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Put the Garden in 'Garden Railroading' - Nancy Norris' 'Miniature Garden Guidebook.'  Click to see a big version of the original photo.
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

How to Design and Build Your Garden Railroad

Put the Garden in "Garden Railroading" - Nancy Norris' - Miniature Garden Guidebook - August 18, 2012

I'll be honest. After nearly twenty years of writing about garden railroading - and trying just about every thing I've read on the subject - I'm always pleased when a new resource becomes available, but I'm usually a bit underwhelmed as well. For one thing, no experienced garden railroader has ever published a single, well-organized volume that covered most of what beginners need to know about the hobby. Most of what we've gotten are either:

  • Good, but piecemeal collections of (admittedly great) Garden Railways articles, or

  • Cover-to-cover books by model railroaders who've dabbled in garden railroads, but not long enough to learn many of the tips and "gotchas" beginning garden railroaders need to know.

Location, Location, Location

Sadly, even the best authors write about materials, plants, and techniques that work for them as though their experience will be universal. As I read books or articles, I'm often noting construction technique that won't work anywhere with a frost line deeper than five inches. Or groundcovers that will be invasive anywhere with more than 20" of rain a year. Or bridges that a single freezing rain will disintegrate. Or "low-maintenance" plants that can only be kept alive in my part of the country by herculean measures. And so on. I know this because I built and planted the first part of my first garden railroad following the best instructions from the best writers, and still encountered problems they never will, just because of geographic differences.

That's one reason I tell potential garden railroaders to join a local club A.S.A.P. - other people who are already doing this stuff in your part of the world can give you the best specific advice for your location. And since we're talking about gardening, they may also give you plant starts, jumpstarting your experience with things that thrive in your neck of the woods. I always offer Sedum starts to visitors, for example.

A Break With the Past

But Nancy's book is a surprise - a very pleasant surprise. Yes, about half of the text and photos have appeared in Garden Railways, but this book is well-organized and about as thorough as it can be considering the size. Plus the author devotes a lot of time to examining what plants and plantings work and don't work in various settings. And the book has so much content that it touches on almost all of the major plant and planting-related issues that will be faced by most readers.

Examples of content include:

  • Example miniature gardens
  • Garden design and use of color
  • What gardening zones mean to a miniature garden creator
  • Uses of mass and specimen (featured) plants
  • Care and propagation of miniature plants
  • Pruning miniature trees
  • Drought-resistant plants
  • Groundcovers
  • Useful junipers
  • Micro-miniature trees and shrubs

True, a master gardener like Nancy could probably write a book on any one of those topics. But at least it's nice to know that she gives each topic as much attention as she has room for.

This isn't a book to skim lightly and pass on (like many other hobby books). It's one you'll want to hang on to and refer back to as you gain more experience and have more questions.

Old Friends

Something that I especially enjoyed was encountering old friends. People like Dick Friedman and Ray Turner who have shared photos, tips and article ideas with Family Garden Trains readers. Thanks for giving Nancy a hand with this, guys - I'm sure she appreciates your input. Also, I kept encountering Cecil Easterday, whose railroad I've visited twice, filling up a memory card both times.

But I also encountered many old plant friends as well, including numerous Thymes, Sedums and dwarf conifers. In fact, if you've been a garden railroader for a while, you'll find this book's information about the plants you already know and love as useful as its information about plants you've yet to meet.


Now, if I only said nice things about the book, you'd suspect I was on Nancy's payroll or something. But I will mention that, in spite of the book's benefits, it may put off beginners because it packs so much information into a relatively small space. Someone new to gardening or new to garden railroads or both could become overwhelmed in a hurry. Long lists of plant names that might not be applicable outside of particular regions could also seem daunting.

Unfortunately, Nancy's publisher insists on books that are "short and sweet." So she didn't have room for a "Dummies" approach that would ease readers into these topics with a hundred or so extra pages of chatty, condescending, shallow verbiage that you'd never refer to again. So, hopefully she won't get offended if I suggest some ways (below) that this book might be most useful for beginners.

An index at the back of the book would be very helpful, too, but based just on the number of species named, etc., it would probably have exceeded her publisher's maximum page count. Nancy has published an index of plant names on her own web page.

