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.While garden railroading is a popular home hobby, the craft reaches its zenith in public parks and botanical gardens across the country. Public garden railroads are usually sumptuously planted and often focus on a local historical theme. In the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden, well-known structures such as the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, and the Guggenheim Museum are nestled among a display of both common and unusual plants. A favorite landmark in the outdoor Junior Garden Railway at Chicago Botanic Gardens is the full-scale model of Wrigley Field, and a holiday display at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., has included the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and even the Obama vegetable garden!

Public garden railroads are increasingly popular, and most people don't have to look far to find one. Many botanical gardens have permanent or seasonal railways, both indoors and out. A large percentage of these have been designed by a single company, Applied Imagination (AI), in Alexandria, Kentucky. Its founder, Paul Busse, a railroad enthusiast with a degree in landscape architecture, and his staff have built dozens of public railway displays throughout the United States. Applied Imagination displays are noted for their unique structures, each constructed and adorned with natural plant materials such as bark, pine cones, twigs, and leaves.

Busse says the goal of a great garden railroad is to involve all the senses—to immerse visitors in the experience by using color, texture, motion, and sound provided by trains, plants, and running water. "Most people expect a railroad to be on a tabletop," Busse says. "By putting you in it, you're immersed in the railroad three-dimensionally. You are no longer outside looking in—the scale barrier is broken."

The railway pictured here—the Holiday Garden Railway at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania—is an AI creation. The buildings represent Pennsylvania icons, among them Independence Hall, Philadelphia boathouses, two train depots, covered bridges, and many heritage homes and buildings long associated with Philadelphia and the university.

The arboretum's horticultural section leader, Iana Turner, chooses smaller-scale plants, such as dwarf Alberta spruce, dwarf cryptomeria, and miniature boxwoods, nearest the buildings, then transitions to larger plants farther back. Besides conifers, groundcovers including variegated euonymus and native pachysandra provide winter interest. Because this display is visited by small children, Iana manages the garden organically, which means lots of hand-weeding for the staff and volunteers. Cindy Johnson, an artist at AI who has worked on many public garden railways, explains their appeal: "There's something for everyone. At the holidays, people like to do things together. A day at a garden railroad is perfect because everyone finds something they can enjoy."