Early-blooming perennials for a garden railway

Add some spring color to your garden railway
The blossoms of pink false rock cress (Aubrieta deltoidea) brighten up the trackside as Fireman Fred heads out to do a little track inspection. These are young plants that self sowed from the clump to the right (which are a purplish-blue).
Don Parker
The blue and purplish-blue flowers above the tunnel entrance are those of false rock cress (Aubrieta deltoidea). The white flowers to the left belong to true rock cress (Arabis procurrens 'Variegata').
Don Parker
Pink bell-shaped flowers adorn a heath plant (Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink') blooming in early to mid-March. The horses are grazing on the early shoots of blue star creeper.
Don Parker
Labrador violets (Viola labradorica) are blooming in mid-March along this less-used spur on the Rustin & Decrepit. These are all self-sown upstarts from the original plants some 10-12 feet away. As freebies, they are a welcome bargain.
Don Parker
This clump of Labrador violets is growing on a well-draining slope that gets full sun all year, showing that these little violets are tougher than their woodland cousins, who don't venture out of shady, moist areas.
Don Parker
As I write this, spring is still a long, cold season away. As you read this, spring may have already come and gone. Regardless, spring is an enchanting time. That's when the garden is all decked out in its vernal garment of green, with bunches of jewels and sequins adorning the green fabric-early blooming perennial flowers. They often catch our eye and, at times, make us catch our breath. Such is the enchantment that spring conjures up.

Let's take a look at some little spring bloomers that can brighten up your railway garden. Small plants that enhance the scale appearance of nearby railroad structures are the first choice of those who strive for believability in their railroad scenes. Some of these more diminutive plants bloom in vibrant colors every spring. That's a real bonus if you like color in your railway garden. If you're afraid they might steal the show, upstaging the railroad features, you might not want to plant too many of these spring showoffs. Scattering them around among the more prosaic plants would tone down the effect. Placing a few of them where it would be appropriate to attract attention would be a good solution.

I won't describe early spring-flowering bulbs here, as I touched on that in my column in the April 2004 GR. Most of the plants I'll mention are small rock-garden plants preferring good drainage and plenty of sun, unless otherwise specified.

Plants that like well-drained soil

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata, Zones 3-8) are a familiar sight in many spring gardens, producing carpets of brilliant colors in bright red, pink, blue, and white. The leaves are needle-like and the stems are prostrate, forming a dense mound 3-4" high. Individual plants will grow 2' wide, but the stems will often layer-that is, produce roots where the stems touch the ground. The colony may spread almost indefinitely unless contained by barriers or larger plants. However, moss phlox is easy to pull out, as the root system is shallow and sparse. If you plant different colors side by side, hybrids with more muted colors may develop. Propagation is easy by making divisions after flowering. Shearing the plants back halfway following flowering will promote dense foliage and some rebloom.

False rock cress (Aubrieta deltoidea, Zones 4-8) looks best sprawling across rocks. There are many named cultivars of Aubrieta, with foliage that's golden-green, gray-green, or gold-edged. Flower colors range from blue through violet to pink and red. The foliage forms a dense mat about 4" high and up to 24" wide, with flowers that reach up to 6". Its spectacular color display in spring rivals the more commonly used moss phlox, but it doesn't spread as moss phlox can. Self seeding does occur, but to a limited degree and the seedlings are easily pulled up if growing where they are not wanted. Aubrieta benefits from shearing back after flowering to a height of 2". It will maintain a compact, pleasing green mat for the rest of the year.

Variegated true rock cress (Arabis procurrens 'Variegata', syn. A. ferdinandi-coburgi 'Variegata', Zones 3-7) looks great climbing among rocks and in rock walls. It is an evergreen, mat-forming perennial, growing about 3/4" high, with small, oval green leaves splashed with cream. The slender flower stalks are 4-6" tall topped with a cluster of tiny, pure white flowers. Shearing these off after bloom keeps the whole effect diminutive and tidy.

Sandworts (Arenaria spp.) have several uses in the garden railway. One of the brightest green groundcovers is golden moss sandwort (A. verna 'Aurea', Zones 4-9), which, although it doesn't flower in spring, makes a refreshing golden-green carpet year round, but it is especially bright in spring. One of its cousins, A. purpurascens, (Zones 4-7) is a great little mat-forming perennial with glossy green leaves growing less than an inch high. In early spring it blooms with many small clusters of star-shaped pale-to-deep purplish-pink flowers. This one does best in well drained, slightly acid soil, with some afternoon shade in hotter climes.

Smaller species of candytuft (Iberis spp.) are early blooming subshrubs (which I did not include in my February 2006 GR column). They enjoy sun and well drained soils and are easy to grow. I. sempervirens compactum and I. sempervirens 'Pygmaea' (Zones 5-9) are beautiful, compact little evergreen shrubs growing 3-4" high, that are smothered in pure-white flowers in early to mid-spring.

Plants that like moist soil

Labrador violets (Viola labradorica, syn. V. riviniana 'Purpurea', Zones 5-8) are related to our common woodland sweet violet (V. odorata). Labrador violet leaves are purple on the underside, giving a purple cast to the leaves all summer but especially in the fall, winter, and spring. The plants quickly form a nice mat and reseed themselves, but not aggressively so. Purple-blue flowers appear early and continue throughout spring, with an occasional flower popping up here and there during the rest of the year. Labrador violets stand 3-4" high and prefer partial shade and moist, humusy soil-but will tolerate full sun. In fact, the latter condition helps to keep the clumps of violets smaller and less prone to ramble.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria, Zones 4-8) is a delightful early blooming woodland flower that would make a great conversation piece in the railroad garden. The tiny white flowers look like pairs of inflated trousers hanging upside down and dancing over the ferny foliage. The blue-green leaves on arching stems produce compact clumps 3-4" high with the flowers reaching to about 6". Dutchman's breeches do best in semi-shade and moist, organic soil. They are ephemeral, meaning they go dormant and disappear in summer. Plant them where nearby shade-loving plants will cover the bare area in summer.

Tolerant of most soils

Heath, also called winter heather, (Erica spp., Zones 4-10) is one of the earliest plants to bloom in the garden, putting out myriads of buds in the fall that open in February or March. I recently described these eminently useful plants for the railroad garden (February 2006 GR). Their scale-compatible foliage, overall size, and variety of cultivars make them one of the best choices for representing shrubby groundcover in our miniature landscapes. And they provide abundant tiny, bell-like flowers when little else is blooming.

They are easy to grow and undemanding of soil condition, and, though they prefer sun, they will tolerate some shade.

These are some of the vanguards of spring-blooming plants that are suitable for the railroad garden. They herald the coming growing season when many of their more timid neighbors are tentatively putting out their first shoots. After waiting all winter for spring to arrive, we can be grateful to these little early bloomers for ushering in the season so colorfully.


Arrowhead Alpines

Bluestone Perennials

Heaths and Heathers Nursery


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