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April, 2021 Update from Family Garden Trains™. This photo was taken while I was installing the roadbed for the new mainline on the New Boston and Donnels Creek.  Click to see a bigger photo. 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
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Ground Cover 101

Click for a free subscription to our Garden Railroading newsletter.Bare soil rarely stays bare long here in Ohio. So even if I didn't mind my trains running through dust or mud (depending on the weather), it wouldn't be long before they were running through dandelions and honeysuckle bushes. Not to mention that the track and equipment would require much more cleaning. So I have made several attempts to cover the dirt around my tracks and buildings, and hopefully learned a little in the process.

By definition, ground cover hides the soil. It also keeps a relatively low profile-a "ground cover" in landscaping seldom exceeds 18". In garden railroading, we try to keep our groundcovers much shorter, so they don't hide our buildings and people. And there are some great choices out there. Often visitors or new garden railroaders are struck with the attractiveness of the thymes, miniature sedums, and other plants surrounding the buildings and tracks of established railroads. What they don't factor in is that such plantings may have taken years to establish, and don't necessarily provide an immediate solution to all the ground cover needs of a young layout. On behalf of the beginner or for a new garden railroad, this article briefly reviews some approaches that won't break the bank and won't preclude you trying other approaches later on.

Technically speaking, ground covers include lawn grass, gravel, mulch, and a wide variety of plants. Any of these solutions is better than dirt (or dirt-and-weeds) for most purposes, but they meet different needs.

An ideal ground-cover for a garden railroad should have at least the following characteristics:

  • It should be easy to maintain and not require frequent replacement or replenishment
  • It should reduce or eliminate weed growth
  • It should hold the soil in place in all seasons
  • It should not hamper the growth of desired plants
  • It should look okay next to your trains and buildings

If you choose a living ground-cover, add the following characteristics to the above list:

  • It should be hardy enough to stand your climate extremes
  • It should grow fast enough to fill in where you want it
  • It should not "take over" where you don't want it

No matter how attractive any kind of ground cover may be, nothing meets all of the above needs, especially when you're first starting out. But you have to do something. So let's take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of a few solutions.

Lawn Grass

Don't laugh. If you plan to have some distance of track running at ground level, designing that stretch so you can mow up against it (or even over it, if you're careful) can save you a lot of headaches while you're getting things established. Many notable garden railroads have grassy sections connecting the sections with all the scenery and fancy plants. Folks who use 20' diameter curves especially find lawn grass a reasonable alternative to landscaping or gardening all that right-of-way.

In its favor, if you choose a lawn grass that is suitable for your climate, you will find that you can easily maintain it with tools you already own, it is self-replenishing, and it reduces weed growth (not to mention that there are a host of lawn-care products available). Okay, maybe you eventually want to have something fancier, but if you are just starting out and can leave part of your lawn in, er, lawn, you may find this a viable solution, at least until you've got everything else under control. Obviously, though, lawn grass is not the best solution for small or raised segments.

Gravel or Mulch

I put these into one category because they have several similarities. For example, they both require you to haul them in, and they both do the best job of reducing weeds when you install them over good landscaping fabric. Unlike plants you have to nurture and wait to grow, gravel or mulch looks as good as it ever will the day you put it down. We have a saying in our house, though: "Mulch covers a multitude of sins." If you have a big stretch that you haven't gotten around to landscaping yet, a few cubic feet of mulch (maybe interrupted by a few inexpensive dwarf or low-lying conifers) will give an amazingly finished look to it in a matter of minutes. I like to choose mulch that is finely chopped so it doesn't look like piles of logs next to my equipment. Also, cedar or cypruss mulch tend to stick around longer and withstand wood-loving insects better than hardwood mulch. So consider cedar or cypress if you expect to leave the mulch down a little while or if you're working against your house's foundation.

Both gravel and mulch require replenishment eventually, because they discolor or work their way into the soil. Gravel is more expensive than the same volume of mulch, and it doesn't outright decompose, so I restrict its use to places I expect to keep in gravel for the foreseeable future or where it is a natural extension of the ballast and roadbed, say at a junction. Neither gravel or mulch will keep out weed growth indefinitely, even combined with landscape fabric sheeting. Sooner or later, the wind and rain will dump enough dirt on top of the plastic to give weed seeds a place to sprout. But weeds rooted in mulch are generally easier to pull. So on the whole, gravel and mulch are extremely low maintenance and easy to install in a hurry. In addition, mulch can be as temporary or as permanent as you need it to be.

