Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains
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Weedwackers, lawnmowers, bug zappers, steam locomotives. The backyard sounds of summer just got more interesting. Nowadays they may include the clatter and chuff of a train running between the patio and the fishpond.
There's something natural about these little iron horses rolling past real boulders, trees, and ponds, or dragging a row of coal cars through the pachysandra. Today's "garden railroaders" include avid gardeners who just wanted something different, modelers who even measure their plants, and engineers who build and run real, operating steam locomotives. There are as many ways to enjoy the hobby as there are people involved. But one thing they all share is the joy of operating their railroads in the open air.
Maybe you'd like to try it, but you don't know where to begin. Or maybe you're confused by the conflicting claims of manufacturers and hobbyists. You might even be suffering from "sticker shock," after your first trip to the store. Don't despair. Getting started doesn't have to be as complicated or as expensive as some people make it sound, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines.
- Less is more. Some of the most charming garden railways use a minimum amount of moderately-priced equipment. It's not what you buy, it's how you use it. Also, you have to store and transport this stuff, too, so starting with more than you'll really want to drag in and out between operating sessions is self-defeating.
The "Big Five" manufacturers of garden railway equipment are AristoCraft, Bachmann, LGB, USA Trains, and MTH. The Bachmann starter sets represent excellent value, even if they may be a little old-timey for your taste. The other companies make trains that are more solid, and the costs reflect that to some extent. Most AristoCraft sets now come with a remote control that will work with any train you buy later on a small layout, so that's a good value, too. Regardless of your choice, if you start with a relatively inexpensive set, you can let other people's children run it later without worrying that they're going to destroy an expensive collectors' item. The main thing is to get started.
- Expect to spend more on track at first than you do on trains. (If you want a dramatic setting, including mountains and water features, expect to spend more on landscaping than you do on trains and track together.) If you're a computer user, it might help to think of the railway as the hardware and the trains as the software. Sure, those things with the bells and whistles are neat, but they don't work worth a hoot if you don't have something reliable to run them on.
Most garden railroads run on G-gauge track, also known as Gauge One. The rails are 45mm (about 1 3/4") apart. Track from AristoCraft and LGB is designed to give your trains a solid footing in almost any installation.
Note: A lot of beginners get confused by arguments about "scale," which has to do with what relationship your models bear to the real world. Garden railroad scales commonly range from 1:20.3 to 1:32. But the important thing to remember is that 45mm track is the same no matter what scale you're modeling in. So get a good solid track plan laid (even if it's only one loop of what you expect to be an empire), then experiment with different scales and manufacturers if you want to. Even if you decide to model a different scale than you started with, you won't have to rip the track out and start again.
- Use the largest radius track you can fit in the space you have. When you buy a starter set, you get some track with it. Keep that to use during the holidays. Bachmann's "starter set" track won't actually survive outside anyway. All of it makes very small circles (about 48" diameter). Sure, you can run a train on that track, but trains look better and run better on larger curves.
- Start out with track that is low-maintenance and easy to install. A good example is AristoCraft track, which is quite sturdy and offers American-style track in diameters from 4' to 20'. (Since international copper demand has driven the cost of brass track up, AristoCraft has also reintroduced its aluminum track in 4' and 10' diameters.) AristoCraft track also includes screw-on rail joiners that make very good electrical and mechanical connections. You have many choices but don't skimp on track quality your first time out.
- Use construction methods that work for you. If your yard is already terraced and you can get away with running track along a rock wall, go for it. Some people build wooden frameworks, fasten the track to them, then backfill. Others cut trenches, lay a bed of gravel, and put the track right on that. For my first effort, I made "roadbed" by leveling and stomping down the loose soil in an oval around a newly-installed pond, then shoveling gravel and sand in place. Whatever method you use, be certain to provide good drainage so your roadbed and ballast don't wash away every time it rains.
The finishing touch is usually the ballast, fine gravel brushed between the ties. Garden railroaders have successfully used "crusher fines" ("granite dust" from a quarry), chicken grit, and other sources. The point is to find methods and materials that meet your requirements.
- Make the track as level as you can. Otherwise you may find your train struggling to get up one "hill" and careening down the next. You can get the effect of hills by keeping the track level and having the ground rise and fall underneath it. Again, a carefully-laid railway runs better and looks better no matter where the hobby takes you in the future.
- Be careful with electricity. Whether you run an extension cord from the garage or bury a line to your garden, be certain to follow all local regulations, provide proper grounding, and install a GFI (ground fault interrupt) device on the circuit you're using.
By the way, the power pack that came with your starter set may be fine for running your trains outside, especially if you start with less than fifty feet of track, have good track connections, and run extra "jumper" wires to the far side of the layout. You may want to upgrade later or even change to a battery-and-remote-control system, but get some experience before you invest in anything really expensive. Be sure to keep it dry, though,and keep it inside when you're not using it.
"Less is more" applies to plants, too. Use a lot of mulch at first, and install plants a few at a time until you can find things that you can keep alive and that satisfy your personal expectations. Get to know other gardeners and garden railroaders in your area and find out what perennials and miniatures they're using with success. You may be able to trade "starts" and cuttings with them. Also, consider using plants that grow naturally in your area. Some folks have transplanted ordinary moss and local wildflowers with good results.
To improve realism and proportion, look for smaller plants with tiny leaves to plant around the tracks and buildings, and reserve larger plants for a little further away. Learn effective gardening techniques if you're not already a gardener. Tend each new plant carefully, and give it time to grow and get established. Don't be disappointed if your garden doesn't look like a magazine spread the first year; once your plants do root and "take off" they'll provide many years of enjoyment.
If you get to a garden store, check out varieties of thyme (such as Elfin, Creeping, and Woolly) and miniature sedum (such as Acre and Stubby Fingers), as well as small evergreens such as Japanese Garden and Dwarf Procumbens juniper, and Dwarf Alberta and "Jean's Dilley" spruce.
- Be informed but not impulsive. In addition to Family Garden Trains' extensive and growing library of primer articles, you can learn more from local garden railroad clubs, train shows, and (sometimes) hobby shops. Garden Railways magazine provides a wealth of tips and an ongoing source of new information. Web sites like Large Scale Central have good information and good pointers to other sites. Remember, though, that magazines and train shows (especially) make money from advertising and sales, so you may be tempted to buy too much, too soon. Another danger is that some hobbyists have strong opinions on exactly how you should be doing every little thing. Don't let anyone browbeat you. This a hobby and your goal is to have fun, not to satisfy other people's expectations.
The point at first is to learn by doing. Once you have at least a small functioning garden railroad and you've had a chance to see what's out there, you'll be in a better position to make purchases that you will be pleased with for years to come.
- Finally, the most important rule is to have fun, and lots of it. As you learn more, you'll discover new and exciting aspects to this hobby. In many parts of the world, you'll meet great people with similar interests.
In short, garden railroaders build all kinds of bridges. Enough reading. Now go outside and run your trains.
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Note: Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, and BIG Train Store™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications (www.btcomm.com). All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically
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