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Dramatize your railway with plants

Set and scene and define the players in your garden
Don and Marilyn Pickett’s Danville Alamo & Little Creek Railroad
Kids dressed for Halloween play under the rose arbor at Don and Marilyn Pickett’s Danville Alamo & Little Creek Railroad.
Nancy Norris
historic gazebo
This historic gazebo on Pickett’s railroad has been replaced after an incident with a raccoon.
Nancy Norris
Pinkie’s house
This house on Don and Marilyn’s line is known as Pinkie’s house, named after their granddaughter who likes to wear pink.
Nancy Norris
Jim and Jackie Ditmer’s Osaka & Orient Express
Under the spreading Juniper tree, surrounded on three sides by rails on Jim and Jackie Ditmer’s Osaka & Orient Express. So, we have two stories from one tree: its former life transformed and its current life guiding foot traffic (us) into the railway and helping to make small trees smaller in the distance
Nancy Norris
the miner in Levis
Who spies the miner in Levis? He’s panning for gold on the Danville Alamo & Little Creek Railroad. A patch of lobelia calls attention to him.
Nancy Norris
We don't have to read The Secret Life of Plants to know that our plants talk to us. They speak many languages: Nature, Cultivation, Habitat, and Whimsy, to name a few. Here are some examples. In the words of Nature, my plants, along with the scent of soil and sap, exude, "You're outdoors now!" If my tree's leaves turn yellow, I receive a message about its fertilizer needs, then read up on how to fix it. A gnarled juniper with only a few twisted branches proclaims from the mountaintop, "I'm surviving the best I can under these harsh conditions." A long, luxurious carpet of flowering groundcover beckons me to follow and see where it leads. What do you think that lonely, leafless tree draped with ropes and an arborist scaling the trunk would have told us?

Scene one, take two

My method in helping others build interesting, smile-evoking garden railways is to listen to their concepts regarding theme, era, scope, budget, climate, and special interests; then we choose plants to tell their story. It may seem overwhelming to have so many concerns. We long for rules to follow-and there are a few-but here's the fun part: plants are forgiving! With care they can be moved, pruned, or hospitalized. Mistakes are what we do on the way to a "take." Many of my best successes have been on the second or fourth take to become the story I didn't know was there.

This is the primary way I have gained information about plants-just by listening-and so I encourage you to pay attention to your green beings. Some of us choose plants to show off our trains and some choose rolling stock and structures to show off our plants. Whether they are stars or supporting actors, our plants take on a theatrical role to win those smiles. Sharing with friends the comedy of your railroad empire is the payoff.

How do we find the correct role for a plant? How does an elm speak? Which language is that spruce using? Just give me the rules! Okay, let's do what a director does on the set. Think in terms of setting, character development, plot, subplots, crisis, and conclusion.

1. Set the stage.
2. Provide a mood
3. Define the players
4. Thicken the plot
5. Surprise us
6. Give us enough story to allow us to draw our own conclusions

Setting the stage

When my daughter was little she related to Flower Fairies of the Garden and other Cicely Mary Barker books that personified flowers into winged, child-like figures wearing petals and leaves. Now, Barker's fairies in large-scale can be bought at garden centers, gift stores, and online for creating fanciful scenes or to represent children in costume. In a full size, fancy rose garden in front of a swing for full-size people, I used a planter to call attention to some lovely micro-miniature roses, Rosa sp. 'Baby Austin' and R. 'Elfinglo' (photo 1). In miniature, like the six-foot climbers tied to the arbor suspending my swing, I tied the micro rose branches to the miniature arbor to mirror the big rose garden. The vines are like curtains on a stage. For the fairies' living rug, I used a low, bluish succulent that blooms pink in late spring, Sedum 'Ruth Bancroft,' which also spills from the urn. Playful or formal, roses set such a happy stage we forgive their large petals.

