Retaining walls expand landscaping options

Beautiful landscape with water feature and pergola

Landscaping plans have evolved through the years, and thanks to new products, creative designs and innovative planning, a professional can often transform an ordinary lawn into an enchanting showpiece that welcomes friends and invites passersby to stop and take notice.

More and more homeowners are bringing the indoors outside as they add entertainment areas complete with big-screen TVs and outdoor kitchens worthy of top chef accolades. Water gardens and pools may incorporate fireplaces and waterfalls that enhance nature’s tranquility. Raised flower and vegetable beds invite the enjoyment of nature’s array of colors and textures.

Building opportunities
Some of these landscaping projects could not be done without incorporating one or more functional and decorative retaining walls into the larger site plan. A retaining wall is simply defined as a freestanding structure placed in a landscape to hold back soil. While that is the basic purpose of the wall, its integration into a landscape can add texture, definition and character. A well-constructed stone or brick wall adds beauty, security, warmth and value to your property.

The traditional higher retaining walls can define a play area for children, create easier access to an area of the yard, reduce the grade for safer mowing and lawn maintenance and, combined with lower height walls, create a terraced planting area. Or, a wall can simply create a level area for car parking, a patio or lawn.

When building a retaining wall, calculations are needed to determine the correct depth of the footings, the slope of the wall and the drainage requirements. The area needs to be excavated, soil and gravel compacted and cement poured. Correctly backfilling a wall is paramount to its stability and safety. Most experts will tell you that any wall over four-feet tall is not a do-it-yourself project.

Complex construction
Constructing a retaining wall is not a simple project, and it requires a substantial investment. A retaining wall is a complex project that almost always requires professional engineering expertise. The base is the most important and time-consuming part of a retaining wall. As John Newman, president of Classic Landscapes, Inc.,, in Hampton, says, “A retaining wall of any substantial height is kind of like an iceberg—there is much more to it below the ground than is visible above ground.”

You will probably need a permit to construct a wall in your landscape. According to Mark Fockele, president of The Fockele Garden Company,, in Gainesville, the addition of a retaining wall in a landscape almost always requires that the contractor obtain a permit from the county or city in which you live and that the construction meets building codes. He adds, “The homeowner will probably need to get approval from his homeowners’ association, too.”

Your retaining wall will be a focal point in your landscape and should last a lifetime, according to Fockele. “It should last more than a lifetime if it is constructed properly and the correct cap is used on top of the wall.” He goes on to explain, “The enemy of the retaining wall is moisture. When water gets in through the top of the wall it freezes and thaws throughout the years. Over time it can push the wall apart. If a solid stone cap is used, it lessens the water entering the wall through the top. Large slabs of stone used as a cap are much more effective than smaller ones mortared together.”

Looking good

Such a large landscape focal point not only must be stable but aesthetically pleasing. Professionals can recommend materials that complement or enhance other stone or brickwork on your home or in your landscape. Many stone yards are expanding their selections of stones and rocks and including new inventory from additional states. Al Pfannenstein, national advisor for Belgard Hardscapes,, in Atlanta, says the trend is to use natural stone. “We now have triple-blend colors and some with an antiqued and weathered look.” He suggests using stones of different sizes to create a dimensional look for your wall.

It is important to make certain that your walls blend into your surroundings and enhance, not distract, from the natural setting. Your professional landscaper can add complementary plants to enrich and embrace your stonework. “We add the eye candy,” says Newman. “Beautiful walls with the right plantings can become the highlight of a property. Walled areas can create intimacy and private garden areas that may not be possible otherwise.”

On a smaller scale
While retaining walls are big business, more and more landscape professionals are installing smaller ornamental walls, or a downsized version of larger retaining walls. Pfannenstein says his company is seeing more uses for these smaller stone walls. “We see walls being used to enhance backyards, create courtyard areas and define fire pits.” These walls often are functional and can be as dramatic, classy, decorative or bold as the homeowners’ desire. A colorful stone ornamental wall may beautifully encircle a patio and artfully define the outdoor gathering area. It can be practical and bi-level, creating seating. It may be stepped up in areas to incorporate built-in planters that can brilliantly display the season’s blooms and greenery.

Wall alternatives
A retaining wall may not be the only resolution to your landscaping woes. In some situations, your landscaper may suggest other solutions. For instance, the installation of one or more smaller walls to terrace the area may work and be less expensive. Or, using innovative landscaping techniques may have equally good results.

“Sometimes people think they need a wall when actually they can create more value and better solutions doing other things such as plantings or adding ornamental boulders or rock gardens,” says Newman.

Whatever your plans are for your landscape, it’s best to do your homework before making any decisions or having any work done. With some planning and the right professional expertise, you may discover that your landscape has more to offer than you had imagined.

Questions to consider
So you think you need a retaining wall? Below are some questions you might ask a professional. Be sure to research and understand the types of retaining walls and their construction before seeking expert advice to ensure stability and longevity.

•    Do I need a retaining wall, or is there another solution to my landscaping situation?
•    What type of wall do you recommend, and what construction technique will you use? For example, how deep will the footers be, and will rebar be tied into the block? How will the drainage behind the wall be handled? Ask for explanations and illustrations to clarify what is being done.
•    How much excavating will be necessary?
•    What type of cap will you put on the wall? Large stone slab caps reduce water that may get through the top of the wall and compromise its integrity.
•    What type of veneer stone or brick do you recommend? Can I see a sample? Some professionals may create a small mockup panel of the proposed finished product.
•    What is the height and length of the finished wall?
•    What plants will you use to complement the wall?
•    Do you have references? Ask to see photographs of walls they have built or obtain addresses of properties where they have installed walls. Check the references.
•    Will you obtain the necessary permit from the city or county? (The homeowner is usually responsible for getting approval from their homeowner’s association, if they have one.)
•    What are the costs? Are there any other additional costs I might incur?
Source: Mark Fockele, president, 
The Fockele Garden Company


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