font-weight: 400;”>!

What are garden sleepers?

Generally known as railway sleepers, they are rectangular pieces of timber used to balance a structure. While changing your garden, these wooden sleepers make garden beautifiers, retaining walls, pathways, and garden steps

Besides improving the aesthetics of a garden, these sleepers offer a practical solution for planting. When you want to devote a section of your lawn/garden for planting, build an edging with some timber sleepers, and you’re good to go. You can create vertical, diagonal, and straight edges with these wood slabs, depending upon your garden preferences. 

Why use garden sleepers?

Flower beds, raised garden beds and planters are essential for any garden’s beauty, but if they don’t have a solid boundary, your place will look unorganised. That’s why railway sleepers have gained immense popularity amongst garden lovers. You can use these wood slabs to mark different places, i.e. pathways, raised beds, decking, and planters etc. 

Although building concrete/mortar boundaries is an option, it doesn’t serve a cosmetic purpose. Therefore, passionate gardeners/DIYers pick sleepers and craft something marvellous out of them. Once you get the hang of these sleepers, you can build wood pathways, garden furniture, steps, and even a pond with them! But, let’s start small and stick to the garden edge for now. 

vintage style old wood fence made from Railway sleeper on garden background

How to choose the right type for you?

This step decides the success of your DIY landscaping project, so pay attention. These are the three most popular types of sleepers used in gardening projects:

Treated softwood slabs

Softwood sleepers come from trees like pine, spruce, and larch, which don’t take much time to grow, hence not dense enough. This wood is later pressure-treated to attain the required strength. If you’re building a single/double layer garden boundary (nothing fancy), timber sleepers are good enough. But remember sleepers made from timber are often treated with chemicals, i.e. creosote, which can breach into the soil. So be mindful if you’re to grow vegetables/fruits in the planters. 

Reclaimed railway sleepers

Giving your garden a rustic makeover is not difficult when you get your hands on reclaimed sleepers. These wood slabs are first used in rail tracks and then are up for grabs. As these sleepers undergo extensive usage, they’re hardened and reliable. We recommend you pick reclaimed sleepers while making retaining walls as they’re heavy, sturdy, and (mostly) untreated

Old railway wooden sleepers

Hardwood sleepers

If you need a more contemporary look for your garden, choose new hardwood sleepers. These blocks come from dense trees, i.e. oak, so durability is not a concern. When you make wide/high flower garden beds, oakwood sleepers easily endure the soil’s pressure

How to lay garden sleepers – a step by step guide

Now that we know about different types, it’s time to pull your socks up and start. Like any other DIY gardening project, this one also requires time and patience, so don’t rush. 

1. Pick your tools

Having the right toolkit is unavoidable because otherwise, you won’t get the desired results. 

Here are a few must-haves for your project

  • Safety gloves and goggles
  • Concrete mix 
  • Gravel (optional) 
  • Spirit level 
  • Hammer 
  • Mitre saw 
  • Long landscaping screws 
  • Wooden dowels (optional)
  • Sandpaper
  • Paint/wood tint of your choice 
  • Chainsaw (if required)

Safety spectacles gloves on scratched metallic background construction concept

2. Choose/Clear the area

This is a no-brainer; choose the most uninterrupted and focused area of your garden to make raised flower planters. Although planters are mostly built on the sides of a garden, you can always personalise it! Remove any unwanted vegetation and debris from your marked site for a cleaner outlook. 

3. Lay the foundation

A strengthened foundation will keep your plant beds in place for the years to come. Start with digging a trench on your marked site and fill it with concrete before laying wood swabs. Your garden edging’s bottom layer must be set on the semi-dry concrete surface for enhanced durability. 

Concrete mortar mixed in black bucket with spade by worker in garden

4. Stack the layers

Give some setting time to the foundation before you start stacking sleeper layers. You can use dowels, screws, and wood glue for these layers depending upon the edging type you select (more on this later). 

5. Finish the edges

Don’t forget to give the wood swabs a nice finish. You can pick automatic or manual sandpaper to flatten the sleepers’ surface. 

