The train chugged along until the engineer saw an obstruction ahead and slammed on the brakes. Walking to the front of the locomotive, he bent down and with a quick fling hurled the crabapple into a nearby field. When you operate a garden railroad, even a 2-inch fruit can lead to a serious pileup.
Garden railroading may seem like a new idea, but it isn't. It began more than a century ago in Britain and flourished in the United States during the 1920s and '30s. It fizzled out by the end of World War II but was rejuvenated in 1968, when Germany introduced a new breed of outdoor model trains ? the Lehman Gross Bahn. Today, in every state and many foreign countries, gardeners who love model railroading combine these two interests. The hobby's major publication, Garden Railways magazine, reports more than 35,000 subscribers.
Aficionados say their hobby allows family members with a broad range of interests ? horticultural to mechanical ? to share an activity. Train collecting, train running, model building, landscaping, water gardening, and rock gardening can all contribute to a successful garden railroad. It doesn't even matter if one lives in Vermont, where winter snows bury the tracks, or in Florida, where the sun shines year-round-the technology for running the garden railroad has few climatic restrictions.
A garden railroad overview
A well-conceived garden railroad is more than just train, track, and plants. You can express your interest in Western American history, Alpine villages, steam trains, or urban railroads. This pastime also involves creating scale-model dioramas with miniature buildings, people, animals, bridges, mountains, lakes, and other realistic scenes. Depending on time and budget, they can be homemade or purchased.
A garden railroad should be thought of more as an overall landscaping project than a pretty garden. Whatever the track plan, the garden element must conform to it; the key is to keep all aspects of the planting in scale with the railroad features. The railroad should fit naturally into the setting and surrounding landscape.
Preparing the basic railroad garden
Thorough preparation of the soil is critical in a railway garden, possibly more so than in a conventional garden. Once the track and model buildings are in place, you want to avoid digging up the garden. A labor-saving suggestion from experienced railroad gardeners is to set aside dedicated areas for the garden beds; the layout of the garden will be much easier to maintain if you are not gardening through the railroad right-of-way.
Since good drainage is very important for preventing the track from shifting, it must be laid on a bed of crushed stone or gravel. In areas with clay soil, you may need to modify it with sandier topsoil.
To integrate a railroad into an existing garden, consider the steepness of grade: model trains, whether powered by electricity, steam, or butane, do not have the power to pull heavy loads up steep grades. For example, a locomotive that can pull an eight-car train on level track will be able to manage only four cars on a 1 percent grade and just one car on a 3 percent grade. It is best to lay the track with as little slope as possible, to allow the locomotive to pull its maximum load of railroad cars. If your garden is hilly, it might need smoothing out.
Choosing your garden railroad plants
To take full advantage of the gravel track bed, select primarily small-scale plants from rock garden varieties. Also, in an existing garden, you might need to reassess the scale of your current plants and make corrections by replacement or relocation.
Give these smaller plants the same considerations for placement in sun or shade as in any conventional garden. Some rock garden plants that work well for the scale of the railroad are heather (Calluna vulgaris), Carpathian harebell (Campanula carpatica), alpine pink (Dianthus alpinus), creeping baby's breath (Gypsophila repens), dwarf iris (I. verna), moss pink (Phlox subulata), creeping sedum (S. lineare), hen and chickens (Sempervivum tectorum), and creeping speedwell (Veronica repens).
While choosing plants, keep an eye toward their future growth patterns. Unless you enjoy pruning on a regular basis, you don't want plants spreading across the tracks. All plants should be small in scale to maintain the realism of the railroad and allow for low maintenance. Beyond rock garden plants, you can use edible plants: alpine strawberry (Fragaria collina), jewel mint of Corsica (Mentha requienii), or creeping thyme (Thymus praecox arcticus). Shrubs create a nice variety of textures: dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), dwarf common juniper (Juniperus communis), or Norway spruce (Picea abies).
While equipment for a top-of-the-line garden railroad might cost several thousand dollars, starter railroads complete with locomotive, cars, and track can cost as little as $100 to $150.
So, your interest is piqued. You can learn more by reading hobby magazines and books, contacting a garden railroad club to find out where demonstrations are given, and checking related Web sites. You will also gain valuable information by visiting nurseries (some have garden railroads in their display gardens), studying rock garden design, and, if possible, attending a garden railroad convention.
Art Edelstein is a writer that lives in East Calais, Vermont.
Photography by Marge Garfield
Resources for the garden railroader
Garden Railways, P.O.Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612; bimonthly, $27.95
LGB Telegram, P.O. Box 332, Hershey, PA 17033; quarterly, $24
Beginner's Guide to Large Scale Model Railroading (Kalmbach Publishing Co., P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612, $22).
AWNUTS Garden Railway Society, PO Box 244, LaPorte, IN 46352.
LBG Model Railroad Club, c/o Ms. Mary Lentz, P.O. Box 15835, Pittsburgh, PA 15244-5838.
National mail-order train catalogs
Nicholas Smith Trains, 2343 W. Chester Pike, Broomall, PA 19008; (610) 353-8585.
Ridge Road Station, 16131 Ridge Rd. W, Holley, NY 14470; (716) 638-6000.
Article published on June 23, 2008.