How to use the color yellow in the garden

Brighten your railroad garden with yellow or gold specimens
1. Sunset crowns the Overlook Garden Railway with the help of borrowed scenery from sugar maples in the background. Carl and Pat Churchill model a typical rural Maine shopping experience. Mother Lode juniper models the ubiquitous field of goldenrod, which bounces color off the yellow panel truck.
Nancy Norris
2. Years ago, the Maine Central Railroad ran west over the state line into New Hampshire, so Carl Churchill scratchbuilt the elegant Conway Scenic Railroad depot.
Nancy Norris
5. Viewed from a helicopter over the sunniest district of Tom and Judy Briggs’ railway, golden box honeysuckle trees line tidy city streets.
Nancy Norris
6. The sunflower field of Tequila creeping zinnia. This plant was a 2008 All America Selection, which means it was one of the best new plants for that year. Sunbini creeping zinnia is even shorter.
Nancy Norris
7. On Dick and Evelyn Wolf’s D&E Garden Railroad, kids play and sheep graze on both sides of this emotionally sunny station. The low Scotch moss reflects yellow-edged leaves of purple-blooming Doone Valley thyme. Far off, the sun catches the top of a golden scale-leaf tree.
Nancy Norris
3. To stir up excitement on their Rhätische Bahn West (RBW), Chip and Sue Gierhart set up a dry-ice feature. “Smoke” pours down from between red rocks. The flaming, wind-battered branches of Fernspray Gold cypress show signs of constant gusts on top of the rugged cliffs—movement without motion.
Nancy Norris
4. Evening Glow mirror bush mimics a tree on fire and lights the way for trains on the RBW. This tropical beauty hails from Australia.
Nancy Norris

Last October, I flew East to Maine to take in the fall-foliage spectacle. Groves of birches and poplar (aspen) had already turned completely yellow. Arriving at Carl and Pat Churchill’s backyard railway, sugar maples blazed like flames against a blue sky at noon. I was eager to take photos but my camera struggled to do justice to the scenery because the glaring midday sun tended to wash out the colors.

All that changed at sunset, when the Midas touch soaked the whole miniature Maine landscape in a soft golden glow. Now spotlighted, a familiar scene took me back to the ’60s (photo 1). Maine’s rural “strip malls” looked just like that when I lived there, and goldenrod fields still grow up to (and into) the gravel lots. Let’s focus on how yellow gold transforms gardens as well as our perception.

The gold standard

What is it about the color yellow? Florists know that yellow flowers make the cheeriest bouquet for those who are sick or sad. While red infuses energy and blue calms us, yellow brings out the artistic creator in each of us. Use yellow/gold near conversation areas to stimulate creative communication and imagination. As in my case above, yellow stimulates memory, so if you want to model a bygone era or remember a locale you visited, lightly intersperse your railway with yellow objects and plants, like a spice. 

I’m no psychologist, but the yellow heather, with its vertical flame-like branches—under the fire tower—made me look twice at the composition in photo 2. At that time, in the late afternoon, the handsome yellow depot positively shone against the dark woods, where red “clouds” hovered in the twilight.

Spending your gold

The most obvious use of golden plants is in lighting up a dark corner or contrasting with darker objects and plants to uplift and show off the whole scene. Photo 3’s blood-red rocks and seemingly bottomless ravine have the potential for a smoldering netherworld feeling, except that several Fernspray Gold cypress trees dance around what now becomes a sea-smoke-covered fiord. The tension of opposites serves up counterbalance for an enchanting view.

You can carry this principle to extremes if you’d like to shock viewers. It’s very “in” to plant gold plants among black foliage. The 3"-high black leaves and spring blue flowers of carpet bugle (Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’, Zones 3-9, no photo) surrounding a yellow specimen, such as the sun-lit gold tree in photo 4, would be an edgy way to draw attention to a scene—maybe a vignette of a forest fire. You won’t have to point and the black leaves will say it all!

Photo 5 exemplifies a technique to highlight a shady railway by massing yellow street trees that shine on a nicely coiffed neighborhood. Like a gold vein, the scene adds value when balanced by green. If yellow is scattered all over the garden, the resulting look may be muddy.

Resources for robust plants

In the miniature golden scenery chart, choose from 30 plants according to your hardiness zone. Pay attention to the required sun exposure. Some golden-foliage plants revert to green in too much shade because the chlorophyll in the leaves needs sun to feed the plant, and chlorophyll production is lower in yellow-variegated leaves. Too much sun may fry golden leaves. Sensitive plants wanting “partial sun” often flourish in morning sun with afternoon shade. In full sun, try a flowering annual plant, such as creeping zinnia (photo 6), to quickly and easily infuse the charm of sunflowers. In shade, try golden clubmoss or sphagnum moss.

As lower autumn temperatures slow or stop the production of green chlorophyll in leaf cells to expose the yellow/orange/red pigments that have been masked all summer, you may notice golden-leafed plants in gardens and nurseries. Meanwhile, keep your green plants healthy to prevent the uneven and unsightly yellowing due to nutrient deficiency, drought, or pest damage. A few correctly placed golden plants can pull a scene together. In photo 7, three yellow-variegated plants make this sunny vignette sparkle. 

