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Using vertical elements in the garden railway

Create a towering awe factor with trees, structures, rock, and more
Gary and Jonette Lee use their slope to wow us. A tall bridge between trestles frames a waterfall in a verdant glade of sedum. Visitors’ jaws drop and necks crane to view the train overhead on The Baker & Grande Ronde Railroad.
Nancy Norris
Hand-carved native sandstone cliffs provide both backdrop and tunnels on The Smith Family Railroad. Columnar conifers opposite a three-story mill act as landmarks for the logging train.
Nancy Norris
Marshall and Weylin Rose leave clues to a compelling hillside mystery on their Triple Falls Lumber & Mining Company Railroad.
Nancy Norris
Verticality is a well-integrated theme on The Ponderosa & Alamo Western, where Mark and Colleen Grzan anchored dozens of natural pillars of desert-rose rock. Some are nestled near tall trees and others appear as monoliths in a high desert hardscape of pebbles of the same color.
Nancy Norris
Juxtaposed in the rock-strewn desert at the Denver Botanic Gardens, some columnar cacti wrap themselves in hairy fur, thorns, or yellow barbs, while shorter relatives mill about to maintain a well-proportioned whole.
Nancy Norris
The illusion of height helps viewers feel they can see the world, as long as they’re willing to climb a few flights of stairs. Even 3" visitors get a view in Bob Vidal’s Vidalville.
Nancy Norris
This angle of Marge and Al Curtis’ Carousel Line could be a puzzle. Can you count the vertical elements? Answers, clockwise: 1) columnar dwarf tree on left, called Sky Pencil; 2) cliff faces of retaining-wall rock; 3) church with steeple and arched windows; 4) rock outcroppings; 5) ribs of the faux girder bridge (actually half a drain pipe); and 6) a bonus—the ladder.
Nancy Norris
Two narrow Swane’s Golden cypress trees easily flank the formal columned mansion without obscuring it. Beyond and between them live two Pesto Perpetua basil trees on the BAGRS Roving Garden Railway (see the blog at
Nancy Norris
In a perfect world all is in balance—it rains only at night, critters forage only on weeds, and dwarf trees grow only two-feet high. Then there’s the real world, where we aspire for perfection (or at least balance) in designing our garden railway. Look across the garden landscape or across the plan on paper and notice the profile of the landscape. Do you see rock outcroppings boldly reaching for the stars, spindly trees towering over buildings, or a church spire rising above treetops? The low lying, peaceful meadows entice us to stretch out and snooze, whereas tall exclamation points grab our attention—at least until the train trundles by.

Pillars of the earth

Rarely do we focus on the physical contrast between the horizontal and vertical elements of a beautiful garden railway—we simply “ooh” and “aah.” To achieve such an appreciation requires a little sensitivity and study. The practice of balancing earth energies, as in the vertical with the horizontal, creates a dynamic landscape because of the harmonious tension we feel. Rather than challenging the laws of physical gravity, dominant pillars stabilize the landscape as they connect to it. For example, immense rocks jut out of the ground, columnar trees grow up from supportive roots, and towers emerge from solid foundations. Our gaze is naturally drawn to the sense of strength they project.

Gardeners modeling on a hillside are lucky to have a natural, steep landmass for all sorts of up-and-down lines, such as waterfalls, cliffs, and gorges. Other modelers fall in love with the geography of a named railroad, a type of rock, or even a tall structure, then proceed to duplicate the awe factor they felt when visiting that place. If you’re just starting construction or want to infuse energy into a flat area of your railway, this discussion about verticality may help. You’ll be relieved—it isn’t necessary to build a sky-scraping mountain.

Architectural lines

Historically, the science of designing buildings has employed verticality to direct traffic, protect entrances, and entice visitors to linger. A garden “room” has similar functions. Hedges and fences bring a sense of safety to their surroundings and thus allow us to feel at ease. The horizontal space in which we relax (and work) must feel protective or at least give the illusion of containment, as inside a low fence or wall. Tall canopy trees can be great for enclosing, but must be balanced with plenty of “windows” for light. Small gardens need narrow canopy trees: view pictures at
Ancient towns had high, formal gates to keep out the riffraff and force visitors to pass through the market. Likewise, an attractive arbor or a pair of pillars (from the chart) funnels guests into the garden to surprise viewers with the magical first impression intended by the designer. Instead of clustered columns, as in a great hall, we might group trees into a forest to denote the far end of our viewing experience. Conversely, sparsely scattered tall items in the front will aid in depth perception so that far-off scenes seem smaller. Up-front placement of a narrow tree from the chart won’t hide too much.

The architectural columns on grand buildings, particularly when repeated, are obvious symbols of strength. Bridge abutments and vertical trestle bents heighten our amazement at the force necessary to support tons of steel. The only vertical lines you may wish to subdue are your 1:1 fence boards. Screen them with climbing vines or a mini forest to keep our view in scale (see “Plant portraits” this issue).

