Inexpensive and Low-Maintenance Plants for Garden Railroads
Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains
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Several years ago, I started a Garden Railroad on a very tight budget. Since then I have discovered that certain investments in plants have been more rewarding than others. Some have required more attention than I have to give. While they would probably have flourished in the care of a gardener with more time on his hands, they weren't robust enough to stand up to my occasional neglect. Others have "taken hold," been fruitful, and multiplied to the extent that any garden railroader visiting my house is likely to leave with a number of starts.
For the sake of this article, an "inexpensive" plant is a groundcover you can buy for less than $3 a start or a conifer you can buy for less than $10 a start, from neighborhood nurseries and garden centers. (Nurseries that specialize in providing plants for garden railroaders are good, too, but if you want to get things established quickly on a budget, they may not be your only stop.) Another thing that qualifies a plant as "inexpensive" is how easy it is to spread. If I can buy one "Stubby Fingers" sedum now and have a forest of the same in two to three years, that is a substantial benefit over something I have to buy by the tray.
Also, for the sake of this article, "low-maintenance" refers to the plant's ability to survive occasional neglect once it has been properly established. I do not enjoy coming home from a business trip to discover that four days of dry 90-degree weather has killed a bunch of plants I have babied through two or three seasons.
This article is a supplement to the Groundcover 101 article on the Family Garden Trains site.
Caveat about Zones and Other Factors
Gardeners divide climate areas into "zones," with arctic being the "lowest" and equitorial being the "highest" number. Latitude doesn't tell the whole story, as altitude, wind patterns, rain patterns, and other factors also have an effect. Consequently the lines on a "Gardening Zone" map are anything but straight.
I am told that I am on the border between zone 5 and 5.5 (more-or-less marked in Western Ohio by Interstate 70). If you live in zone 3 (much cooler) or zone 8 (much warmer), some of the plants I describe may not fare as well for you as they do for me. In addition to zone, issues like amount of rainfall, soil characteristics, shade, and southern versus northern exposure may make a plant unsuitable for you. In short, your mileage will vary.
The following is a totally anecdotal, unscientific list of plants I have used with success in and around my garden railroad, and a little of my first-hand knowledge about each one. In addition the advice about planting and maintenance is purely based on my own experience and observations; I am certain there are folks out there who have a much better way of doing all of this, but none of them live in my neighborhood.
Thyme has long been one of the mainstays of Garden Railroading, since its leaves are short, its growth habits are low, and, as long as it doesn't die out completely, it maintains a useful appearance all winter long. It is also very resistant to pests. In addition, you can work hard in the garden and come in smelling sweet.
The downsides to thymes are that they take longer to get nicely established than, say, sedums, and that the center of a nice patch will sometimes dies out altogether for no apparent reason. For this reason, many thyme users maintain multiple plantings of the same varieties, in different areas of the garden, so when one planting goes south, they can transplant a start from another planting.
Where to Plant
In my experience, established thymes don't mind drying out between watering, but they respond very well to an occasional good soaking, especially when you're trying to get them established. Although they will survive full sun and full shade, they seem to do better when they get sun early and late, but are shaded during the heat of the day.
How to Spread
To take a start from a thyme, begin with a shoot on the outside edge of a patch and "feel" your way toward the center until you find discernable roots (even if they're not rooted). If you get back to the heart of the patch without finding any roots, try again with another shoot. Taking a start from the heart of the patch increases your chances of putting the whole patch into shock.
Once you get a shoot with a bit of root attached, disconnect it without disturbing the rest of the plant (clipping is better than yanking). Place the new shoot in potting soil or some other rich soil with only the leaves protruding (and not necessarily all of those). Keep the soil around the roots moist for a few weeks, at least until you see some new growth. Afterwards, make certain you keep the plant from getting too dry for the rest of the season. Try not to disturb the soil around the new shoot for several weeks.
In the course of the summer, you may find other plants that have been behaving themselves up until now falling over and excessively shading the thyme. Even if this doesn't kill your patch of thyme, it will cause it to grow in unattractive ways, such as long stems with few leaves, etc. Removing or staking the offending plant will usually allow the thyme to return to its original growth pattern, although it may take a season to look "right" again.
Though this may sound like a great deal of work, and a bank of thyme does, admittedly, take two to four seasons to reach its peak appearance, once you have an established thyme bank (and backup patches elsewhere on the layout), you'll enjoy the color, appearance, and the scent, for many years to come. And you don't have to worry about it becoming intrusive, as some ground covers do.
