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We have railway sleepers in our garden - are they safe to use as fruit / vegetable beds?

edited May 2022 in Garden design
Hello all! 

I moved into a house that has a very good sized garden and we're keen to get some fruit and veg growing. We have what I presume are old railway sleepers and whilst researching I saw mention of toxic chemicals potentially seeping out of the old sleepers and into soil.

Is there a way to test sleepers to rule that out or are we best just replacing them with new sleepers that we know are non-toxic?

Image attached for reference. 
Thank you in advance!!!


  • DovefromaboveDovefromabove Posts: 83,739
    edited May 2022
    I think there’s been some concern about newer sleepers … but i think yours are old and very well weathered. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them. Lucky you … old ones  like that cost a bomb 😊 

    Gardening in Central Norfolk on improved gritty moraine over chalk ... free-draining.

  • Oh that's very interesting about newer sleepers being concerning! Yes we would absolutely love to keep them although as long as they're not going to be harmful for growing food :smiley:

    Thanks for your comment, super helpful! 
  • DovefromaboveDovefromabove Posts: 83,739
    When I say newer ones .., I mean ones that have actually been used as railway sleepers and treated with the tar or whatever it is that they use.

     I don’t mean the sleepers that’ve not been used on the railway lines … they’re the ones that have raised real concerns as far as I’m aware. 

    Gardening in Central Norfolk on improved gritty moraine over chalk ... free-draining.

  • Blue OnionBlue Onion Posts: 2,947
    I would be worried about growing fruit and veg in there, or even using it for a bed that would take frequent attention and cause you to be in physical contact with the boards.  I believe that many of the older railway sleepers are treated with creosote?  
    Utah, USA.
  • DovefromaboveDovefromabove Posts: 83,739
    The sort of sleepers the OP shows in her photograph have never been used on a railway or treated with creosote … and in any event look old and well-weathered, so will be absolutely fine for use in her garden. 

    Gardening in Central Norfolk on improved gritty moraine over chalk ... free-draining.

  • Hello, 

    I just found this fact sheet stapled to the end of one of the sleepers so it looks like, unfortunately, I won't be able to grow edibles without taking precautions.

    Now the questions is whether to replace them with some alternative material (i.e: brick / wood, etc... suggestions welcome!!!) or to line with a membrane to stop any of the creosote seeping into the soil.

  • WAMSWAMS Posts: 1,502
    I thought they'd be darker if creosoted.... blimey.

    I would leave them (they're beautiful) and get a trug or other containers for veg growing.
  • Loraine3Loraine3 Posts: 569
    edited May 2022
    I have three beds made from old railway sleepers to grow veg in, they were all lined with a double layer of black plastic and have been in use for over 10 years.
  • @WhereAreMySecateurs we have a bath that is too small for us (we are very tall humans) which we plan to repurpose for the garden so I guess we could use that... :smile:  Unless we find out there are some sort of harmful chemicals in that too! 
  • FireFire Posts: 17,116
    There was some concern about asbestos from railway break pads coating old sleepers too. I have some sleepers made into a bed and am happy to grow herbaceaous plants there.  If I were going to grow veg I would do some long hard research before deciding on the actual creosote risks etc. Mine were bought about six years ago and were not that expensive.
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