Using color in the railway garden

How to use color to create emotion and feeling
2. The dominant, saturated, blue and orange buildings attract each other and us. Adjacent similar colors integrate the items, drawing us into the town’s story. Note the blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis, Zone 5-10) between the tracks and behind the café. Detail-oriented Rich and Ed Abate use the Coca Cola sign to repeat the saloon’s color, visually tying it all together on their Rooster Creek Railway.
Nancy Norris
3. A scheme of bright secondary colors, purple verbena (Verbena ‘Tapien Blue Violet’, Zone 8-11) and the orange flowers of dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’, Zone 7-11), is somewhat softened by the bushy yellow breath of heaven (Coleonema pulchellum ‘Sunset Gold’, Zone 9-11) on the left and the chartreuse mountain groundcover, Scotch moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’, Zone 4-9). Even the neutral wood of the fence, bridge, trellis, similar rock color, and the surrounding yellowish-greens of trees blend in harmony around Mike and Holly Crane’s Crooked Creek.
Nancy Norris
4. Ed Assaf enjoys a medley of greens in his railway. From a sophisticated scheme of green trees and groundcover, color pops off leaves with white or yellow variegation, blue/silver waxy coatings, or yellow/red tints. Subtle differences in texture, like the rocks with the portal, extend and enrich the gray.
Nancy Norris
5. Chris and Nola Greenwald’s Grunenenwald Berg Bahn incorporates masses of silvery plantings integrated into the surrounding yard. Scratchbuilt, weathered buildings add to the 1920s rural feel.
Nancy Norris
7. Dan and Joyce Pierce go for a riot of cheerful color. The massed island of red-leaved coleus, happily shaded under the cherry tree, unifies their Train Garden within a sea of yellow marigolds and prevents cacophony.
Nancy Norris
6. Not yet a rocket scientist at 10, Scott Kennedy figured out how to use color to surprise us. We’re admiring the blue chalk sticks (Senecio talinoides mandraliscae, Zone 10-11) when a matching-colored jet plane suddenly crashes before our eyes into his East Bay Union Railroad.
Nancy Norris
Golden Gate Express Garden Railway models
1. All built from recycled materials, this color-coordinated area of the Golden Gate Express Garden Railway models (left to right) Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Square, California Academy of Science’s rooftop garden, the Japanese Tea Garden’s pagoda, Golden Gate Bridge, and the glass-walled Conservatory of Flowers.
Nancy Norris
Oxalis vulcanicola ‘Zinfandel’
9. Nothing subtle about this wine-colored depot shrub, volcanic wood sorrel (Oxalis vulcanicola ‘Zinfandel’, Zone 9-11 or an annual in the north) amuses passengers on the Murray’s GHRR. Year-round yellow flowers close up at night.
Nancy Norris
8. Planted on a slope, an arguably out-of-scale, 6-12" high, swan-river daisy (Brachyscome ‘Toucan Tango’, Zone 9-11) spreads out to model another hillock on Richard and Melinda Murray’s Green Hills Railroad. The moody blues are monochromatically blended below by the purple plains of Elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Elfin’, Zone 4-9).
Nancy Norris
I recently took a turn manning our club's amazing garden railway at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers. Unsuspecting visitors dropped their jaws at first sight of the miniature trees and flowers among the traveling trains. The small-world, indoor version of the conservatory shines in Golden Gate Park's monochromatic (all one hue) red and white garden. Intense red azaleas, poinsettias, and cyclamens are contrasted by the diffuse silver/blue foliage of santolinas, cedars, cyclamens, and lamiums (photo 1).

This article's title hints at the emotion and contentment that well-appointed color combinations offer but the con-tent of color in your railway garden also determines what we see and where our vision travels. Photo 2 proves that opposites do attract! Shops painted in polar opposites on the color wheel beckon us down the street. Next we notice the supporting, repeated shades in vehicles, signs, and little flowers. Framing the scene with leaves of trees is stable, heart-warming, healthy green. No wonder Asian culture teaches that green is the frequency associated with our heart!