- "Ordinary Thyme" - Several varieties of Thymus Vulgaris are sold in seed packets and nursery stores for folks to use in their herb gardens. They all 3-6" inches tall and have leaves up to a half an inch long, which makes them useful for a "bushy" appearance. Once it establishes, vulgaris is more robust and will spread faster than most other thymes. The variety I have has relatively bright green leaves and gets tiny pale lavender flowers in late spring or early summer.
- "Creeping Thyme" - Several varieties of low-growing thyme are sold as "Creeping Thyme" in nurseries. The variety we use was sold to us as ideal for filling in between stepping stones in an old-fashioned garden. Its leaves are shorter and its growth pattern is substantially lower than Vulgaris. We were told that it could stand a certain amount of foot traffic. It goes in color from bright green of recent growth, to a deeper green of established, dry, or semi-dormant growth.
Although it spreads out nicely under the right conditions, Creeping Thyme may take months, if not years, to get over two inches tall. Some southwest Ohio area garden railroaders use it to represent lawn grass, but it can get too high for that, especially if you have miniature children playing in the "grass," and it comes up to their shoulders. It doesn't spread quite as quickly as Vulgar Thyme but with good rain conditions and moderately good soil, a small start or two can nicely fill in a two-to-four square foot section in a couple years. In other words, patience with Creeping Thyme can pay off nicely. ("Elfin Thyme," which I keep killing, should do a better job of representing lawn grass, since it seldom gets over a half-inch high. On the other hand you won't find it in MY list of successful plants.)
- Woolly Thyme - Woolly Thyme is fuzzy, and has a pale silvery-blue color. It lays much lower than Creeping Thyme, almost as low as Elfin Thyme. However its color makes it less suitable for representing lawns. It is more succeptible to "Sudden Thyme Death Syndrome" than Creeping Thyme, but I now have a bank of it growing nicely representing weeds and meadow alongside a railroad track. In fact, it sometimes grows or spreads in places you wouldn't think it would, while steadfastly refusing to thrive in the places you really need it. If you get Woolly Thyme established, you'll enjoy its appearance for years to come. However, make certain you get a "backup start" going somewhere else as soon as possible.
- Lemon Thyme - Although it does spread horizontally like any other thyme, Lemon Thyme is more upright and woody even than Vulgar Thyme. You could probably cultivate individual starts to represent small trees if you wanted, although the effect would probably not last beyond one season. A small patch can also look like a copse of small trees. (On the other hand, once it spreads beyond a few "trunks," it just looks like
an overgrown thyme patch.) Each leaf of Lemon Thyme is ridged with yellow, setting it apart visually. The name involves the uniquely citrus scent.
- Peppermint Thyme - The Peppermint Thyme in my garden (possibly not the same variety you would find in your neighborhood nursery) is the most vertically-oriented and the slowest-spreading of all the thymes I have listed. Its leaves are small and deep blue-green, but there aren't as many per inch, making the plant look a little "leggy." My feeling is that if someone gives one to you, consider using it as an oversized bush next to a house, rather than as "ground cover."
Miniature Sedums are tiny relatives of that succulent plant my grandmother called "live-forever," and which we now call by fancier names like "Autumn Joy." Grandma's friends used smaller varieties on the walls of their rock gardens, etc., so it's only natural that a certain amount of these have found their way to garden railroads.
Sedums don't require much soil to take root and hold, and they're drought-resistant (especially if their roots can get in someplace cool and damp, like a crack in a wall). Although they die back some in winter, they usually maintain enough of a presence that my railroad doesn't look like a pile of mud by February. In addition, they're one of the first families of plants to "green up" and start growing in the spring.
Where to Plant Although sedums will grow in heavy shade, they seem to thrive more in direct noonday sunlight than, say, thymes. Although they spread faster in good soil, they will root and survive in poor soil as well. They are especially suited for sticking in holes between rocks of a rock wall.
How to Spread
Although many sedums shoot branches upward, they spread downward, often by having a branch tip break off, fall, and take root below the original plant. So if you want to populate an entire rock wall or series of terraces with miniature sedum, start at the top, and the lower levels will eventually have more than their share of starts.
If you want to be certain a miniature sedum start will transplant to a specific place, try to find a start with some roots on it (see the description for getting starts of thyme, above.) However, with many varieties, you will have almost as much success if you simply break off some tips or larger pieces, bury the "back" end in good soil and keep the soil damp until you see new growth. The downside of this is that these sedums do such a good job of spreading themselves that they may "take over" a patch where you were trying to grow something more reticent, like Woolly Thyme.
