Create A Moving Story

Backyard Railway Gardens

By: Nancy Norris
Nancy norris

Nancy Norris  has been designing and installing garden railways since 1997. Model railroad gardening combines her vocation as a horticulturist…

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Todd and Lina Brody’s Tortoise & Lizard Bash Railroad in San Diego. Photo: Nancy Norris

Todd and Lina Brody’s Tortoise & Lizard Bash Railroad in San Diego. Photo: Nancy Norris

When the Bay Area Garden Railway Society (BAGRS) set up the Roving Garden Railroad at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, folks stopped in their tracks. People marveled at the scale countryside and village with mountains and shrubbery. Three large (G-scale) trains ran past bonsai-like trees with tiny groundcovers, amid real rocks and a running waterfall. Awestruck show-goers asked, “Why haven’t I heard of this [hobby] before?” Potential converts imagined their own backyard railroad gardens. BAGRS volunteers kept busy handing out resources lists to help them get started.

Sparking stories

How do backyard railway gardeners get their ideas? Some take cross-country trips on Amtrak or ride excursions on century-old steam trains, such as Roaring Camp Railroads. Back home, some like to model the geography of picturesque railroads, including replicas of famous bridges and the chasms or watercourses they cross, or they model their towns and incorporate structures they see every day. Each garden railway paints a picture—a visual story that lets our imagination climb aboard the trains.

The story of a mining town plays out in Dart and Dottye Rinefort’s backyard railway garden, the OS&FRR.  
Photo: Nancy Norris

The story of a mining town plays out in Dart and Dottye Rinefort’s backyard railway garden, the OS&FRR. 
Photo: Nancy Norris

Good stories have a strong theme. The Ooser Snoozer & Fretter Railroad (OS&FRR) began as a way for Dart and Dottye Rinefort to work together on a project. Dart is an architect and Dottye detailed the finished structures in an intricate mining town depicted in the photo, left. The Rineforts have raised their garden above a retaining wall for easy viewing. Hundreds of ‘Little Jamie’ false cypresses (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Little Jamie’) make up the forest trees in this 14-year-old garden.

Viewers circle the Roving Garden Railroad, a traveling BAGRS display garden, to “read” Gertrude Chandler Warner’s story, The Boxcar Children, depicted in a scale vignette.  Photo: Nancy Norris

Viewers circle the Roving Garden Railroad, a traveling BAGRS display garden, to “read” Gertrude Chandler Warner’s story, The Boxcar Children, depicted in a scale vignette. Photo: Nancy Norris

This past spring at the Kids Book Fair in Lafayette, California, BAGRS members brought their Roving Garden Railroad to a California school. The garden-on-a-trailer models the story of four optimistic orphans living at the edge of a railroad, as told in The Boxcar Children, a book by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Each side of the display shows a portion of that story set in the town of Greenfield. Scenery separates the town from industrial areas with plants, which soften and instill life into each vista. A mountain in the middle of the garden breaks up the view to help focus attention and creates yet another feature—a recirculating waterfall that cascades into a hidden tub under rocks. Starting at the bakery where the book begins, viewers circle the display garden to see the other scenes. Students who had previously read the book were excited to identify characters and scenes from the book.

The children of Bobby and Sharon Waal modeled a famous structure for their railway (and school credit).  Photo: Nancy Norris

The children of Bobby and Sharon Waal modeled a famous structure for their railway (and school credit). Photo: Nancy Norris

Engineers and track layers

As outdoor modelers, we try to capture real places using what seems like wizardry. Actually, we apply techniques of civil engineering, electrical wiring, and plumbing for irrigation and water features. After all the elements are installed and after the trains are running, the story must be plausible. It’s a four-dimensional puzzle. And in that fourth dimension, we want to imagine we’re three inches tall in order to step aboard that train.

It’s true that many people begin with the goal of merely running their trains outdoors. But after that’s accomplished, we see that plants add a seasonal realism that cannot be replicated indoors. Suddenly there’s a need to understand horticulture, which often grows into a fondness for the unique way each plant performs on the stage we call a garden railway. I’ve listened to techies tell how they began this hobby intent on modeling complex engineering feats, only to realize they wanted to spend more time on the garden aspect of the hobby. Now they want to see how a new groundcover works under a bridge but doesn’t occlude their fancy workmanship. They take pruning classes to learn the subtleties of branch patterns and opening up a dwarf tree to indicate age. They care about the soil and irrigation needs. In short, they become stewards of their environment.

Outdoor hands-on classrooms

Since 1984, Garden Railways magazine has been inspiring and educating outdoor railroad enthusiasts. Each issue of the magazine discusses miniature and dwarf varieties of plants that will fit into the tight spaces between track and buildings. How-to articles by other garden railroaders show the details and steps for constructing all the elements of an outdoor railroad.

