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Put a Train in your Garden - Garden Railroading Primer for Gardeners
Garden Railroading Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running wellGarden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading
Large Scale Starter Sets: Begin with a train you'll be proud to runBachmann Garden Trains: Narrow Gauge models designed to run well in your Garden Railroad
Large Scale Track order FormStructures and building kits for your garden railroad
Large Scale Christmas Trains: Trains with a holiday theme for garden or professional display railroads.Free Large Scale Signs and Graphics: Bring your railroad to life with street signs, business signs, and railroad signs
Garden Railroading Books, Magazines, and Videos: Where to go to learn even more
Collectible Trains and Villages: On30 Trains and accessories designed by Thomas Kinkade and others

Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Put a Train in your Garden--
Garden Railroading Primer for Gardeners

If you love your garden, and you've thought about adding a train to it, this article is for you. Chances are you've seen garden railroads, on television, in botanical gardens, or even in neighborhood back yards. And you rightly think that having a train running somewhere in your garden would add interest. But when you tried to learn more, you found out that “train people” talk in codes like "R-3 turnout," and "wide-radius floating track" and "four-six-oh." Don't worry, you don't have to know all of this stuff to add a fun and attractive railroad feature to your garden (any more than they have to be conifer experts to get a bunch of Dwarf Alberta Spruce in the ground and kid them along from year to year).

In fact, if you've already accumulated some garden design and landscaping skills, you're ahead of many folks who know a lot about trains, but who barely know which end of the shovel goes in the ground. That said, this article is intended to fill in some of the gaps in what you do know, and to help you make good choices in your plans and purchases.

The following questions are answered in this article: (If you jump to any of these, your browser's "back button" should bring you back to the top of the page.)

Do I have to Buy a Lot of Stuff?

Not really. You need:

You don't necessarily need anything else, not even buildings if you don't want them (although many people feel that appropriate buildings and accessories add interest). In garden railroading less is more - believe it or not, many garden railroaders with a garage full of trains only run a few pieces most of the time anyway.

What Kind of Train Do I Want?

This is actually an easier decision than you might think. Although there are many choices and products, the first thing you should know is that almost all garden trains use essentially the same track. So even if you buy a train you get tired of later on (or that the kids break), you don't have to do the installation part all over again.

Garden trains come in two main categories: Standard Gauge and Narrow Gauge. You don't even have to know what that means. All you need to know is what kind of "look" you want for your garden railroad:

Big and Modern: Try Standard Gauge - If you have a lot of space for your railroad (say 200 square feet or more) and you want your railroad to remind people of big modern trains, like the kind that stopped you on the way to the store last week, look for Standard Gauge trains. The biggest manufacturer of Standard Gauge trains for garden railroading is AristoCraft. Other manufacturers include USA Trains and MTH RailKing Large Scale. It may be worth noting that AristoCraft's "starter sets," that is, train sets in a box, now come with a remote control, a very handy feature.
Big, modern equipment tends to be Standard Gauge.
Smaller and Old-Timey: Try Narrow Gauge - If your space is more limited, and if you'd prefer "charming" or "old-timey" trains, look for Narrow Gauge trains. The two biggest manufacturers of Narrow Gauge trains for garden railroad are LGB and Bachmann. Bachman's starter sets are excellent values, although the track that comes with them can't be used outside. LGB's equipment is more expensive but it has an excellent reputation for reliability.
Bachmann's "Ten-Wheeler"
LGB's "Mogul"
Narrow Gauge gives you more quaint or old-timey trains and many accessories.

Note: Don't spend an inordinate amount of time making this decision. Your starter set is just to get you started, period. You can always change the kind of trains you run and keep your starter set to use around the Christmas tree or to let the kids run, if you want. But if you never buy a starter set, you'll pretty much never get started.

What Kind of Track do I Need?

Most starter sets come with a loop of track that makes a circle that is four feet in diameter. And that loop of track may look large indoors. But if you take it outside and set it on the ground and step back, you'll notice how small it looks in the "real world." In addition, any train you buy will look better and run better on wider curves. Some of the big, modern trains will only run on large curves. So if you have the room for larger curves, consider using them, even if the first train you buy looks fine on dinky curves - otherwise you're limiting what kind of trains you can run in the future.

