Horticulture Magazine

How To Lay Sleepers For Beautiful Garden Edging

sleepers cut down and used as garden edging

Sleepers are a popular choice for people landscaping their gardens.

These sections of wood are easy to work with while being aesthetically pleasing, making them ideal for landscapers of varying skill sets.

As you can see below, sleepers make great garden edging, providing clear and clean delineation between different areas of your outside space:

sleepers used alongside artificial grass and decking
Sleepers are very popular in garden landscaping

In this article we’ll run you through the steps required to create garden edging with sleepers.

There are lots of ways to do this job and the precise steps will vary depending on exactly what you’re trying to achieve, but the steps here represent a good starting point for someone looking to do DIY garden edging with sleepers.

What are sleepers

Railway sleepers are the large bits of wood that lay perpendicular to railway tracks:

railway tracks
Sleepers play a really important role in railway design

These bits of wood play an important role. Not only do they absorb and spread the load from passing trains into the ballast beneath (that’s the stones and gravel), but they keep the railways at the right gauge.

If you’re not familiar, gauge is the distance between the rails. Trains are built to ride rails of specific gauges, so it’s crucial that the distance remains consistent all the way along the line.

Over time sleepers are removed, whether because sections of railway are taken out of service, or just to replace those on active lines that have been in use for a long time.

These disused railway sleepers find their way into all sorts of other roles, including garden landscaping.

Why use sleepers for garden borders

Sleepers are very popular in garden landscaping for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, they’re hardy and well-suited to being outdoors. Railway sleepers have already spent years outdoors, for example.

Secondly, they’re quite big. This makes them easy to work with, and also gives you the option to cut them down to size if need be.

Not all sleepers are railway sleepers: you can buy bits of wood cut to size and these are referred to colloquially as sleepers, but getting hold of disused railway ones is appealing to some landscapers because of their history and rugged aesthetic.

In this article we’re writing about how to use sleepers for garden edging, but there are tons of other applications.

Using sleepers for borders

Sleepers can be used to create a visually appealing divide between two areas: your lawn and flowerbeds, as a prime example.

As we’ve said already, they’re easy to cut, meaning you can cut joints into them to help them follow the garden shape.

Remember: there are many ways to do this job. The steps below are for simple straight garden edges, and will provide a useful starting point for a DIY sleeper project.

What you’ll need

  • Sleepers
  • A saw to cut them to size
  • A chisel and hammer to remove protruding bits from sawed ends
  • A set square to check angles
  • Planks to join sleepers at bottom
  • Nails to attach the joining sections
  • A spirit level to check level
  • String for marking out the area
  • Poles to support the string
  • Concrete to keep the sleepers in place (optional)

How to lay sleepers

Here are nine steps to laying a boundary with sleepers:

1. Mix your concrete (optional)

It’s unusual to start with an optional step! You can just place sleepers, but it may be better and sturdier to lay them properly. If you’re doing this, mix up some concrete in a bucket.

2. Mark out your boundary

The first mandatory step is to run a string line along the route you want your sleepers to take.

This is a reliable way to make sure the route is straight, and it’s much better to resolve issues at this stage rather than when the sleepers are laid!

Use something stable to attach the string to, like a reinforcing rod: hammer it a few inches into the ground so it doesn’t move or fall over when you pull the string taut.

3. Check the boundary leave you enough space

Once you’ve marked a boundary, use a measuring tape to check distances from fences, walls, trees, and other obstacles. Ensure there’s enough space for the sleepers to sit.

If any areas are too tight, or not long enough for a full sleeper, mark the relevant sleeper and make sure to cut it down to size.

a set square on the edge of a garden sleeper, with tools and equipment in the background
A set square helps you to get accurate edges when cutting sleepers down to size

4. Check the height

Also use the tape to ensure the string remains a consistent height up each reinforcing rod. If your sleepers are 100mm high, make sure the string is 100mm high as well.

Once you’ve checked this, go along the string and measure from various points down to the ground. The height should be consistent all along the string line. This will ensure a consistent, level boundary.

5. Dig the trench for your sleepers to sit in

Use a spade to dig a trench a couple of inches deep along the path marked out by the string.

If possible, get a spade whose head is the same width as your sleepers, as this will make digging much easier.

6. Check the ground is level

Use a spirit level to ensure the trench is level. Just like step 4, this helps you to achieve a consistent and level sleeper boundary.

7. Add concrete (optional)

Add a scoop of concrete every foot or so along the trench. If you use this method it will keep the sleepers secure.

8. Join sleepers with a plank at the bottom (optional)

Another way to keep sleepers from moving around or becoming separated is to join them with a plank on the underside. If you’re doing this, simply lay the plank across the gap between two sleepers and nail it in place.

9. Place your sleepers in the trench

Once the trench is dug and you’ve prepared any optional security from steps 7 or 8, it’s just a case of adding the sleepers into the trench you’ve dug.

If everything is measured out correctly and the sleepers are cut to size, they’ll nestle in nicely and provide you with a beautiful boundary.

sleepers used as edging for raised beds on one side and gravel on the other
You can lay sleepers vertically or horizontally

Let sleepers lie

This guide should give you the information you need to create a simple boundary or path with sleepers in your garden.

If you’ve got a more complex job in mind, or you lack the DIY skills to follow the steps here, don’t fret! There are plenty of qualified landscapers who will be able to apply their expertise to your garden needs.

However you get there, a boundary made of sleepers will make a great aesthetic contribution to your garden.

There’s nothing quite like the look and feel of wood to offset grass and plants, and thanks to the way wood can be prepared, you don’t need to worry too much about durability or things going rotten.

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