A Personal Note - On the New Boston and Donnels Creek, I didn't use landscape fabric on the ground-level "north loop" because I had had such great luck with ground covers on the raised "south loop" that I figured I'd have a lush green carpet there in no time. Then we had two or three rainy springs in a row that drowned the thyme there, and the sedum wouldn't spread as fast as I was used to, but the thistles, dandelions, ragweed, goldenrod, and wild parsley loved it. The long and short of it was that a quarter of my garden railroad was taking more time to weed than the whole rest of it did. And the irony was that it was an area that was mostly obscured by an evergreen in front of the railroad anyway. So I decided to drop back and "punt," and put landscape fabric under a portion of my existing railroad, so maybe the next time I want to just step outside and run trains, I won't have to get out the dandelion puller and the Roundup first.

I have plenty of fine plants growing elsewhere, so I don't really need to have anything dramatic in this corner anyway. And the "landscaping fabric under mulch or gravel" approach saved me a lot of work around the swimming pool this year, so I'm confident it will work for me here, once I get time to get it all down, re-mulched, and re-ballasted. I've included this photo and this story just to show that I don't always get things right the first time or even the second or third time. Also to demonstrate why I now recommend to beginning garden railroaders that they put good garden fabric down first. It's easier to peel away a little at a time as the plants do take over than it is to put down around plants and track and things. In addition, don't bother with the landscaping fabric that's only guaranteed for a year or five, unless you want to do this all over again in a year or three.

Finally, this is a reminder not to panic if you try something and it doesn't work out, even if it worked out for you before. Your garden is alive, after all. The rest of this article deals with the living, breathing, groundcovers, and shows you some parts of my garden railroad that did work out.

Living Ground Covers

Eventually most garden railroaders try to get some low-lying plants to represent grass and bushes around their tracks and buildings. Here is where the gardening part of garden railroading comes in, as well as a certain amount of frustration. Let's face it, plants are a whole lot less predictable than mulch or gravel. Keep your eyes open and a notebook handy when you visit garden railroads and garden centers in your area; ask a lot of questions. But don't spend a fortune on miniature plants before you've tried out a few different kinds and find out what works for you in your yard.

  • First, you can't assume that what works for a guy up the street will work just the same for you. Your friend's soil or water supply may have a different PH, or he just may spend much more time kidding borderline plants along than you ever will.
  • Second, you always run the risk that a plant you buy isn't exactly the same as the plant someone else is using with success. Sure, if you get to know the Latin names of the plants in question, you reduce the chance for confusion. Plant nurseries will tell you that if you have the cultivar name (the "name brand" of a specific variety), you can't go wrong. But I have bought clearly labeled cultivars from respectable dealers, only to have the plants turn out to be different sizes, shapes, and colors than the identically labeled plants in the catalogs or magazines.
  • Third, some plants that work for other people may become pests for you, or you may decide later that you don't like their appearance. Aggressive plants that spread by runners may crowd out more "polite" plants you prefer, and they may take years to entirely eliminate from your garden if you decide they're more trouble than they're worth.

There are many choices available, but three basic kinds of living groundcovers that have worked best for me, and which are usually available at area nurseries are: thymes, sedums, and junipers. These also seem to work for most people in the Midwest and Northeast; however, they may not work as well in your soil or in your microclimate as they do for me. Think of the following plants as examples of the sort of things you might look for, and learn what garden railroaders in your area are using successfully. (If you are very polite, the property owners may even give you a start or two.)

Thymes

Ordinary thyme (vulgaris) grows several inches tall and has leaves up to a half an inch, but many tiny varieties are now available. Several that are labeled "creeping" thyme get only two or three inches tall and have tiny leaves. Even more useful if you're trying to represent grassy strips, etc., are "woolly," "elfin," and a number of other varieties that seldom exceed an inch or two in height. The downside to thymes is that they can be slow to get established, and they occasionally die back for no apparent reason. Worse yet, the lower the profile, the "touchier" the thyme seems to be. So if you use thymes, experiment with a variety so you can swap things around if one planting "goes south."

