University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article 

Garden Railways

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Do you have children, or are you a kid at heart when it comes to trains? Do you like to keep up with the latest garden trends? If any of these apply, maybe you should consider starting a model garden railway.

Garden railroads combine two hobbies--gardening and model railroading. You can have trains run through your garden and over the lawn, across streams and gullies. You can run trains outdoors most times of the year (yes, even in the North!), in most types of weather (provided, of course, the power pack or transformer is in a waterproof location). You also can bring your trains indoors during the winter to use in play or living areas, especially around the Christmas tree.

Outdoor railroads--referred to as "Big Trains" or "G" scale--have been long established in Europe, particularly Germany and Great Britain. Over the past decade they have increased in popularity in this country, until they are now the fastest growing area of model railroading as well as a new area of gardening.

Each of the several manufacturers of the equipment may use a slightly different scale; however, most will run on the same track, which is 45 mm. wide. The scale is roughly one half inch of model to one actual foot.

Just like model trains of other scales, electricity is delivered to the engines by track power. The track power, as well as the controller (speed control), if separate from the transformer, is low voltage and safe. Only the transformer needs to be protected from the weather. Trains also can be operated with batteries and radio control.

So where do you start? Prices vary greatly among the manufacturers and local dealers. Local railroad stores, while often not stocking the Big Trains, have color catalogs you can browse through or purchase, to order almost any train, car, or accessory you might need. Starter kits with a small power pack, circle of track, engine, and a couple cars are a good way to begin. You can find a list of suppliers in model train magazines in bookstores and libraries.

Accessories include such items as lighting and sound systems for cars, miniature figures to scale of people and animals, building kits, and railroad signals. National mail order catalogs offer a wide selection and often the best prices and may be the way to go if you already know a bit about what you want. If not, talk to garden dealers and train shops or join a local garden railway club.

If you are more interested in the plants than the workings of the layout, then invest in miniature flowers and plants, which are usually dwarf or slow growing.

So what are some of these plants that look good at one-half inch scale?

For annual flowers, you might use dwarf marigolds, dwarf zinnias, creeping zinnia (actually Sanvitalia), impatiens, dianthus, begonias, ageratum, and ornamental peppers. Dwarf globe basils are great herbs, edible plants, and nicely rounded "small trees" for your train layout.

For shady areas try these perennials: coral bells, foamflowers, small ferns such as lady ferns, and astilbes. For part to full sun, many smaller perennials will do. These might include the creeping wooly yarrow, shorter bellflowers, dwarf daphne, creeping phlox, creeping thyme, Mouse-ear Coreopsis, and low New York Asters. Of course, most alpine and rock garden perennials also will work.

For woody plants, try low dwarf hemlocks, alpine pussy willow, dwarf Alberta spruces (some cultivars can get large over time), horizontal junipers, Russian cypress (Microbiota that is good in sun or shade, and looks like a juniper), dwarf balsam firs, and miniature roses. One trick I learned with the Alberta spruces when they get too large is to prune off the lower branches. This leaves a "trunk" and gives the appearance of a true tree, especially if you have thinned out some of the upper branches as well.

Whatever your emphasis, combining some of these plants and railroad features, with other landscape features such as rocks, water (ponds or running streams or waterfalls), and low voltage night lighting systems, will help you create an exciting garden railway.

Don't worry if you don't have a great amount of space for a garden railway. Use the area that you have. Some layouts are even suitable for decks with potted plants.

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