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Planning the New New Boston and Donnels Creek Railway, Part 4

Note: This is a preliminary version of this article, posted because one of my readers is looking at installing a new railroad and I wanted him to see what I've been working on, including the "raised garden" aspect, which actually dominates this article.

This is, obviously, a follow-up to our third article on planning the new New Boston & Donnels Creek Rail Road. It hopefully shows our final plan before breaking ground.

You'll remember, I decided to go with a sort of table-top arrangement for this iteration of the railroad. The basic plan called for three concentric loops on three different levels, about a foot apart, with the highest level being at least four foot in the air to provide far more vertical interest than the dirt pile (yes, I said that) supporting my previous iteration.

I had also decided not to import a ton of dirt - rather to build the layers somewhat like you would build a deck, with pressure-treated wood. (Indoor railroaders call this sort of thing "benchwork.")

Although the wood would cost money, the project would still cost less than the cost of hauling in enough dirt to accomplish the same effect. Installing track, lighting, buildings, etc. should be much easier. Maintenance should be significantly reduced.

You'll also remember that I had determined to start with the "middle" layer of my "wedding cake," with the idea that I could use my "lessons learned" from that experience to tweak the other two if necessary. The whole story of these plans starts here and includes Part Two and Part Three.

Since then, I also decided to make the four posts holding the top layer taller than they need to be for that, sticking 6' out of the ground, in case I want to add something even higher later on. In the meantime, I could use the higher bits to support whatever mountain scenery I wound up putting there. Yes, going that high without a firm plan may seem silly, but I've learned it's just about impossible to add height to a railroad that has already been established. BTW, it was Paul Busse, owner of Applied Imagination, whose railroads have been seen by something approaching a hundred million people, who once coached me to consider giving my railroads more vertical interest.

Not to mention that - due to the slope of our yard between the house and the property line - the tallest point of the railroad will still be three or four feet lower than the floor of my back deck.

Well, I was going to start sinking posts on May 13, 2017. The key phrase in that sentence is "was going to." We timed this - including our lumber purchases - to go with installation of three raised vegetable beds - something we had at the last house and definitely wanted to have again. In this climate, our plants are supposed to be in the ground by May 18, and we'll still have to have dirt hauled in after we have the beds finished. So the vegetable garden beds were the priority (if I get my trains in the garden late, it won't exactly stunt their growth).

We have a 2' frost line, and I have never regretted respecting that whenever I put something in or on the ground that I wanted to stay stable past the first winter. In this case, we plan to use these beds as long as we have strength to go down the back steps, and I certainly don't want to build them twice.

My plan was to make the beds 12' long and 4' wide, and a minimum of 16.5" high (using three 2"x6" boards on each side. We figured on 24 holes for the beds and 14 holes for the first installation of my garden railroad. I had already cut 12 4"x4"x8" pressure-treated posts in half, and cut a few of the 2"x6"x12' boards into thirds to use for the ends. (BTW, I got used to using 2"x6"x12' pressure-treated boards and 4"x4"x8' posts on previous projects, when I realized that, for some reason, those particular cuts usually had the lowest cost per foot. That may not always be true now, but it was the week I started buying lumber for this project.)

What's With the Garden Bed Content On This Page? You may be wondering why there is so much about these garden beds in this chapter. In part, it's because many garden railroaders try to raise their railroad experiment with retaining walls of some sort, and this is the most practical solution I've found. All the lumber products in these beds are rated for constant ground contact, so they won't fall apart in a few years like railroad ties, so-called landscaping timbers, and many other products that have caused hundreds of raised garden railroads to literally disintegrate within several years of installation.

In addition, my initial plan for the new New Boston and Donnels Creek Rail Road included raised garden beds. If circumstances hadn't forced me to put things off a little, I might already have two or three circles of 2"x6" roadbed on 4"x4" posts running through gardens that used exactly this approach to bring the dirt up to track level. The main reasons I got away from this approach is that I realized that piling dirt as high as I really wanted the railroad to go was going to be problematic, even with a good frame, and that all that dirt meant that I'd be eventually fighting exactly the same battles against weeds that I've been fighting for the last seventeen years.

But the principle of properly seating and installing ground-rated lumber to hold your dirt still applies. If you are planning a raised railroad of any kind and you plan to raise the ground level to match your train's height, this is the most successful approach I've ever tried or seen tried by anybody. And I've tried (and seen) any number of shortcuts. (Check out our article on "Retaining Walls and Backfill" for more information on that score.

Also, why put the boards on the outside instead of the inside of the posts? Yes, I know that may seem counterintuitive, but once your dirt settles, it won't be putting that much stress on the boards most of the time. And this way if a board fails, you can just unscrew it and screw another one back on. Of course, the first three raised vegetable beds at our old railroad stood for over ten years without any problems, so that's probably not a threat at any rate.