Here's a really minor beef - the cover photo (repeated on p. 23) could be a bit sharper (as could as maybe four other photos in the book). I've been known to take hundreds of photos in one day, then realize a year later and a thousand miles away that the one photo from that "shoot" that I need to illustrate some point is "less than optimum." So I understand how this can happen. In addition, Nancy's publisher has been known to "save money" by reusing old low-resolution photos that they've already processed rather than investing money in processing new photos. But that view of Don and Marilyn Pickett's railroad is "jaw-dropping," and I wish the photo did the railroad - and this excellent book - justice.

How to Use this Book

Unfortunately, the book's organization is not exactly linear. That is, reading the book front to back will not necessarily give you the information you need most in the sequence you're most likely to need it. (I think my high school English teacher just turned over in her grave, but that sentence makes sense if you read it slowly.) Here are some tips about how you can get the best use out of this unique resource:

  1. Don't feel like you need to read this book through the first time you open it. You can read the introduction and first chapter if you'd like. Other than that, consider skimming the book once through, looking at headings and any photos you find interesting, so you'll know what topics are addressed for later reference.

  2. If you live in a desert, go to Chapter 13 after your first light pass of the book, then come back to the reading plan below.

  3. Unless you're a master gardener, treat this book as a year's subscription to a magazine instead of a single read-through. Read a chapter a week, maybe twice, until you feel like you've got a good "feel" for the content of the chapter. Obviously, if you bought the book today and you plan on getting into the garden with a shovel tomorrow, this approach may not work for you, but the point is not to rush it and try to absorb everything at once.

  4. Consider reading the planning chapters - 3 and 6, before you read the plant choice and maintenance chapters.

  5. Consider reading the chapters about plant choice before you read the care-and-feeding chapters. Chapters 2, 18, 17, 4, 5, 9, and 12 will be especially useful, especially if you read them in the sequence I just listed. (A note about succulents mentioned in Chapter 12 - many sedums that survive 12-week droughts in, say, Kansas will still not survive in actual desert conditions, so find out what succulents folks in your region are using with success before you invest a fortune in mass plantings that you'll never keep alive where you live.)

  6. As you read each chapter, pay special attention to any "general" principles Nancy lists. For example, learn what gardening "zone" you live in, learn how to interprete "maximum size" information on a plant's label, etc.

  7. Keep the book handy. Get in the habit of taking a small digital camera with you everywhere you go, unless your cell phone takes very good photos. When you're looking at plants in the store or in someone's garden, take photos. Get a photo of the plant's label (if there is one) and of the plant itself - all you're burning is electrons. Then when you get home you don't have to try to remember what you saw. If the plant is listed in this book at all (and many suitable plants you'll see in nurseries are listed), you may see use and care suggestions that the nurseries would never include.

  8. Consider Chapters 14, 15, 16, and 19 "bonuses." You may find them helpful, but they're not as critical to enjoyment of the hobby as the rest of the chapters.

In other words, in spite of many suggestions and instructions, this book is as much reference as it is "how to," and the longer you own it, the more value you'll probably see in it.

Plant Index Now Online!

Nancy's own web page, GardenLines.Net now includes a link page to all the links mentioned in the book as well as an index to the plants mentioned. Click here to jump right to pages where you can download see the links or download the plant index.


I'll be honest, most of my own Family Garden Trains gardening articles are written more at the "Dummies" level - explaining every term, stressing general principles over specifics, and taking "baby steps." In fact, there's probably room for an "intermediate" resource between our articles and Nancy's book. That said, it's nice finally to have a good resource to point readers to when they've "used up" the articles on our site. I also hope it stays in print for a long time, as I suspect it will be decades before we see another book this useful on this topic.

Also, like other books I've reviewed here, this book is a lot easier to drag around (or give for a Christmas present) than a web page. Don't laugh about the Christmas present idea - it will be better to get this book in for Christmas than for Mothers' day, so you can get some planning done before the stores get their spring plants in. .

Plus, buying this book will remind Kalmbach that garden railroading is still alive and may just encourage them to deliver more titles.

Best of luck, all.

Please let me know if you have any feedback, and have a great summer,

See you online,


For more books about garden railroading, please check out our Garden Railroading Books, Videos, and Magazines page.

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