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Location is Northern New Jersey.

I'm looking to build a low garden wall; approx. 18 inches high. Current plan is cinder block faced with thin brick and capped with real brick.

It isn't a true retaining wall as the grade is flat and behind it will be a garden bed (inspiration below).

Does something like this require a true footing below frost?

Or: Can it be built on grade similar to a paver driveway/patio.

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How fast would you like it to crack?

Drystack walls without mortared joints are somewhat tolerant of frost movement. Many landscaping wall block systems intended to perform that wall function are out there, as well as actual drystone walls from natural stone.

Mortared joints will break unless sitting on a solid foundation that does not move.

That does not need to be solid concrete, there are other foundation systems such as the "rubble trench" that Frank Lloyd Wright (somewhat) popularized (also seen under virtually every railroad track) - that does require good drainage so that the rubble drains, rather than being full of water.

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