The overall plan of our vegetable garden, showing three 12'x4' beds with just under 6' clearance between them.  Click for bigger picture.

I planned to place the vegetable garden beds just under 6' apart because I plan to add benches around the edge of each next year when they've settled in, and those will cut down on the clearance. The clearance that remains should even accommodate wheelchairs or walkers if it comes to that. And we had the room to spread things out a little, as you'll see in the photo below.

My 'middle layer' tweaked to align to a 2'-square grid.  This was to help me plot where the posts should go.  Click for bigger figure.In order to get the plan for my railroad's first segment "shovel-ready," I used CorelDraw to put a grid over the top of of my plan and rearranged the joists, etc. to better align with it. That way I could stake out the post-hole locations more easily.

Then I put a two-person post-hole-digger on reserve at a local tool-rental place and staked out where I wanted the post holes for the gardens and the railroad to go. What could go wrong?

By the way, for "stakes," I used little flags that the utility companies used to keep putting in the yard at the other house, since the utilities used to more-or-less take turns digging up the front yard. I wasn't really digging holes over a fiberoptic cable or whatever the flags said.

The raised vegetable garden and proposed garden railroad are staked out.  The two-by-six boards are just being used as 'rulers' at this point. Click for bigger photo.

Return of the "Idiot Tool" - Then, on the "big day, the people I hoped would give me a hand with the post-hole digger wound up not being available. The place said they'd have a one-man digger available the next day. But I didn't want to wait that long to get started.

A scissors-style post-hole digger.Longtime readers will remember that some years back, I had to buy a scissors-style post-hole digger to dig some postholes between my railroad and my neighbor's improperly-installed privacy fence. I needed to put real posts in the ground on my side because he used the wrong kind of lumber and his fence was constantly coming loose and laying down on my railroad. (That story is here.)

As I was carrying the post-hole digger out of the store, an older fellow coming in said to his friend "There's an idiot tool." I said, "What do you mean? He said, "When you can rent a post-hole digger or hire someone with a Bobcat to dig them, you're an idiot to do it by hand." I expained that where I needed to dig I only had room to do it manually, and he said, "Right."

Well that "idiot tool" not only fixed my neighbor's fence (and made it look very nice from my side), it also dug the post holes for five raised vegetable gardens at the other house, although I didn't do them all at once. It's hard work, but I don't always shirk from hard work.

Saturday morning, with the location of the holes for my garden beds and railroad staked out, I took the "idiot tool" out in the yard and started working on the raised vegetable bed. Remember, that was the priority.

Aligning the first frame over the holes.  Click for bigger photo.  Though why you'd want to see this photo bigger is beyond me.When I had eight holes dug - enough for the first bed, I dropped a 4' post into each hole and screwed together a 12'x4' frame. Of course a couple of the holes weren't exactly where they were supposed to be - rocks or whatnot can keep your posthole from going exactly where you want it. So I tweaked a couple of the post holes a little.

I imagine that if I'd used that big two-man rig with the 8" auger, the post-holes would have been big enough that I wouldn't have had to tweak them at all. On the other hand, I hit a bunch of big rocks in several of the holes, and I can't imagine what the "kickback" would have been like if I'd hit them with a 78-pound power tool.

Then I got out a long level and figured out which corner of the frame was the highest with the frame laying on the ground. I nailed that frame to post on that corner,The first row of 2x6 boards is leveled and screwed to the posts. Click for bigger photo.. Then Shelia watched the level as I raised and lowered the other corners and put in enough screws to hold each in place. Once you have the first level of the frame in place, putting the rest in place is pretty easy, so I moved on to the next set of holes, while Shelia backfilled the holes around the post of the first one.

You can see that the yard drops about five inches from one end of the garden bed to the other. Which means that the grade isn't as steep here as it is where the railroad will go. Having an inch or two gap is a good thing, because you want drainage. But I planned to reduce those 4" and 5" gaps with more lumber pieces before the dirt was ordered.

The next day our daughter Kristen not only made us lunch for Mothers' Day; she also helped by digging holes and helping me place more posts and frames. On the last planned garden bed, I hit several stones so large I had to get the "big shovel" and widen the holes significantly to get them out. Again, I can't imagine hitting those stones with an auger connected to a seventy-pound tool. In addition, the line from our septic tank to the leach bed goes through that part of the yard. It's supposed to be several feet down, but I knew at least that the "idiot tool" wouldn't be breaking through any pipes.

As we got each set of posts ready, I continued to add the first layer of boards, making sure they were level in spite of the yard's slope. This is a lot easier to do with two or three people than just one. The second and third layers go on much more easily. But don't put the top layer on until you've trimmed the posts (unless you want them to stick out).

