What's up front in your railway?

The art of placing elements up front in your garden railway
1. The railway at Taltree Arboretum offers many scenes that depict the great steam era of railroads and their construction. A docent at this public garden railway in Indiana explained that railroad dormitory cars ensured that many workers had a dry place to sleep after long days of laying track. Cleverly, this scene is tucked away to give the illusion of isolation from developed towns.
Nancy Norris
2. The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers constructs a new public garden railway in one of their greenhouses every winter and models an aspect of San Francisco’s history. All live plants are suitable for Zones 6-10. Along this bit of track, even the retaining wall is made from local tree bark, which separates this scene by raising it. Moss comes back to life when the “lawn” is watered, and tiny lime-green lichen shrubs around the statue may or may not be alive. Coffee plant (top right, Coffea arabica, Zones 10-11) acts as a backdrop.
Nancy Norris
3. In a club-owned railroad built within an 80' by 18' yard, the G&O members divided their railway into sections with mountains and cliffs. By city code, the wide perimeter pathways must be 4' wide to allow foot traffic for the viewing public, but that leaves a shortage of space for trains. The use of steep retaining walls creates terraces for many independent lines, including three here in the children’s section. Most trains run on the outer edge of each terrace for access.
Nancy Norris
4. As the streetcar leaves town on Lynn and Ron Gerber’s Gerberville Short Line, it follows the edge of the stone retaining wall along a walkway on the left. On a strip of land only a couple of feet wide, the point-to-point line adds more action than a spur.
Nancy Norris
5. The front of Marcus and Vanessa Kollmann’s Landschaft Gartenbahn is edged with a low retaining wall, which makes a good seat for reaching the switches in the rail yard. Even at night, boxwood trees (Buxus sp., Zones 5-10) green up this European village.
Nancy Norris
6. Daniel Smith has more space behind his workshop but chose to build a showpiece in front, an area that demanded planning to fit it all in. Every inch breathes scale features and miniature plantings into an awe-inspiring, working railroad. Now he continues the lines into the backyard.
Nancy Norris
7. Dave and Carole Kiesig’s lushly landscaped Foxtail & Beaver Creek Railroad is a botanical garden of healthy, appropriately miniature plants. Western maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum var., Zones 2-8) likes the light shade in front of a water tower.
Nancy Norris
The art of placing elements in the front of the railway is mostly a matter of function. The front of the space serves to offer access—physically to the railway or visually to the story within. A border, wall, or hedge keeps you out but lets you reach. Plant material and natural stone help make the transition from full (1:1) scale down to large scale. Even rolling stock on a siding plays a role.

Stop here
From a 1:1 train window we’re able to see tucked-away industrial spurs, like chapters of the bigger story of a railroad. From our “window” vantage on a walkway at Taltree Arboretum (www.taltree.org/around-the-arboretum/gardens/railway-garden-2/) in photo 1, a section of the railway emerges in front of a view block of dark-green dwarf Hinoki cypress trees (Chamaecyparis obtusa var., Zones 4-8). Silver carpet (Cerastium tomentosum, Zones 3-10) sets the stage for contrasting yellow trees. Golden Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’, Zones 4-8) act like blinking yellow streetlights; they make us slow down to figure out the story. Front right, a pair of traveling dormitories waits on the siding for tired workers. More golden yews light the way down the line, where workers busily build a bridge near the last dwarf yew.

This static display, which models the steam era of railroading, suggests that another chapter will follow if we proceed to the next opening. Maybe it’s waiting for a realistic evening-operations session.

On every front
One way to generate several level platforms for railroad scenes is the grading practice called terracing (“Step up to terraces,” April 2009 GR). Atop each shelf-like area of real estate is a new front. In photo 2, The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers used recycled materials, like cassette tapes for the Miner’s Bank and recycled tree bark for a curved retaining wall. The thick sections of bark (cork-bark oak) resemble a craggy cliff face. Mossy groundcover shows off the historic structures and provides a showcase for lawn art and palm trees, here made from living air plants (bromeliads) stuck onto bamboo.

Three stacked terraces in photo 3 provide a “wedding cake” railway of gauge-1 track on the lowest level and two 0-gauge lines above that. The children’s-railway section of the G&O Railroad (the outdoor lines at the San Leandro Historical Railway Society in California, www.slhrs.org) allows young kids to run trains. The hands-on analog transformers are low enough for the smallest child. Most of the train track runs on the outside perimeter of each terrace for easy reach in case of any derailments.

What if you have a narrow strip of land—no room for a return loop? How about a point-to-point line? Within their small city lot (photo 4), Lynn and Ron Gerber were able to extend their figure-eight trackplan along a fence by running a streetcar with an automatic reversing unit.

