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How to use the color blue in the garden railway

Even trains can get the blues
1. The Lady of Loch Leven, pride of Scott Gould’s Ballachulish & Pitlochry Railway, awaits the boarding of passengers in front of the depot roofed in Welsh blue slate. Okay, it just looks like slate.
Scott Gould
2. Rick and Susan Manfredi's Peculiar Junction Railroad enjoys multiple mainlines passing through dwarf trees. Flanking the picture are two Dutch elms (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Jacqueline Hillier’, Zones 5-7). Top and bottom, two golden conifers frame the train: the creeping juniper is Juniperus horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’ (Zones 3-10) and the shrub above is goldthread cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’, Zones 4-8). The slow-growing star of the show is blue star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’, Zones 4-8).
Nancy Norris
3. The center of the mountain stream on Jerry and Alison Ogden’s Possum Creek Railroad is surrounded by a bevy of blue plants. The tallest tree, at 2 o’clock, is Boulevard cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’, Zones 4-8). Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosis, Zones 4-9) drapes over river cliffs. On the left, the silver-blue lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus, Zones 6-9) has been pruned to show an aging trunk.
Nancy Norris
4. Tom Manoff’s Bear Mountain Railroad cools down a hot day with the stonecrop groundcover Sedum spathulifolium ‘Cape Blanco’ (Zones 5-9). This evergreen wildflower from coastal Oregon needs excellent drainage to overwinter.
Nancy Norris
5. Silver bush (Calocephalus brownii, Zones 10-12), a native to Australia, blends into the travertine-stone bridge but contrasts nicely with the author’s Shay, running on Richard and Melinda Murray’s Green Hills Railroad.
Nancy Norris
6. Jack and Pauline Verducci’s Crystal Springs Railroad backdrops their forest in a painted blue sky. The tallest tree is a replica (unknown species) of a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens, Zones 3-8).
7. Two gardeners reflect on a long day of running trains at Margaret Barber’s Madcap Arbitrary & Bumblebee Railroad. Two blue subshrubs reflect the borrowed view of the Rocky Mountains. It was in her Colorado prairie that Margaret found fringed sagebrush (Artemisia frigida, Zones 3-10, on the left) and sidled it up to partridge feather (Tanacetum densum ssp. amani, Zones 4-9 up to 8,000' elevation), a Turkish import.
Nancy Norris
8. Blue flowers of speedwell (Veronica whitleyi, Zones 3-7) mirror the blue truck and workers on Lucia and Robin Edmond’s Rocktown Railroad in Alberta, Canada.
Nancy Norris
9. Turquoise-veneer ledger rocks from Utah easily fit together to make a scenic waterway. Both river and waterfall have been set in a bed of gravel to create access and contrast to the stacked natural flagstone cliffs in the Train Man of Oakland’s railway.
Nancy Norris
Other than the sky, blue is rarely found in gardens. The least-common color for flowers is blue. Even rarer are blue leaves, thus more valuable to gardeners. Blues in the garden range from natural, hazy-blue mountain ranges to man-made Thomas the Tank Engine. We can also paint shades of blue that look natural, as in the slate roof on the depot in photo 1.

To blue or not to blue
Some garden-railway enthusiasts perceive any color other than green as taking away from the visual uniformity of a countryside that should highlight moving trains. They like the peace and calm of green. But blue is the quietest of all colors and acts like a mediator to tone down the dark greens and yellow greens, as in photo 2.
Too much, and we might feel the blues. Photo 3 shows several blue-colored plants at high noon, slightly washed out from the sun. However, during cloudy days or at night, they shine like the moon and draw attention to a beautiful water feature. There’s nothing sad about photo 4, taken under a tree—a light-blue native stonecrop outlines the structures placed in shade.

Dry climate?
If you’ve been to the desert, “down under”, or to any area with exceptionally dry or sandy soil, you’ll find blue plants. In California, due to drought, the Cooperative Extension Service recommends natives from Australia, where most of the country is dry. The Aussie import, silver bush or cushion bush (photo 5), like many bluish plants, is covered with a waxy substance that holds in moisture. The wax reflects light, causing the silvery look.

