19th Feb 2024 -

With growing awareness of environmental issues, professionals and DIYers are looking for sustainable landscaping solutions. For this article, we discover the benefits of using timber sleepers for sustainable landscaping. 

We look at different types of eco-certified wood suitable for sleepers, as well as responsible practices for installing and maintaining them. 

What is an eco-friendly timber sleeper?

Also known as a railway sleeper, eco-friendly timber sleepers are the sustainable choice for raised garden beds and landscape structures. Crafted from reclaimed or certified woods, they provide sturdy support while being environmentally friendly.

There are 4 main benefits to going eco-friendly with your landscape sleepers. 

1. Promote responsible forestry

Select Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber types to support responsible forest management practices. The FSC logo indicates the wood comes from forests that are sustainably sourced. 

2. Repurpose and reuse

Choose wooden garden sleepers made from reclaimed lumber to give new life to salvaged wood. Old barn beams, fencing and other materials can be recycled into durable types.

3. Lower carbon footprint

Avoid the emissions-intensive production of concrete and plastic by using renewable timber. Their organic construction helps reduce the carbon footprint of your landscaping.

4. Integrate with nature

Natural timber sleepers for garden spaces made from eco-friendly woods blend seamlessly into outdoor environments. Their organic textures and colours complement garden landscapes.

How to install eco-friendly garden sleepers

Not all timber sleepers are created equal. Eco-friendly ones have unique requirements that differ from traditional timber railway sleepers in the garden. To get the most out of sustainable types, proper installation techniques are important.


Eco-friendly garden sleeper options need to be completely sealed on all sides with eco-safe wood sealants before installation. This is key to protecting the wood's integrity outdoors. Traditional types may only come with factory sealing on certain faces, which require full sealing on-site.


Proper drainage is key for eco-friendly sleepers. Therefore, small gaps between boards should be left during construction. Traditional sleepers can often be tightly overlapped without moisture issues.


Corrosion-resistant stainless steel or galvanised screws are ideal for when you lay eco-friendly sleepers to prevent future rust stains. More standard nails and fasteners are acceptable for some traditional timbers that are less prone to damage.

Height limits

Constructing eco-friendly structures above 24 inches (2ft) in height requires integrating stepped risers for safety and level stability. Traditional sleepers can exceed 24 inches in height without risers, but stepping is still recommended.

Avoiding decay

Preventing direct ground contact is important for eco-friendly sleepers. Installing a gravel or sand base is key. Traditional ones are less sensitive to ground moisture and decay.

Traditional vs sustainable timber: How long do they last?

Eco-friendly and reclaimed railway sleepers have a comparable lifespan to traditional landscape sleepers. Here are some factors affecting longevity.

They can last 15-20 years or more with proper prep, sealing, drainage and care. Their longevity rivals traditional sleepers.Average 15-20 year lifespan with basic maintenance. First-cut lumber offers less inherent variation.
Prone to faster moisture damage, insect activity and UV degradation without correct maintenance.Less susceptible to moisture and pest damage during service life. Particularly with softwood sleepers, preservative treatment can extend lifespan.
Lifespan is optimised when using naturally durable and rot-resistant eco-wood types.Durability depends on the wood type. For example, oak hardwood sleepers can last 20+ years.
Reclaimed ones may have shorter lifespans around 10-15 years because of prior wear, but offer sustainability benefits.May be replaced more frequently because of the lower cost and sustainability factors of first-cut lumber.

Can you use eco-friendly sleepers for retaining walls?

A timber sleeper retaining wall and other structures can be built using eco-friendly sleepers. However, they have less inherent structural strength compared to first-cut timber. Here are some key comparisons to consider.

  • Traditional sleepers made from new lumber can handle more vertical load and earth pressure in taller retaining walls exceeding 36 inches (3ft). Eco-friendly wood types require shorter step designs.
  • Rot-resistant traditional woods are better suited for ground contact and the wet conditions within retaining walls. Eco-friendly sleepers need moisture protection.
  • Traditional sleepers rely more on the wood's structural integrity when used as wall framing. Sustainable ones require additional reinforcement and anchoring.
  • First-cut lumber offers consistent structural properties. Eco-friendly reclaimed woods vary in strength and need to be inspected for defects. 
  • Traditional ones can last over 20 years in structural settings. Eco-friendly woods may need replacing sooner, approximately 10-15 years for retaining walls.
  • Green construction adhesives help compensate for structural integrity. However, they do not match the strength of first-cut timber.

For best results, eco-friendly types are better suited to decorative landscape beds rather than primary structural landscaping projects. When used for green walls or steps, take precautions and design for lower load capacity compared to traditional sleepers.

How much maintenance do sustainable options require?

Unlike traditional timber sleepers, eco-friendly types require some specialised upkeep and care. Proactive maintenance techniques will keep your reclaimed or certified types in great condition.

  • Reapply eco-safe wood sealants every 12 months to protect against moisture, mildew and UV damage. Penetrating oil-based sealers are best for absorbed protection.
  • Clean sleepers 2-3 times yearly with a soft bristle brush. Use a mild, eco-friendly cleaner to remove dirt, stains and residue.
  • Inspect them 4 times per year for any cracks, insect or rot damage. Check ends, joints and undersides closely. Address issues immediately to avoid deterioration.
  • Carry out repairs as soon as possible using eco-friendly wood fillers, bonds and adhesives specifically made for outdoor use. Remove and replace severely damaged sleepers.
  • Maintain drainage gaps between each one or backfilled gravel edge lines. Clear debris at least twice a year to allow moisture runoff.
  • Monitor annually for termites and other pests. Apply borate-based treatments if found and reapply the treatment every 3 years.

Eco-friendly timber sleepers: Key decision factors

There are good arguments for both eco-friendly and traditional wood options. From retaining walls to raised bed garden sleepers to help plants grow, examine the factors below before you begin.

  • Eco-friendly types made from reclaimed or sustainable woods align with green building principles. This can be a priority for many homeowners.
  • Traditional timber ones may be better suited to structural projects requiring higher load capacities and durability.
  • Their sustainability benefits can justify the higher cost of eco-friendly types. Their lifestyle statement is a benefit for some clients.
  • Installation and maintenance requirements differ between types. Factor in your capability for specialised eco-friendly care.
  • Custom projects may need the consistent sizing and benefits of new traditional types.

By weighing your priorities, you can determine if eco-friendly or traditional timber sleepers are the best fit to deliver garden sleeper ideas.

Design a perfect garden with railway sleepers

At Building Materials Nationwide, we offer a wide selection of high-quality timber garden sleepers. Our selection is available in durable wood types. Whether you need railway sleepers for garden edging or to build a path or deck area, we have the best materials to suit your designs.

Trade customers can open trade accounts with us to access one-on-one account management support. Our trade account process makes buying materials such as garden border sleepers easy. 

Competitive pricing allows you to pass on savings to clients interested in green building projects. Partner with us to buy railway sleepers for sustainable landscapes. Plus, our excellent customer service and quick delivery options across the UK allow you to complete jobs on time.

Contact us today to open your trade account and start your next construction or garden project. You can also sign up online for instant access.

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