So when you're pricing your starter set, mentally add $80-120 for a loop and a few extra pieces of track to use outside. The kind of track you need depends on what kind of trains you want to run. The AristoCraft company makes both kinds:

Note: If the USA versus Euro/Narrow Gauge track choice confuses you, just buy the one you think looks best - they're mechanically the same. And if you use the same style track on your whole "railroad" no one will pay much attention to the ties, anyway - they'll be focused on the trains and your plantings.

For more information on track planning, please check out the Family Garden Trains Primer article Planning Your Garden Railroad for High Reliability. For more information on track choices, check out the article on Garden Railroad Track Options.

What Kind of Buildings do I Need?

None, really. Although most garden railroaders buy and assemble kits that are made to be used outside, that's not necessary. Some folks starting out are just as happy with the hand-painted wooden birdhouses they sell at WalMart. But if you want something more realistic and more durable, consider AristoCraft's line of assembled and mostly-assembled buildings. AristoCraft's "built-up" stations are especially good buys for products that will give you both instant gratification and years of enjoyment.
Two of AristoCraft's prebuilt structures, designed to be used right out of the box and to look right with most garden trains.

If you want to buy and assemble some kits later, of course, you may. In fact, that's how many garden railroaders stay "active" in the winter. But the point is, you don't have to spend time your first year gluing things together to get a working, attractive railroad, complete with a train and a station or two installed in your garden,

Is That Really All the Train Stuff I Need?

Yes, though it may not be all the stuff you'll eventually want. When you start doing the math, you'll realize that putting a train in your garden won't necessarily cost you any more than that PVC arbor, or one really nice garden bench or sculpture.

Do I Need Special Plants?

The real question is, what kinds of plants do you want to use? Many "train people" like to think of their garden railways as outdoor model railroads. They prefer plants whose details are in scale, or close to scale with the trains, so their scenery is as "realistic" as possible - dwarf conifers, miniature sedums, creeping thymes, etc. Some are satisfied if the overall size of the plants doesn't detract from or overwhelm the trains - Pachysandra, Threadleaf Coreopsis, bedding plants, etc. Or you may want to choose the third option - leave your Calla lilies right where they are, and treat your train as just one element (and not the main element) in a flower garden.

If you want to try the "scale plants" route, you'll find a few visits to area garden railroads very helpful. Not only will you see what plants seem to work in your area, you may be offered some useful "starts." Don't count on the "train people" knowing the right names for their plants, though. I was excited when I had luck with "Stubby Fingers" Sedum, a stonecrop that looks like a tiny jade plant. No one in the club had heard of it. But it turned out later that most of them had it - they just didn't know what to call it besides "That stuff Eloise found by the side of the road in Turpin" or some such. Many Garden Railroaders who start out as "train people" actually become decent gardeners (or at least their spouses do). But in the meantime, there's nothing wrong with learning or getting useful plant starts from people in your area who have accumulated their knowledge of plants from trial-and-error.

If you want to dabble with "scale" and "near-scale" plantings near your train, you may find the plant articles on the The Family Garden Trains Primer page helpful.

So Why Hasn't Everybody Put a Train in Their Garden?

Because the real work of installing a garden railroad isn't about railroading, it's about gardening and landscaping, skills that relatively few "train people" have, at least when they're starting out. This is where your planning and landscaping skills come in.

What are My Mechanical Concerns?

The only mechanical limitations you face are that the track should sit fairly level, and it should be on a very solid base of some sort (such as crushed gravel or a framework of 2x6s or other carpentry). You may also enjoy your train more (and enjoy working on it more) if it's raised a little off the ground, but that's up to you.

You'll also need to get low-voltage power out to the tracks somehow, but if you have already installed garden lighting or a pond pump, this shouldn't be too difficult for you. The little power pack that comes with your starter set is usually strong enough to handle a small railroad, providing your track has good connections (something AristoCraft track helps with). However, unlike your trains, it can't be left outside in the rain (or even the dew). So, for now, plan on taking it out on days you want to run, unless you have a place where you can leave it under roof close to the railroad. You also must use a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupt) protector on the circuit into which you plug your power pack. The Family Garden Trains articles Electrical Safety and Garden Railroading and Large Scale Power and Control contain much more information about options you may find helpful.

What Are My Design Concerns?

