We took a 2-week trip back to Red Gate Farm last month, and, as usual, loved every minute of it!  Our trip started out a bit more interesting than typical, because we not only had 5 children in carseats and our 70+ pound dog, but this time, we also took our cat, Callie.  Our neighbors had so generously agreed to care for all the outdoor critters, so we didn’t feel right asking them to care for her as well.  Thankfully, she is a good traveler, so she settled right in.

Once we arrived, Callie made herself right at home at the farmhouse–even if her choice of sleeping quarters weren’t MY ideal–, and, amazingly, didn’t scream like she usually does in a new place.

As always, we went back with a big project in mind, and this time, the project was to re-build and expand several retaining walls, remove some of the layers of driveway, and try to prevent further erosion of several areas.  It was a lot of work, but with the blessing of beautiful, cool weather, and with the help of S’s brother, Uncle M, we managed to complete most of it.

Our driveway winds back to the house, where it drops steeply down a hill to our garage.  The front yard, pasture, and driveway all meet at this drop, and, since its origin, it has created a perfect location for erosion to set in.  The steep hill caused large “ditches” on either side of the driveway.  The heavy downpours we get in IL have resulted in the ditches growing, causing the gravel to wash out across the lower portion of the drive, where it flattens out.  In addition, the hill in front of the house, leading to the barn area is frequently a muddy, slippery slope.  There were retaining walls already in place, but they were far too low, rapidly deteriorating, not backfilled with gravel, and not doing the job. 

The front/side yard leading to the drive, with the old retaining wall (lower left corner) in place.The edge of the pasture area was an equally steep slope with an almost useless retaining wall.

We have spent the last 3 years contemplating and researching how to do this project.  We wanted to avoid any type of chemical (such as creosote), so we priced out different types of landscaping bricks, concrete, brick pavers, etc.  Finally, we were offered full-size rail-road ties, delivered, for less than half the retail price.  Even though it had creosote, we weren’t planning any edible foods in the areas around these planned walls, so we decided to go ahead and go that route.  In the long run, it wound up costing us about 1/10 of the price (around $400) of some other options we had considered, and we have no regrets. 

Before we could start building walls, though, we had to figure out just how low the retaining wall had to start.  Prior to us buying the farm, the driveway had been too-frequently re-done with tar and gravel, causing it to build up.  It had reached over a foot-thick in some areas, further contributing to the erosion.  Furthermore, it had been built up to a point that the driveway was higher than the floor of the garage and the barn, so every rain caused water to flood into the barn.  Thus, our first step was to dig the driveway down to lower than the barn floor, then dig a trench, and bury a french drain to divert the run off.  Because we may well be driving a truck over this area at times, we ran the drain through some cinder blocks to keep the weight off.  After all the digging, we had plenty of excess gravel to fill the trench with once the drain was planted. 

It is difficult to see here, but the brown sand is at least 12 inches higher than the gravel-filled trench just in front of the barn doors.

The next step was to tear out our temporary steps to the barn gate, and dig the remaining trenches into the drive.

Then we installed permanent tie-and-brick steps.  Since I was using leftover brick pavers from other projects, I ran out and didn’t quite get the walkway finished.  That will be a pretty quick job in the future though.

The finished steps. The walkway and steps are on a VERY slight slope away from the barn, but with the hill coming towards the barn, it creates a real optical illusion that it is steeply slanted.

Then it was time to tear out the old retaining walls (pictured at the top of this post), and build the new ones.  The wall by the barn had a french drain and lots of gravel and sand installed behind it to help divert the water runoff.

Everyone was involved in this project somehow!

A raking gravel into piles for us to cover the french drain with.N helped fill the wheelbarrow with sand to level the ties. Funny how most of the time he wound up with more sand on himself than in the wheelbarrow.

Even Will tried to help out by offering moral support and supervising the work.

Part of the retaining wall by the house required we build two full sets of steps as a precursor to a walking path we will eventually build through the future garden.  The steps were by far the most time consuming, but since this natural path has developed over the years, and it has proven very slippery after a rain, we knew the steps were a must to help control the mud and erosion.

Finally, the project was as completed as we could manage for this trip.  The retaining wall by the house had been brought out a full foot or so and doubled in height from the original (part of which was left in place either to reduce pressure on the new wall or serve as part of the steps we built).  With the addition of the two sets of steps, we had a very comfortable path from the house to either the garage or the barn, without concern for slippery slopes.

Even with the additional height of this wall, you can see the steep slope that remains.

The area by the barn was only about 1 tie higher, but extended further, and had better drainage behind it than the original.

We backfilled the walls with lots of the excess gravel we dug up, as well a truckload of Illinois clay/dirt we had hauled in.  We are going to let it settle this summer, and then I will likely cover it with a load of topsoil.  I can’t wait to fill it with garden things!

Last, but not least, we still had to tend to that pesky, over-tarred-and-gravelled driveway.  We had considered completely tearing out the driveway and doing something different, but every option we considered proved far too expensive.  Then, thanks to Mother Earth News, we found out about the DR Power Grader–a tool that has proven to be worth its weight in gold!!  After utilizing whatever gravel we could to backfill the retaining walls, we took out our grader and started leveling.  We dug down, and pulled several inches off the top of that drive, simultaneously evening out rough spots, ditches, and eroded areas.  We created a gentle slope around the barn and garage areas to encourage water to run off without flooding our buildings.  By the time it was finished, the driveway looked better than it has looked since we bought the place!  I am still thrilled with the end result!

We still have to complete some minor retaining wall projects in the future.  We will be rebuilding the far edge of the driveway to decrease the gravel being washed away over the far edge (at the bottom of the slope), then we will be building a stock-trailer parking platform behind the barn.  Eventually, we will also add a retaining wall to the back livestock area of the barn, to help create a round pen/sacrifice area for the future critters. We expect those projects to be quite a bit easier than this one!

Oh, I love how everything is shaping up!