Colorado blue spruce hails from the high desert but railroaders in any state can trim it down into the bonsai formal style (photo 6). Be sure to avoid spraying your blue-leaved conifers with horticultural oil, which will take away the powder-blue color and make leaves shiny and dark.

Another native to Colorado, prairie sage, when paired with partridge feather, creates billowy mountains in the rear of a Colorado railway garden (photo 7). Also from the southwest, drought-tolerant dwarf Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘Blue Ice’, Zones 6-9) makes a good forest tree.

Singing the blues
Like the blues in music, which deviates from the typical scales, blue plants change the garden, visually softening the scenery with their light blue-green shades. Originating in African-American communities, the musical blues were often sung in a call-and-response pattern to reiterate the sense of community. In photo 8 a bright-blue panel truck calls out its color and a chorus of veronica flowers responds in kind. Repetition is an effective design technique, almost lyrical.

Are you feeling a bit blue? It may be time to branch out a bit. Choose some blue for moist shade, like Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Zones 4-9) or moss rock encrusted with blue-green lichen. In the sun, try a hillock of blue grasses (Festuca glauca ‘Sea Urchin, Zones 4-9).

Faux water
Maybe you’re inspired to walk on water. A river of stones (photo 9) adds interest and a way in. Some landscape-material yards offer chunks of recycled blue auto glass to add to dry or wet creeks. Apparently reflecting the blue sky above, flat glass marbles make a fun river (photo 10), accented by a scary story. Momentarily the shiny glass and blue pebbles beguile us into believing a dry creek is a water feature.

Read more “Greening your railway” stories on color

June 2010: “Color me content”
October 2011: “Yellow gold”
June 2014: “Using the color red in your garden railway”
Scott Gould’s roof used to be a little too blue for his liking. See photo 1 in “Greening...” for the modification that made the slate more realistic and aged.
Nancy Norris
Saskatoon Sal rests on a rock in the Claytons’ garden railway. She is holding a blue bellflower, commonly known as fairies’ thimbles for the delicate little cup-shaped blooms.
Nancy Norris
Also known as creeping bellflower, this groundcover looks innocent enough but Kathleen Clayton has a good way to control it near tracks.
Kathleen Clayton
Ray Turner likes to grow dark-blue lobelia (Lobelia erinus, annual) to complement nearby buildings. It starts as a bush then flattens out and spreads somewhat. Eventually it will need replacing.
Nancy Norris
Spring-blooming 4" blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium sp.) grows slowly on Ray Turner’s Mystic Mountain Railroad. The native blue-eyed grass in the northeast US grows taller.
Ray Turner
Regional gardening reports
by Nancy Norris
Zones listed are USDA Hardiness Zones
Has your railway garden got the blues?

Scott Gould
Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Zone 5
Too blue

In front of the inn and depot, passengers await their ride on the Lady of Loch Leven, pride of the Ballachulish & Pitlochry Railway. That’s the same outfit that built the Aberdaron, Pwllheli & Criccieth Railway down in Wales. I’m going to replace the station but I’ve already gone to a more subdued roof treatment—it still has blue, but also purple and green—more like Welsh slate.

Kathleen Clayton
Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Zone 3
True blue

Creeping bellflower (Campanula cocclearifolia or C. pusilla, Zones 3-8) is a tough little plant at only 3 to 4" high when blooming. After blooming, just cut stems with scissors to leave a nice, tidy plant. It grows well in sun or part shade in ordinary well-drained soil. This alpine perennial with curving, spoon-shaped leaves, forms dense mats and is useful for dwarf groundcover. It will grow over and around stones or other objects but it’s easy to propagate—just move a small mass and replant.

Caution: Campanulas will take over the garden if you fertilize a lot. To control this spreading plant, we use pickling vinegar (7% acetic acid) in a spray bottle to keep plants away from track area. The roots are very fine so they’re sometimes hard to control by digging, as each piece left behind could grow.

Ray Turner
San Jose, California, Zone 9
Hues of blue

I like lobelia for its color (it comes in at least three colors: dark and light blue, and purple). [Also white and pink—NN] It’s sold as an annual but usually over-winters pretty well here, although it may get rangy after a while.

I love the flowers on the blue-eyed grass. This perennial spreads slowly, a little each year. I wish it bloomed for a longer time—just a few months, it seems.


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