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!).
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."
The Horticulture Express
Plants for garden railways are often chosen for their small scale and finely textured leaves and stems. Here are a few excellent choices for garden railroads in a variety of climates. Look for these and other miniature plants in the rock-garden and bonsai sections of local garden centers. If garden railroading is not for you, these same plants are excellent candidates for rock gardens and containers.