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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

How to Design and Build Your Garden Railroad

Preparing for a Once-In-A-Decade Open Railroad

This article is about what we're doing to prepare to show our railroad to out-of-town visitors who are attending the June 5-9 National Garden Railway Convention near Cincinnat in 2-13. To learn about our scheduled open railroad times, please click here.

The title may sound melodramatic, but the National Garden Railway Convention hasn't been in my "neck of the woods" since 2002. At that time, the railroad was about two-and-a-half years old, everything still looked new, and things were still somewhat under control. The hardest part was recovering from devastating storm damage a few months earlier.

Ten years have gone by, so everything should be bigger and better, right? Well, in ten years, the ground can shift in unexpected ways, features you thought were "permanent" can prove otherwise, new weeds and wildlife can invade, plus life as parents and employees in tough economic times can put hobbies on the back burner for months - and sometimes years - on end.

In addition, I use our "New Boston and Donnels Creek" as a sort of test lab for article ideas I want to try out. I haven't had time - or frankly the will - to keep enlarging our 14'x60' railroad, so I frequently take one feature down to make room for another, and so on.

Stuff That Stayed Where We Put It

Some things have "held their own" since they were put in place:

  • The preformed Marcourt "Jamaica" pond has stayed where it was and not developed any leaks (despite having a tree fall on it in 2002).

  • The portion of the upper loop that I laid on raised 2"x6" stringers and 4"x4" posts has been almost zero maintenance.

  • The all-plastic buildings that I painted carefully and gave acrylic glazing still look great, even the ones that have been left outside year-round for about ten years.

Stuff That Didn't "Stay Put"

Unlike an indoor railroad, where you can go to the basement, turn on a light switch, and expect everything to be as you left it, a garden railroad is a living organism, subject to natural forces. As a few examples, since 2003:

  • Several of the railroad ties that were supporting the "back edge" of the raised bed have gone to gunk and been replaced by pressure-treated wood construction (the only way I would recommend starting out today).

  • The tamped-down-gravel roadbed (which works in areas that only get 13" of rain a year) became a haven for moles and ground squirrels, who constantly "reconfigured" the right-of-way. And as wind-blown dust accumulated in the gravel, it created a perfect environment for weeds growing up through the track. This technique might work in the desert, but in the MidWest, loess is more (trouble than you'd think). (Most of that roadbed has been dug up and replaced with concrete - my apologies to future homeowners.)

  • "Settling" has also led me to reinstall and partially replace the original "waterfall."

  • The wood components of many of my original structures have rotted away and been replaced with plexiglass, which required disassembly and reassembly.

  • Other structures have needed some sort of repair, including some that windstorms and falling branches have broken in pieces, or clumsy "helpers" have tripped over.

  • The plastic ties on much of my original track have disintegrated and required replacement.

  • The few structures that had only the manufacturer's "uv-resistant" paint jobs became brittle and discolored (I sold most of those to friends in January, since I knew I'd never have time to paint them properly.

  • Several of my conifers have "gotten away from me" and need extensive trimming to get back into anything like proportion with my railroad.
  • When the neighbor's trees fell on my railroad, it went from shade to full sun right away, causing several plantings to fail and certain "desirable" plants to become "undesirable" as they took over their area.
  • The cute little fir tree that bisected my railroad when I first built it is now about twenty feet tall and twelve feet wide. It has forced me to move a few of the towns, but I'm leaving it where it is because it's the only shade on the railroade in the afternoon.

  • A number of my trains have needed repair, and I haven't had time to fix them all.

Please understand that most of the refurbs I've described happened one or two a year, and they haven't kept us from enjoying our trains in the summer or having a Christmas-themed open railroad every year for the past five years. But if anyone who came in 2002 comes again in 2013, they might think we haven't done any work at all. That wouldn't be exactly true.

You'll Have a Better View, At Least

By the way, two huge improvements you may notice if you last visited us before 2007 have nothing to do with the railroad itself. They have to do with a former neighbor who showed his resentment of our hobby by piling trash and parking his rusty pickup along the fence.

