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Mass planting to frame a focal point

Planting groups of similar plants can have a large impact on a scene in your garden railroad
1. The frame and matting gently guide our view inward and cause our eyes to pause to assimilate the story within. Likewise, the meadow of inch-tall star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis ‘Mini Blue’, Zone 5-9) gives us an uninterrupted view, funneling us into the farmyard. The split-rail fence and five, lined-up apple trees (Cotoneaster microphyllus ‘Emerald Spray’, Zone 5-8) help frame the yard where Bubba is tending the horses.
Nancy Norris
2. Stepping back 12 feet from Bubba’s ranch on Don and Marilyn Pickett’s Danville, Alamo & Little Creek Railroad, the bigger picture shows the actual frame—a mass of evergreen trees, mostly dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca conica, Zone 3-8) and dwarf false cypress (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Little Jamie’, Zone 3-8). These tall trees frame the ranch by hiding the neighbor’s fence beyond and separating the ranch from other scenes. The bushy tree at right is a flowering “specimen” (Fuchsia thymifolia, Zone 8-11).
Nancy Norris
3. In Ken and Pat Martin’s Somerset-Pacific Railroad, massed gray rocks of two types—bouquet-canyon flagstone and natural, volcanic, feather-rock boulders—create a steep retaining wall. Ken is modeling Pardee Point, a famous cutaway on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad.
Nancy Norris
4. On the DA&LCRR, three complementary, miniature-rose varieties are grouped together en masse, almost knocking us over with the impact of their floriferous performance. Even the rosy sedum next to the track carries the theme.
Nancy Norris
5. In The Living Desert’s railroad, ledger rocks create a continuous terrace above pink succulents, tying the scenes together. Trees are massed in the distance to block the scene beyond. Unifying this section of the railroad, silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae, Zone 9-11) carpets a room for the skeleton bush (Corokia cotoneaster, Zone 7-10).
Nancy Norris
6. Neil Ramsay’s Emerald Isle from the June 2009 cover feature. Mass planting of Lonicera nitida provides a unified look to the whole railway.
Marc Horovitz
Figure 1
Marc Horovitz
The design principle of massed plantings in home landscaping is a relatively new concept but textural, green drifts and colorful swaths are now standard practice along highways to
mimic the countryside growth along roads. Simply put, massing is a group of like elements-more than three or four. Massing is impressive because of sheer numbers or weight, like a long freight train that makes us stop to count the cars or marvel at the pulling power of the engine. Then, curiosity draws us in to notice the components-in this case, the cars.


Grouping elements, like groundcover, trees, rocks, or structures, serves several purposes in railway design. Aesthetically, masses can frame focal points (photos 1 and 2), separate themes, or provide visual balance. Physically, massing groundcover or stones allow access into the garden. For practicality, covering the ground reduces maintenance by inhibiting weeds. Psychologically, the most compelling reason for bulk plantings is that their bold, dramatic statements create a sense of order and an awareness of space. Many an amateur has discovered the difficulty in merging a wide range of dissimilar plants into a pleasing palette for comfortable viewing over a long period of time. "Keep it simple" is the rule of the day.

Preventing a hodgepodge and limiting the type of plants used is hard for us horticulturists. I want to experience them all, so I've created a little nursery of potted, railway wannabes. Now I watch my "hopefuls" for clues as to how to landscape them in. Some will be specimens (focal points) in stand-alone places of importance.


Another technique for pulling the railway together is repetition of the same species or type of plant in various locations. In photo 2, we grouped similar, needle-leaf evergreens in a forest. While we appreciate their differences, they do lose some of their uniqueness in exchange for acting as a unit. The slight differences and sizes make the forest more believable. A meadow of several same-size groundcovers has a similar naturalizing effect. The nice thing is you won't have to try to get this effect, as weeds and other groundcover seeds blow in-just like in the wild.
Repeating a color shows you where to look, as your eyes naturally bounce from one color to a similar hue. The house and rocks in photo 1 match the wooden frame to bind the look harmoniously. In photo 3, the stacked rocks match the color of the boulders, thus carrying the color to create a more dramatic mass of a cliff. Yes, there is variation but the rust tells the story of minerals exposed when the railroad company cut away the mountain. In photo 4, orange is bounced between the engine and the standard tree rose; and the 11 micro-miniature, light-pink roses (Rosa sp. 'Baby Austin', Zone 5-10) are grouped in drifts, then repeated, to expand the scene and frame the quartzite-rock outcropping, the focal point.


Let's look at planting groundcover. On the plant tag is a recommended spacing, which is often 6-10", meaning from center to center of each small plant. To avoid wasteful crowding or lingering bare spots, it's best to space the individual plants in staggered rows (triangular pattern), rather than lined up like soldiers (square grid), as shown in figure 1.


No single garden railway that I've seen has epitomized massed planting's benefits as much as Neil Ramsay's line, the June 2009 cover story. Neil's panorama of Ireland's sweeping, rolling hills was simply done to frame his Irish trains and take us on a virtual excursion of the emerald isle. Using a limited number of plants creates a quiet, classy look, affording a sense of retreat from business, with time and space to do what we like. . .run trains.


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