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A catalog of useful plants for railroad gardens

Helpful photos showing small-scale plants in a railroad garden setting
What appear to be small apple trees in bloom are really Mexican false heather, a.k.a. elfin herb (Cuphea hyssopifolia, Zones 8-11). These are easy to grow in full to partial sun and average soil and watering. They flower almost continually with white, pink, red, or purple blossoms, outdoors year round in the south or over-wintered indoors in the north. Thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis ‘Tiny Blue’, Zones 4-9) is in the foreground. It flowers abundantly, with tiny azure-blue blossoms in spring.
Don Parker
Firewitch dianthus (cheddar pink) (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’, Zones 3-9) makes a spectacular edging at the front of the Hoot ’n’ Holler Railroad. It grows 4-6" tall and prefers full sun and well-drained, gravelly soil.
Don Parker
Golden Japanese sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’, Zones 6-9) grows lushly in moist soil, such as here at the Big Hoot River Grist Mill on the Hoot ’n’ Holler Railroad. It is growing in a soil-filled pot sunk in the gravel next to the river.
Don Parker
Anita ivy (Hedera helix ‘Anita’, Zones 5-10) can be trimmed and trained to make a believable grape arbor, as here on Steve Tusen’s garden railroad near Sandusky, Ohio. Note the ivy growing on the “Whining Baby Winery” building.
Dale Tusen
A miniature hemlock, probably Abbott’s Pygmy (Tsuga canadensis ‘Abbott’s Pygmy’, Zones 4-7) is growing in the Holden Arboretum’s garden railway in Kirtland, Ohio. It reaches 12-18" tall in 10 years and has very small needles. There are several other hemlock cultivars that don’t grow taller than 24" in 10 years.
Don Parker
Red Star white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Red Star’, Zones 4-8) is a wonderful little cultivar with in-scale, tree-like proportions, growing in a narrow column 2½ to 3' tall at maturity. It is seen here on Mark Langan’s garden railroad near Huron, Ohio.
Don Parker
Bressingham Pink thyme (Thymus doerfleri ‘Bressingham Pink’, Zones 3-9) grows readily in well-drained sunny sites and puts on a spectacular show in spring, with bright, lavender-pink blossoms smothering the foliage. On either side is woolly thyme.
Don Parker
Alpine lady’s mantel (Alchemilla alpina, Zones 3-11) provides a touch of elegance in a sunny to partially shady area. This plant grows 3-4" tall and spreads slowly to 8-12" wide. It prefers moist soil, especially when grown in full sun. (Photographed at Mark Langan’s Mulberry Creek Herb Farm.)
Don Parker
For a lively groundcover with green and gold variegated foliage, choose Highland Cream thyme (Thymus praecox ‘Highland Cream’, Zones 3-8). Pale pink flowers will appear in summer on this sun lover that delights in growing among rocks and in gravelly, well-drained soil. Blue and white lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Blue Cushion’ and L. angustifolia ‘Alba Nana’, Zones 5-9) are blooming beyond the track.
Don Parker
Another white cedar with a dense, vertical tree shape is Ellwood’s Pillar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Ellwood’s Pillar’, Zones 5-9). It grows to 3-4' tall at maturity and its blue-green foliage contrasts well with other conifers. (Photographed in one of Mark Langan’s large-scale railroad vignettes in his marvelous miniatures nursery at Mulberry Creek Herb Farm, Huron, Ohio.)
Don Parker
If you’re like me, about this time of year catalogs become storefronts for window shopping. When plants are the object of desire, what you see is often not what you get (in the way of mature size and staying scale appropriate). The most recent issue of this magazine has several ads offering small plants but only one has a website showing a few photos of plants in a garden-railroad setting, and looking at starter plants in little pots at the nursery or garden center doesn’t give you much of a clue as to their future appearance on your railroad.

What I want to do here and in the next issue is to whet your appetite for a variety of small plants that could add interest to your line, by showing photographs of each plant growing in a garden railroad or in a natural setting.


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