In fact, photos from our very first "open railroad," in 2000 show the first of many trash piles. On the other hand, even when he wasn't going out of his way to make the railroad look bad, the fact that his house was painted five different colors detracted as well. Now you know why I occasionally photoshop the background out of early photos.

This is a late autumn photo, but it gives the general idea of how the privacy fence But in 2007, I planted a row of Arborvitas to screen his trashpiles, and - eventually - his mismatched house. Realizing that his "uglifying projects" would be doomed when the trees filled in, he decided to do me "one better." He bought and threw up several yards of the cheapest privacy fence he could buy. Within 18 months, his fence was literally falling down, so I bought 4"x4" pressure-treated posts and braced it up from my side. Later I added trim pieces across the top so the fence wouldn't look like it was designed by an idiot. (That story is here.)

I wouldn't have planned things that way, but now that the combination is there, it looks like I planned it that way. The overall effect provides the same sense of privacy as a hacienda courtyard or one of those "outdoor rooms" the HGTV folks keep building in California.

Restoration Projects for 2013

Since there is the potential for people (including readers) from all over the country to see our railroad this June, I would like them to see the railroad at its best. It may seem ironic to some, but to me, the "best" includes the features that made the DC&NBRR unique in 2003 and (should) still make it unique today. This includes such things as our:

  • "trashbashed" buildings that allowed us to set up whole towns for the cost of one "store-bought" building
This photo by Wil Davis in 2003 shows one of our 'downtown' districts built entirely from reworked toys and bird feeders. Click for a bigger photo.
  • custom-lettered cars from my ALPS printer days (sorry, I can't print white letters, any more)
This photo by Wil Davis in 2003 shows two of our 'vinegar cars' repainted from HLW shorty tank cars. Click for a bigger photo.This photo by Wil Davis in 2003 shows two of our NB&DC ore cars, repainted from Aristo shorty gondolas. Click for a bigger photo.
  • inexpensive, low-maintenance plantings
This photo from our Groundcover 101 article shows the relative sizes of three great choices. Click to see the article.
P>Click for bigger photo.You're probably getting bored of this topic by now, but I have a mess of buildings to refurb, hopefully for the last time. Several just need glued back together. Many, however, started out with wood or pressed wood components, which have since gone to muck. I've cut plexiglass pieces to replace the failed walls, but in the meantime, I took the time to clean up the surviving members. The photo to the right shows most of the surviving components. I'll have more on the building front before long.

Hopefully we'll also have time to reinstall a few of our article projects that we demonstrated, then took down because we didn't have room to keep them.

"Cleanup" Tasks

Weed grasses creeping up from the South change the ecosystem of our gardens every few years.  This helps, but I use it in moderation to avoid killing plants I want to keep that have grass-like leaves, such as grape hyacinth. Click for a bigger photo.Getting the railroad back "up-to-speed" will also mean taking extraordinary measures to eliminate pesky weeds and "weed grasses" that global warming has brought to our back yard in the last few years.

Another "clean-up" task involved trimming back conifers that have gotten "out of control" because I haven't always had time to trim them properly. The photos below show two Dwarf Alberta Spruce that have gotten about 18" taller than they really should have, because I've only had time for "quick-and-dirty" trimmings the last few years. I called them my Dr. Seuss trees because they reminded me of his fanciful forest drawings. Since we've been having mostly Christmas-themed open railroads for five years, the spindly shape of these (and nine others in similar condition) weren't offensive - they were quite cute covered with colored lights. But for a summer open railroad, I prefer my railroad to look a little more like a miniature real world than a Christmas village. Sadly, I had to get more brutal with these trees and their brethren than I would have done if I'd kept them under control. But I caught them just before the new growth started, so hopefully they'll recover and fill in before June.

Click for bigger photo. Click for bigger photo.


There's really no way to "conclude" this topic, since rehab and refurb are "always with us," but I need to stop typing and get some work done. Stay tuned.

Note: Since this article was posted, we've added a companion/sequel article on our New Boston and Donnels Creek pages.

Click to go to article.Also, if you're coming to Ohio for the June, 2013 convention, details on hours, signups, etc. for our open railroad will be posted here

Please let me know if you have any feedback, and enjoy your hobbies. Especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming months!

See you online, in Cincinnati, or in the back yard!


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