To start sedums in a rock wall or other "tight place," poke some good soil into the place you want the sedum to start first. You will have the best luck if the crack in the wall or between rocks or whatever goes all the way "through," so that the roots of the sedum can eventually follow the topsoil you've "plugged" into the crack all the way to the moist cool soil under or behind the rocks. Then break off a piece (or snag a piece with roots, if you want to be absolutely certain), and stick it into the topsoil "plug." Keep it moist until you start to see new growth, and make certain it doesn't dry out completely for the first season, at least.
Miniature sedums are very easy to spread, they fill in nicely around obstacles and taller plants, and they survive very dry and very wet weather. In addition, they don't root so deeply that they will weaken bulb plants or larger plants.
- Stubby Fingers Sedum - Many garden railroaders in the Miami Valley Garden Railway Society club have been using Stubby Fingers Sedum successfully for years, without knowing what it was called. The first user saw some growing along the side of the road, nowhere near an established garden, stopped the car and snagged a couple starts. It was very successful for her, and for her friends with whom she was sharing starts the first season. I bought my first plant from a garden center, not realizing I could have all I wanted free from a number of folks,
The protuberances of Stubby Fingers Sedum (you can?t really call them leaves) seldom exceed 3/8" in length. They may remind you of tiny jade plants. Stubby Fingers Sedum spreads fast, and grows great in cracks between stones, and other hard-to-work areas. I used Stubby Fingers in a rock wall that I wanted to look like a cliff, hoping to get rid of the "pile of rocks" effect as quickly as possibly. The Stubby Fingers filled in between and around so quickly that by the following spring, it looked like the "cliff" had been there for years.
Typical Stubby Fingers height is 3-5", though an established patch in good soil with lots of rain may get 6" tall. Stubby Fingers has small yellow or white flowers which may or may not please you; many gardeners keep the flowers clipped to encourage horizontal growth. I only clip the flowers if I need a certain patch to look a certain way.
- Acre Sedum - "Acre" sedum has even smaller foliage than Stubby Fingers. In fact, it doesn't even look like a sedum until you get very close. Acre seldom gets more than 2.5" or so tall. It gives the effect of a bank of weeds or small bushes better than any other sedum I've encountered. Acre gets tiny yellow flowers that do not, in my opinion, detract from the appearance of the planting.
Acre grows more slowly than Stubby Fingers and adapts more slowly after transplanting. It took a season longer to establish in my garden than the Stubby Fingers did, or I would have probably used more Acre than Stubby Fingers.
- Blue Spruce Sedum Blue Spruce Sedum is so called because young plants and spring growth have a shape and color that resembles the tip ends of a Colorado Blue Spruce tree. If color is important to you, you should note that Woolly Thyme and Blue Spruce Sedum are very close in shade.
Blue Spruce grows faster, spreads faster, and gets taller than either Stubby Fingers or Acre (8" or more in good conditions). Unfortunately, when it is preparing to bloom, it shoots up ungainly stalks which are nowhere near as attractive as the early growth of the plant. Many Blue Spruce Sedum users constantly trim the plants down to avoid the "leggy" look. Of course if you want a bunch of these, you can save the tips you cut off and poke them in the ground somewhere else. If you don't plan on trimming your Blue Spruce Sedum, consider using it further back, where the ungainly individual stems are less noticeable.
Dragons' Blood Sedum - Dragon's Blood Sedum hugs the ground more and fills in less than the other sedums I have mentioned. I bought some for the color variety, but it hasn't been as useful as a ground cover or for other "fill-in" uses as the other sedums I've named.
Yarrow is another herb that garden railroaders have found useful. While some varieties get over two foot tall, I have found two varieties with attractive foilage that I can keep visually compatible with my trains.
Where to Plant
In my experience, yarrows grow a little better with light shade than with heavy shade or direct noonday sun.
How to Spread
If you want yarrows to spread, allow them to go to seed, then transplant the seedlings next year. Digging out part of an established patch of yarrow may put the part you want to leave there into shock, which doesn't necessarily kill it, but it won't look as nice this season as it should.
- "Wild" Yarrow - This isn't the "right" name for this, but it is descriptive - you can find this stuff growing very well in meadows in cooler (zone 3-4) climates, but it will grow in my garden as well. It has delicate fern-like foilage, which seldom gets over six inches long. If it gets too tall, you can always trim it back a little. Its blooms are clusters of tiny pink flowers that appear on leafy stalks several inches above the ground. Some garden railroaders trim the flower stalks to maintain a lower appearance, others allow the flowers to bloom, but cut them back after the bloom has faded. If you want it to spread, allow the bloom to go to seed as well, and you'll have some new starts next spring. While the plant is tall and in bloom, it doesn't look very "prototypical," but folks who don't enjoy the flowers keep it trimmed back. (A few related varieties are sold in nurseries, but read the description carefully before you buy a bunch of them, and look for plants with fine, fernlike foilage.)