Industry vs. scenery
When designing the front of the railway, it’s good to know the difference between “need to have” and “nice to have.” Photo 5 shows the need for the rail yard to take up the front of the railway so that Marcus and Vanessa Kollmann could reach their train and all those switches. Note that the retaining wall provides a place to sit while reaching. It’s nice to have an occasional tree or shrubbery up front to soften the industrial look. Likewise the details around your town won’t be lost if they’re right under our noses.

A critical need of all trains (except geared and cog trains) is low grades and adequately large-radius curves. To fit wider-radius curves into our modest-size yards, the front of the loop may need to extend into the front of the railway. Without adding tons of fill and retaining walls, a trestle in the front makes efficient use of space. On a slope, the hills in the rear return the train to the front.

The Smith Family Railroad (photo 6) exemplifies most of the ideas presented in this article. Daniel Smith challenged himself to fit a busy railroad into a tiny area jutting out into the driveway. He accomplished his goal by 1) raising the border with a curb-like concrete wall and cribbing for height in the middle; 2) positioning the railyard in front, along with an engine barn; 3) returning short trains on the upper loop to the rear slope via a snaking trestle above the front border; 4) planting excellent dwarf trees that won’t take over the area; and 5) telling a story with loads of detail, particularly one-of-a-kind scratchbuilt structures, ties, and telephone poles.
Whether you plant trees to show off the industry or plant buildings to highlight the scenery, it’s nice to know you can rule your own empire. Every scene and object has a front and you get to arrange it.

Regarding the emotional effect of selecting the front side of your little trees, the art of bonsai suggests you welcome the viewer with open arms (open branches), put your best foot forward (aging trunk showing the top of the roots), and clean house (remove excess foliage for healthy, efficient growth). That’s a big subject for another time. I think Dave and Carole Kiesig got it right when they planted a lacy dwarf maidenhair fern in front of a handsome, scale water tower (photo 7).
Keith’s viaduct stops traffic in his front side yard.
Keith Yundt
Ray talks about access, laying track on the edge of his terraced retaining walls.
Ray Turner
Before Christina’s husband retired from a paper plant, the railroad serving the plant was decommissioned and he ended up with a few spikes and tie plates. They later became a façade at the front of their outdoor railroad, providing a transition from one scale railway to another.
Nancy Norris

How do you define the front of your railway and why?

Keith Yundt
Victoria, B.C., Canada, Zone 6b
Announcing: Railway!

When we planned the initial loop of our line, which followed a raised planting bed, we actually wanted the railroad hidden from view from the adjacent street as much as possible because we feared that, if it was too visible, it might become a target for vandalism.
Coincidentally, just a couple of days after receiving the above question regarding the front of our railway, I was showing to my neighbor, who is an excellent gardener, a controversially tall and beautiful wild flower at the end of the raised bed; I asked if I should remove it. It’s controversial because everyone except me wants it removed! Her comment was, “Since this is the main entrance to your garden railway, you want to keep it fairly low so it gives a nice open feeling without blocking the view.” In other words, the wildflower should go.
At that point I realized that, for visitors, the open area beside our driveway (where there is now a quite-visible concrete viaduct) is the front or main entrance to the railway. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense but it was never planned that way. When we expanded our original railway, I built the large, curved, concrete viaduct. This was in plain view of the road and, all of a sudden, we were getting lots of visitors stopping by to ask about the railway. Many had passed by for years and never realized that the railroad existed.
Now the viaduct is the focal point of the entrance and the location where most people stand when they come for a look or a photo. It is just far enough from the road, yet not far enough into the yard for passers-by to feel they are trespassing, so it’s a perfect viewing location. It acts as both an informal barrier and a focal point of interest that immediately calls out “railway!” and draws the curious in for a closer look. By the way, that wildflower is still standing.

Ray Turner
San Jose, California, Zone 9
Revamping for reachability

On the Mystic Mountain Railroad, I like to create “scenes,” which might be plants, rocks, structures, or a combination. However, access for maintenance and operations has become more important over the years. The railroad is built in a raised planter and, nearly always, the track is in front for access. I have made some changes over the years to improve access and plan to do more this year. There is only one turnout and spur that requires someone to step up into the railroad to operate it. Consequently, that track is rarely used; you could say it is primarily there to “complete the scene.” As this 14-year-old railroad ages, maintenance (tracks, structures, plants, drip watering) has increased considerably. I congratulate myself on places where I have provided adequate space for maintenance and get frustrated where I haven’t.

Christina Brittain
Washougal, Washington, Zone 6-7

Quinn Mountain Railroad is all built on pressure-treated 2 x 6s, so that is what the spikes and plates in the photo are concealing. I scratchbuilt the building from instructions in GR magazine. It was an article on building with solid 4 x 4s in the June 2006 issue.
As for the art, it is my understanding that it may be illegal to own railroad items. However, these spikes and plates came from the Crown Zellerbach paper plant in Camas, Washington, where everything moved by rail, overhead electric. My husband Bud was Superintendent there, and decommissioned the railroad in favor of trucks just before he retired.


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