Start thinking now about where you'd like the train to be visible--where will people be sitting or standing when it comes through? Would it serve your purposes better for the train to zip in and out of view, remaining a little mysterious and unpredictable, or for large lengths of track (and perhaps corresponding scenery) to be in view? Do you have enough room for the train to "go away and come back" or should you plan on creating some sort of visual screen so that all of the track isn't visible from the same location at the same time? Could a water feature such as a pond or "creek" be installed nearby, or do you already have a water feature you hope to use? Could you add vertical interest by having a waterfall, and maybe a "town" or farm scene that goes up the hillside?

What are My Construction Options?

Once you've thought through some of the design issues, you might want to start thinking about the best way to do the construction. For most of my railroad, the New Boston and Donnels Creek, I built a series of concentric terraces, using typical Midwestern rock gardening techniques, tamped down the dirt on one of the terraces until it was firm, and set my track in fine gravel (turkey grit, actually) right on the ground. The biggest drawback to that was that I should have laid 30-year landscaping fabric first: weeds growing through the track have been a hassle. In other parts of the railroad I tried other commonly-used methods, including track laid in fine gravel right on the ground, track laid over a raised stone wall, and track laid over elevated, pressure-treated 2x6s. All have their advantages and disadvantages, though I do have to admit that the elevated roadbeds have given me less "hassle" over the long run, even though they were more work at first.

The Family Garden Trains Primer page has several articles on construction topics. But if you've done any landscaping at all, chances are you'll think of something that works especially well for you. In addition, if you start with a fairly small railroad, until you get the "hang of things," you won't have much, if any rework to do if you later come up with a better way of installing something.

What About Pond and Fountains?

Trains look great around ponds and vice versa. Generally it's easier to build a railroad around (or over) a pond than it is to build a pond near (or under) a railroad. If and when you have both a train and a pond (especially a pond with a creek or waterfall flowing into it), you'll have created a "focus point" for your garden where few visitors can resist pausing for a long look. A bench with a good view is optional, but recommended. Remember, neither the railroad nor the water feature needs to be elaborate for the combination to look great.

So What's Different about Gardening With Trains?

The big differences between "normal" gardening and "railroad" gardening have to do with track maintenance, limiting plant growth, avoiding certain plants that spread by runners and seeds, and having "excuses" to try many new plants and landscape techniques.

Conclusion

To summarize, a train will add a great deal of interest to your garden, whether you simply add a small train and a loop of track to a garden you already have or take it upon yourself to learn more about the kinds of landscaping, plants, and accessories that are usually used by people who make the garden "serve" the train and not the other way around. Either way, you can draw on much of what you already know about landscaping and gardening, and you will create an irresistible focal point in your domain.


Feedback from Other Gardeners/Railroaders

I asked several garden railroaders who knew something (or thought they knew something) about gardening before they put trains in their garden what they had learned and what they had to relearn. Here are a few responses:

Dick Friedman, from the Sacramento, CA area says:

Where to begin! The most important new things I learned were that plants grow faster than I imagined, that trees are a blessing and a curse, that there's a whole new world of near-enough-to-scale-sized plants. I found that a pond enhances any garden, but particularly when there's a train running 'round it!

There were also a number of things that I never paid much attention to in gardening that became much more significant in garden railroading. One was tree leaves. Another: the impact of bugs, particulary ants, who use the track as a freeway, and snails/slugs who gum up track. Lastly, I learned that the term "non-invasive" when applied to plants means something like "probably won't over run your railroad in under a week!" I like ajuga, but since the weather turned warmer, it's taking off (and over) growing horizontally about an inch a week!

Brad Mugleston, of Aurora, Colorado says:

My "Garden Railroad" is in my flower garden which was planted to be a flower garden that has trains in it. I've got a large rose garden and have been trying to figure out how to get track in there without either getting ripped apart by the roses or having such sharp turns nothing will run. Now I'm using the Garden excuse to add more trains to the back yard - again I'm doing "Landscaping" to make the yard look nice and so what if a few trains can run through there also?

I did most of the work last year so this is the first year of really having a flower garden with the trains....

What I've learned so far this spring.

  1. Things too close to the track will grow over the track
  2. Leaves and stuff not found in a house end up on the track, no where else, just on the track.
  3. Dirt settles - tracks on supports do not - you don't notice this when it's just plants
  4. It looks great having the trains in the flowers
  5. I need more plants, more trains, more track --- MORE MONEY!!

If you would like to add anything or correct anything in this article, please contact me.

In the meantime, best of luck,

Paul


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