Chapter 5: Retaining Wall and Fence Hardscaping

For hilly or sloped landscaping, there are few features as attractive as retaining walls and fences.

Retaining walls hold back and contain soil and dirt, allowing you to maximize the use and spatial capacity of your yard even if it holds unfavorable terrain. Likewise, hardscaped fences lend privacy and security without sacrificing beauty or making your yard feel claustrophobic.

When installed separately or paired together, hardscaped fences and retaining walls lend structure and direction to your yard — both literally and figuratively.

 

This is the time to hire a professional. If you need a true retaining wall, you must work with a professional, certified contractor who can engineer a wall to properly retain earth. Improperly engineered and installed walls often fail, causing you to spend more time and money to fix it than if it had been done correctly the first time.

Fence and Retaining Wall Materials

Hardstone fences and retaining walls are traditionally constructed from these base materials:

  • Concrete blocks: Don’t let the word concrete fool you. These blocks are cut and colored for maximum aesthetic appeal and made for high-quality ground face or split face architectural patterns.
  • Masonry stone blocks: Solid and veneer stone blocks give walls or fences a more polished and distinct look. Walls or fences can be made of solid stone while veneer can be added to a fence surface to give the impression of solid stone blocks.
  • Boulders or rocks: These can be layered and bound together using contemporary mortars and adhesive binding.
  • Brick: As with other hardscaping materials such as courtyards or patios, brick makes a simple yet standout base for yard dividers, fences and structural retaining walls alike.      

Tools for Installing Hardscaped Retaining Wall or Fence

The tools and equipment needed to install hardscape fences or retaining walls are practically toolbelt cousins. Purchase or rent the following pieces to get started on your project:

  • Layout and measuring: Industrial measuring tape, marking chalk or paint, mason line, levelers, landscape stakes.
  • Excavation: Shovel or sod cutter to clear the installation area, a shovel to dig a base trench.
  • Construction: Circular saw, masonry saw blades, caulk gun, speed square, drilling hammer, garden rake. 
  • General tools: Table saw, tape measure, rubber mallet, chisel, concrete sand, mortar or a similar binding mix. 

What to Know Before Installing a Hardscaped Fence or Retaining Wall

You can be fully satisfied with a safe and secure retaining wall or fence around your property when you perform the subsequent preparations beforehand:  

  1. Slope angles and degrees. Retaining walls need to account for the constant physical forces at work on them. Terracing design and engineering elements should be used to install the strongest, most secure retaining walls to prevent gravitational give or lateral earth pressure.
  2. Know your lines. Property, frost and utility lines, that is. Check and then double check all these before you start digging.
  3. Permanency. More so than their wooden-fenced counterparts, hardscaped retaining walls built from masonry or stone veneer will be much longer lasting and far more durable. Ensure you’re selecting and building exactly what you want, where you want it.
  4. Coloration. Different stones and block types will come with different colorations that will change over time. While you can’t prevent this, you can slow discoloration and brick or stone wall chipping over time with sealants.
  5. Caps. Wall and post caps sit as the topmost layer on retaining walls and solid fences. They are as much about form as they are function, and neatly tighten the finished look of this hardscaped installation.
  6. Maintenance. As certain stone types age, they may be more likely to require fills, repairs and cosmetic or structural attention. Even today’s segmented, interlocking retaining walls constructed without the need for mortar still needs maintenance occasionally.
  7. Drainage. Retaining walls need to properly drain water and other small particle debris. This is achieved through installing a fabric-coated drainage pipe near the wall’s base, weighed down by gravel to prevent expensive clogs.


Fence and Retaining Wall Tips and Tricks

Building a retaining wall is a much easier process today than it was decades ago. Many retaining wall orders come with a “built-in engineering” block design, meaning blocks are pre-cut and shaped to stack and lock without the use of mortar.

When building your hardscaped fence or retaining wall: 

  1. Purchase extra materials. As with courtyards and most other hardware projects in this guide, opt to order five to 10 percent more base materials than will likely be needed. This provides wiggle room in the event stones or blocks are damaged, or you decide to expand upon your initial projection.
  2. The base is everything. A compact, smooth, even support for solid fences and retaining walls maintain their entire structural integrity through the years.
  3. Keep an eye on that drain. Blocked or improperly cared for drains are the leading cause of retaining wall failure.