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Garden Railroading: More Than A Hobby: 10 Ideas To Enrich Your Experience

Updated on January 8, 2016
As your model train gets going, so do your creative juices.
As your model train gets going, so do your creative juices. | Source

Ten ways to enliven garden railroad projects is what we cover in the following article.

This multifaceted hobby encourages multiple generations to discover talents, develop skills, and improve camaraderie by working together on ongoing activities. Planning and building are necessary, then the fun and richness continues by tweaking this and that.

Let's get underway with something simple.

1. Name It!

Decide on what you'll call your completed project. Why not title it what means something to you?

My dad christened our garden train the "Bangderlund Express" for its Bavarian roots. Many of our large scale models originated from German toy companies.

Model railroading is truly a 'jack-of-all-trades' hobby (p. 3).

— Westcott & Wagner, Editors, Practical Guide to Model Railroading, 5th Edition

2. Provide an "At A Glance" Summary

Introduce your garden railway with a concise overview. Model railroaders include this type of extract to inform others about key points. You can start with a short list (see ours next) and add more details later.

Bring features to life with a video. Watch examples by scrolling down now or later.

Quick Facts about our Garden Railroad.
Quick Facts about our Garden Railroad. | Source
Magnetic pocket compass.
Magnetic pocket compass. | Source

3. Identify Directions

Give your layout a sense of navigation by showing where North, East, South, and West originate.

Determine these cardinal points (that's also what N, E, S, & W are called) by using a pocket compass or a compass app on your smartphone. Either gadget will point you north via the earth's magnetic field. These bearings denote descriptions such as "looking at the west corner of this" or "from the south elevation of that" (shown in 3.2 below).

Where will you designate markers? Not sure? See a few examples next (in 3.1).

3.1 Three Ways To Orient Your Garden Train Layouts

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Adhere compass rose picbrick material to a masonry surface and place it wherever you want, only make sure N is pointing North.Attach respective letters onto paving stones. Start by positioning an N in the direction of North.Moving clockwise 90 degrees, add an E pointing East.Continuing, include an S for South.Complete the circle by placing the W for West.Situate a sundial on the ground setting its pointer toward North.Or set the sundial on a pedestal to add height variety to your garden.
Adhere compass rose picbrick material to a masonry surface and place it wherever you want, only make sure N is pointing North.
Adhere compass rose picbrick material to a masonry surface and place it wherever you want, only make sure N is pointing North. | Source
Attach respective letters onto paving stones. Start by positioning an N in the direction of North.
Attach respective letters onto paving stones. Start by positioning an N in the direction of North. | Source
Moving clockwise 90 degrees, add an E pointing East.
Moving clockwise 90 degrees, add an E pointing East. | Source
Continuing, include an S for South.
Continuing, include an S for South. | Source
Complete the circle by placing the W for West.
Complete the circle by placing the W for West. | Source
Situate a sundial on the ground setting its pointer toward North.
Situate a sundial on the ground setting its pointer toward North. | Source
Or set the sundial on a pedestal to add height variety to your garden.
Or set the sundial on a pedestal to add height variety to your garden. | Source

3.2 Photograph Conditions & Perspectives

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Northeastern view, walking out the back door. It helps to state where you are.Southwestern view, standing on the driveway.Northern view. Capture climatic conditions during different seasons. This shot is lush with late-summering flowers. This snowy scene of our model train village seems peaceful.Interplay between light & dark of a garden railroad bridge at night.Looking to the east from inside our model village. Observe surrounding areas during the building process so you can look back to see what else has changed.Viewing from the east. Document BEFORE and AFTER scenes. This picture shows that what was virgin ground (in the previous image) is now a garden in full bloom.
Northeastern view, walking out the back door. It helps to state where you are.
Northeastern view, walking out the back door. It helps to state where you are. | Source
Southwestern view, standing on the driveway.
Southwestern view, standing on the driveway. | Source
Northern view. Capture climatic conditions during different seasons. This shot is lush with late-summering flowers.
Northern view. Capture climatic conditions during different seasons. This shot is lush with late-summering flowers. | Source
This snowy scene of our model train village seems peaceful.
This snowy scene of our model train village seems peaceful. | Source
Interplay between light & dark of a garden railroad bridge at night.
Interplay between light & dark of a garden railroad bridge at night. | Source
Looking to the east from inside our model village. Observe surrounding areas during the building process so you can look back to see what else has changed.
Looking to the east from inside our model village. Observe surrounding areas during the building process so you can look back to see what else has changed. | Source
Viewing from the east. Document BEFORE and AFTER scenes. This picture shows that what was virgin ground (in the previous image) is now a garden in full bloom.
Viewing from the east. Document BEFORE and AFTER scenes. This picture shows that what was virgin ground (in the previous image) is now a garden in full bloom. | Source

