Garden Railways

Miniature trains plus miniature plants equals delight on a large scale.

By Pat Hayward

Photography by Sean McCormick


Garden trains are a holiday treat for kids of all ages.Long, low whistles sound their warning in the distance, the rhythmic chugging of metal wheels on rails slowly gets louder, a few snowflakes flutter down, and suddenly, engine headlights appear around the bend. A train pulling brightly lit passenger cars rolls into sight, meanders through a forest of conifers, rumbles over a rustic wooden trestle, and disappears from sight.

This scene is no less dramatic for the fact that everything in it is less than 2 feet tall. Enter the world of garden railroading—where model trains intermingle with living plants, where the technical details of trains, tracks, and trestles blend with waterfalls, walkways, and yes, even weeds. This season is a great time to experience a railway display, whether nearby or during holiday travels.

A garden railroad brings together two distinct passions: one for what grows and the other for what goes. The "go" portion includes the trains, track, and all buildings, structures, and associated man-made scenery. Many are modeled after specific, real-life railroads, such as the historic Pennsylvania Railroad or the current-day Napa Valley Wine Train. Others, like garden-railroad guru Jack Verducci's Crystal Springs Railroad in San Mateo, California, are a complete work of fiction. Engines are powered by batteries, electrified rails, or even live steam using miniature boilers, and are operated using remote controls. While tracks can remain outdoors permanently, trains and engines must be stored indoors or under cover when not in use. This is the truly mechanical element of a garden railroad and requires a passion for, or at least a basic understanding of, how engines and machines work.

The garden portion includes the plants, water features, paths, rockery, and all other landscaping elements. Many traditional garden railroaders landscape exclusively with miniature plants, selecting shrubs, trees, groundcovers, and perennials especially for their small stature and fine-scaled foliage and texture. Others follow the G-scale rule more loosely, using taller evergreens and trees for their landscaping needs. But a third option is simply to cultivate beautiful gardens for trains to run through. Plants truly enhance the beauty of the railroad when used to create living forests, rural vistas, and natural-feeling streams and water features.

The hobby of garden railroading began in Europe in the 1800s but didn't become popular in the United States until the 1970s. That's when a German toy company developed a train built specifically for the outdoors. About the size of a small shoe box, "G-scale" trains are 1:22 scale (1 inch in the railroad representing about 2 feet in the real world) and are sturdy enough to run both indoors and outdoors. The most durable tracks are made of brass and can withstand extreme temperatures, rain, snow, and even occasional deer traffic (though certainly not recommended on a regular basis!).