A Personal Note - Many garden railroaders in the Midwest started with Woolly Thyme (shown in a photo near the end of the article) when few other low-growing thymes were available. It lays very low (making it suitable for "lawns") and has tiny blue-green leaves that look silvery because they are coated with a sort of "peach fuzz." It took me about four years before mine really established and started spreading well, but once it did, it added a great look to several parts of the garden. In fact some people say that the older an Ohio garden railway gets, the fuzzier it gets, but that's not universally true.

Thymes take a couple of years to really establish, but once you have a nice bank of them, it's easy to get starts for new plants. So the sooner you have a few varieties of thyme growing in your yard, the more money you will save on future plant purchases when you extend your railroad. To get new starts, just pick up a "branch" at the edge of the bunch, feel your way back underneath the branch until you come to a place where it is rooted. Pull the root out gently, then pull the part attached to the root away from the rest of the plant. Get the root into some good soil (you may cover some, but not all of the leaves if you need to) and keep it moist until you see new growth. For more information on the planting and propagation of thymes, please see my article Inexpensive and Low-Maintenance Plants for Garden Railroads.

Sedums

I've had even better luck with miniature sedums, including one called "Stubby Fingers," whose protuberances (you can't really call them leaves) seldom exceed 3/8" in length. They grow great in cracks between stones, and other hard-to-work areas. I have used several other varieties with success, including a variety of "Acre" sedum that has even smaller foliage. The drought-resistant quality of miniature sedums is especially helpful when we have summers that are very dry for Ohio, like the summer when we went eight weeks straight without rain, and the sedums came back better than ever the next spring. On the other hand, places that are perennially dry, such as the American Southwest, don't always have enough rain to keep sedums healthy. Once again, find out what people around you are using with success.
Sedums can be spread easily in the spring simply by breaking off a "branch," sticking it in good soil somewhere else and keeping it moist until you see some new growth or it rains a couple of times. One reason to get some of the sedums you want started early (perhaps even before you have a permanent railroad) is that an early $3 investment can save you a fortune when you need to "fill in" a new section of the railroad. For more information on the planting and propagation of sedums, please see my article Inexpensive and Low-Maintenance Plants for Garden Railroads.

Both thymes and sedum will reduce the number of weed seeds that take root, but they will move cheerfully aside for bulb plants or other established perennials. Although their color and appearance suffer in the winter, they hang on enough to maintain an appearance of foliage and to hold the soil in place. They also regain their appearance quickly in early spring.

Creeping Junipers

Creeping junipers can be divided into those which lay down completely and those which have upright tips. Blue Rug Juniper keeps such a low profile that you can almost see every rock in the soil. It is useful almost anywhere you want a flat area that looks "bushy" but doesn't call attention to itself. Japanese Garden and Dwarf Procumbens Junipers 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.

One advantage of creeping junipers is that they really are evergreen. Yes, you've seen Blue Rug Juniper looking red and dusty in August near parking lots. But if they have a minimal amount of moisture junipers will keep their rich color all winter long. That means that if you get an unseasonably warm winter day, and you want to run trains, or if a distant relative drops by in February, your garden is still green and attractive.
All three classes of ground covers look great and thrive growing in beds of finely-chopped mulch. And the mulch will recede as the plants spread. Consequently, a good choice for the beginner is a lot of mulch and a few experimental plantings. If the plantings are successful, they will eventually displace the mulch (and diminish your need for it).

Other Plants You May Try

Many garden railroaders in warmer climates have good luck with Baby Tears. Some folks in zones as cool as ours (zone 5.5) have had good luck with Corsican Mint as well. It doesn't grow in my neighborhood (ask your friends from the Midwest about the "north-of-I-70 phenomenon") but people who have kept theirs going claim that it spreads nicely once it gets established. Again, before you invest a fortune or a great many hours trying to keep something alive that isn't really that useful in your area, see what other garden railroaders near you are using successfully.

