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.

My List

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.

Thymes

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.

Benefits

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.

Miniature Sedums

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.

Benefits

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.

Yarrow

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.

Perennial Flowers

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.

Conifers

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.

Have Patience

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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