How To Build A Retaining Wall

We’re here on Jeremy and Corie Unruh’s 13-acre property in northeastern Kansas to help build a retaining wall around a patio on the back of their home. We’re here because they responded to our invitation to send us their project ideas, which is something you can do, too, by sending us an email at [email protected].

Right after they purchased this home, the Unruh’s built a large concrete patio on the back with an in-ground pool. Their plan was to build a retaining wall and add some landscape material between the wall and the patio. We thought that sounded like a great project many of you might like, too. So let’s get started.

We’ll be using a John Deere 3038E Compact Utility Tractor (US CA). We added a 300E Loader (US CA), a 61-inch (155 cm) Material Bucket, and a factory-installed 370B Backhoe (US CA).

Time to get started.

Step 1 is to clear the work area behind the patio of excess soil left over from the patio construction. Dan – also known as Digger Dan – will remove that soil in preparation to build the retaining wall footing.

Once the site is prepared, Dan can reposition the tractor and start using the backhoe. He’s going to dig a shallow trench from one corner of the patio, around a curve, and all the way to the other corner of the patio – a distance of about 75 feet (23 m).

It’s a shallow trench, but it should have a consistent and correct depth from the top of the patio. That way, when we build the 2X4 concrete forms, it will be easier to keep the top surface of the poured concrete footing level and the correct distance from the patio surface.

And that’s why we call him Digger Dan.

Now here’s a tip about the value of having a skilled operator like Digger Dan on your team. In essence, he actually used the backhoe to very carefully scrape out this trench rather than dig it out roughly. That way, he was able to provide a smooth, level, shallow trench with the consistent depth below the patio surface we want.

And that’s another reason we call him Digger Dan.

Building simple concrete forms.

Now it’s time to build the 2X4 concrete forms. We marked a line from one end of the trench to the other using high-strength yellow twine, and made sure it was level. We’ll use this as a guide for keeping the top of the forms level and at the correct depth from the patio.

The forms themselves are simply 12-foot (3.66 m) 2X4’s with a wood stake attached at each end. We pounded one stake into the ground first, making sure its depth matched the previous form. Then we drove the second stake in, keeping everything level and at the correct depth for both sides of the forms.

The curved corners at each end presented a bit of a challenge, but a roll of tin sheeting solved that problem. We drove stakes into the ground to form a curve. Cut a strip of tin sheeting to the proper width and length. Then screwed the tin strip to the stakes creating a smooth, curved form.

Once the forms were complete, we added a layer of gravel. It provides a firm, dry base for the concrete footing, and will help keep it from cracking and shifting. Gravel will also help keep water from pooling, causing erosion under the footing after the wall is built. We also placed some wire mesh on top of the gravel as reinforcing material that will add a little strength to the concrete, which will also help prevent cracking.

Concrete truck vs. mixing it yourself.

Okay. Time to pour concrete. And remember – this retaining wall footing is at least 75-feet (23 m) long. Mixing that much concrete from bags would take waaaaaay too long. And out here on 13 acres, we have easy access to the back of the patio. So we called in a concrete truck to pour all the concrete we’ll need.

As the concrete is poured, we raked and spread it, making sure the entire length of the form was filled. Along the way, we scraped off any excess and smoothed the surface so when it dries, the blocks for the wall will have a firm, even base and won’t wobble.

When it was all done, we had a smooth, level concrete footing, which we let cure for a couple days before we build the retaining wall.

Once the concrete footing has cured, we’re ready to build a retaining wall using straight-faced concrete blocks 18-inches (45.7 cm) long by 8-inches (20.3 cm) tall, and anchor caps 16-inches (40.6 cm) long and 4-inches (10.2 cm) tall.

Build a retaining wall.

Blocks like the ones we’re using often feature a lip on the inside face. For the first row of blocks, we used a hammer and chisel to knock the lip off of each block so they would sit flat on the footing. Starting at one end and following the straight line of the footing, we put the first row of concrete blocks in position. Then, through one of the holes in each block, we drilled a ½-inch (1.27 cm) hole 3-inches (7.6 cm) deep into the footing and inserted a 12-inch (30.5 cm) plastic peg in each.

We filled 8 of those holes with sack concrete to create 8, well-anchored blocks, and filled all the other block holes with ½- to ¾-inch (1.27 – 1.9 cm) gravel.

Next, we stacked the second row of blocks on the first, offsetting that row 9-inches (22.9 cm) from the first. We left the lip on each of the second-row blocks, helping them connect to the row of blocks below them, and support the material we want the wall to retain. We filled the holes in the second row blocks with gravel, and added the caps using a common masonry adhesive.

Finally, we backfilled the bottom 16-inches (40.6 cm) between the wall and the patio with gravel. Then we added soil from our wall construction and topped it off with 6-inches (15.2 cm) of topsoil.

The Unruh’s finished the landscaping and have since welcomed friends and neighbors to their version of the Perfect Pool Party.

Remember, if there’s anything you’re not quite sure how to do and think others might like to learn too, just email us at [email protected]. If we can, we’ll produce that video and even give you a shout out for having and sharing your great idea.

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So, for implements that help turn your tractor into the workhorse it was built to be, think Frontier and your John Deere dealer.

And lastly, always read the Operator’s Manual before operating any piece of equipment and follow all operating and safety instructions.


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