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5 Garden Sleeper Ideas & How To Execute Them

Posted By  Becky Tudor  On September 4, 2023

If you're looking to inject some new life into your outdoor space, garden sleepers are a great way to incorporate structure whilst maintaining a soft, rustic beauty. With their natural durability and timeless charm, these crafty timber beams can help bring your landscaping visions to life. We've rounded up 5 of the best garden sleeper ideas to get you started with some inspiration, as well as information on how to protect your garden sleepers and keep them looking great for longer.

Contents

What is a garden sleeper and what are they used for?

Garden sleepers, also known as railway sleepers and garden timbers, are long wooden beams commonly used for garden landscaping and construction projects. They can be used for a number of functional and aesthetic purposes, and their low-maintenance and easy installation makes them a popular choice for landscapers and homeowners wanting to customise their garden.

Traditionally constructed from old beams used to support railway tracks, many are drawn to the rustic appearance of sleepers and their sustainable and sturdy build.

Nowadays, most sleepers are manufactured specifically for use in gardens. However, if sustainability is important to you (or you just want a bit of extra character), then it's still possible to find traditional railway sleepers as well as other recycled or reclaimed beams.

Incorporating railway sleepers into your landscaping can help to bring a laid-back appeal to your garden, blending the natural with the manmade in novel and creative ways. Using organic materials to build the structural aspects of your garden is an easy way to maintain coherence with vegetation and surrounding natural beauty, and helps to avoid your space coming off as too polished or 'modern' (which is also great, just not for everybody).

Installing garden sleepers

Sleepers are used for a wide variety of DIY garden projects so the way you choose to incorporate and install them in your garden is really up to you. However, before we get into some of these creative ideas, it's worth taking into account some basic advice on how to make the most out of these versatile timber beams.

Placement & foundations

Before you place your sleepers, you'll first need to clear away any vegetation or debris. It's important that you have a level ground when laying your sleepers to maintain stability and structure, so use a spirit level to ensure that your base is flat.

If you're not going to anchor your sleepers with posts or stakes, then it's a good idea to dig a shallow trench to fix your sleepers into place and prevent movement over time. Use string to help you dig the trench straight and to the right level.

Try to dig your trench as close to the size of your sleeper as possible to reduce the amount of backfill.

If you have soft soil that you're concerned will sink under the pressure of heavy sleepers, you can add a layer of gravel or concrete as a base to help evenly distribute the weight and prevent the sleepers from shifting. To set your sleepers in concrete, simply fill a layer of concrete mix into your shallow trench and set your beams in place once it's semi-dry. Don't forget to account for the layer of concrete or gravel when measuring how high you want your sleepers to sit.

Anchoring

Whilst you can incorporate sleepers without it, anchoring can help minimise the risk of movement. You have a two main options when it comes to anchoring your sleepers to the ground:

Wooden posts

One way of securing your garden sleepers is to anchor them into the ground using short wooden posts, much like you would with your garden fencing project. Either to the front or the back.

It's a good idea to use this method if you're constructing supporting walls as the pressure of the soil against the side of the sleeper will require more strength than usual. This is also the case for steps and other structural aspects.

Stakes or brackets

Alternatively, you can use metal or wooden stakes to secure your sleepers. These are sometimes called sleeper stakes. Simply drive your stake into the ground then attach to your sleeper using bolts or screws.

This method is likely to suffice if you're using your sleepers for borders and small garden beds.

Obviously, the deeper you anchor your posts or stakes into the ground, the more stability they will provide. You can use a fixing foam to add an extra level of stability.

Fixing

If you're creating a wall, raised garden bed, or outdoor furniture, then you may want to attach multiple sleepers together. There are a number of ways that you can do this:

Steel rod pins & timberlok screws

If you're stacking your sleepers on top of or next to each other, use steel rod pins or timberlok screws (sometimes called sleeper screws) to secure them into place. You can also use these to fix corners, by fixing the rod through the edge of one beam and into the other's end.

Corner braces & metal plates

If you're building furniture or structures that require beams to be perpendicular to each other, fix a L-shaped corner brace or metal plate on the inside corner to secure them into place.

You can also saw your sleepers into half lap joints for extra strength, which will also reduce the amount of end grain that's visible. You'll still need to fix metal rods to secure them in place.