Don't be frustrated if a groundcover don't exactly take off the first year, though. There's a saying among gardeners about perennials after transplanting: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep. But their roots are getting established the whole time and they will eventually spread out where you need them to as long as you keep them alive.

A Note About Color

Having a Y chromosone, when I first started sprinkling groundcovers around my railroad, I planted them according to the size I expected them to get and the effect I was going for in different areas: field, scrub brush, forest, etc. So I had deep green Creeping Thyme interspersed with pale blue-green Blue Spruce Sedum. My wife pointed out how much better the Woolly Thyme matched the color of the Blue Spruce Sedum, and the trouble was she was right. So I did a little moving things around, and it probably looks much better to people who aren't color-blind. So in case you're into that sort of thing, I'll mention that groundcovers can be divided according to color as well as species and growing habits. The following list will include plants I haven't profiled here, in case you want to try them as well.

Note: This list has nothing to do with the color of the flowers on these plants. In most cases, the flowers don't last long; consider them a bonus (Golden Crown Sedum) or a nuisance (Blue Spruce Sedum) as you prefer, and plan on dead-heading the larger Sedums a couple weeks after they start to bloom. In addition, the exact hue of the plants and their flowers will be affected by chemistry, amount of daylight, and amount of rain, so, like everything else in this article, your mileage will vary. Please e-mail me with additions or corrections.

  • Bright green: Elfin Thyme, Dwarf Procumbens Juniper, Acre Sedum, Corsican Mint
  • Deep green: Creeping Thyme, most "common" thymes, Golden Crown Sedum, Baby Tears (warm climates only)
  • Jade green: Stubby Fingers Sedum (tips turn red in autumn or dry spells)
  • Pale blue-green: Woolly Thyme, Blue Spruce Sedum, English Lavender
  • Deep blue-green: Blue Rug Juniper, Japanese Garden Juniper, Blue Star Juniper (more useful as an accent plant)

Ground Covers from Hell

If you have gardeners in your family, or are starting your railroad in an established garden, you may have or may unwillingly acquire ground covers that are not suitable for your garden railroads. You can't afford to be polite when someone clucks over an unbroken bank of mulch and gives you a nice start of some groundcover that is "perfectly useful" in traditional gardening or landscaping, but which may become intrusive on your railroad. I have had several plants leapfrog other groundcovers I liked better, as well as roadbed, "parking lots," and in some cases small buildings, to establish starts several places I didn't want them, without bothering to fill in where I really wanted. These included ajuga, periwinkle (myrtle), ivy, vining euonimous, blue star creeper, and pachysandra. After I published this list, several people e-mailed me to claim that they had had found one or another of these plants to be quite polite and useful on their railroad. So, once again, your mileage will vary. The point is that if you try a new groundcover you aren't familiar with, consider using it first in some corner where it can't easily spread to other parts of your garden, in case it turns out to be a bad match for your needs. Frankly, most relatively hardy ground covers are far more intrusive on a garden railroad (where you're trying to water, etc., responsibly) than they are elsewhere. So a plant that has been stable and polite for a decade of neglect around your front porch steps may grow like kudzu around your pond.

In addition, it's common for vining plants like ivy and pachysandra not to establish well until something else is holding the soil in place for them. So you can have a bank of pachysandra limping along for a year or five until something you like better takes root; then the pachysandra takes off, thank you very much. And such plants develop such incredible root systems that you can't pull them out without destroying almost everything else in the vicinity. So when Grandma offers you some Baltic Ivy just to "temporarily" fill in a gap in your greenery, learn to "Just say no."

Conclusion

There are no hard-and-fast rules. Just don't expect everything you try to work out just right, especially the first year or two you break soil or try a new variety. Take your time, try things out a little at a time to see what works for you, and avoid shortcuts you may regret later. Above all, remember that you're the person who eventually has to be satisfied with how all these things come together. Best of luck!

Keep in Touch

Finally, please let us know about your ongoing projects. Ask questions, send corrections, suggest article ideas, send photos, whatever you think will help you or your fellow railroaders. In the meantime, enjoy your trains, and especially enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks,

Paul Race

FamilyGardenTrains.com

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