Making the best of two hobbies: model railroading and gardening

Posted: Friday, May 09, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) Want to work on the railroad? Then become a gardener. Many families are crossing gender and generational lines to make model railroading and gardening into one year-round landscaping project.

It combines some varying interests,'' says Paul Busse, a landscape architect from Alexandria, Ky., who specializes in designing railroad gardens. Ninety percent of our clients approach it as a couple. The wife might be the gardener while the fellow might be into model railroading.

The gender in my garden railroad club (Greater Cincinnati Garden Railway Society) is about three-quarter couples,'' Busse says. With the strictly model railroad clubs, it usually runs 95 percent men.''

Railroad gardening isn't something new. The concept began in Britain more than a century ago and became popular here in the 1920s and 1930s. Interest fell during World War II but climbed again when LGB Lehman Gross Bahn, a German company began producing large-scale trains in 1968.

Trains in today's typical garden layouts are larger than the indoor varieties we toyed with in our childhoods something called G'' scale. Individual cars go about the size of a loaf of bread while locomotives can extend 3 feet to 4 feet long.

There's a wide spectrum of themes,'' Busse says. The world of G scale encompasses everything from narrow gauge (tracks) and European trains to all steam or all diesel engines.''

Busse even incorporates circus trains and streetcars into designs he makes for some of his commercial clients, like the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens at Pittsburgh.

Many of the locomotives are built with sealed drives. That, combined with specially treated tracks, makes it practical to run them outdoors, rain or shine.

It's OK to enjoy model railroading and the sun at the same time. Or for that matter, the snow,'' says Doug Blaine, vice president-marketing, for Philadelphia-based Bachmann Industries, a model train manufacturer.

There are companies selling miniature snowplows for mounting on the front of engines so tracks can be cleared in winter. These trains are meant to be outdoors 365 days a year, although most people build a train shed as part of their railroad design. They pull them in at night, out of the weather.''

Busse puts it another way: If you're hardy, the trains are, too.''

Model trains are another way to add motion and color to a garden. By moving your railroad from a plywood table in the basement to an outdoor setting, you're getting a live layout that can grow and change with the seasons. Some pruning may be necessary, however, to avoid derailments.

And then there's scale. Similarity in size doesn't matter much to some people when it comes to laying tracks in their gardens.

Some are content to run their trains through rows of petunias and that does look great,'' Blaine says. Others think they should be mated with smaller plants. Scale is all to those people.''

Many hobbyists suggest adding a water garden if you have a model railroad or adding a model railroad if you have a rock garden. They're natural companions.

Trains can be an accessory, tucked in there like a surprise,'' Busse says.

Miniature plants can be pruned to fit the landscape, perhaps replicating a particular region or locale where one lives or grew up. Dwarf conifers, thyme, heather, creeping sedum, coleus and alpine strawberries are recommended. Moss can front for grass.

Railroad cars give you a good reason for bridges. I suggest getting as much dimension in it as possible stuff like trestles and tunnels,'' Busse says.

Stress the landscape dimensionally if you don't want to stress the trains too much.''

He tries incorporating native materials as much as he can into his pint-sized structures. Twigs, bark, lichen and leaves can be made to resemble stone, cedar shakes or siding. The materials can be crafted into authentic-looking replicas of local buildings or landmarks say a covered bridge or water-wheel-driven gristmill.

Longtime practitioners say it's fine for beginners to have one-track minds.

Build an oval, then consider expansion,'' Blaine says. Don't think you have to do it all at once.''

The average residential layout runs $300 to $500 and goes on from there.

You can take it as seriously as you want and as far as you want,'' Busse says. There are literally no (price) limits.''

Look to people already into the hobby for ideas and suggestions. Garden Railways magazine lists more than 150 clubs at its corporate Web site.

If there's any kind of common thread running through railroad gardening,'' Busse says, it's that everyone has a lot of fun doing it.''

Recommended reading:

Garden Railways magazine, Kalmbach Publishing Co., P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, Wis. 53187-1612; Garden Railroading: Getting Started in the Hobby,'' Kalmbach Books; How to Build Your Garden Railway,'' Sidestreet Publishing.

On the Net:

For a list of garden railroad clubs and hints about getting started: http://www.gardentrains.com



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