Timber walls, properly installed, can be quite strong and very handsome. They don't require a concrete footing — just a first course of timbers laid below grade (that is, below the surface of the ground). Leave the timbers long and stack them one layer on the next, overlapping them halfway with courses above and below as though you were laying bricks. The best way to connect them is to drill through two or three courses and drive #4 steel rebar or galvanized steel pipe down through them. This all-but-invisible reinforcement creates incredible strength.
For taller walls, it's a good idea to install some vertical posts of the same material, buried at least 2 feet (preferably 3 feet or more) into the ground in front of the wall, spaced 4 to 8 feet apart. Another strategy is to use deadmen, which are long ties that extend back into the slope to add tremendous strength. You can even make a freestanding vertically oriented wall by digging a trench and standing ties up in it, fastening the ties together with rebar.
You can create many variations on the basic theme; a little imagination can produce walls with built-in seating, arbors overhead, steps integrated into the walls, and many more features.
Depending on the material you use and on how well they're constructed, timber walls can last 10 to 20 years. If you backfill your wall with gravel to keep soil away from the wood, you can make it last longer.
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