Garden Railroads Double Gardening Fun

By Sally Cogdill



           Gardening enthusiasts, both in Colorado and across America, are climbing aboard a growing trend that adds greatly to gardening fun: garden railroads.

              Garden railroads combine two popular pastimes, gardening and model railroads, into a hobby that provides fun for the entire family, from youngest to oldest.  For example, the family can plant, weed and water the garden, operate the trains, or build train stations, houses, and other structures from scratch or with kits.   

            People unfamiliar with garden railways may be surprised to learn that several companies manufacture large-scale trains designed specifically for outdoor use.  The railroad tracks are made of special materials that can withstand severe changes in weather.  Many of the buildings, water tanks and other structures are made of all-weather plastic designed to tolerate temperature extremes, intense sunlight, rain and snow. 

While fading is inevitable, you can delay it by placing buildings where they are protected from afternoon sun and bringing them inside during periods of severe weather. The trains, which are quite valuable, are usually brought in for safekeeping when they are not in use.  To facilitate this task some hobbyists cut a small hole in the wall of the garage or storage shed, place tracks going inside, and run their trains in and out of the garage or shed.

Generally, garden railroads fall into two main types.  One style is characterized by realism.  Railway designs are based on real railroads, features are kept to scale and trains and structures have a weathered appearance. The other style is more whimsical.  The colorful trains and buildings of these railways serve as garden ornaments designed to add a decorative touch to the landscape.  Each railway is truly unique, with much diversity within these two categories.      

Often hobbyists choose a theme on which to base their garden railroad.  One popular theme is the mountain railroad.  An alpine garden setting is created using delicate-looking, small-sized plants and groundcovers such as Dianthus ‘Tiny Rubies’, Turkish Veronica (Veronica liwanensis), or Mother-of-Thyme (Thymus serpyllum).  These and similar plants provide color while maintaining a small scale Moss covered rocks and boulders form the mountains.   Miniature forests are  created with dwarf conifers like Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ) and  


Norway Spruce (Picea abies ‘Little Gem’).   Columnar junipers such as Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ and American arborvitae also work well.  Occasional trimming and the use of bonsai techniques keep trees and shrubs small.   More elaborate mountain railways complete the alpine setting with ponds, streams and waterfalls. 

Other hobbyists prefer to portray the southwestern region of America and utilize xeriscape gardening techniques.  Sandstone rocks, dry washes, barren sections and sparsely planted areas suggest arid terrain.  Gray leafed plants, including Silver Mound Sage (Artemisia schmidtiana) and Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudoanuginosus), are especially suitable for this theme.   Succulents such as ‘Dragon’s Blood’ Sedum (Sedum spurium) and Houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum) are also effective.

Some garden railroaders get double duty from their plants by including herbs and other edible plants in the railway’s landscape.  Basil, chives, parsley, sage, dwarf carrots and similar plants are both decorative and tasty.

Plants need a compatible environment to survive.  A plant that fits the theme might not fit the growing site.  To be successful, railroad gardeners must heed the plant selection guidelines applicable to all gardens.  Does the plant require acidic or alkaline soil, sunlight or shade, and moist or dry soil?  Is the plant fast-growing or slow-growing?  What size will it eventually be?  Is it hardy in Colorado?  Will it grow in clay soil or does it require good drainage?  Fortunately, plant labels often contain much of this information.  

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of garden railroading is the year-round  enjoyment it provides.  When the weather is too cold, too hot or too wet to be outside, tasks, such as model construction, can be done indoors.   Such days offer hobbyists the opportunity to complete routine maintenance tasks, as well. 

 If you decide to build a garden railway, keep in mind that careful planning prior to construction is vital.  Railways that are integrated into the garden setting are the most appealing.  Experts advise starting simple.  After gaining experience and knowledge you can gradually add to the layout.  Initially a garden railway may be a lot of work, but it will reward you with lots of fun.






Internet Web sites that offer information and products include these:

  My Large Scale at

  G-Scale-Links at 

G Scale Group at

  Garden Railways at

  Large Scale On-Line at

  LGB of America at

  Garden Trains Association at 

  Model Train Blog


Colorado also has clubs for garden railroad enthusiasts:

   Denver Garden Railway         Society, P.O. Box 9256, Denver CO 80209; Website: 
      Mile High Garden Railway  Society, 2783 S. Meade St., Denver, CO 80236.  
       Northern Colorado Garden Railroaders; Website: 


Retailers of outdoor trains and equipment are listed in the Yellow Pages under Hobby & Model Supplies.  Some of these stores carry a large selection of books, magazines and videos that are highly informative.

Another good resource is Garden Railways Magazine.  Current and back issues are available at the stores mentioned above.

Be sure to see the garden railroad at Hudson Gardens in Littleton.  It is fabulous.  DGRS has a terrific garden railroad at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.