6. Make a gravel boundary

Placing gravel (or a thin concrete layer) between the wood slabs and garden bed soil is a wise move. This layer stops excess moisture from penetrating the wall and avoids rusting/colour fading as well. We’d recommend gravel as it gives more room to the soil while retaining moisture at the same time. 

7. Add the topsoil

Once the structure is complete, add good-quality topsoil and let it sit for a few days before you plant anything. 

Rake the bed level, cleaning in the garden and in the fields

8. Paint/Varnish

This step is to beautify your garden edging, and you can delay it as much as you please. Once the structure is complete, paint it to match the surroundings

How to make the edging?

The edging is the outer boundary of your flower planters. There are three main ways to make a garden edge:

1. Horizontal/Flat edging

This is the most common flat flower bed boundary you often come across. To lay this edging, you have to stack the sleepers on their flattest side. After adding concrete to the trench, place the first layer of horizontal sleepers for a strong foundation

Once the base is secure, stack the upper layers and lock them in place with long steel screws. This garden boundary is ideal for slightly raised and narrow planting beds where the soil pressure isn’t much. 

2. Retaining walls

When you have to raise the planters quite high, i.e. more than 1 m, regular garden edge won’t suffice; you need such a wall to achieve your goal. In this process, you stack the sleepers on their side and secure them in place with long steel screws. Since a sleeper isn’t that strong while laying on the side, wooden dowels help.

Once you achieve the required height, make multiple 1-inch holes from the top slab all the way to the bottom one and hammer oak sleepers in these holes. This way, your wall won’t move because of the soil pressure. Placing fence posts on the boundary’s corners is another measure to strengthen a raised planting bed

Garden Wooden Sleeper Retaining wall

3. Vertical edging

If you want to get more creative while designing the edges of your garden, vertical stacking is an easy way out. The only difference between this edging and the former two is that you lay sleepers vertically instead of stacking them. However, remember that this edging isn’t much rugged, and you’ll need extra dowels and fence posts to secure it in place. 

If you get reclaimed sleepers, you can easily create an antique look in your garden with a vertical boundary.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to add a layer of concrete in the front and back of your vertical sleepers, as they will increase the structure’s strength. 

How to make steps or pathways?

Sleeper steps and pathways look elegant, especially when you pair them with the garden bed’s perimeter. Laying these structures isn’t much different from the methods we explained above, but here are a few tips you must know: 

1. Sleeper pathways

You can either set sleeper pathways with a concrete mix or dig them into gravel for a more rustic look. Concrete sleepers are suitable for a high-activity garden, where you cannot rely on an unanchored pathway. But if you prefer more character, spread a thick layer of gravel or sand and later adjust wood slabs in them.

Railway sleepers used to make the pathway on the lawn in the garden

2. Sleeper steps

Sleeper steps are more challenging to balance than a flat surface, and you must have a scale to balance them. Build sleeper steps like a regular rectangular structure, with an elongated frame and steps. Once the frame settles in the base layer, place gravel and sand between the steps to suit your mood. Hammering sleepers is an additional step to increase wooden steps’ durability

How to treat them the right way

Treating them with high-quality coatings increases their durability and beauty. Following are the two main ways to treat sleepers:

1. Oils

Wood oils will make your garden end shinier and prevent rotting and rusting. These oils settle in the wood slabs with time, making them more natural-looking

Painter holding a paintbrush over wooden surface

2. Preservatives

Treating sleepers with wood preservatives is a good investment. A coating will prevent fungal growth and will make the sleepers look more elegant

How long do they last?

The longevity of sleepers depends on the wood you select. Reclaimed and pressure-treated wood can last for over 50 years, providing excellent value for your money. However, if you pick softwood sleepers, they will last for less than 5 years. That’s why it is crucial to choose high-quality wood slabs

Top above high angle photo of concentrated foreman worker check how smooth his finished repaired slab table is

Doing garden projects from scratch is a great DIY skill to learn. Follow the above-described tips and revamp your garden without spending a lot. You can play with different garden edge types and create different structures to see your ideal garden come to life. 


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