"Using color effectively in the garden" (GR, December 2003) explained the use of the color wheel in our gardens. Now let's let the color strategy of artistic gardeners inspire us to find the feeling we most want to get (and give) from our garden. For instance, photo 3 shows how "secondary" color pairings work harmoniously on a mountainside to call attention to a small water feature.
Color on (full size) buildings is a relatively new concept, historically, because of the absence of affordable paint pigments and the durability of white-lead and milk-based paints. White is right if you're modeling the 1800s. For more on architectural colors, find references at

Is green a color?

It's in the rainbow, yet green is neutral where gardens are concerned, maybe because it's in the center of the spectrum. Without the white on this page, it would be difficult to read; without green, other colors can be jarring, when combined, and difficult to assimilate. Is green just boring? To some it is, but to others it's just perfect. Notice how unboringly the greens in photo 4 voice their cool and warm statements on either side of green, especially the Blue Star junipers (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star', Zone 4-8) over the tunnel growing out of yellowish native moss. Do you feel the push-me/pull-you tactic of creating tangible tension?

The subtlety of greens and other neutral colors is why we retreat from the cities and seek out nature in the relative wilderness of parks and our backyards. Likewise, white flowers and silver leaves in the garden serve to separate awkward combinations, a kind of peace in the eye of the storm. Photo 5 could be a country roadside massed with silvery lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus, Zone 6-9), papery white German statice flowers (Limonium tataricum, Zone 4-9), and white/pink stonecrop flowers (Sedum sp., Zone 3-9). Gray, silver, black, brown, and white are also neutral, contributing to a naturalized look, here punctuated by yellow, button-like blooms of shrubby gray santolinas. What's natural in the southwest is blue-greens with neutral rusty browns (photo 6).

All in the timing

When I lived in the neutral-tone-saturated northeast, after eight months of dirty snow, mud, and gray, leafless trees, I wanted to plant enough vibrant color to tide me over until the next hibernation. A good description of miniature bulbs and spring-color choices is offered in this illustrated online article:
Other northern gardeners (see this issue's "Regional gardening reports") use evergreen plants, berries, and beautiful bark of deciduous plants for winter color interest. Then, for summer, read "Colorful annuals for the railway garden" in the April 2007 GR and the "Regional gardening reports" of June 2007 GR. In the latter issue, find "Early blooming perennials." See how one northern family colors their summer in photo 7.

Remember to shop under the shade cloth at garden centers if trees or buildings block your garden by more than a half-day of sun. Too little sun (or too few nutrients) affects color, just as too much sun can wash out color in some plants. Read labels. Now is the time to pick out a few plants for flashy fall foliage or fruit as temperatures dive.

Highlights and lowlights

One complaint I often hear regarding so-called "color" plants is that annuals and herbaceous perennials usually sport flowers too large compared to, say, a scale figure's head. While I like to use the tiniest flowers (see this issue's "Plant portrait") very close to figures and trains, I don't make it a rigid rule. How about photo 8's example: plant taller flowers in rock crevices or on a hillside to avoid height comparisons. Behind buildings, taller flowers look like bushy trees. You could save the roses, strap-leaved lilies, and larger blooms for that zone or border away from the scale objects or simply plant what looks and feels good to you. Over-planning has its faults. Enjoy your plants. Let them speak softly, as in photo 8, or loud and clear as in photo 9. Anyone who complains can turn off his hearing aid.
Dick’s daughter, Sara, made a consist of table decorations for his retirement party.
Dick Friedman
Lots of green provides year-round texture and continuity in the Rocky Lights Railroad.
Kevin Ylvisaker
Lewisia blossoms
Lewisia blossoms (Lewisia longipetala x cotoledon, Zone 4-8) offer springtime scale color on Ray’s Mystic Mountain Railroad. “Cliff maids” love good drainage at their crowns.
Ray Turner
Miniature daisie
Miniature daisies brighten the median between two rail lines, reminiscent of Ladybird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Program of 1965, in which sunflowers and other colorful annuals and perennials were planted along roadsides.
Sue Piper
Regional gardening reports
Zones listed are USDA Hardiness Zones

Question: How do you color your garden?

