What are the Best Tips for Building a Retaining Wall?

Dan Cavallari

Perhaps the most important tips for building a retaining wall are to ensure that water can escape from behind the wall to prevent a collapse, and to make sure the materials used for backfill between the wall and the slope are compacted properly to avoid excess settling that can lead to a collapse. The processes for building the retaining wall will differ depending on the type of materials used and the size and shape of the wall, but the big ideas remain the same: ensure water can escape, and make sure materials are solidly compacted to prevent shifting.

Retaining walls meant to hold ground in place need to be made of sturdy material, such as concrete blocks.
Retaining walls meant to hold ground in place need to be made of sturdy material, such as concrete blocks.

The function of a retaining wall is to support the materials that press against it on the uphill or heavy side. This means the wall must not only become a solid structure that holds itself up, but also a strong structure that can bear the weight of the materials it is retaining. Building a retaining wall without a solid design or with subpar materials can lead to significant hassle and even a full rebuild not too far down the road. Choose materials carefully, and consult with a professional to find out what materials will work best for the materials the particular wall will have to support.

To prevent frost damage, backfill the retaining wall with gravel or crushed stone.
To prevent frost damage, backfill the retaining wall with gravel or crushed stone.

To prevent frost heaves from damage, the builder should be sure to backfill the wall with a material such as gravel or crushed stone when building a retaining wall. This will prevent excessively moist material such as soil from directly pressing against the wall during cold weather, and it allows for expansion of other, moister materials without damaging the wall. A retaining wall that is relatively short will also help prevent damage or failure. Taller walls are more at risk of failure since such walls are supporting more material. Smaller walls support less material, which means there will be less weight placed on the wall and less movement due to gravity or frost heaving.

The base of the wall should be built beneath the surface of the soil. Soil can move when wet or dry, which means building a retaining wall on top of this loose soil may allow the wall itself to move. Build the first layer of stone or wood of the wall several inches down beneath the surface of the soil for added stability. The builder may also consider building the wall at a slight angle toward the weight it is designed to support; this adds a bit of extra strength and stability as well.

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Discussion Comments


Also, check with your local jurisdiction if permits are needed, such as a building permit, grading permit (if applicable), etc.


We had a 3' retaining wall built four years ago with treated wood. Now, carpenter ants have destroyed the wall and we will now have to have it replaced with a stone wall! It had the proper drainage and the base was a little lower than the driveway.


@wavy58 – I also have a raised garden, but I have a rock retaining wall. It allows water to escape very easily, so I don't have to worry about the roots of the plants rotting.

I built the wall myself, using large pieces of sandstone I found near a lake. I collected as many as my bucket would hold over several visits, and I slowly built the wall by stacking the stones with mortar in between.

It took all winter to build the thing, but it is beautiful and very efficient. I love the way the vines look cascading over its edges. The whole thing looks very natural.


@lighth0se33 – I have a wooden retaining wall for my raised flower bed, and I have never had any issues with it. However, it was constructed with highly treated wood.

The treatment is designed to make the wood resistant to the effects of moisture and termites. I feel that it will probably last as long as I will be planting flowers behind it.

Some people go for untreated wood because it is less expensive. However, this is a poor choice, because the wall will eventually collapse, and whatever it is supporting will likely fall down with it.


I have been consulting with a landscaping company about retaining walls for my yard. They told me that I could choose from wood or stone, but I am afraid to go with wood.

It seems to me that termites might become a problem with this type of wall. I would hate for it to rot out and burst from the pressure that my hill is applying to it.

Does anyone have a wooden retaining wall? Have you had any issues with termites or rotting from moisture?


My best friend had a retaining wall in her front yard. She lived on a little hill, and her dad built the wall to prevent erosion. He didn't want the soil supporting their house to eventually wash away, and he thought the retaining wall would be the best protection against this.

He used stone to build the wall. He dug down into the earth for the base of the wall, and he angled the whole thing toward the hill, leaving only enough room for loose stones to go between the earth and the wall.

The gray stone he used matches their house, and I think it really adds to the aesthetic appeal of the place. A wooden retaining wall would have looked strange there, but the stone was an excellent choice.

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