Constructing a Retaining Wall: How To Guide

Constructing a Retaining Wall

This past summer, I re-designed a raised planting bed that was constructed out of an old railroad tie retaining wall that was decaying and crumbling over time. I had the opportunity of watching the crew at work, so I figured I would share the installation process with you. There is a correct method of installing the wall to ensure that it is going to be functional and permanent. I used the Nicolock Firma Wall System Toffee/Onyx stone for this particular project, but if you are using another material, such as natural stone, the process is similar.

Step 1: Excavate soil and build base

Step 1: Excavate soil and build base

First, the original railroad tie wall had to be demolished and removed, while the soil around the perimeter area had to be excavated. It is important to dig down the equivalent of one course of block (eight inches in this case) and use a leveling device to obtain an even base. Add a recycled concrete layer under where the wall stone is going, approximately two-three inches at a time, and use a tamper to compact it. (If starting from scratch, it is recommended to use the recycled concrete as a base under the entire area where the topsoil is going and also use a layer of fill in between the topsoil and base to ensure proper drainage.) Select your wall blocks and lay them out across the base. Continue laying the stone block by block until the entire perimeter is created. Measure and make cuts with a masonry saw to complete any angles needed to fit the pieces together at the corners. This first step in construction takes the longest and is most crucial in determining the success of the rest of your project.

Step 2: Continue Adding Second Course

Step 2: Continue Adding Second Course

Continue with the second course. Select your wall system blocks and stack them in a staggered pattern on top of the base course so that the seams are overlapping. Dry-fit each block first so that the vertical joints are staggered as seen above. This creates a stronger and more stable wall.. Remove the block and apply a layer of mortar on the first course. Add the next course and tamp the block into place with a mallet, and repeat.

Step 3: Mortar the Layers

Step 3: Mortar the Layers

Continue building courses. At the third level, insert a drain pipe, while leaving an exit point for the drainpipe at one end of the wall. This will ensure proper drainage once your wall is complete. Continue the process while carefully aligning the block in a staggered pattern and mortar the layers until the desired height is obtained. Note that the final and top layer is the wall capping, a more decorative layer that prevents moisture from running down into the  open cracks of the lower layers and which adds the aesthetically pleasing finishing touch! Mortar the wall cap in place as you did for the other courses.

Constructing A Retaining Wall: Finished Project

Constructing A Retaining Wall: Finished Project

Depending on the size of the wall, a project like this can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week or more, but it is worth the while to take your time and have good results. Once your wall is constructed, bring in new organic topsoil and plantings to complete the project.

For more gardening tips and design ideas, see my books on Amazon:

A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer Zones 3-9
Landscape Design Combinations

Author:  Lee@Landscape Design By Lee 2018. All Rights Reserved.2c425-page2bdivider


Book Launching: Introducing My Second Book-Landscape Design Combinations!


I am very excited to be officially announcing the launching of my second book, Landscape Design Combinations! Fifty something years ago, I developed a passion for all things green and started digging in the soil by the age of five. In the 1980’s, I entered the field of education and after sixteen years, with the encouragement of friends, started up a landscape design business in 1996. I took up an interest in blog writing and photography in 2010, and after retiring from 32 years of teaching in 2013, I decided to put all my experiences into a published work. I had quickly realized that writing and publishing a book was not an easy task, but persisted in accomplishing what I had started. By 2015, I published my first book A Guide to Northeastern Gardening. 

The thought of starting the process all over again was the furthest thing from my mind, but to my own astonishment, the desire to write within me grew even stronger. There was still so much I wanted to share. As I started to write, the words came easily, and a second book started to materialize.  Now, two years later, I have completed Landscape Design Combinations, which takes the first book a step further by going much deeper into the design process, while offering numerous landscape designs with labeled photographs and descriptions. One can say that it completes what I had started. I am now thrilled to be able to share my love of gardening and design with you through a second book.

What does this book have to offer? 2-sample-6-borderLandscape Design Combinations is a comprehensive guide to help you plan your outdoor space. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by “what to plant where” in your garden, or have spent months, or even years, not knowing where to begin, Landscape Design Combinations will help to facilitate the process. The first two chapters deal with the basic principles of landscape design and color coordination. You will get ideas for the desired function of your space and discover your own personal sense of garden style and color preference. Throughout the book, each chapter builds upon the one before it, discussing foliage combinations, then types of and proper placement of evergreens, followed by flowering shrubs and finally, perennials.

perennial-borderNumbered and labeled photographs are supplied throughout the book with information on each plant, such as common or scientific name, plant descriptions and cold hardiness. Once plant usage and placement is covered, the remaining chapters discuss hardscape, with directions on how to build a simple stone walkway or patio, along with more information on garden styles. Each chapter will incorporate plants discussed earlier and create designs starting from simple perennial combinations to full landscape designs.