- Woolly Yarrow - This is a nursery plant. Like Woolly Thyme, its leaves are silvery. The leaves seem to hug the ground more than other yarrows, except for the stalks of tiny yellow flowers that you may clip, allow to bloom, or allow to go to seed, as you wish. It provides a nice alternative to thymes. However, it does not seem to spread as fast or be as robust as the more upright yarrows.
The flowers listed below will help you fill in empty spaces without visually dominating your train, at first anyway. The Threadleaf Coreopsis and Finger Geranium will eventually get too big to use in areas where you're trying to keep a purely prototypical look, but when that happens, you can move them out to the "transition" area between the "scale" plants and your 1:1 garden.
The smaller plants, like Maiden Pinks and Sea Pinks (no relation, in spite of their name) have low-lying foilage that blends with your "scale" plants, but have the added benefit of providing pretty flowers in late spring and early summer. The plants' configuration allows you to "deadhead" the flowers when they're no longer attractive without damaging the appearance of the plant (unless you're trying to get them to spread).
Sweet Woodruff is a groundcover you may or may not find useful.
- Threadleaf Coreopsis - Coreopsis, also called Tickseed, has a yellow daisy-shaped flower that blooms for much of the summer. Threadleaf and Moonbeam Coreopsis are cultivars that have much finer foilage and a more delicate flower than ordinary Coreopsis, In fact, Threadleaf has leaves so slender they quite resemble the needles on my dwarf Alberta Spruce. Threadleaf spreads by short runners, usually a couple inches from the original plant, but the new shoots grow roots and grow upright, so the plant maintains a nice vertical appearance, whether it's a single plant or a miniature "bush." On the other hand they are easy to transplant--just clip a stalk with roots apart from the "bush," and get it rooted elsewhere. In early summer, each stalk of Threadleaf sprouts a yellow daisy-shaped flower that may last until mid-autumn, or may come and go if there are weather extremes. Though the plant dies back to the ground in the winter, it sprouts early enough to fill in nicely by late spring.
- Maiden Pinks - Dianthus Deltoides has tiny leaves that stay close to the ground, and bright 1/2" flowers that hover on slender stalks several inches away from the rest of the plant. When in bloom, Deltoides provides a surprising little patch of color, usually red, pink, or white, or some combination. When the plant is not in bloom, the low-lying small foilage would not be objectionable to the most particular scale plant buff. They seem to crave sunlight to the extent that one patch I had in semi-shade actually worked its way over into full sunlight. Another patch I started in direct sunlight and virtually identical soil, has grown much better.
- Sea Pinks - When not in bloom, Sea Pinks look like a healthy clump of Fescue grass, a likeness that caused me to accidentally dispose of a plant a few years ago. Unlike Fescue, the leaves seldom exceed three inches--too long to look prototypical (unless you're modelling a sub-tropical "bush" country) but not so long as to distract from the scene. I use a patch to provide a "transition" between miniature foreground plants and some distinctly oversized landscaping plants. The flowers are little globe-like clusters that hover on stalks several inches higher than the main body of the plant. Sea Pinks spread very slowly, a few inches a season, so you don't have to worry about them taking over an area like you might, say, Sweet Woodruff (below).
- Sweet Woodruff - Sweet Woodruff is sold as an herb although it is seldom used as anything but groundcover. It has supple 4-6" stalks and no branches. Instead, slender 1'-2" leaves poke directly out of the stalk in all directions. In mid summer, Sweet Woodruff receives a "crown" of tiny white flowers which do not distract from the appeareance of the plant. Because it spreads by runners which root quickly, transplanting is easy, and the plant may even become invasive. However it comes in handy for quickly filling an area that you may later intend to fill with miniature or other more permanent residents. Sweet Woodruff will grow in very deep shade, or in direct sunlight; it seems to prefer light shade. Although it freezes completely back to the ground by late winter, Sweet Woodruff makes an early spring appearance that will satisfy all but the most hardy of operators.
- Finger Geranium [Cranesbill] - Finger Geranium is a variety of Cranesbill Geranium with deeply serrated leaves that almost look like long-fingered hands. In bad soil, they retain a miniature appearance, but in good soil, the leaves and blooms may become too large, and the plant may become too bushy, to use in proximity to scale structures, etc. Finger Geraniums spread by runner, so they're relatively easy to transplant, and they bloom on and off throughout the growing season. I started using several of these in a relatively bare spot of my railroad, but they almost took over, so I'm moving them out to the perimeter, to help provide a transition between the truly miniature plants and the 1:1 landscape.
