20th Feb 2024 -

Timber sleepers add a unique, natural touch to landscaping projects. However, they are only sometimes the appropriate choice. We look at the pros and cons of using timber sleepers for decking, garden beds and retaining walls. 

Weighing the pros and cons will help you decide if sleepers are best for your next project. We also explore factors like cost, longevity and upkeep considerations.

What is a garden timber sleeper?

Garden timber sleepers are versatile tools for landscaping that help you build outdoor features, also known as railway sleepers. Here are 5 ways you can use timber sleepers.

1. Raised garden beds

Arrange raised bed garden sleepers horizontally and fasten them together to form bed frame walls. You can fill the enclosed space with soil for growing vegetables, flowers, herbs and other plants. The contained design protects plant roots.

2. Decking

Leverage the strength and stability of timber sleepers by actively using them as deck boards. Fasten them across a frame to actively create a sturdy, even deck surface. Coat with stain or sealant to protect the wood grain while forming a beautiful garden with railway sleepers.

3. Retaining walls

Install wooden garden sleepers to construct retaining walls, driving them vertically into the ground to create a strong barrier. A timber sleeper retaining wall holds back soil on a slope, prevents erosion and allows you to shape and sculpt your landscape.

4. Stairs

Carefully arrange them at measured heights and depths to form garden steps with sleepers and risers. Build staircases to create elevation changes across your landscape and connect different areas of your garden space.

5. Garden edging and borders

Use curving timbers to build garden border sleepers. Creatively contour them to make planting beds, tree rings and decorative edge areas. They neatly outline spaces while providing an appealing feature.

What are the pros and cons?

Before deciding on timber sleepers, it is crucial to consider the pros and cons to determine if they are the best option. 


  • Design flexibility: Timber sleepers are highly versatile. You can use them for jobs such as edging, dividing sections, containing soil and building a bench. Their flexibility makes them useful for achieving a variety of landscaping designs.
  • Customisable shapes: You can saw, sand and shape timber sleepers to create customised pieces that fit your unique space. Cutting and joining timber allows for custom designs, such as adding garden sleeper lights.
  • Organic aesthetic: Timber sleepers add warmth to paths, patios, garden beds and other features. They do this with their organic grains, textures and natural tones. The raw, imperfect nature of timber creates an appealing look. 
  • Easy installation: Compared to other materials, installing timber sleepers takes minimal tools and skills. A circular saw, drill, level and screwdriver are all you need to successfully lay timber edging or other features.


  • Rotting and pest damage: Untreated timber exposed to moisture and sun will eventually rot, splinter or become infested with pests. Sealing and preservative treatments can extend lifespan but typically need reapplying every 2-3 years.
  • Requires frequent maintenance: To keep timber looking good and stop it from rotting, use sealants and fix or replace broken parts every 2-5 years. Proper maintenance requires some time and effort.
  • Not ideal for structural elements: Timber is not strong or durable enough for steps, tall walls, driveway edges or other structural elements. Heavy weight loads can cause damage. 
  • Shorter lifespan: They usually require replacement every 5-15 years because of the weather and frequency of use.

Can you use alternative sleeper materials?

Yes. Before installing timber sleepers, weigh the pros and cons of these other common edging materials. Each offers durability with trade-offs to consider.

Concrete garden edging

Concrete is durable and can last for decades without needing replacement. It provides long-term stability to retaining walls and garden edges.Concrete looks different from timber and does not blend well with gardens, which prefer a more natural and organic look.
The sturdy nature of concrete allows it to be used structurally for taller retaining walls that timber cannot properly support.Once you install concrete edging, it needs minimal maintenance and upkeep over time.
The strength of concrete enables it to support tall retaining walls better than timber.Concrete edging installation is a permanent change to the landscape. This makes it difficult to modify or remove later on.

Plastic or recycled composite sleepers

Composite and plastic sleepers are not susceptible to rot, decay or pest damage and require no annual maintenance.The designs and colour options are more limited with composite compared to the diversity of timber species.
These sleepers are often a more cost-effective option compared to natural high-quality timber.Plastic and composite sleepers are more prone to sun fading over several years outdoors.
During installation, plastic and composite sleepers can be cut and drilled to fit spaces like real timber can.Custom design is limited. You cannot sand, notch, or carve plastic and composite types like real wood.

Stone edging

Properly installed stone edging and walls will last for a long time without significant structural damage.Stone is one of the more expensive edging options, especially if using quarried stone instead of rubblestone.
Stone offers sturdy stability for building step features, short walls and other structural projects in a landscape.Once installed, stone edging is extremely difficult to modify or remove without damaging the materials.
It requires little long-term maintenance other than occasional weeding between stones or replacing ones that settle.Stone edging components are heavy and difficult to transport. They require extra labour or machinery to install.

How much do timber sleepers cost?

Comparing the estimated per metre pricing helps weigh budgets against aesthetics and longevity. Before choosing materials, consider these average installed costs. The below costs are per linear metre.

Timber sleepers£20 (treated pine).£150 (premium hardwood).
Concrete edging£60£240
Natural stone£200 (rubblestone).£1,000 (quarried).
Composite sleepers£30£60
Plastic edging£5£20

4 timber sleeper installation mistakes to avoid 

When installing railway sleepers in the garden, avoid these common pitfalls that can lead to structural issues down the line. By following best practices, you can finish a project that successfully withstands the elements.

1. Failing to level the base

Properly levelling and compacting the base is crucial for stability. If the base is uneven, the timber sleepers will settle and shift out of place over time. Level the area with gravel or sand. This creates a flat, consistent foundation before fastening down sleepers.

2. Leaving gaps between sleepers

When installing sleepers for garden walls or a raised vegetable bed, be sure to join the timber sleepers tightly together. Leaving gaps can cause structural weakness and erosion issues. Proactively use timber spacers or double-check measurements between each sleeper to avoid openings.

3. Improper fastening

Securely fastening the garden sleepers is important to anchor them in place properly. Avoid just setting timbers on top of the soil. Attach them by drilling pilot holes and driving in galvanised screws, bolts or stakes. Following manufacturer fastening recommendations will prevent future warping.

4. Lack of drainage

For retaining walls and raised beds, add drainage components like gravel backfill. This allows improved drainage to prevent the buildup of moisture that can lead to rotting over time. Take steps to divert water away from timber structures.

How to buy reliable timber sleepers 

We offer good quality timber sleepers for all your landscaping needs. Our options are strong, flexible, and natural, so your garden sleeper ideas will last a long time.  Whether you need them for garden edging or retaining walls, our range provides the perfect solution for stunning landscapes.

Trade customers can get premium timber sleepers at competitive prices by opening a trade account with us. Enjoy further benefits from efficient UK delivery and dedicated trade account management. 

With Building Materials Nationwide, you can trust our commitment to delivering superior products and service. Sign up for a trade account now or contact the team with your questions.

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