4. Add More Action With People, Places & Things

Humanize different spots to frame a sense of familiarity & fantasy.
Humanize different spots to frame a sense of familiarity & fantasy. | Source
Create mystery with rail transitions such as traveling through the tunnel.
Create mystery with rail transitions such as traveling through the tunnel. | Source
Suggest winds-a-howling with a Dutch windmill (lower left) and convey construction-in-progress with a house being built (upper right).
Suggest winds-a-howling with a Dutch windmill (lower left) and convey construction-in-progress with a house being built (upper right). | Source
Imagine hearing the water wheel of the old grist mill turning as water ripples along the banks of the pond.
Imagine hearing the water wheel of the old grist mill turning as water ripples along the banks of the pond. | Source
This garden railroad is enjoyed by one and all as it welcomes local residents dropping in.
This garden railroad is enjoyed by one and all as it welcomes local residents dropping in. | Source
Tired bricklayer leaning against Tudor-style station, waiting for the Express home.
Tired bricklayer leaning against Tudor-style station, waiting for the Express home. | Source
Stark engine shed beautified by pink Japanese Anemone flowers ("September Charm" variety).
Stark engine shed beautified by pink Japanese Anemone flowers ("September Charm" variety). | Source
Swiss lodge reigns supreme on top of the mountain.
Swiss lodge reigns supreme on top of the mountain. | Source
Half-timber house shaded by leaves of Anemone aka Japanese Windflower.
Half-timber house shaded by leaves of Anemone aka Japanese Windflower. | Source

5. Depict Old Time Charm

If you like building from scratch, books from the 19th century have pictures that inspire. One such volume is English architect John Buonarotti Papworth's 1823 "Hints on Ornamental Gardening." The colored illustrations are beautiful and depict a bygone era. Replicating one of these designs (see next) might be both challenging and tantalizing.

5.1 Adapt Landscape Architecture Designs

Aviary (Plate 21): Where birds visit & "chief feature of a flower garden" (Papworth, p. 101).
Aviary (Plate 21): Where birds visit & "chief feature of a flower garden" (Papworth, p. 101). | Source
Bridge and Boat House (Plate 7) combination. Very serene looking.
Bridge and Boat House (Plate 7) combination. Very serene looking. | Source
Ice House (Plate 13) covering the well where ice was kept. Cool thatched roof, huh?
Ice House (Plate 13) covering the well where ice was kept. Cool thatched roof, huh? | Source
Venetian Tent (Plate 18). A unique structure to set up for the summer season.
Venetian Tent (Plate 18). A unique structure to set up for the summer season. | Source

6. Keep Records of Your Train Sets

How will you tell your story?

Catalog facets of your garden railroad. Smartphones enable us to easily snap pictures and keep an ongoing gallery to show friends and family wherever we are. A hard copy might appeal to others.

My dad prefers a notebook he titled "Bangderlund Express" (the name of our train garden). It includes details about model trains, structures, accessories, plants, and so forth (see examples next).