Nurseries offer several compact golden barberry plants, like this Sunsation barberry, paired with golden blue bells in the rear.
Nancy Norris
Ray Turner enjoys his Narcissus bulbocodium spp. ‘Golden Bells’, the tiniest of all daffodils. Their bulbs each produce many flower heads and fine grassy leaves. Sky explains how to care for them.
Ray Turner
Sedum blooms on the Quinn Mountain Railroad.
Christina Brittain
This closeup of creeping Jenny (sometimes called moneywort) shows off the lime-yellow, dime-sized leaves.
Kevin Ylvisaker
Golden bird's foot trefoil shares a patch of ground with Chocolate Chip bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Valfredda’).
Kathleen Clayton
Appropriately cactus-like yellow flowers add a cheery note to this gallows scene on the Serussa Railroad.
Sue Piper
Regional gardening reports

Zones listed are USDA Hardiness Zones

Question: Which dwarf plants light up your railway garden with yellow or gold mini flowers, leaves, or variegation?

Doug Matheson
Manotick, Ontario, Canada, Zone 4

One of my favorite plants for imparting a yellow color amongst the green is the dwarf Japanese barberry, commonly called Golden Nugget barberry. It is slow growing and tolerates poorer soils as long as they are well drained. I grow these interspersed with green conifers, like dwarf Alberta Spruce, as a way to give a variety of coloration to the areas of my garden in full sun. It is easy to grow and requires little pruning due to its slow growth. The fine golden foliage becomes more intense in fall, when it produces bright-red berries.

Sky and Bob Yankee
Mulino, Oregon, Zone 7

Year-round yellow
Yellow is our favorite color. We like the bright, year round, gold-foliage plants, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’, C.o. ‘Meroke’, and the tiny, grass-like Acorus gramineus ‘Mini Gold’. For a spring showing, we created Daffodil Hill on the railroad, with a mass of mini daffodils, including Hoop Petticoat, Minnow, and Little Gem. The foliage looks like grass so we have to think twice before we weed there. The foliage starts out in small scale when the flowers bloom, but afterwards may lengthen in size and look unsightly.

However, as with all daffodils, the foliage must be left to ripen until it fades, before cutting back. This is a small price to pay for the bright color we enjoy February through April. In July and August, yellow comes again on the Sedum acre blooms, which are upright and thick enough to replicate the miscellaneous brushy growth seen in the Cascade Forests that surround us. Fall brings the golden leaves of the mini maples.

Christina Brittain
Washougal, Washington, Zone 6-7

Sedum stats
Many of my preferred railroad plants dwell in the sedum group. A favorite for year-round interest is semi-evergreen goldmoss stonecrop (Sedum acre ‘Aurea’). Leaves are simple, smooth, and succulent, weaving a dense, lush, 1"-high carpet of sea green. In early summer, a riot of airy, yellow blooms attracts bees and butterflies. Spent stalks are easily plucked. In winter, the tidy foliage shrinks back to resemble miniature hen-and-chicks, tinged with red in colder climates. It’s fast to grow (spreading to 24") but not rude, as it can be ripped out with little effort. Propagate by root divisions, cuttings, and layering. Happiest in poor sand/gravel soil, sedum gets leggy in richer medium and detests wet feet, so spare the water. It thrives in full sun but grows slowly in light to moderate shade. Stonecrop withstands light foot traffic and cascades beautifully over rock walls and the edge of containers. Some people use it as seasoning due to its peppery taste, but it can cause stomach upset if eaten in large quantities. In Scandinavian countries it is used to make a tea similar to lemonade.

Kathleen and Verne Clayton
Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Zone 3

Some of the track area around our small pond is a difficult area for plants, as the rocks and sun exposure dry out the soil. Golden bird’s foot trefoil has survived for seven years, with an occasional “almost dead” year. It produces an abundance of bright-yellow blooms well into July, even though the plant must regrow from the base each year, which helps to keep it manageable around the track.

The creeping broom (Genista pilosa ‘Vancouver Gold’, Zones 4-9) has not performed as well, with slow growth and tiny yellow flowers on green leggy arms. It will be moved to another “test” area.
Our native plant, golden bean (Thermopsis rhombifolia), provides lovely yellow spring (mid May) flowers that last until mid June. Its only drawback is that it dies back by the end of July, leaving an open area that is not noticed in its natural setting of prairie grasses.

Sue Piper
Near San Diego, California, Zone 10

Gallows humor
A unique challenge has been to find slow growing, tiny plants for our “ghost town” that do not look lush or tropical. We have a few Cotoneaster corokia or “Ghost Trees,” which I keep pruned for a stark, sparsely leafed look. In the spring, they have a few cheery yellow blossoms that resemble small dandelions and provide an interesting contrast to the gray-tone of the trunks and leaves.

I found the unusual little sedum in the photo at a discount nursery. Unfortunately, the name tag only said “Sedum,” giving no other information. Happily, it has maintained its spindly growth pattern and, as an added bonus, produces delicate, pale-yellow blooms in the spring. Without being overbearing, it brightens up the area.

Kevin Ylvisaker
Mukwonago, Wisconsin, Zone 4

Yellow creepers
Our favorite groundcover is creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’). I have it next to ponds and it even creeps into the water, where it roots. It’s too invasive next to buildings and people.

In Wisconsin we have a native cactus, Opuntia fragilis sp. About eight years ago, I put a small cutting in the ground and now it has spread quite wide. Every year I give cutting after cutting away to friends and it continues to grow quite wild. Last year it produced about 70 large, yellow blossoms around the fourth of July and it was amazing. It is planted at the front of the railway, away from the trains. In the winter it turns purple and shrivels up and looks dead, but in the spring it puffs up and turns bright green again.
Download this bonus chart on yellow plants for garden railroaders!

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