Fastigiate forms

Slow-growing trees shaped like columns fit easily into miniature landscapes. Nurseries and breeders have selected a range of hardy shrubs with a pillar-type profile, some of which are listed in the chart. They have visual names like pencil, rocket, tower, and spire; some use the Latin, fastigiata, meaning peaked. The overall look of most of the chart plants is that of a scaled-down Italian cypress with tiny leaves colored green, steel blue, or gold. A few selections are notably different: Japanese barberry turns from burgundy to red; celosia flowers cluster into orange, red, or yellow spires; and Pesto Perpetua basil lights up a scene with bright white-and-green edible foliage.

Naturally skinny plants need less pruning, although eventually some varieties will need to be headed back. All these plants have a strong, erect trait and a basal clumping tendency, which you can use to advantage. If your columnar tree is getting older, you can remove some of the vertical branches to thin it. To prevent giants, don’t over-feed or -water. Do root prune or constrict the roots on those aiming for eight or more feet high. A few of these varieties have more of an open apex, which, in time, looks raggedy, so pruning tips into a point is advisable. Rather than giving it a crew cut, go back to a main stem and remove whole tip branches for a natural look. For more information, see

The chart’s group of narrow conifers and broadleaf shrubs are more column-like than cone-shaped. Buy the plants in small pots and you’ll enjoy their easy care for many years. If you live where snow and ice could stick and weigh the branches down, splaying them out, you can drive a stake into the middle of the column, alongside the trunk, and wrap twine around the plant for the winter. Personally, I would just keep an eye on them and wander out after a storm and shake off the excess load. It’s a great excuse to fend off cabin fever and get some fresh air. 

On the F&DRR, columnar rocks, massed with wooden piers and abutments, draw attention to the end of the horizontal bender-board bridge and surround a portal feature.
Frank Lucas
A dwarf member of the bearded-iris family (possibly Iris x germanica ‘Red Pixie’, Zones 3-9) shows off blooms while snuggling up to a vertical rock outcropping on the Krickle Creek Railway.
Nancy Norris
In spring, bright-blue spikes, 5-6" tall, emerge from low growing, bronze-green ajuga rosettes to create a surreal forest complementing the horizontal track and trains.
Dick Friedman
The darkest-green needles of the Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’) form a vertical evergreen accent in the Southpark & Dogbark Railroad.
Nancy Norris
Concerned about scale fires in his growing forest, Ray “stretched” his fire tower above the dwarf Alberta spruce trees.
Ray Turner
Geodesic molded cliffs and a tower dwarf the train.
Ray Turner
Regional gardening reports

Zones listed are USDA Hardiness Zones

Question: How do vertical elements enhance your railway garden?

Frank Lucas
Pleasant Hill, California, Zone 9
Ba-salt of the earth
We needed a transition between our desert scene and the post-and-ladder trestle that looped around the village below. Natural stone “basalt crystals” were just the right thing. We planted several of these pillars to focus on our pretend-road tunnel and made sure that they rose above the track. Another advantage is that we don’t have to prune them that often.

Verne and Kathleen Clayton
Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Zone 3
Optical illusion
Verticality is useful in creating a sense of “distance” on a railway. The tall rock visually separates the train-station area from the curved-track sections in the foreground, drawing the eye from horizontal to vertical. Dwarf irises add spring color but the leaves are more important, as they are short enough to create an image of a forest, adding to the visual effect of the train disappearing after it leaves the station. This technique is applied elsewhere on our railway, as it consists of several shorter-radius curves. Iris x pumila is even smaller, with finger-size leaves to 6". (Reference: Perennials for the Prairies, by E. Toop and S. Williams, University of Alberta and University of Saskatchewan.)

Dick Friedman
Sacramento, California, Zone 9
Seasonal spikes
When we moved into this house in 1975 the yard was bare dirt. All the good soil was scraped off when they built the house. Ajuga (Ajuga reptans, Zones 3-9) seems to like poor soil, heat, and direct sun all day and looks good around Lake Platipi.

Bill Hewitt
Mansfield, Massachusetts, Zone 5
Summer, sweet and sour
This past summer our garden railway was on WBZ TV Channel 4 CBS
Boston as part of the series “Gardening with Gutner” on interesting gardens. It was not a good season for the plants on our railroad. The whole summer was extremely hot and dry. We were fine until mid August. Then the Irish yew in the picture died, as well as a number of dwarf Alberta spruces due to spider mites. I did not catch them soon enough. The Irish yew was a great one to use and looked great near buildings. It stayed small and compact and required very little pruning. I had several of them but they, too, died at the end of that hot summer. We will replant them in the spring.

Ray Turner
San Jose, California, Zone 9
Tower over tall trees
I increased the height of the fire tower 10" so that it would still be able to “see” over the trees, and its height would dominate the scene and “tower” over the trains. The tall trees in the background provide a natural view block for the Mystic Mountain Railroad.


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