Much has been written on the subject of Dwarf Alberta Spruce and the various creeping junipers I use, so I'll defer to the more careful gardeners and the instructions you get with the plant, for location, planting, and maintenance instructions. However I will add that I don't water or fertilize my Albertas or Mugo pines unless they look like they're ready to die. I have lost a couple, but most of them are only slightly larger than they were when I brought them home from K-Mart, Wal-Mart, or Meijers years ago. This is a good thing, because it keeps me from having to find new homes for them and going back to the store for more little ones. In Ohio, I don't have any control over rainfall, but otherwise this "neglect" isn't too dissimilar to what Bonzaii gardeners do with much more precision.
I do treat my creeping Junipers a little nicer, at least until they spread to cover the ground I want them to.
On the subject of watering, if you have a well or very hard water, don't overwater conifers. Be judicious even in drought conditions. Most conifers like acid soil, and it's possible to "kill them with kindness" with hard water -- several friends have done so. If you must water extensively, use coffee grounds or other acidifying product to counter the alkaline effect of your ground water.
- Dwarf Alberta Spruce - This is the mainstay of Garden Railroad forests in much of the United States. Jean's Dilly is a smaller, more conical, slower growing cultivar that you should consider if you know you need a certain planting to look a certain way for several years. However, I get by with "ordinary" Dwarf Alberta Spruce by underfeeding them and not deliberately overwatering them.
I will mention one thing I haven't seen in articles about maintaining Dwarf Alberta Spruce. If you want your tree to have healthy branches pretty far down to the ground, be careful about letting ground cover or other plants grow up too "snug" around them. Deprived of light, the lower branches will turn brown; then the only healthy foilage you have left is that which is above the "highwater mark" of the ground cover. You won't notice until the ground cover recedes the next winter and leaves your inverted-ice-cream-cone trees looking more like Charley Brown's Christmas tree from the "waist" down.
- Mugo Pine - Although their tips grow upward, Mugo Pines lay low and spread out; a healthy, compact plant takes on the shape of an upright soup bowl, which may be useful in certain parts of your garden. There are miniature and dwarf Mugo Pines which will keep a sort of pincushion shape for a long time in the right condition. I have three "ordinary" Mugo Pines that
I have kept small by not providing optimum conditions.
- Creeping Junipers can be divided into those which lay down completely and those which have upright tips. Blue Chip, Japanese Garden, and Dwarf Procumbens have tips that are a little more upright, so a planting of them looks slightly more like a miniature forest. Both kinds spread out, as much as several feet in every direction, if you let them. I use these chiefly to "fill in" areas that are supposed to represent evergreen forests between towns. By their nature they are less "portable" than thyme or sedum, so I wouldn?t use them in a spot I planned later to revisit with miniature plantings and details. Also, unlike thymes or sedums, their roots will eventually weaken the roots of perennials and bulb plants. Creeping Junipers I have used with success include:
- Blue Rug Juniper - has deep blue-green foilage and keeps such a low profile that you can almost see every rock in the soil.
- Japanese Garden Juniper - has upright tips with dense blue-green foilage; plants can be trimmed bonzaii style to represent weatherworn evergreens or left to spread to represent a forested area.
- Dwarf Procumbens Juniper - is a slightly smaller, denser version of Japanese Garden Juniper; mine are greener than their big brothers. They have such short needles and dense foilage that they can fit a number of garden railroad uses.
- Blue Star Juniper - has bluegreen needles on branches that point in different directions, hence
the "Star" name. Useful more for variety than for conventional ground-cover use.
- Blue Chip Juniper - has growth patterns that are a little more regular than Blue Star Juniper, but still offers variety over Japanese Garden Juniper.
If you can afford a trayful of expensive plants, and prefer instant gratification, you probably could "jumpstart" your garden railroad's garden with an extra investment in plants. However it may pay to start with smaller quantities (and a lot of mulch) to see what will work in your garden and what won't.
You may also become unsatisfied with the appearance of something that is being cheerfully used by every garden railroader in your community. Or you may realize that you haven't left enough room for those building kits you brought home from the last train show.
Most of the non-conifers I've listed in this article will give you a good start on an attractive garden railway, without costing you so much that you can't "afford" to rip out a planting if you need to move your right-of-way, or that you're afraid of trimming it back.
A few non-gardener friends have had so much luck with some of these plants (especially the sedums) that they are cheerfully giving away starts and encouraging other non-gardeners that it's not as hard or as expensive to have a nicely planted garden railway as you might think.
Best of luck!
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