Many families are finding more reasons and ways to spend time outdoors, from gardening and exploring to just relaxing. Now you can add a whole new world of enjoyment to your back yard by bringing an indoor hobby outside: model railroading.

Conifers in garden railroad

When landscaping a garden railroad, dwarf Alberta spruce is the most popular tree used.

Photo Credit: Paul Race

Train in garden

Garden railroaders often use low-growing thymes to represent lawns and meadows.

Photo Credit: Paul Race

Garden railroad

If you're setting up a trial garden railroad, choosing annuals in your landscape is a smart way to go.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Garden locomotives aren’t “your Grandfather’s trains” – they’re big, rugged and weather-resistant. Because they move throughout the garden, they’re noticeable across most yards, and they add unequalled interest to your outdoor space for adults and children alike.

A garden railroad doesn’t have to be extensive or expensive – you may just want to put a loop of track around a pond you already have in your back yard. But most people who realize just how fun this garden hobby can be don’t stop there: Some landscape along their tracks with miniature waterfalls and mini spruce trees. Others like incorporating rock garden plants, herbs and annuals. Some choose to add (and build) little model buildings and houses along their train lines. Whether your garden railroad be simple or elaborate, one thing is certain: It’ll be fun – and it’ll certainly attract attention from visitors of all ages!

How much room do you need for a garden railroad? Garden trains are typically three times larger than most indoor models. That means that a garden train running on a 9-foot-diameter circle of track outdoors will look about the same as an indoor train running on a 3-foot circle of track. If you start well, you may realize why some folks who begin with relatively modest 10- by 20-foot railroads soon expand beyond their original space.

Think railroad gardens are cool but not ready for a permanent one in your yard? No problem. I built my first “trial” garden railroad by laying a bed of mulch in the side yard and putting an oval of track right on top of it. Now I recommend laying down a thick layer of newspapers and some landscape fabric first, then using a few bags of small crushed gravel (pea gravel doesn’t work because it doesn’t stay in place).

Clear your area of any major obstacles, lay down the newspapers and landscape fabric, then set your track oval where you want it. Next, pour your gravel over the track all the way around until it’s covered. Then, wiggling the track from side to side, pull it up gently through the gravel until the top of the ties are visible. Use a broom to clear out any excess gravel from between the rails (leaving enough for the ties to sit in), and use a clean cloth (soaked in kerosene if you have any) to wipe off the top of the track and the inner edge of each rail. If you have any low places, add a little more gravel.

When your track is in place, spread mulch along the sides of the track and set out any buildings or landscape accessories you’d like. Finally, make certain that your train’s power supply is going into a GFI-protected circuit – then all aboard! Time to enjoy your trains!

When adding plants to your garden railroad, just clear the mulch from that particular area, cut an “X” in the landscape fabric and newspapers, follow the planting instructions that came with the plant, then close up the fabric and replace the mulch.

Many people operate with a garden railroad this simple for years while they’re planning their bigger design. When you feel you’re ready to tackle that more permanent garden railroad, consider installing an impressive pond and/or waterfall first – water features add interest, even if your trains aren’t running. Also consider raising your railroad a bit (24 inches is common). This helps people see the sides of your trains and garden accessories – not just the tops of them – as well as makes it easier for you to get trains on and off the track. The most reliable raised railroads are built using lumber (usually 2- by 6-inch pressure-treated boards) to support the rails, then backfilled to raise the level of the ground.

Obviously trains are a major element of a railroad garden – but what about the landscape surrounding it? Slow-growing conifers (like dwarf Alberta spruce) and low-profile perennial groundcovers (like woolly thyme and acre sedum) will put your trains in the perfect railroad setting, as well as give your garden year-round appeal.

Dwarf Alberta spruce is the most common tree used by garden railroaders. It grows very slowly and can be trimmed to represent many different trees. A smaller relative, ‘Jean’s Dilly’, keeps its shape better but is harder to come by. Woolly thyme and creeping thyme are low-growing plants that garden railroaders often use to represent lawns and meadows. (These plants require good drainage, so they’re better off on hillsides or with a raised railroad than on ground level.)

At first you may feel that you’re spending more on landscaping and train track than you are on the train itself. But this is normal. Think of the landscaping and track as “hardware” and the train as “software:” Just like computer software, you can always buy more trains later – but if the platform you’re running them on isn’t reliable to start with, you’ll never get the performance out of them that you’d like.

While it’s important to be well-prepared before you begin a project like this, nothing beats the absolute best way to learn about garden railroading: Getting out in your back yard with a shovel, a few bags of gravel and a starter train set!

Happy railroading!