If you're stacking multiple sleepers, you can overlap or interlock them at the corners for the same effect.

How to protect your garden sleepers from rot

Given their organic makeup and common proximity to soil, many people are concerned about garden sleepers propensity to rot. Whilst the natural weathering of sleepers can add to their rustic charm, you also don't want them to become fragile and decaying from rot.

Treatment and wood type

Pressure-treated sleepers have been pre-treated with a process that involves forcing anti-rot preservatives into the cellular structure of the wood, which makes extends their lifespan considerably.

Hardwoods are much more resistant to decay than softwoods, although they tend to be more expensive, as well as heavier and more difficult to manoeuvre. Whilst hardwood sleepers are naturally the more durable option, most new softwood sleepers have been pressure-treated, so they should be made to last.

Wood stains

Using a wood stain is a great way to enhance the natural beauty of your garden sleepers while providing them with additional preservative properties.

Depending on where your garden sleepers are placed, you'll likely only need to keep up with re-treatment once every few years. Although this could be more often if you're using your sleepers to create steps or pathways where they're naturally going to face more wear.

Protection wraps

If you're laying your sleeps directly onto soil, you can use Postsaver Pro-Wrap & Tack to protect your sleepers against ground-line decay.

To apply, unroll the wrap, and staple it to the sides of your garden sleeper that will have direct contact with the ground. You can then heat-shrink the wrap using a blow torch and roll it out to ensure it's sealed, trimming off any excess wrap. This will provide a watertight seal that stops your sleepers from succumbing to moisture damage caused by direct contact with the wet ground.

Borders and walls

Garden sleepers are great when it comes to sectioning off areas of your garden from each other through the use of borders and walls. Their naturalistic appearance helps to create harmonious transitions between different elements, whilst their robust material allows you to use them structurally as well as decoratively. If you have a sloped garden, sleepers can be particularly useful in creating distinct levels or tiers.

If you're positioning your garden sleepers upright to create a tall wall or vertical structure, you'll need to fix them into the ground much like you would a garden fence post.

Use a heavy-duty fence post spade to dig out a hole or trench for your beams to sit in, allowing for around 2ft (60cm) of your sleeper to sit beneath the soil.

Use a spirit level to ensure your sleepers stand straight and fix into place using a fixing foam or concrete.

Using sleepers in your garden to create borders and walls is a great use of garden zoning, which is the technique of creating distinct 'rooms' or sections within your garden. This helps to optimise the functional usage of your space whilst visually breaking it up.

Pathways and steps

Another common usage of garden sleepers is to create pathways and steps. You can position them close together for a more polished look, or incorporate them alongside gravel or soil for a more natural appearance. When using sleepers to create steps and pathways, it's worth considering that wood can become slippery when wet, so you may want to consider placing a wire mesh on top of your garden sleepers to give them some grip.

If you want to avoid foliage growing through your sleepers, you can place a landscaping fabric or weed control membrane beneath them. However, having plants grow through the gaps can bring a soft and romantic charm to your space, and goes well with the rustic look of the timber beams. You can do this intentionally by planting low-growing plants or flowers.

Submerging your sleepers into your lawn is also a great way of defining a garden path that doesn't look too refined or polished. You can let your garden re-wild itself around them or keep the grass trimmed for more definition.

Generally, railway sleepers are a low maintenance addition to any garden and don't require too much upkeep. However, if you're using sleepers to create steps or paths, occasional re-leveling may be required to help ensure that they remain in top condition.

Raised garden beds

If you've been looking for the best materials to build up your garden beds, garden sleepers may be the answer you've been searching for. They're chosen for their easy construction, durability, and their natural appearance. Raised garden beds are a great way to manage the growing conditions of your plants, particularly if you have poor soil in your garden.

When using garden sleepers to built raised plant beds, you may need to cut them to size. You can use a circular saw to partially cut through each side, before finishing off with a hand saw if necessary - you can use a hand saw to cut the entire thing but it will likely require a bit of elbow grease. A mitre saw is also a strong option although they can be expensive. Make sure you mark a straight line where you want to cut beforehand, and finish off with a sander to avoid rough edges and splinters.

