Absolutely, people still use railroad ties both decorative and functional purposes in landscaping applications. Landscaping companies also use railroad ties when designing scapes for both residential and business customers. Grounds maintenance becomes easier when they're used, too.
At least one gardening website (that's much bigger than this one) are saying that it's flat out illegal to use railroad ties for homes. They come to this conclusion by quoting the EPA with regard to it's manufacture including creosote. The EPA does say that creosote is a possible carcinogen and has no registered residential use. But does that make it illegal?? The EPA goes on to say that "Creosote is not approved to treat wood for residential use, including landscaping timbers and garden borders. There are no approved residential uses of creosote treated wood."
Does that make it illegal? That's a pretty strong word. Lowe's, Home Depot and a plethora of smaller lumber yards sell it, and yes, they even advertise that it's creosote treated. Hmm.. In my humble opinion, there are lots of things that the EPA hasn't "approved" that I use around the house. That's not to say that creosote treated railroad ties are illegal. That being said, creosote is a registered pesticide. And creosote in contact with soil can leach into it. Those facts should be a serious consideration.
Since creosote can leach out into the soil, many people say that you should never, ever use ties for surrounding a vegetable garden. I might tend to agree, but there are remedies that you might consider.
If a tie is old and fairly worn, the likelihood of leaching may either be minimal or non-existent. Whether or not plants actually take up creosote in the soil is also not a settled debate. However, newer railroad ties could very well be a problem for sensitive plants.
All is not lost! There are things that you can do, like lining your garden beds with plastic to prevent the wood from contacting the soil. Also, railroad ties should not be used inside a greenhouse or your home because they can release gases. Still, railroad ties can be re-purposed as fence posts, retaining walls, dunnage and other decorative landscaping.
You have to use your mind and balance the risks with the rewards. There isn't a clear "do this, or don't do that!" when it comes to railroad tie use. Are the risks high or low? Is your application in need of something with a low risk element? Are the ties you have your eye on oozing black crud?
Let common sense prevail. If you're still reading, you're probably planning to use railroad ties for your project.
So let's get on with it.
You can use railroad ties in your landscaping projects when cost is a factor. When you compare the cost of using railroad ties to brick or other landscaping solutions, you'll find dramatic differences.
Railroad ties are fairly easy to find, and are much easier to work with. Because they are more rustic in nature, inaccuracies in installation almost become chic! Laying brick is a very exact skill. That's why it's almost imperative that you hire someone to install brick for you. A poor brick laying job is nothing more than an eyesore. Railroad ties that are installed less-than-perfect can actually enhance the overall appearance!
There are many uses for railroad ties, too.
Fences and walls immediately come to mind. But you could stand them up on end as robust fence posts or even set them up at an angle for something creative and different. A basket weave walk from your home to a garden area can keep shoes dry and clean. You can frame a flower bed or build a retaining wall.
Try creating a pond!. Railroad ties can be used to build entire water scapes. Are you aware that maintenance workers like it when they see railroad ties used properly for framing different areas? It makes their job a whole lot easier. Since ties can separate lawns from gardens, they can use trimming tools like weed eaters and have a well defined starting and stopping point. Gardeners love that! Their durability gives them a strong sense that things will be just fine after they're done and gone. They can also be used to control weeds.
You'll need a hammer or sledge hammer, a gouge or select chisels and a drill that's equipped with a long boring bit and you can start to pound, chop, whack and buzz your way to some cool landscape designs.
There are several grades of railroad ties: Relay, No. 1, 2, and 3 grades comprise the whole of grades. Let's take a look at the various grades of railroad ties:
Relay grade railroad ties are the best possible tie you can buy. They are straight, dark in color and look new. There is very little or no cracks or splits. They are also the most expensive.
No. 1, or premium grade railroad ties are relay grade railroad ties that aren't good enough to be relay grade. They have 3 or 4 good sides and may have some cracking, slight warping or minor splitting on the ends.
No. 2 (good) grade railroad ties look good on 2 or 3 sides and may have some warping. They usually have larger cracks and splitting that will cause them to lose their "premium" grade. This grade of tie is described to be in "fair" condition.
No. 3 grade railroad ties are the lowest grade of railroad tie sold. They have one or two good sides and are usually even more warped or cracked and have heavy splitting on the ends.
After carefully considering whether or not you want to use them, railroad ties can be a great addition in the right landscaping application.