Trimming the Posts - On the first three garden beds at our old house, I left the posts long in case I wanted to add another layer of boards and dirt in the future. On this project, I decided that I didn't want to go any higher than I already had. For one thing, we hope to add benches going all the way around once things settle in.

Plus, to be honest, the posts weren't all exactly straight - working around deeply buried rocks, etc. will do that to you. So cutting them off was an aesthetic decision as well as a practical one.

I used a short 2So once I had two layers of boards up, I brought a short piece of the same board around and marked off where the top of each post should be cut off. I did the cutting by holding a circular saw sideways, which I don't actually recommend unless you're really good with this sort of thing, or have more fingers than you really need.

Then I made certain that my "hack job" hadn't left any of the posts sticking out higher than the boards - even a fraction of an inch. Remember, I plan to put benches around the to edge of the boxes later, and it will be easier to shim the posts up anywhere they're too short than to work around a post that's too high.

The first raised bed with the posts cut and the third layer of boards installed. Click for bigger photo.When I was sure the posts were cut to the right height (or even maybe a little too low), I put the top row of boards around the outside. I have to say it helped a lot to have those poor slanting posts hidden. A non-reader visiting our yard might even get the sense that I was good at this sort of thing.

Plugging the Big Gaps - Though a 1-2" gap between the bottom course of lumber and the ground provides needed drainage, the 5" gap at the ends of each garden bed was a little excessive.

The gaps at the 'deep end' of the raised garden beds are somewhat plugged by additional 2x6s toenailed in from the inside.  You can't tell from the photo, but I was careful to leave gaps for drainage. I measured and cut some more 2"x6" boards and dropped them into the places where there was a 5" gap between the wood and the ground (due to the slope). I didn't want to sink the screws from the inside, for fear that a little bit of the screws might poke out on the outside. So I braced my ditch shovel inside the board and used the shovel as a lever to keep the board in place while I sank screws into it at an angle from the outside. You can't tell from the photos, but I left gaps for drainage.

Then I called the fellow who delivered dirt and leveled my lawn for me before we started this process. No, I won't be posting photos of how our tomato plants look in the garden once the dirt comes.

Okay, I understand that you came to this article because you wanted ideas for your garden railroad. But take a look at the photo to the right. If I had built them all so they were level with each other and made the beds a foot wider, they would support LGB curves, and you could easily reach all the track. You could even lean over to weed without having to reach more than 30".

The 'raised garden beds' ready for dirt.  Click for bigger photo.If I had connected the three beds into a U shape instead of separating them, I'd have room for multiple "towns" and all kinds of planting. A single U-shaped loop running through three 12'-long garden beds would give your trains a 72' run before they got back where they started.

And the whole thing would be pretty-much handicapped-accessible, which is something to think about if you plan to run garden trains into extreme old age or plan to host seniors in your open railroads. And by using ground-rated lumber you have made reasonably sure that none of this infrastructure will give out in your lifetime, something you can't say with railroad ties or "landscaping timbers." You could even use Bob Treat's "Concrete Mountain" method to dress up the sides of the thing if you wanted to.

Here is another thought. If you built this sort of infrastructure, you could also avoid mounting your roadbed on posts by using more 2"x6" boards running between the outside edges of the thing like joists. Then you'd cut 2"x6"s for roadbed according to the directions in our "Simple Raised Railroad" article. Once you've backfilled, you simply lay the One way you could build a raised railroad using the approach described above. Click for bigger pictureroadbed on the joists - lay out your track to make certain you have things aligned properly, and fasten the roadbed down.

The drawing to the right shows one way you might implement this, using 4' curves most places, but 5' curves at the outside part of the "bends." I left the two "legs" of the "U" separated enough to let people walk up and down the inside. I suppose I could have just made the other part a few feet longer, but this was the first approach that came to mind. I show the joists being closer together where curves need to be supported and farther apart where there will just be straight pieces.

I did NOT show the horizontal roadbed pieces as described in the "Simple Raised Railroad" article, but they are easy enough to cut once you have your track plan.

What about the Railroad? - While I was spending time digging holes, I couldn't help glancing down at where I had the railroad staked out. There was something about my plan that was still bugging me. I'd already rotated and flopped the design from where I started out, but I realized that I needed to flop it one more time to make the best advantage of the space and the slope, especially in view of probable viewing positions.

I also wanted to put two tall posts on each end of the loading area, with the notion of covering it with a "tunnel" one day - maybe even a place I could keep short trains between running sessions so I wouldn't always be schlepping them out to the track. So I flopped, turned, and tweaked my plans for the "bottom layer," to see if I could put those extra posts up now without interfering with something I planned do do in the future. So I added them. At the left edge of the plan to the left below, you can see the other two tall posts as well as a bit of frame that will connect them to the rest of the project and help keep them stable. What isn't shown is the rectangle of 2"x6" boards that I'll put around the top of the tall boards as well, to help keep them stable at that end as well.

