Nature's uneven terrain has its charm, until you try to play croquet on a hilly lawn or enjoy a candlelit dinner on an off-kilter patio. Install a retaining wall as a backstop, though, and you can literally carve out functional outdoor spaces where once there were only precarious slopes.
More than problem-solvers, retaining walls also have a sculptural quality that adds definition to the landscape, and they can be made from various materials to evoke different styles. Stacked timbers or mortared stone, for instance, can impart a rustic look, while poured concrete is sleekly modern.
Just keep in mind that when planning for a wall meant to hold back tons of soil, there's little room for error. How effective your wall will be and how long it'll last—decades or just a few years—depends largely on things you can't see, such as a sound footing buried in the ground and drainage to keep water from building up behind the wall. Shown:
the curves of this mortared-stone retaining wall add architectural appeal to a structure designed to keep soil in place. Steps built of the same material blend right in.
New England Fieldstone, Boston Blend, about $11.60 per square foot uninstalled; The Stoneyard