Boxcars in the begonias

Garden railways are a growing family hobby around the world

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A sturdy steam engine chugs past a picturesque waterfall, across a suspension bridge, and by rolling farmland populated with black and white cows before disappearing into a tunnel in the side of a hill.

Roses blossom beside the church the train passes. Lush green grass covers the lawns of nearby houses. It's the sort of scene that might occur many times daily in various parts of the world.

But the difference in this setting is that the train is about as tall as a loaf of bread and it's controlled by a young boy and his grandfather.

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Welcome to the world of garden railroading, where large-scale model trains (bigger than Lionel, smaller than ride-on models) run through backyard landscapes as elaborate as imagination can make them.

While indoor model trains are most popular with men and boys, garden railways are a family hobby. "It's the perfect marriage of hobbies because everyone can contribute something," says Barbara Abler of Columbus, Ohio. She had only a passing interest in the model trains that her husband, Richard, operated inside their home. That was before they attended a convention in San Diego devoted to garden railways.

"I figured that he could look at trains and I'd go to the zoo and the museums," Mrs. Abler says. "But I went out with him one day to look at these garden railroads and I was just enchanted. I hadn't had so much fun since I was a kid."

Hugh Willson, a banker from Niota, Tenn., and a recent convert to garden railroading, has found the hobby to be a perfect way to get close to his young grandson, who lives about a mile away. Theirs is a three-generation project that's particularly popular with the visiting grandchildren of Mr. Willson's friends.

"Our train is around our swimming pool, so they come up and swim and we play with the train," Willson says. "We share with a lot of people and it helps our grandson get to know the grandchildren of our friends. It makes the families closer together."

This isn't a new hobby. It originated in Britain more than 100 years ago and was popular in the United States in the 1920s and '30s. But when a German toy company introduced colorful large-scale trains 30 years ago, garden railroading began a resurgence that continues on a steady upward trend around the world.

A German-made LGB steam engine can cost from $300 to more than $1,000, but hobbyists don't have to spend that much, says Marc Horovitz, editor of Garden Railways magazine.

"Unfortunately it's not perceived as an inexpensive hobby. I know people who are good with their hands and have some tools who build a whole lot of [accessories] other people are buying," says Mr. Horovitz, "And their railways are inexpensive. They're into it for hundreds instead of thousands, and sometimes even less than that. You can get a starter set for $100 or even less. And you can spend as much as you like."

Trains can safely run in any weather

Garden railways aren't just for fair weather. Large-scale trains run in the rain or even a inch or two of snow, but are stopped by ice on the rails.

"Electricity in the garden isn't a problem," says Horovitz. "Trains generally run on 12-24V DC, which is quite safe, even in the rain."

While many people are attracted to garden railroading because they're train enthusiasts, that's not true for all. Some will have seen a model railway at a garden show or on a garden tour and are captivated by the idea, Horovitz says.

Pat Hayward, horticultural editor of Garden Railways, has garden railroading friends whose only child is fascinated by the miniature accessories that are part of her parents' layout. "It's become like her outdoor dollhouse. She's out there with her figures, her cars, and the little houses, and she's creating these scenes outside" while the parents are working on the train layout and the landscape.

"As a gardener, people ask me, 'How do you find time to garden?' " Hayward says. "Trains have given me time to garden because I have two little boys and they mess with all the train stuff while I get the chance to garden. I turn the trains on and let them run; it gives me an hour or two to garden."

Mrs. Abler sees more gardeners becoming interested in garden railways because they provide a new outlet for landscaping talents and an opportunity to grow new and interesting plants.

Miniature plants are the right scale

After the Ablers began to build their railway, they met a gardener who had the tiniest plants Mrs. Abler had ever seen. "I kept saying, 'Where did you get this? Where did you get that?' I thought they would be ideal to put in the railroad. The fellow said, 'I have just the thing for you,' and he whipped out an application to the North American Rock Garden Society. So I not only got hooked on garden railroads, I got hooked on rock gardening and rock garden plants," she says.

Not everyone tries to create tiny landscapes for the trains. "Some are happy with trains running through flower beds," says Horovitz. "At the other end of the spectrum is the person who is interested in creating a miniature landscape using in-scale plants that are integrated with a natural-looking landscape, then integrating the rail into that whole to create almost a miniature world that is realistic and evocative."

"A lot of people are into simulating reality, so they'll plant micro-miniature rose bushes next to the old church," says Mrs. Hayward. "People who are really into [creating] little scenes will put a 'lawn' of Irish moss around the homes, then they'll put in the little cows and different scenes."

Mrs. Abler has pruned a dwarf spirea to look like a lilac bush and a boxwood to simulate an old oak tree. She also grows dwarf English daisies "that I like to think look like sunflowers blooming the field." Last year, she had 110 different species and several hundred plants in the 9-by-35-foot layout that is built to resemble the rolling farmlands of Mr. Abler's native Wisconsin, complete with silos, pigsties, and tractors. Painted birdhouses have become hunting lodges, the barn was originally a mailbox, and a tiny washtub is nothing more than a refrigerator magnet.

Hayward takes another approach. "I go for as much color as possible. I try one of everything. I'm a gardener, I'm not a train person first. It's a spectacular garden that happens to have these really fun trains."

There's room in the hobby for many differing interpretations, says Mrs. Abler. "I like to say, it's your fantasy and you can make it look like whatever you want."

To learn more

Garden Railways magazine offers a free booklet, "Beginning Garden Railroading." Call 800-554-0197.

On Sunday, Sept. 12, 16 garden railways will be open to the public in the Columbus, Ohio, area. For details, call Richard Abler at (614) 885-0351 or

e-mail him at abler@infinet.com

Garden railways are online at www.largescaleonline.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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