Garden railroading

By Jim Leser

Garden railroading | Back Page,

Photos by Jim Leser This photo was taken during a trip to the National Garden Railway Convention this July. The opportunity to visit Denver garden railroads was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip.

Do you enjoy gardening? Great! What about model trains? Yes? Well do I have a hobby for you! Garden railroading is where you can combine gardening interests with large- scale trains.

Basically a garden railroad is just an outdoor model train but with larger trains than the HO, Lionel or American Flyer trains you might have had as a child or maybe still have with an indoor layout. The difference between an indoor layout and a garden railway is the difference between the illusion of reality created indoors using artificial materials for mountains and other scenery elements versus mountains made with real dirt and rocks, real water features, and real plants in the outdoor railroad.

To give a scale perspective, the very popular HO scale trains represent one inch for every 87 inches (1:87) for the real thing. Garden railway trains represent one inch for every 20 to 32 inches of a real train. The track used is very durable where the distance between rails is 45mm or just under two inches apart. Trains are generally powered by electricity through the rails or battery operated using remote transmitters much like those used for flying model planes. Some garden railroaders even run trains powered by actual steam generated either by butane or real coal.

Trains can either be the more modern diesel locomotives or the older-era steam engines. They can also be standard gauge (4'8" between rails) or narrow gauge with 3 feet between the rails. Regardless of what you run, everyone uses the same track. So if you want to run standard gauge trains then your scale will be 1:32 or 1:29. Narrow gauge folks will use a scale between 1:24 and 1:20.3.

Last but not least, some railroaders will add sound to their locomotives, bringing another element to the realistic operation of their garden trains. There is nothing more entertaining than to watch your trains wind through your garden, over bridges through a real landscape of plants and across trestles spanning real water features, all the while making sounds like the real deal.

Garden railroading may be new to you but it has been around in Great Britain for over a century. Garden railroading got its start in the United States in the 1920s but didn't come into its own until LGB trains were introduced from Germany in the 1960s and especially when more American-style trains were made available. Since then, numerous other manufacturers of large-scale trains have entered the market providing many options to present day garden railroaders.

Part of the fun of this hobby is being able to follow the practices of a full-size railroad and working with the landscape. Some folks use their trains to add visual interest to their existing garden where their plants are their main interest. Others focus on their trains and operations, often creating complex track arrangements. The garden plants then become secondary to their trains. But the real fun is when the whole family gets involved so those who are into gardening can focus on that aspect of the hobby while others can focus on operating trains.

I've already mentioned creating mountains out of rocks and dirt, and creating water features for the trains to cross. But there can be much more to garden railroading than that. There are structures to buy or build and add to the layout as well as populating the scenes with miniature people. You want to model a circus? Then by all means add tents, animals and spectators as a vignette tucked away in a special spot on your garden railroad.

The garden part of garden railroading can be another fascinating aspect to this hobby. Some folks just add their railway to an existing landscape without worrying about scale. Still others focus on obtaining miniature plants to bring their garden landscape more in scale to their trains. There are dwarf Alberta spruce, thyme and sedums. There are nurseries that specialize in miniature plants and ground covers. You can even bonsai certain shrubs and trees to create miniature forests and other landscape features.

The large-scale trains are also much more kid friendly and a boon for oldsters whose eyesight is not what it used to be. The scope of this hobby is a function of time, interests and available money. Some folks just enjoy watching trains travel through their garden on a simple track arrangement in an outdoor setting. Others are very much into the garden aspect of this hobby. Still others enjoy the modeling aspects and build wonderful bridges, buildings and trestles in exquisite detail. We call these folks "rivet counters." You can make this hobby into anything you wish.

Getting started in this hobby can be intimidating. There can be a lot to learn. But this is where you lean on other, more experienced garden railroaders. And by all means start small. Who didn't get started with trains by running a loop of track underneath their Christmas tree?

There are lots of garden railroad clubs in Colorado, the closest to us being in Durango. The Denver Garden Railway Society is the largest in the state. It in fact was responsible for starting a national convention for garden railroaders, complete with clinics, a trade show of vendors and visits to local garden railways in the host city. This year's convention was held in Denver last month with over 800 attending, even from many foreign countries. I attended this convention and enjoyed the many garden railroads I visited.

While I love both gardening and large-scale trains, I like to build fine, delicate models that would not do so well in the outdoors with exposure to inclement weather, deer and other animals. My trains therefore run in an indoor layout above my garage/workshop. Trains are my winter hobby while gardening is my fair weather interest.

But maybe you will want to increase interest in your garden by adding large-scale model trains. There is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the hobby: Garden Railways by Klambach Publishing. There are also a couple of online forums that cater exclusively to garden railroaders: and