4-sample-1-borderDiscussion of evergreens and flowering plants will focus on placement and interest provided, while perennial combinations will include bloom time for each plant discussed. As each chapter progress, more detailed design plan layouts will be provided as a guide to assist you in planning your space. In the later chapters, topics covered include designing for seasonal interest, container combinations and hardscaping, with easy to follow designs. The book ends with “Garden Inspiration”, which discusses garden styles throughout the centuries and how various design elements have developed over the years. Finally, a glossary is included with definitions of design terms used throughout the book.

About the Book:book-coverLandscape Design Combinations provides the necessary tools to help you easily plan your garden, while offering a multitude of design plans with labeled photographs and detailed descriptions. Topics such as landscape design principles, color in design, the use of foliage, designing with deciduous and evergreen plants, planter combinations and landscape planning are discussed. Additional topics include designing with hardscape with “quick and easy” landscape designs and garden styles throughout history, with colorful illustrations. The information presented is applicable to both novice or professional gardener alike, and is all based on Lee Miller’s personal experience as a landscape designer for over twenty years. Lee Miller is also the author of “A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer”, initially published in 2015.

About the Author: garden clean up 2Lee Miller is a professional landscape/garden designer involved in the horticultural industry since 1996. Having started a gardening blog in 2010, she is the author of over 200 articles on general gardening, landscape design principles, gardening tips, planting, pruning, garden maintenance, feature plants and more. In addition, Lee Miller has donated her time as a contributing writer for the American Heart Association Gardening Blog, as well as Gardening Know How, and has been involved as a presenter at local gardening clubs.

To Preview Landscape Design Combinations, simply click on the link or icon below. I hope to inspire you!

Landscape Design Combinations


Winter Color and Structure in the Landscape

winter garden

The pendulous nature of the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar along with its blue-green needles add unique character to this winter garden. In the backdrop the bark of Coral Bark Maple (Acer Sango Kaku) glows red with the cooler temperatures and to the right a Skyland’s Oriental Spruce proudly displays its golden hue.

With winter weather upon us here in the northeast, the garden is currently buried under a blanket of snow and is likely to remain that way for some time.  At this time of year the elements of color, form and texture, along with structure play an even more important role in design, and are more pronounced in the winter landscape. Form can exist as horizontal, vertical, pendulous (weeping) rounded, vase-shaped and pyramidal. Texture refers to the nature of the foliage and can be described in a number of ways including fine, course, dull, shiny, wide or narrow, to name a few. Structure refers to the shape or form of a plant with relation to its environment. As seen in the above photograph and description, all three of the plants mentioned add color, form, texture and structure to the landscape.

Blizzard Juno  Jan 27

Spreading Yew and Weeping Norway Spruce

Evergreens are key in providing structure, such as the snow covered spreading yew and cascading Weeping Norway Spruce shown above.  They display a deeper green foliage which contrasts nicely against the the fallen snow.   A vertical backdrop of Western Arborvitae adds to the screening. The combinations of varying form and foliage add all season interest to the backdrop of this poolscape.

snow on spruce

Picea pungens ‘Globusa’ (Globe Blue Spruce)

 This member of the Picea family is Montogomery Spruce ‘Globusa’, a rounded compact form of Colorado Blue Spruce which grows only to a height and diameter of approximately three feet.  Its deep blue color remains throughout all the seasons and is even more noticeable in winter.  The characteristic of evergreens that I find to be so appealing is the wide selection of varying colors and forms.

nandina domestica

Nandina domestica

Berry producing plants such as this Nandina domestica provide an interesting framework and winter color and also serve as a food source for birds.  There are many berry producing shrubs for the landscape including Winterberry, Holly, Elderberry and Viburnum.  Combining both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs in the landscape supplies a range of form, and many deciduous plantings display interesting branch structure and bark, such as the Coral Bark Maple above and Crape Myrtle below.

Crape Myrtle Bark

Crape Myrtle Bark

These are just a few examples of how the winter landscape can be made to be more inviting.  While waiting for spring, the winter season is a good time for assessing and planning the landscape.  If the garden is to look aesthetically pleasing throughout the year, especially during the cold winter months, it is important to include the design elements of color, form, texture and overall structure in your planning.

As Always…Happy Gardening!

2015 Lee@ A Guide to Landscape Design & Maintenance.

blog divider blue bird