Two popular hobbies in one
Model railroad enthusiasts pay attention to detail and are often inspired to recreate historical elements with accuracy. And sometimes, these are the same people. What happens when these two hobbies collide? It's called garden railroading, a pastime so popular that it has its own range of models (that run on G gauge track) and niche gardening clubs and magazines.
Installing a garden railroad is a great family or group project. It can bring together people with disparate interests and skills, and can encourage children to interact with the natural world. However, installing a garden railroad can be an expensive proposition, so draw up a budget and price out all parts of your railroad before you get started. If your group is a non-profit, you may consider fundraising options.
Choose your train and landscape to fit the theme
Of course, you want to start with a train that you love. There are replicas of old-timey steam engines (complete with packages that make actual steam) to ultra-modern engines. You can even mount cameras to the front of your train so you can see the railroad from the engineer's perspective. The gauge in model railroading refers to the width of the tracks, and there are a couple of different scale train cars that will run on these (from 1:20 to 1:32). Garden railroad tracks are designed for outdoor use and can be installed permanently onto a properly sloped and leveled track bed. Of course, a garden railroad track can also be temporarily assembled indoors on a level floor.
Protect your equipment from the weather
The cars themselves are not designed to stay outside (this applies doubly to the engine), so many garden railroads include a train barn that the cars can be driven into. One railroad setup I've seen allows for the engine to drive directly into a garage at shelf height. Just make sure your equipment is protected and sheltered from the weather. A garden railroad does represent a significant investment, so treat it with care.
Take stock of your landscape before starting
You need to evaluate the space you have available for your railroad garden. Decide if you have enough room for a loop, or if the train will run along a dog-bone (a double track with a loop at each end), or if it will just go point to point along a single piece of track. Variations on this are endless. If you don't have a lot of space, you can get creative, such as this railroad running up along a fence line.
Once you have decided on the basic bones for your railroad, that's when you start to get creative. Will you flatten the space, or sculpt hills (keep in mind that trains can only make it up certain slopes). Will you attempt to recreate a particular historic railroad, or an era in history - or maybe something futuristic or surreal? You can make decals, or paint your cars to match any dream you have in mind.
Don't forget to add buildings, people, and vehicles to add realism to your railroad. You can buy these items pre-made from a hobby store, or you can design your own. If there is a water feature in the garden, this gives you an opportunity to build a trestle or other type of bridge for your train. You can buy tunnels for your railroad, or you can engineer them using landscaping rocks.
Landscape according to your chosen theme
But the most important element in defining your railroad is the way you landscape it. The plants you choose will determine how realistic your design is - and also how much maintenance it will take. The simplest option would be to extend the gravel from under the trackbed across the railroad's space and use a couple of cactus to mimic a desert landscape. But you can get truly elaborate - using bonsai versions of full size trees, creating jungles out of ferns, or making alien landscapes with African Daisies. No matter what you use, pay attention to scale. If there isn't a dwarf or miniature version of the plant that would be in the real landscape, think about what plants might look similar. Can you include thyme or sedums to mimic bushes? How about well-trimmed rosemary plants to take the place of a pine forest? (the up-side of that would be that the rosemary would smell great too!) The only rule is to have fun with it. Once the track is in place, it could be difficult to keep unwanted grass and weeds out, so a good quality landscape fabric underneath it all could lessen the upkeep.
I hope this article has inspired you explore garden railroading - or at the very least to visit a garden railroad organization in your area. They often open member railroads for viewing. Even if you don't add a railroad to your own landscape, it may change the way you think about the context of the plants you choose.
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