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Senior Citizen's Guide

Garden Railroading…a growing hobby

It is no secret that we are living longer and prefer to age in our own homes for as long as possible.  However, many families are experiencing the difference between living and merely surviving!  Hence, there is a growing trend of developing life-enhancing ways to make aging at home safer and more enjoyable.  As one becomes sensitive to the difference between living and merely surviving, the quality of life improves.  One such idea is the hobby of garden railroading.

There are many benefits to garden railroading; they include:

What young man didn't envision himself as a train engineer, or perhaps a cowboy?  Today, things are different, I know.  But in the days of yore, cowboys and Indians had nothing to do with diversity and employment, but rather, simply something we kids did after school.  For me my love of trains began small and eventually outgrew the basement and as an adult, found itself in the backyard…with garden railroading! Some say I never grew up because I still enjoy railroading in the garden and the spirit of the Old West.

History of the hobby

Miniature railroads were evident in this country at the turn of the last century.  As a matter of fact, the actor William Gillette (Gillette Castle State Park in Connecticut) was into miniature railroads before he built his own estate railroad.  Germans were building miniature boats  and trains in the 1890's and continue today.  The most notable of the manufacturers of garden railroads is the German manufacturer, LGB. 

Everyone has a unique interpretation

In this hobby, as with others, everyone has a rather unique spin, or interpretation of the hobby, depending upon the interests of the family members.  When designing an outdoor layout, many hobbyists simply clear & create their railroad.  That is, clear and prepare the land to receive the buildings, track and assorted stuff associated with outdoor railroading.  However, for my family, we had enjoyed a mature garden for many years and had NO intention of making major renovations, hence, our challenge became how to build a railroad without severely changing the existing landscape.

"Tai-Chi Gardening"

To integrate a railroad into a mature, existing landscape takes creativity and patience.  Compared with other layouts, ours is small, simple…. yet creative.  I developed a theory and practice called "Tai Chi railroad gardening".  Simply put, I redirect the foliage whenever possible, rather than cutting, pruning or otherwise ripping out plants, ivy and other greenery. Towards this end, I built an "Ivy Arbor" that allows the miniature ivy to grow over the tracks via an arbor rather than derail the train by growing into or under the rails.  In this way, the plants co-exist with the Acorn Shortline while minimizing derailments.  The use of arbors, bio barriers and similar tactics minimizes maintenance and maximizes enjoyment of the hobby.  Besides, the trains can run on time….an important thing!  (Not always the case in the real world!)

I also elevate the track above the ground level but below the canopy of the groundcover (see insert).  In other words, I intended to raise the track above the groundcover while minimizing the view of the track itself…so when the train is NOT running, you cannot see the track. (One of our original objectives was to have the railroad literally disappear at a distance of about 10 ft and to do so requires creative construction design.)  This raised track set-up includes a wire mesh screen that keeps the foliage from the track while allowing water and sun to nourish the plants.

"Bio Barriers"

I also developed what I refer to as "Bio Barriers" that are essentially various types of walls, barriers and screening to manage the foliage and planting from encroaching on the railroad…without detracting from the appearance of the layout.  These barriers, or walls can be made from wood, mesh or other material…using stakes to secure them into the ground.

As for train power, there are essentially three ways to power your railroad:

Note: To control the train the "Engineer" must be close to the transformer or use a control unit on a cable/wire, or use a wireless version that enables you to walk around your layout without a cord or cable. 

Hint: if you don't use the train and clean the tracks frequently, you would be better off with battery powered trains.

A note on technology—

With the advance of modern technology, you can actually select the specific SOUND of your engine from the Internet on some sound systems!!  Our small engine got a boost when I selected the SOUND of a somewhat larger engine….it is now a small engine on "steroids"….sounding bigger and more intimidating then it really is!!  It is amazing how realistic trains can sound today with digital technology.  You can even install sound systems into your buildings on your layout!!  I recently listened to an engine with an advanced digital sound unit installed….and you could hear the talk of the engineer and closing of the firebox door in the cab…as coal was being "shoveled" into the firebox!

There is nothing like the distant sound of a train whistle…the rustling of groundcover as a miniature train comes through the foliage into a miniature community….stops to pick up passengers and let others off….and proceeds on its way….automatically!!

Also, engines with digital technology installed can make some realistic sounds while simply staying at the station!

Variations on the hobby:

I once designed and constructed an outdoor layout for a nursery.  It was complete with a town and a washed out mine with cascading waterfall!  You may recall that the former G. fox Building in Hartford had a WinterWonderland display during the holiday season.  One entire floor was dedicated to trains of all sizes.  I was asked to design a layout (insert) that represented outdoor garden railroads.  Due to the temporary nature of the exhibit, the layout had to be lightweight and easy to disassemble.  Therefore, I carved Styrofoam for the mountains and gullies, which kept things light and portable. Digital cricket and bird sounds, forty live miniature spruce trees….and a real running waterfall added realism.  It was another example of how you can be creative in planning and construction of your railroad.

In closing, the hobby of garden railroading is great for getting the family to enjoy the outdoors, gardening, landscaping, history, water gardens and trains!  There is something in it for everyone!  You too can relive the days of your youth through model railroading in a big way….in garden railroading!  There is nothing like the distant sound of a steam engine…the rustling of the garden pachysandra….followed by the shrill of a whistle and plume of smoke as a miniature steamtrain comes out of the foliage into view!  Great fun for all!


For more information about the hobby contact the writer, Chuck Oakes… 860-644-1128 or

There are numerous sites on this subject and a magazine called Garden Railroading.

Connecticut retailer: New England Hobby, Manchester 860-646-0610

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