The Royal Horticultural Society recommends that your raised garden beds should be around "30cm (1ft) for dwarf bulbs, salad leaves and strawberries", or at least 45cm (18in) for most other plants, including "fruit bushes, shrubs and small trees".

Ponds and water features

Garden sleepers can also be incorporated into garden water features, such as ponds and fountains. If you're planning to keep fish or attract wildlife, it's important that invest in proper pond care, such as incorporating oxygenating plants and positioning your pond so that it receives adequate sun.

You can use sleepers to create a freestanding pond by constructing them in the same way you would a raised garden bed, then fitting them with a pond liner to ensure that there's no direct contact between the timber and the water.

You can also use a laguna tub or basin to provide the structure of your pond, and then build the sleepers around this. Add a layer of insulation between the tub and the sleepers to help regulate the temperature of the water for fish and wildlife.

If you're using sleepers to build or frame a pond, it's recommended that you use new sleepers that are manufactured specifically for gardens, as reclaimed sleepers have often been treated with Creosote, which can be toxic to fish and wildlife.

Outdoor furniture

If you're looking to incorporate some DIY furniture into your landscaping project, garden sleepers are a great way to maintain a cohesive and natural look with the organic elements of your garden.

You can use steel rod pins or timberlok screws to attach the beams together. Or, you can use dove-tail joints and wood glue if you want to avoid using screws. Use a chisel to mark the straight lines and then use a plunge saw to cut the joint. If you need extra stability, you can secure a wooden dowel through the two beams.

You can custom build your furniture to fit the size of your garden, which is great if you're limited on space.

As with other garden sleeper projects that require cutting your timber beams, a mitre saw is your best option, particularly if you have hardwood sleepers. If you have softwood sleepers, a circular saw, or even a hand saw, should suffice. You can smooth off any rough edges with a sander.

FAQ

Can you lay sleepers directly on soil?

You absolutely can lay railway sleepers directly onto soil, but moisture from the ground may cause them to degrade or warp over time, particularly if they're not properly treated. You can use a watertight barrier to protect your sleepers, such as Postsaver Pro-Wrap & Tack.

What is the lifespan of a garden sleeper?

The lifespan of your garden sleepers will depend on the type of wood your garden sleeper is made from. Hardwood sleepers can last up to 100 years, whilst treated softwood sleepers can last up to 30 years if they are properly maintained.

The great thing about sleepers is that their natural weathering can actually add to their charm. However, you can always use a hand sander to smooth out their surface if you want a more professional looking finish.

Do sleepers need drainage?

Whilst garden sleepers can withstand moisture exposure from the natural elements, it's still important that you ensure adequate drainage in your garden so that water doesn't pool around them. Having your wooden sleepers submerged in water for a prolonged amount of time could leave them prone to decay and deterioration.

Leaving small gaps between your sleepers can help with water drainage, and allows for the expansion and contraction caused by moisture absorption. You can also lay a layer of gravel beneath your sleepers to help with drainage.

Can you pressure wash garden sleepers?

Whilst garden sleepers are naturally robust and are fine to be pressure washed, they are likely still more delicate than your garden patio so it's worth treating them with a bit more caution when it comes to pressure washing. Use a low-pressure setting to avoid causing damage to the wood and keep the nozzle a reasonable distance away. If you go in to hard you could cause the wood to splinter.

You can try testing a small area that's not so visible before committing to pressure washing the entire area.

What soil do you use for sleeper beds?

This depends on a number of factors, including what plants you want to grow. However, using a blend of topsoil, organic matter, and compost is a good place to start. The topsoil provides essential nutrients, the compost helps with drainage, aeration and fertilisation, whilst the organic matter will help with the structure and longevity of the soil's health.

The recommended proportions of each will depend on what you're growing and the conditions where you live. You can use generic topsoil calculators online to calculate the approximate amount of topsoil you'll need for your specific garden bed.

Wrapping up

So there you have it - 5 creative garden sleeper ideas and how to execute them! These garden sleeper ideas offer endless possibilities for enhancing your outdoor space. Whether you're looking to create raised garden beds for your favourite plants, define pathways or steps, or build a cozy seating area or idyllic pond, garden sleepers provide a versatile and practical solution.

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