Retaining walls are a functional and aesthetic addition to many landscapes, offering a solution for controlling soil erosion, creating terraced levels on sloped land, and enhancing the usability of outdoor space. They come in various materials and designs, each serving specific structural and visual purposes. Materials commonly used include concrete, stones, and even living elements, like plants, that not only reinforce the terrain but also add a green touch to the infrastructure.

When approaching retaining wall designs, it’s crucial to consider factors such as the type of soil, the angle of the slope, and the wall’s intended height. These contribute to selecting the most suitable construction technique and materials to ensure safety, durability, and cost-effectiveness. Engineers and designers apply principles set out in country-specific Standards; however, the design can vary significantly based on site-specific conditions.

Incorporating retaining walls into landscaping not only helps manage soil erosion but also maximises outdoor space, allowing for more elaborate garden designs or recreational areas. Despite the technical nature of their construction, retaining walls can be integrated seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. They range from traditional, functional structures to creative installations that enhance the aesthetic appeal of gardens and public spaces alike.

Types of Retaining Walls

Retaining walls play a crucial role in landscaping and engineering, providing support for soil where a drastic change in elevation exists. They are constructed using a variety of materials and designs based on the specific needs of the project.

Gravity Walls

Gravity walls utilise their mass to counteract earth pressures. They are commonly constructed from concrete, stone, or boulder materials. Natural stone and boulder retaining walls offer an aesthetically pleasing option, while concrete provides strength and durability. Gravity walls require substantial mass and are therefore suitable for areas with ample space.

Cantilevered Walls

Cantilevered walls are designed with a reinforced concrete base slab and a thin stem. They use the weight of the retaining material behind the base to provide stability. Incorporating steel reinforcement, these walls need less material than gravity walls, enabling construction in more limited spaces.

Sheet Piling Walls

Sheet piling walls are utilised in tight spaces or where the soil is soft. They are made from sections of steel, wood, or vinyl and only about one-third of their length is visible above the surface. The interlocking sheets are driven into the ground, providing support for loose soils or waterfronts. Timber is less durable in waterlogged conditions compared to steel and vinyl.

Anchored Walls

Anchored walls allow for a variety of “front” finishes, such as thin panels or shotcrete, and are suitable for tall slopes or complex construction scenarios. They incorporate anchors driven into the material behind the wall, which are then expanded by injecting pressurised concrete or mechanical means. This technique is ideal for retaining walls that must support a significant load in areas where space is limited.

Materials and Their Properties

When selecting materials for a retaining wall, one must consider factors such as cost-effectiveness, durability, aesthetics, and the specifics of the backyard environment. Each material carries distinct features that determine its suitability for a retaining wall project.


Stone provides an appealing natural aesthetic and is known for its durability. Natural stone retaining walls can be costly due to the labour involved in assembling them. However, the use of stone can enhance the curb appeal of a property due to its traditional and natural look.


Concrete blocks are widely favoured for their strength and versatility. A concrete retaining wall is notable for its long-term durability and can be cost-effective, especially for larger projects. Concrete can easily be moulded into various shapes, making it suitable for a variety of backyard designs.


Brick retaining walls offer a classic aesthetic akin to stone but with a more uniform appearance. Brick is also long-lasting and provides a sense of traditional style. However, it may be less cost-effective than other materials and typically requires skilled labour for construction.


Timber retaining walls bring a natural and warm appearance to a garden or backyard space. When constructed from materials like cedar wood, they can provide a balance between cost-effectiveness and aesthetics. Timber needs to be treated to improve its durability and resistance to decay.


Boulder retaining walls use large stones like basalt boulders and are appreciated for their natural and rugged look. They are generally more suitable for landscapes that can support such heavy structures. Boulders can be an economical choice, relying on their mass to provide stability.

Design Considerations

When designing a retaining wall, critical factors include adhering to safety standards, selecting appropriate aesthetics, and ensuring proper water management to guarantee functionality and durability.

Safety and Regulations

Retaining walls must conform to safety standards and local regulations, which dictate the parameters of a wall’s design to ensure stability. A key aspect is to consider the wall’s potential to bear loads, including the type of soil (such as granular or clayey soil), and surcharge loads from near structures or topographic features. It’s essential that these factors are considered early in the design process to avoid wall failure and costly repairs.

