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The Complete Guide to Retaining Walls

Flat stone wall in a garden with overflowing leafy vines

When you picture your dream yard, what comes to mind? The perfect patio? Maybe a gorgeous garden? 

Chances are you don’t picture a retaining wall. 

Not a lot of people do. Retaining walls are often forgotten when it comes to beautiful landscaping. People don’t consider them—until they actually need them. While they’re most known for their functionality in retaining soil, they can be seen as an eyesore. However, when done right, they don’t have to be. In fact, they can be a great accent to your yard. With the right contractor, your new retaining wall can be both functional and beautiful. 

In this article, we’ll answer your biggest questions: what is a retaining wall? What are they for? And how do I get one that works for my yard?

What Is a Retaining Wall?

Stone retaining wall in a public park, green hills with ground cover and trees, horizontal aspect

A retaining wall is a hardscape structure that holds soil in place to prevent sloping or erosion. If your house is on an incline, retaining walls prevent the foundation from sliding. But as we said before, they can also add a dynamic touch to your yard, adding levels, depth, and more space to enjoy.

Why Do I Need a Retaining Wall?

There are a few different reasons why your contractor or landscaper would recommend adding a retaining wall to your property. 

  • Your house is built on a hill or incline. Retaining walls can help hold the earth under your foundation so your home stays level and doesn’t slide away from your floors and walls due to erosion or heavy rainfall.
  • You want a flat, even yard. If you want to create a flat space next to your home or more usable space in your backyard, retaining walls can help you design your lawn the way you want it. Your landscaper or contractor will carve out specific areas and put that extra dirt behind a retaining wall so you have a clear, flat surface.

These walls also bring an interesting visual element to your space. They create a layered design with your landscaping, and different levels can make your yard feel larger. 

Types of Retaining Walls

In creating your retaining wall, you’ll want to consider types of materials, your preferred design, and the total cost.


Choosing the material for your retaining wall is an important consideration. To choose the best material for your retaining wall, consider the size of your space. Walls that support a home or building require sturdier materials. Carefully review the weight and incline you’re dealing with to make sure your wall will keep your building in place.

Retaining walls can be made from a variety of materials. Some of the most common include:

  • Timber: Finished wood or wood from trees like redwood or cedar will prevent rotting.  
  • Outcropping Stones: These natural stones add a great touch to any yard and are perfect for gardens or landscaping details. 
  • Boulders: Boulders are larger than other materials and best for large spaces. You’ll use fewer materials and build your wall faster, creating a unique backdrop for your space.
  • Segmental blocks: These are best for tight spaces and smaller walls. You can stack these by hand and easily adjust the height by simply adding more layers.
Background wall made of stone. A wall of flat stones laid in several rows
Wooden Wall
Chip paint. Vintage grunge plaster or concrete stucco surface. Old rough stone on cement pattern wall background. Art rough stylized texture banner with space for text


Once you’ve settled on materials, it’s time to think through your design options. A few common designs include:

  • Block walls: cement or stone blocks create a heavy-duty wall. This type usually requires some professional planning and construction.
  • Stacked walls: segmented blocks connected and stacked to create your wall. This is a simple way to build garden walls or dividers in your yard.
  • Curved walls: bricks or cement blocks stacked together to create a curved shape. Curving walls can be more difficult, but with the right help it creates a whimsical addition to any backyard, perfect for displaying your beautiful garden.


Retaining walls are generally affordable to install. Each type of wall costs about the same amount once fully installed, so you can choose the option you love the most.

The final price tag depends on several factors, so you’ll need to have your contractor or landscape architect visit your home and assess the situation. They can talk through the project with you and make recommendations for the best steps forward.

Things to Keep in Mind

beautifully folded retaining wall with a granite attic with small joints. brown beige yellow irregular gneiss stone holding a slope above it. there are undemanding perennials around

Building small retaining walls is a pretty straightforward job. But if you need a large wall to hold a structure or significant amount of dirt, that’s another story. You want to make sure it’s constructed properly so it can support the weight you’re storing behind it.

You might also wonder how tall your retaining wall should be. Most walls average about 4 feet, but depending on how you’re using it, it may need to be taller or shorter. Your contractor can help you determine the perfect height for your wall. 

Some contractors will simply build a wall and put the dirt behind it. This might hold initially, but isn’t a safe long-term solution. Large retaining walls should always be built to the National Concrete Masonry Association’s specifications to ensure safety. 

If you do need or are in the process of building a large retaining wall, ask your contractor about the types of reinforcement they plan to include. A common and effective option is using geogrids in the soil. These are rubber or plastic-like grids that come on a roll and help to secure your soil. The contractor can lay grids incrementally in the layers of dirt to help it remain stable and take some pressure off the wall.

Create the Space You’ve Always Wanted

Your new retaining wall doesn’t just have to be boring and functional. With the right contractor and vision in mind, you can create a beautiful addition to the landscape of your yard that will last for years to come. 

For more advice on how to create your perfect outdoor space, check out our 7 Tips for Creating the Backyard of Your Dreams.