Over the last few years, ‘upcycling’ has emerged as a hugely popular trend for garden and home design. In a nutshell, ‘upcycling’ refers to the process of taking older materials, or even items which have been thrown away, and turning them into something attractive and unique. You could ‘upcycle’ an old wardrobe by giving it a unique coat of paint, or ‘upcycle’ some old clothes by sewing them into a pillowcase, and so on.

When it comes to garden design, certain materials offer a great deal of potential for upcycling. Wooden pallets, for example, are not only solidly built, but they are also easy to find and super-cheap. People have used them to make furniture, garden accessories and even pieces of artwork. Why? Because most of the hard work of making them sturdy has already been done!

Railway sleepers, the wooden planks used to support railroad tracks, have become a similarly popular material in recent years. Having been built to support heavy steel tracks (not to mention trains), they offer a level of strength that can be extremely useful when designing gardens. They have become so popular that many garden centres, DIY stores and websites are selling brand-new sleepers, though old and reclaimed planks are also easy and cheap to get ahold of.

But what exactly can railway sleepers be used for in a garden, and how can you find them in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know about using railway sleepers in your garden!

How to find railway sleepers

Railway sleepers have become a popular material to use in garden design; so much so that many stores are selling them brand-new. If this seems counter-intuitive in terms of upcycling, it’s because it is. However, many homeowners prefer to use new, rather than reclaimed, materials, simply because they do not want their gardens to have a recycled aesthetic. This is perfectly reasonable, but if you are after new railway sleepers for your garden, you should expect to pay around £15 per plank at least.

Older railway sleepers will usually have a well-used look developed over decades of service. The wood may be slightly warped, or it may have darkened or become spotted from exposure to the elements. There may also be cracks or imperfections which will be difficult to hide.

In exchange for this weathered look, however, you can enjoy much cheaper prices. A pair of used sleepers could cost as little as £9, and you could get an even better deal by buying in bulk. Much of the time, sellers will simply be eager to get rid of their sleepers for any price, so do not shy away from the chance to find a real bargain.

The best advice we can give is to be prepared to inspect your sleepers before making a purchase. Websites like Gumtree will typically include pictures of the items on offer, so you should have a good idea of the quality of what you are buying before you commit. Remember, the reason that railway sleepers have become such a popular material is their strength. If you are looking to make an impressive garden for less, it will be worth getting used to the idea of creating a more ‘weathered’ look. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you are using a professional landscape designer, they may be able to source cheap sleepers on your behalf.

How can I used railway sleepers in my garden?

Railway sleepers offer a ‘used’ look that can be extremely attractive in traditional or rustic garden designs. The cheapness of the material has also encouraged many designers to incorporate them into ‘shabby chic’ styles. The potential uses for railway sleepers include:

  • Retaining walls – Levelling out a slope or holding back soil requires a strong and sturdy retaining wall. Railway sleepers offer an attractive alternative to bricks or stone, though it will be best to have them installed by an experienced landscape designer if you want them to last as long as possible
  • Raised beds – Neatly sanded sleepers can be an excellent material for creating raised garden beds, either as standing units or built into a garden’s landscape
  • Edging – Neatness is an important part of solid garden design. Sleepers can be used to create a structured yet rural aesthetic which is quite popular with a number of different styles, including urban, rustic and modern gardens
  • Paths – Wooden pathways and steps can offer a weathered yet attractive look, especially when combined with green freely growing plants or neat gravel. Be careful, however, as they can also become slippery in wet weather. You may want to have your gardener treat them to add grip to the surface
  • Furniture – If you have any DIY skills, it should not be difficult to convert a couple of railway sleepers into a bench, table or even a piece of garden artwork. Otherwise, a carpenter should be able to sort this for you. Keep in mind that the wood will need to be treated fairly regularly, though considering the low price of used sleepers this should be well worth the bother