University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article
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GARDEN RAILWAYS
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
           
If you get excited watching trains, enjoy model railroads even if just at Christmas time, or have children, then you should consider building a garden railway.  This hobby is really two in one—gardening and model railroading, is inexpensive to get a starter set, is easy to set up, and is a perfect activity for couples and families of whatever ages.
           
Outdoor railroads--referred to as "Big Trains" or "G" scale--have been long established in Europe, particularly Germany and Great Britain. Over the past couple decades they have increased in popularity in this country, with many states having garden railroad societies, and many large botanic gardens having layouts. The Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia has one of the largest in the Northeast, and the Chicago Botanic Garden has a large one in the Midwest, with holiday displays at gardens such as Longwood (near Philadelphia) and the New York Botanical Garden.
           
You can have trains run through your garden and over the lawn, across streams and gullies on bridges, around a water feature, or at night with night lighting. 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.
           
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? Starter kits with a small power pack, circle of track, engine, and a couple cars are a good way to begin, and are available from many toy stores. Accessories include such items as lighting and sound systems for cars, miniature figures to scale of people and animals, building kits, and railroad signals. Many like to follow a theme such as a certain rail line, advertising cars such as for candy firms, the steam era, passenger trains, a specific industry such as mines, a particular town, or a plant focus such as rock gardens or annual flowers.
           
One of the best places to start your looking for mail-order supplies, and to get ideas, is the magazine dedicated to garden railways (grw.trains.com).  The Vermont Garden Railway society has links on its website to suppliers, other state associations, and listing of events (www.vgrs.us).  The latter includes shows where you can buy products and see layouts, and their summer meetings at various member layouts—a great place to connect and learn much from a sharing group that is receptive to any interested in this hobby.
            
If you are more interested in the plants than the workings of the layout, then focus on miniature flowers and plants, which are usually dwarf or slow growing and more closely fit the scale of the layout than usual landscape plants.  For annual flowers, you might use dwarf marigolds, dwarf zinnias such as the Profusion series, creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia), impatiens (New Guinea for sun, regular ones for shade), dianthus, begonias (wax-leaf tolerate sun, tuberous ones need shade), ageratum, fan flower (Scaevola), and ornamental peppers (such as the dark purple-leaved Black Pearl or Black Olive).
           
Dwarf globe basils are great herbs, edible plants, and nicely rounded "small trees" for your train layout. Thymes are herbs that make good groundcovers, just keep them in check or they’ll overrun the railroad track.  Also consider parsley, oregano, or lavender (if hardy).
           
For shady areas try these perennials: coral bells, foamflowers (both creeping and mounding types are available), the glossy-leaved European ginger, small ferns such as lady ferns and Japanese painted 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, mouse-ear coreopsis (make sure to get hardy selections), and low New York Asters. Of course, most alpine and rock garden perennials such as gentians also will work. One of my favorite groups are the low creeping sedums.
           
For woody plants, try low dwarf hemlocks, alpine pussy willow, dwarf Alberta spruces,  horizontal junipers, Russian cypress (Microbiota) that is good in sun or shade and looks like a juniper, dwarf balsam firs, and miniature roses. Keep in mind that many woody plants, even if slow-growing or “dwarf”, will get large over time.  If this is a problem, you may need to move them after a while and replace with smaller young plants.  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.
           
Don't worry if you don't have a great amount of space for a garden railway. Use the area that you have, even if merely a deck with potted plants.  Don’t worry, too, about ever having it “just right” as garden railways will change, which is part of the fun.  Once you’re underway, you can become as creative and elaborate as your time and resources allow.
 

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