Aesthetic Choices

Aesthetic considerations in retaining wall designs contribute to the overall appeal of a backyard or garden. Choices can range from natural stone to contemporary materials, offering a modern front yard landscape. The selection should complement the existing landscape design, integrating seamlessly with the surrounding environment. Walls not only serve a practical purpose but also enhance the beauty of outdoor spaces when thoughtfully planned.

Water Management

Effective water management systems are crucial for the longevity of retaining walls, preventing soil erosion and structural damage. Incorporating adequate drainage solutions like weep holes, French drains, or waterproof sheeting is essential. These systems are designed to handle water flow and prevent accumulation behind the wall, which can lead to increased pressure and potential wall failure. It’s imperative for the landscape design to incorporate these water management strategies, especially in areas with significant rainfall.

Retaining Wall Ideas and Inspiration

Retaining walls not only serve a functional purpose but can also greatly enhance the aesthetic appeal of outdoor spaces. The following ideas showcase how to integrate retaining walls into various areas of a landscape, each catering to different aesthetics and practical needs.

Garden and Backyard Walls

Retaining walls in gardens and backyards create tiered levels for planting and can transform sloped land into artful displays of flowers and greenery. Living retaining walls with trailing plants offer a lush, green backdrop and can prevent soil erosion effectively.

  • Flowery Terraces: Constructed with materials like stone or timber, steps can be integrated into the design to allow easy access between levels.
  • Rustic Boulder Walls: Utilising large boulders arranged in a seemingly haphazard fashion creates a natural look, blending in with the surrounding landscape.

Front Yard Walls

Front yard retaining walls add to the curb appeal and front yard landscape of a property, framing the home and possibly creating raised garden beds.

  • Stone Walls: A traditional stone retaining wall provides structure and can be planted with low-maintenance shrubs or perennials for year-round interest.
  • Sleek Modern Walls: For a contemporary front yard, smooth concrete or rendered walls with geometric lines can offer a clean and minimalist appearance.

Patio and Deck Walls

Retaining walls around patios and decks extend the outdoor living space and can define seating or dining areas.

  • Integrated Seating: Low retaining walls made of brick or concrete can double as seating when topped with weather-resistant cushions.
  • Built-in Lighting: Illumination within walls or on their surfaces can highlight the patio or deck’s texture and provide safety after dark.

Poolside Walls

Retaining walls near poolsides secure the land and can incorporate water features or contain planting beds that complement the water.

  • Water Features: Incorporating a waterfall or a spillway into the retaining wall adds movement and sound, enhancing the poolside ambiance.
  • Garden Poolscape: Poolside retaining walls can be dressed with plants that thrive in high humidity and create a tropical oasis.

Landscape Integration

Effective landscape integration within retaining wall designs not only enhances the visual appeal of a garden but also serves practical functions such as erosion control and the utilisation of sloped yards.

Plant Integration

Incorporating plants into the design of retaining walls can effectively merge functionality with aesthetic quality. Selection of plants should be based on their ability to thrive in the microclimate created by the wall, typically favouring species that excel in drainage and limited soil depth. Common choices include:

  • Succulents: Resilient against dry conditions and often used to create a rock garden look.
  • Creeping plants: These can help to stabilise soil and cover the wall naturally.

Implementing a plant integration strategy may involve creating pockets within the wall structure for soil and planting. The use of trailing greenery or cascading plants contributes to a vibrant and dynamic landscape that can visually soften the hard structure of the wall.

Terracing and Sloped Yards

Terraces built into retaining wall systems convert sloped yards into useable space, which can be ideal for various garden types including rock or vegetable gardens. Terracing offers:

  1. Erosion Control: Walls support the soil and reduce run-off from rainfall.
  2. Aesthetic Appeal: Terraces provide a tiered appearance that can be visually striking.

The design of terraced gardens should ensure that each level is secure and promotes adequate drainage to protect the structural integrity of the wall. Plant selection on terraced levels might differ, with some favouring sun-exposed areas at the top and moisture-loving plants at the bottom. Proper integration of terraces creates an interplay of architecture and horticulture, which can maximise the visual and functional potential of sloped landscapes.