Mood makers

In this 1920s western town, the park buffers us from the busy town streets. Front and center stands the gazebo dressed in twining ivy (Hedera helix 'Jeanette') (photo 2). Two weeping-willow-like trees, actually lace-leaf Birch (Betula pendula 'Trost's Dwarf'), flank the cool respite of the gazebo and filter sunlight through their airy branches of fine foliage to give safe shade rather than dark shadows. Maybe workers will have lunch there by crossing the lawn of Irish moss (Sagina subulata). We've seen children playing here or families picnicking under the trees, but even without figures in the park, the scene says, "This town cares about its people."

Defining the players

Mrs. Pinkie proudly frames her landscaped cottage to contrast the pink and draw attention to it (photo 3). A dwarf burgundy teatree from down under, (Leptospermum scoparium 'Kiwi') is a pleasing contrast to the blue Dwarf Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis 'Sitka Papoose). Tidy Mrs. Pinkie is pleased with her six-year-old spruce, which never needs pruning. Only once a year does Mr. P. have to shape the 'Kiwi' a bit. Her fenced lawn of Green carpet (Herniaria glabra) rarely needs mowing.

The plot thickens

Again we find at the front of the railway a big, old tree greeting us with its aged beauty and forcing us to look through, over, or around it (photo 4). Placing a large, airy tree in front gives us a layered perspective of depth. Actually this juniper (probably Juniperus chinensis 'Gold Coast') was inherited with the land as a mid-size shrub before 90% of its foliage was "let go." To keep its craggy bark visible, bimonthly pruning is required, but it's only an arm's reach away. By keeping the tree, we've forced the track to go around it in a tight space, just as full-size engineers must do when presented with obstacles worth saving.

So, we have two stories from one tree: its former life transformed and its current life guiding foot traffic (us) into the railway and helping to make small trees smaller in the distance.

Look at me!

Sometimes our little figures are too well hidden, even though we enjoy seeing the element of surprise on our guests' faces when they finally find them on their own. I like to give those story-telling figures a leg up in visibility by letting a plant announce their proximity. Interior designers use color to keep our eyes moving around a room; a garden is no different. By repeating color, we bounce our attention from one similarly colored item to the next, allowing the story to flow. Almost no one saw the miner panning for gold in the stream until we planted an eye-catching patch of Lobelia 'Riviera Sky Blue' on the banks of the stream to match his bright-blue Levis (photo 5).

It's a wrap!

As directors in our backyard dramas, we need help tying up the plots and subplots with a unifying thread. Plants are only too happy to be repeated throughout the railway to give stability through numbers. For example, in a town situation, the simplest formula is to line up street trees with broad-topped crowns. I love how Ulmus parvifolia 'Seiju' protects the buildings with its umbrella top, yet provides ample space below for figures and autos to play out their scenes. Still, I like to tuck in an occasional forest tree "conehead" to show it isn't a city yet and to tie the town to the surrounding countryside, where invariably there are droves of coneheads, because we like to typify the forest with those skinny triangles.

Looking over the railway from afar, I move my director's chair to gain different vantages and squint my eyes to get an overall feel. Where I have one patch of blue, I now want to repeat sister patches to create company and the sense of naturalizing a species. My favorite pattern is an arc of color, rather than a geometric shape, like a rectangle or circle. Somewhere else in the railway I direct cousin patches of blue, maybe smaller, to call out their family ties. Red is another color that cries out for balance. I love red-leafed trees, like Japanese maples, but just one looks out of place unless it's a superb focal point. To justify my passion for them, I usually plant three, forming an irregular triangle or arc, never a straight line-unless they are street trees or lined up in an orchard.

Hollywood or homespun

We garden railroaders know as well as Shakespeare did that "all the world's a stage." One ambitious captain of industry has developed a continuous long stage in his garden, as in a video, showing scene after new scene to capture the feel of the early West and its broad expansion. One soft-spoken woman I visited smiles maternally at her mountain-retreat railway, an eloquently told, simple tale contained in a one-act play. Either way, at the end of the day, the trains chuff into the roundhouse or are lifted into the box. Our plant champions work day and night to keep the story alive.

One might say I spend a little too much time with the plants. I do appreciate them as interesting and beautiful and am always wowed by the transformation they create in the garden railway. They speak to me! While I don't hear "voices" (yet), I maintain that plants do communicate, but so do the rocks. That's another story.

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