Public garden railroads are increasingly popular, and most people don't have to look far to find one. Many botanical gardens have permanent or seasonal railways, both indoors and out. A large percentage of these have been designed by a single company, Applied Imagination (AI), in Alexandria, Kentucky. Its founder, Paul Busse, a railroad enthusiast with a degree in landscape architecture, and his staff have built dozens of public railway displays throughout the United States. Applied Imagination displays are noted for their unique structures, each constructed and adorned with natural plant materials such as bark, pine cones, twigs, and leaves.
Busse says the goal of a great garden railroad is to involve all the senses—to immerse visitors in the experience by using color, texture, motion, and sound provided by trains, plants, and running water. "Most people expect a railroad to be on a tabletop," Busse says. "By putting you in it, you're immersed in the railroad three-dimensionally. You are no longer outside looking in—the scale barrier is broken."
The railway pictured here—the Holiday Garden Railway at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania—is an AI creation. The buildings represent Pennsylvania icons, among them Independence Hall, Philadelphia boathouses, two train depots, covered bridges, and many heritage homes and buildings long associated with Philadelphia and the university.
The arboretum's horticultural section leader, Iana Turner, chooses smaller-scale plants, such as dwarf Alberta spruce, dwarf cryptomeria, and miniature boxwoods, nearest the buildings, then transitions to larger plants farther back. Besides conifers, groundcovers including variegated euonymus and native pachysandra provide winter interest. Because this display is visited by small children, Iana manages the garden organically, which means lots of hand-weeding for the staff and volunteers. Cindy Johnson, an artist at AI who has worked on many public garden railways, explains their appeal: "There's something for everyone. At the holidays, people like to do things together. A day at a garden railroad is perfect because everyone finds something they can enjoy."
Plants for garden railways are often chosen for their small scale and finely textured leaves and stems. Here are a few excellent choices for garden railroads in a variety of climates. Look for these and other miniature plants in the rock-garden and bonsai sections of local garden centers. If garden railroading is not for you, these same plants are excellent candidates for rock gardens and containers.
- Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica')
- Dwarf boxwood (Buxus microphylla)
- Little-leaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster microphyllus)
- Corsican mint (Mentha requienii)
- Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata)
- Irish, Scotch moss (Sagina subulata, S. subulata ‘Aurea')
- Dwarf sea pink (Armeria maritima ‘Victor Reiter')
- Miniature daisy (Bellium minutum)
- Miniature mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nanus')