Another look at trees: Part 2

A selection of miniature trees that work well in the railway garden
The young yew tree in this setting lends an effective vertical element to Liz and Allan Pantle’s Midwestern & Rainbow Tunnel Railroad in Oxford, Ohio.
Don Parker
1. The leaves on this miniature ginkgo tree may be a bit large for the scale of the building, but the color and profile of the tree lend a sense of realism to this scene in the garden-railroad exhibit at Castle Farms in Charlevoix, Michigan.
Don Parker
2. This close-up photo of a miniature ginkgo tree in Allan and Liz Pantle’s Oxford, Ohio, railroad garden shows the unique fan-shaped structure of the leaves. Their overlapping compactness gives the tree a realistic density and overall shape.
Don Parker
3. This 10-year-old weeping Siberian pea shrub has been encouraged to grow upright. Its branches lengthen 8-12" per year, and require an annual pruning. The photo was taken on the author’s Hoot and Holler Railroad.
Don Parker
4. The same Siberian pea shrub after a relatively easy trimming job. The overall effect of the fine, ferny leaves is quite attractive and believably in scale.
Don Parker
5. This untrimmed Jean’s Dilly Alberta spruce tree is 10 years old and 21/4 to 21/2 feet tall (45-50 scale feet), growing in the Hoot and Holler Railroad garden.
Don Parker
6. This Jean’s Dilly Alberta spruce has been creatively trimmed to represent a multi-stemmed conifer typical of mountainous areas. The photo was taken on Jack and Kathie Griffin’s Grandymon Lake Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Don Parker
7. This miniature Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria spp.) grows in a typical mounding, spreading fashion on the Fox Run Railroad of Pat and Chuck Elsworth in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Don Parker
Trees are so ubiquitous, they can be taken for granted. If we aren’t consciously admiring them, they often just blend with the surroundings, becoming part of the backdrop of the world we live in. They are often noted for their absence; for example, the barren peaks of mountains are said to be above the tree line. Our connection, our affinity, for trees runs deep in our DNA, reaching back in time to our tree-dwelling ancestors. We depend on trees for an astonishing array of goods; trees are deeply rooted in folklore and poetry; trees are intimately involved in sustaining the air we breathe.

It is not surprising, then, that they feature so prominently in our garden railroads. As a continuation of my column in the June 2014 issue, let me show you more examples of how you can find variety in the miniature trees you grow and extend the fascination with trees in your railway.

Deciduous trees
Miniature trees are typically described as having a mature size of about two feet or less, growing very slowly, with very short internodes (the distance between individual leaves and branches), and a multi-branching habit. Most miniatures have small-to-tiny leaves. Miniature ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba var.) have all the characteristics of the class, with leaves that, although small, cannot be called tiny. However, their fascinating leaf shapes are unique among seed plants and give them a cool factor worth looking into—not to mention their status as living fossils, with relatives dating back 270 million years.

Photos 1 and 2 are of ginkgo trees that have found prominent spots in two garden railroads. Their cheerful color—bright green in summer and golden yellow in fall—give them added appeal. Two cultivars that are true miniatures are Ginkgo b. ‘Mariken’ and G.b. ‘Green Pagoda’, the former growing in Zones 4-10 and the latter in Zones 3-9. Mariken grows to 21/2' tall in 10 years and Green Pagoda to 2'. They need full sun, good drainage, and, when established, can tolerate drought. (See “Plant portraits” in the April 2014 issue for more information.)
In a different category, the Siberian pea shrub is equally fascinating and desirable. It is not a miniature, growing 6 -15' tall, but the weeping form, Caragana arborescens ‘Walker’, Zones 2-7, reaches just 4' in 10 years and is easily pruned for shape and size. It has delicately ferny leaves that give the tree a more-or-less scale look, and it sports yellow, pea-like blossoms in early summer. Photos 3 and 4 show how pruning gives the tree a unique and attractive look.

Of the many evergreen conifers used in garden railroads, I will illustrate three that are less commonly seen. A shrunken relative of the compact Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) which is commonly seen in many garden railroads, is the cultivar ‘Jean’s Dilly’ (pronounced “jon’s dilly”). The former grows to 10' tall unless it is constantly trimmed; the latter grows very slowly to only 2-4' tall and has smaller, more compactly arranged needles that are barely 1/4" long. Both are hardy in Zones 3-6, preferring moist, well-drained soil. Jean’s Dilly needs no trimming to look like a naturally growing, pyramidally-shaped evergreen tree (photo 5), but it can look quite different and unique when creatively trimmed (photo 6).

A lovely, low-mounding shrub that passes for a scale tree is Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, Zones 5-9). Two miniature forms are available in the trade that would look great in a garden-railroad setting: Cryptomeria j. ‘Pygmaea’, growing only 1" a year, to reach 10" tall in 10 years, with tiny, bright-green needles that turn bronze in winter; and Cryptomeria j. ‘Birodo’, reaching only 8-10" in 10 years. They both prefer partial shade and protection from harsh winter winds. Photo 7 shows the typical mounding, spreading shape of these smaller cultivars.

I’m always attracted to unusual and effectively used plants in the garden railroads I visit. While touring members’ railroads during last year’s annual convention, hosted by the Greater Cincinnati Garden Railway Society, I visited the home of Allan and Liz Pantle in Oxford, Ohio. It was pouring rain almost the entire time I was there, but the railroad garden was spectacular and at least one train was running. I didn’t recognize a lovely little conifer, and Liz told me it was a young yew tree (Taxus x media ‘Viridis’ [aka T. x m. ‘Stricta Viridis’], Zones 4 to 7). It grows very slowly in a narrow column to a height of 10-12', with a width of 1-2', in 10-15 years. Its slow growth rate and narrow, vertical profile would make it suitable for the garden railroad for many years. It will tolerate full sun to mostly shady sites in average soil that is evenly moist.

As a collector of very-small-tree ideas for the garden railroad, I’d be delighted to see photos of any unusual or especially attractive trees you might grow in your railroad garden.


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