Project railroad: Selecting plants

Building the Colorado & Pacific: Determine what kind of plants are right for your climate and your railway
A variety of plants have been chosen to populate the railway.
Marc Horovitz
While building the railroad we casually discussed plant material. What would look good here, what kind of effect were we trying to create there, how should we plant this rock formation? So, when it finally came down to it, we had a rough idea about what we wanted.

The next step was a visit to the garden center with Rod's wife, Petria, our resident railway gardener. While we knew what we wanted as far as the look, Petria provided the necessary expertise to translate our nebulous and ill-expressed desires into reality. We discussed groundcovers, woody plants, miniature trees, and more. It was fun, walking around the nursery, seeing what was available, determining what would look good on specific areas of the line, and deciding if certain plants would be right for our microclimate.

We purchased a fair selection of plants of many different types and varieties and returned home, ready to plant. Because our dirt was so thin and dry, we also bought some planting soil to amend our own and help give the plants a good start.

The smallest, more in-scale plants we kept for sites near the track and to use in conjunction with our few structures. We reserved most of the miniature trees, the tallest plants, for the mountainside. These vertical elements would help to draw the eye up and make the mountain seem taller. Other intermediate-sized plants would be arranged in drifts and groups to fill in the surrounding areas.

To get an idea of how the whole thing would look, we simply placed the plants, in their pots, around the railway. We talked about them and we moved them around several times until we had what we wanted.

Then it was time to plant. With four of us working, this went quickly. For each plant, we dug a hole and added amendment. We popped the plant out of its plastic pot, spread the roots a little, and plopped it into a hole. We packed dirt around it to firmly hold it in place and gave it a drink of water to help it get started.

When we were done we admired our handiwork. It was a remarkable transformation. What had been before a dry, barren pile of dirt with a railroad around it suddenly became a miniature landscape, alive and green. Yes, it did look a little spotty, but that would change in time as the plants grew in and matured. We also knew that if, later, we didn't like something, we could easily change it.

Final details

Our railway was nearly finished, or at least as finished as a model railroad ever is. (There's always something else to do, change, or set right.) The final thing was the placement of the structures. Since we had limited land area to work with, we didn't want to fill it with buildings. Suggesting a town or human habitation would be better than trying to squeeze a whole town into our tiny space. Viewers could imagine that a town existed somewhere and that they could see only part of it from their vantage point.

After much discussion, we settled on just three structures, each integral to the functioning of the railroad. We had our old water tower from Grover Devine, a scratchbuilt structure that just exuded character; a passenger train needs a place to stop, so we had to have a station; and a freight train needs a source of freight, so we needed a structure for our banjo factory, high atop the mountain. That was it. Plastic kits sufficed for the latter two, most likely to be replaced at some later date by more attractive scratchbuilt structures.

A pet peeve shared by Rod and me was that, all too often, model buildings-particularly those in garden settings-suffer from two faults. They either don't stand exactly perpendicular to the earth or they don't actually meet the ground all the way around, or both. We reasoned that a full-size building sits on a foundation to prevent problems such as these, so why should a miniature building be any different? So, we provided each of our three structures with a real concrete foundation. These made a world of difference. They provided each building with both a firm footing and a sense of place. Our buildings looked to us as though they were really meant to be where they were placed.

Granted, a concrete foundation makes a building more difficult to relocate, but cement is cheap and foundations are easy to make. An abandoned foundation can even add a little local color to an area, as well as a sense of history ("Why, I remember there used to be a banjo factory in that very spot, where that old concrete slab rots today. . .").


So, we have arrived at the end of our journey - or have we arrived at its beginning? We have a fully functional garden railway, attractively planted, with some structures to give humanity and purpose. What's left? Well, two of the buildings cry out to be replaced with more realistic scratchbuilt ones. The trains look bright, shiny, and new. Some painting and weathering, perhaps in our own Colorado & Pacific livery would be nice.

The garden will need attention as time goes on. Plants will die and need to be replaced. The ones that thrive will need pruning. Trees, as they grow, can be trimmed to resemble gnarly old mountain pines. New areas can be developed.

And already there is some discussion of a branch line to another part of the yard. A garden railroad is not something you have, it is something you do-a journey, not a destination. Building the Colorado & Pacific has been a lot of hard work, but great fun as well, as we saw our dreams and ideas come to fruition by our own sweat and labor. What could be more satisfying?

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