Sue Piper
San Diego, California, Zone 10
Sleepy daisies

We tend to be pretty conservative in the selection of colors on our buildings to keep our railroad as realistic in appearance as possible. Even though our selection of colorful plants is limited by exclusively growing dwarfs and miniatures, we've found a few that brighten things right up. We enjoy the tiny, beautiful splashes of lavender provided by our rosemary tree (Rosmarinus officinalis, Zone 9-10) and the hot-pink or white blossoms of the New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum scoparium, Zone 9-11), which all bloom several times each year. The very bright-red "apples" of our thyme-leaf and gray cotoneasters (Cotoneaster microphyllus var. thymifolius, Zone 5-9) remain on the trees most of the year and are always a big hit with visitors. My favorite, considering white a color, is the tiny white daisies of Bellium minutum (Zone 5-9). These beauties let you know spring is really here and continue blooming through fall in our area. The daisies close up at night and open again when the sun comes out. You can't help but be cheered up just looking at the little guys!

Dick Friedman
Sacramento, California, Zone 9
Native to what planet?

Colorful flowers on trees and shrubs would be microscopic at even 1:20.3 scale, let alone the 1:32 scale I try to model! Having said that, let me also say that everything in my garden is not shades of green! I have color in the form of micro-miniature roses, whose tiny blossoms are still oversized, but I like the way they look. I also grow ajugas or Ajuga reptans, Zone 3-9 (I hate the name "bugleweed!") and, despite its rather dark-green foliage, in the spring and summer it puts out pretty, bright-blue spikes of flowers about 6" tall. They don't look like any earth trees but they scale out to about 16' tall, so they give some height next to the track. Maybe this summer, my miniature pomegranate (Punicum granatum 'Nana', Zone 7-11) will bear fruit, so red ping-pong balls hanging on the tiny tree will brighten
up a corner of the railway.

Cecil Easterday
Columbus, Ohio area, Zone 5
Foliage favorites

Consistent year-round color in the Sparta & Shelby Railroad is supplied by plants chosen for their foliage. Listed are some of my favorite colorful evergreens: Rheingold arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold', Zone 2-7); Green Velvet boxwood (Buxus 'Green Velvet', Zone 5-9); Gold Thread false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera 'Gold Thread', Zone 4-9); and Silver Queen wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei 'Silver Queen', Zone 4-9) turns slightly pink in winter). Junipers come in gold, silver, and blue: Juniperus horizontalis 'Mother Lode' (Zone 3-9); J.conferta 'Silver Mist' (Zone 6-9); J.squamata 'Blue Star' (Zone 4-8). Dwarf Canadian spruce (Picea glauca 'Rainbow's End', Zone 3-8) has mid-summer bright, creamy-yellow growth and bird's nest spruce (Picea abies 'Little Gem', Zone 3-8) is a true dwarf Norway spruce with tiny, light-green needles.
In summer, annuals that supply color are Alternanthera ficoidea 'Purple Threadleaf' (Zone 8-10), coleus, pixie impatiens, and sweet alyssum. The woody Berberis thunbergii 'Bagatelle' (Zone 4-8) has brick-red barberry leaves turning brighter red in the fall. My favorite grass-like plants are golden variegated sweet flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon', Zone 6-9) and mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', Zone 6-10) with purple-black foliage and pretty pink blossoms. My favorite groundcovers include stonecrops (Sedum sp., Zone 3-8) with foliage ranging from pink and red to several shades of green. Greek yarrow (Achillea ageratifolia 'Utah', Zone 4-8) is less than 1" tall spreading or cascading with gray-green foliage and bright yellow flowers.

Ray Turner
San Jose, California, Zone 9
Bold and bright

I have some bright-red Lewisia in the springtime. Red makes a bold statement about the end of winter and is a strong color next to the greens of spring. Red really stands out in a field of greens and browns. I also have some large fields of woolly thyme, which present a beautiful, purple carpet of springtime flowers.

Kevin Ylvisaker
Mukwonago, Wisconsin, Zone 4B
Textural tones

We are in Zone 4B so we get all the seasons. Spring color comes from miniature bulb stock that is planted in color groupings throughout the railway. On occasion, I will plant a few smaller annuals to give an immediate shot of color, but the focus in the railway is green. We plant evergreens so the railway looks great all year and any other color is a nice surprise. Evergreens are planted for both color and texture. We try to keep blue greens, like the junipers and fescue, together, and then yellow-greens, like some of the cedars and dwarf Alberta spruces, near each other. They are planted so the eye travels in and around the railway to the buildings and other plant groupings.
Related video
Ray Turner and the Golden Gate Express at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate park, San Francisco.


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