Model Trains Introduce a Lively Touch Of Whimsy Into a Garden

Paul Busse, the designer of the Christmas railway at the U.S. Botanic Garden, used all-natural materials to recreate such D.C. landmarks as the Capitol and the White House.
Paul Busse, the designer of the Christmas railway at the U.S. Botanic Garden, used all-natural materials to recreate such D.C. landmarks as the Capitol and the White House. (By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, February 18, 2006

Did you ever want to run a railroad? Your very own railroad, designed and built by you and maybe your family, running in your own backyard? A surprising number of gardeners seem to have just that desire, installing miniature train layouts in their gardens. Some are simple, just tracks and trains, while some are elaborate, with buildings, bridges, tunnels, trestles and even miniature people.

"It can be taken as seriously as you want or as whimsically as you want," says Paul Busse, the Kentucky-based designer of private and public garden railways. Busse designed and installed the Christmas railway at the U.S. Botanic Garden last year, using all-natural materials to create such D.C. landmarks as the Capitol and the White House.

Garden railways are a family-friendly hobby that has something for everyone, Busse says. A lot of garden railway enthusiasts are parents or grandparents, or retired couples who want to do something together -- and amaze the grandkids while they're at it.

Most garden railway equipment is G scale, developed in 1968 by the German firm LGB (it stands for Lehmann Gross Bahn, or Lehmann Big Trains). They wanted to create model trains that could run outdoors. The scale is about four times the size of standard HO-scale models. Today, engines come in electric, steam and remote-controlled, rechargeable-battery models. Early G-scale trains were models of historical European ones, but by the 1980s, versions of modern American trains had been introduced to the market.

Busse, who is a landscape architect, says G-scale trains are simply miniature versions of real railroads. The track is laid just like that of a real railroad, he says. "You're just a giant working on it."

Model trains, although mechanical, add the same elements to a garden that wildlife does -- motion, color and sound. They also provide a focal point. You can start small, utilizing a small flowerbed or water feature, and run the railroad around it. Later you can branch out into multiple loops, multiple tracks, multiple train, and more complex landscape features -- until the railway becomes the garden.

Be warned: Running model trains, any kind of model train, can be habit-forming. Eric Nelson, proprietor of Collector Trains and Toy World in Baltimore for 45 years, has a customer who's been coming in once a week every week for 33 years. "He always buys something, sometimes something small, sometimes something big," Nelson says.

It's possible to spend thousands of dollars on trains and accessories, but most people start out smaller. For example, a G-scale Lionel kit of "The Polar Express" that includes an engine, a tender and three passenger cars, plus a 40-foot-by-60-foot oval track and four action figures sells for about $275.

The real magic of garden railways, according to Busse, is creating an environment that fits them. With appropriate plants and appropriate terrain, you can create an entire miniature world.

The design is limited mostly by your imagination, though some of the same constraints apply to tiny trains as to big ones, such as how tight the curves can sweep and how steep a slope can be. "Trains can't suddenly climb hills just because they're small," Busse says.

A simple loop track for a G-scale train can fit into as little as 51 inches, and if you're not running a long train, you can create an elevation change using a gradient of 2 percent (a two-foot rise or fall per 100 feet of track). Start with some elevation, so you can take maximum advantage of rises and dips.

Choosing plants is an important part of creating the illusion. Busse tends to use slower-growing plants with finer textures. A tiny Japanese maple that might be used in a container in a garden or on a patio, when planted next to a miniature train station, suddenly looks like a giant maple spreading its branches over the building.

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