Don and Sue Watters model old Lake Tahoe, including its historic bridges and whistle stops heading west to Truckee, California, in their garden. After 18 years, their railroad became a cover story in Garden Railways magazine. During open houses, they recruit local kids to run battery-powered trains. Sure, some featured gardens are large, but many are small and show ingenious ways of fitting a loop or two into a limited backyard.

After years of building railways for others, I wanted to pass on all my design tips to other railroad gardeners. In my book, Miniature Garden Guidebook, both newbies and seasoned railroaders will find 12 lists of miniature plants specific to their purpose: aquatics, deserts, cascading trees, miniatures that resist pests—and more. All the plants are labeled by USDA Hardiness Zone so, whether you live in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine, you’ll know which plants to shop for. Hundreds of photos show you how living landscapes look in real garden railways; you don’t even need the trains if you just want a scale village.

Take a virtual ride

Gardeners interested in taking a virtual ride can find contact information for 133 clubs across the country on the Garden Railways website. The Pacific Coast has some of the largest clubs and some of the nicest, well-maintained outdoor railroad gardens in the world. While I am a member of three California clubs, I’ve also visited over 300 railways across the continent.

The Wenn railroad garden in Vancouver, BC.  Photo: Nancy Norris

The Wenn railroad garden in Vancouver, BC. Photo: Nancy Norris

Brian and Shirley Wenn’s No Name Railroad in Vancouver, British Columbia, runs through ground-level planting beds. Bright annuals, like blooming portulaca, call attention to the track to keep full-size feet from causing derailments.

In the San Diego area Todd and Linda Brody’s front yard garden, the Tortoise & Lizard Bash Railroad, (see photo on page 44) abounds with lovely detailed dry-garden plantings. They regularly prune drought-tolerant dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’) in pom-pom topiary style and fill in between plantings with decorative gravel as a ground cover.

Railways in public gardens are still rare. Just south of Oakland, California, the San Leandro Historical Railway Society has leased a century-old Southern Pacific depot and created an indoor model of the Southern Pacific in HO scale, the most popular scale of model railway in the world, which is approximately 3.5 mm to 1 foot. Outdoors, club members have built a garden railway in two scales for forced perspective. The display is open to visitors most Saturday mornings and children can take turns running trains in a whimsical section of the outdoor G&O trains (G-scale and O-scale) pictured on page 44 decked out for Christmas; each season gets new decorations. Featured plants include (top to bottom) Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Green Globe’, elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’), Sedum spurium ‘Tricolor’, and ‘Shimpaku’ junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Shimpaku’).

The G&O Railway at San Leandro Historical Railway Society decked out for the Christmas open house. Photo: Nancy Norris

The G&O Railway at San Leandro Historical Railway Society decked out for the Christmas open house. Photo: Nancy Norris

Garden tours

So how are uninformed gardeners going to experience garden railways? We don’t often invite the world into our backyards—except during the National Garden Railway Conventions (NGRC). This July, more than 70 railway gardens will be open for viewing when the Bay Area Garden Railway Society hosts the 32nd NGRC. The Bay Area is a hub for live-steamers—enthusiasts that run small-scale locomotives that burn fuel and boil water for steam propulsion; don’t miss demonstrations in the vendor hall. For more examples of open railways, visit the convention’s Facebook page (search 32nd National Garden Railways Convention 2016). If you miss the convention, join a club in your area for the chance to see railways open throughout the year. Even if you don’t want to build your own railway, the whole family can still visit railroad gardens as club members. Some railroads invite guests to bring their own trains.

Railway gardening is a family activity. Children and grandparents work side-by-side, building bridges, laying track, or placing three-inch-tall figures next to fine-leaved plants to show the scale.

Al and Ethelyn McCracken created A&E Lines for their grandkids.  Photo: Nancy Norris

Al and Ethelyn McCracken created A&E Lines for their grandkids. Photo: Nancy Norris

Al and Ethelyn McCracken say they built their A&E Lines for their grandkids. They enjoy maintaining 400 feet of track around the perimeter of their tidy railroad, landscaped in dwarf Alberta spruce, blooming false heather, and miniature roses. The design allows for easy access to trains without stepping on fragile plants.

According to industry and education experts, modeling is the number one method for successful learning. We hobbyists solve problems and build skills.

Bobby and Sharon Waal modeled Switzerland in their Alps Railway. Opposite the ‘Sanders Blue’ dwarf spruce, bacopa trails over Arizona flagstone set on edge to resemble cliffs. Look between the rails for the geared center strip that enables the cog tram to climb steep grades.

Garden railways offer magical moments that unite the family, lure kids away from their devices, teach history, and open up a new way to explore an old mode of transportation—and it’s not just the kids who find they like to have fun in real dirt.