Again, the plan to the right below will probably not happen until next year, but if you compare the pattern of the dark brown posts between the two plans, you'll see how the "middle" plan will fit on top of it.

Middle layer of the planned three-layer benchwork. Click for bigger picture. Middle layer of the planned three-layer benchwork. Click for bigger picture.
Middle Layer of Planned 3-Layer Benchwork. The green dotted lines to the left represent 2"x6" boards that will be fastened to the posts so that the top edge is 24" from the ground, below the joists supporting the rest of the platform shown.
Bottom Layer of Planned 3-Layer Benchwork - Yes, the scale of the drawing is different, but you can tell how the other plan would fit over this one by comparing the positions of the dark brown (medium height) posts.

The highest layer of the proposed railroad, redrawn with the track loop resized to compensate for movement of the longer posts.  Click for bigger drawing.Before I staked things out one more time, I also redrew what I hope to be the topl layer of the project. Because I changed the spacing and height of the four long posts that provide the main supports for the whole thing, I had to change the size of the track loop at the top of the railroad as well. It can be done with 5'-diameter curves now, or with 4'-diameter curves and a couple 1' straight pieces in each end (I prefer the former, but I may have to compromise until I get all the track I brought over rehabbed.)

Again, you can tell where it will line up over the other layers of the railroad by comparing the four posts to the four posts in the center of the other plans.

All of this preplanning is probably overkill, but since I've never built a railroad this way before, I want to avoid making any big mistakes starting out. And frankly, if it works out the way I think it will, it will be very helpful to a lot of folks to have it documented down to the Nth degree. (I built my first "permanent" garden railroad back before digital cameras, and I didn't take nearly enough photos, so I didn't document the process - such as it was - nearly as well as I wish I had. But I didn't realize that some of those early articles would have gotten 100,000 or more "hits" by now, or have encouraged many hundreds of families that I know about to get into the hobby, either.)

I know that the Applied Imagination people can put together a master plan much more quickly, but they've been doing this for something like a half-century.

That said, the stakes where I was going to dig holes were all wrong now, so I pulled them up so I could mow the grass there. The end of May and first three weeks of June will be very busy with family trips, and more, so I'm not sure I'll be doing anything further on the outdoor railroad until close to July. Hope you haven't been holding your breath, but that's the way these things tend to go for me.

Hopefully there will be a groundbreaking within the next several weeks.

Best of luck, all,

Enjoy your hobbies, and especially enjoy any time you can spend with your family in the coming season.

Paul

Click to go to articleProceed to "Breaking Ground on the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek" - Okay, in case you wondered if we'd ever get started on the thing, we broke ground in July, using a manual post-hole digger. Well two manual post-hole diggers. But by the end of this article, we're ready for the posts to start going in.

Click on the photo to see our status as of the end of July, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 3" - We have still not broken ground. In part because we plan to rent a post-hole digger and dig the post holes for our raised vegetable garden and the first phase of the garden railroad at the same time, and we don't have enough lumber on hand yet. (If we didn't break it down into multiple trips, we'd be blowing out the shocks on our minivan.) In the meantime, we used a line level to see if the slope of the back yard was as bad as we thought it was (it's worse), and we did other site preparation, including planting a whole bunch of spruce tree seedlings to eventually give us some privacy in our side and back yard. Plus, I'm still wavering a little on the "where-to-start-first" issue.

Click on the photo to see what we're considering as of late April, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 2" - More plans. We've moved on from the 2"x6" roadbed-on-posts to a sort of "train-table-outside" plan. Our goals include low-maintenance, high interest, and high reliability. We're also trying to get around having a thousand dollars' worth of dirt hauled into the back yard. If you want to get some idea of what our planning process looks like, reading these through in sequence may help. Or it may drive you crazy.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in early April, 2017

Click to go to articleReturn to "Planning the NEW New Boston and Donnels Creek, Part 1" - If you're subscribed to our newsletter, you know that we moved just after Thanksgiving in 2016, leaving behind most of the track, a few of the bird feeders, and one Bachmann train set for the new owners. We also left behind a high-maintenance garden that we do not intend to replicate at the new place. This is the first chapter of a new chapter in our lives, which we hope will include a lot of "lessons learned." But first, some serious landscaping had to take place.

Click on the photo to see what we were considering in March, 2017

Click to go to home page of the New Boston and Donnels' Creek RR, Paul Race's home railroad. Return to the New Boston and Donnels Creek RR Page - This is the page describing Paul Race's progress and frequent rework on his own garden railroad, started on a shoe-string budget in 1998, later expanded, and later refurbished several times as issues arose. Issues that Paul hopes to avoid by building the next iteration above ground.



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