At holiday time, trains whiz through Richard Kloewer's yard, past the lighted evergreen trees, dolls, teddy bears, even a miniature Harley Davidson display. "I don't want to disappoint anybody," says Mr. Kloewer of Englewood, Colo.
Kloewer is one of many garden railway enthusiasts who share their hobby with friends and strangers alike. Each year, he and his wife, Alice, turn their yard into a winter wonderland featuring 10 trains, more than 35,000 lights and 80 Christmas houses, and they open it to the public between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
Kloewer, who created his first over-the-top holiday display 27 years ago, added the trains in 1998.
Developing a permanent, outdoor layout for the trains, which are a bit larger than the popular indoor Lionel trains, requires some knowledge about the plants around which the tracks wind, Horovitz said. Hobbyists must consider how the plants will grow, and how that will affect the scenes they construct.
Donald and Jane Nute installed a train in their backyard 10 years ago because they thought it would enhance their garden. A few times a year, they invite the public and members of their garden railway club to their Athens, Ga., home for an open house.
The Nutes have enjoyed figuring out what types of plants work best with their railroad. They use a lot of miniature plants to complement the scale of the train cars.
"It's an interesting aspect of gardening," says Donald Nute.
In addition to learning about new plants, he has had to create a layout that can withstand various kinds of weather. Most garden railway train operators leave their buildings and track outside year-round, and that requires more maintenance than indoor layouts need.
"Indoor railroaders use techniques to make buildings look weathered," Mr. Nute says. "We have to deal with weather."
Professional gardens, too, have come to see garden railways as a way to enhance a visitor's experience, says Madeline Quigley, spokeswoman for the American Public Garden Association in Kennett Square, Penn.
"It brings kids to nature," she says. "It allows us to tell the story with families that bring their kids to the gardens."
Botanical gardens and conservatories in New York City; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and other cities routinely set up a holiday train display. The trains draw attention to the plant life and other exhibits at the gardens, Ms. Quigley says. They often rely on local garden railway clubs to set up and run the displays.
"It's a perfect fit for public gardens," she says. "That's why it's become a tradition for so many gardens."
Gary Martin spends an hour a day working on his railway in Tucson, Ariz. His layout features 250 miniature structures and about 750 figures. He divides his time between painting and maintaining the buildings and figures, and trimming and tending the plants along the track.
He and his wife, Peggy, a master gardener, have always had an extensive garden. Installing the train gave them a new way to enjoy the pursuit.
"I have it because it adds to the garden," he says. "I would not be in the railroading hobby if it weren't for the garden."
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