6.1 Archive Components

Click thumbnail to view full-size
My dad illustrated the cover of our binder.Section of Straight Track with solid brass rails (LGB 1000, 300 mm/11.8 in, G scale)We added photographic effects to our Brick House under construction (Pola 927-01-31, G scale). Shoot other perspectives. Here is an aerial view of the same Brick House under construction.The fellow reminds me of my dad at the job site. Figure (Preiser 45071 Farmer).Pennsylvania Railroad Brown Flat Car (LGB 43600, Queen Mary Series, G scale).Get close-ups. Here is a Gustav Hand Rail Vehicle (LGB 20010, G scale).Pennsylvania Railroad Baggage Car (LGB 30050, G scale).Get your engine (and its engineer) in action.Don't forget the plants! Here is ground cover Blue Plumbago "Ceratostigma plumbaginoides" (Latin name).
My dad illustrated the cover of our binder.
My dad illustrated the cover of our binder. | Source
Section of Straight Track with solid brass rails (LGB 1000, 300 mm/11.8 in, G scale)
Section of Straight Track with solid brass rails (LGB 1000, 300 mm/11.8 in, G scale) | Source
We added photographic effects to our Brick House under construction (Pola 927-01-31, G scale).
We added photographic effects to our Brick House under construction (Pola 927-01-31, G scale). | Source
Shoot other perspectives. Here is an aerial view of the same Brick House under construction.
Shoot other perspectives. Here is an aerial view of the same Brick House under construction. | Source
The fellow reminds me of my dad at the job site. Figure (Preiser 45071 Farmer).
The fellow reminds me of my dad at the job site. Figure (Preiser 45071 Farmer). | Source
Pennsylvania Railroad Brown Flat Car (LGB 43600, Queen Mary Series, G scale).
Pennsylvania Railroad Brown Flat Car (LGB 43600, Queen Mary Series, G scale). | Source
Get close-ups. Here is a Gustav Hand Rail Vehicle (LGB 20010, G scale).
Get close-ups. Here is a Gustav Hand Rail Vehicle (LGB 20010, G scale). | Source
Pennsylvania Railroad Baggage Car (LGB 30050, G scale).
Pennsylvania Railroad Baggage Car (LGB 30050, G scale). | Source
Get your engine (and its engineer) in action.
Get your engine (and its engineer) in action. | Source
Don't forget the plants! Here is ground cover Blue Plumbago "Ceratostigma plumbaginoides" (Latin name).
Don't forget the plants! Here is ground cover Blue Plumbago "Ceratostigma plumbaginoides" (Latin name). | Source

7. Create Digital Stories

This form of storytelling is an entertaining technique for sharing garden railroad spaces with your family-at-a-distance and the public-at-large. "The Chronicles of the DVLR" (DebenValleyLightRail) is a brilliant example, as seen in the first episode (next).

8. Preserve Cultural Heritage

I watched the Centralia Garden Railroad Movie about a now defunct town in Florida called Centralia. This model train hobbyist's blog revealed digitized photographs of the original town.

Our appreciation of what others are doing further proves how this hobby bridges generations in more than garden and railroad ways. They influence cultural heritage, too. (The guy above sort of saved a town from extinction, didn't he?).

What's more, my mother thinks every township and borough should digitize and curate these sites via their local public libraries. In her words "They contribute to our local lore!" That said, I wonder about privacy, security, and copyright issues. Nevertheless, should the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) create a garden railroads category for those wanting to partake?

8.1 Rockville Bridge, Harrisburg, PA

My dad based his miniature on a landmark from his childhood: the "longest stone masonry arch railroad bridge in the world" (p. 3, National Register of Historic Places).
My dad based his miniature on a landmark from his childhood: the "longest stone masonry arch railroad bridge in the world" (p. 3, National Register of Historic Places). | Source

9. Establish Your Brand

Branding is fun.

We have a horse that my dad painted verdigris (green color of aged copper). It serves as a mascot to greet people when they enter our garden railway zone. My mother decorates it during the holidays. Shall we call him Harry the horse (after my great grandfather)? My mother thinks so. She wants to design a custom logo for our toy train and plans to take photographs and make note cards to give as gifts.

"Whoa!" Whoever thought our garden railroad project might morph into a line of stationery?

9.1 Our Mascot Harry

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Our garden train mascot Harry the Horse adorned with pine & snow.Harry tied in a bow.My dad & Harry before festivities commence.Our train layout in midwinter with Harry (in the blue circle) as a welcoming focal point.
Our garden train mascot Harry the Horse adorned with pine & snow.
Our garden train mascot Harry the Horse adorned with pine & snow. | Source
Harry tied in a bow.
Harry tied in a bow. | Source
My dad & Harry before festivities commence.
My dad & Harry before festivities commence. | Source
Our train layout in midwinter with Harry (in the blue circle) as a welcoming focal point.
Our train layout in midwinter with Harry (in the blue circle) as a welcoming focal point. | Source

10. Host & Attend Events

Once you complete your garden railroad "masterpiece"… celebrate! Drive a golden spike like they did when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. Congratulate the builders, too. Host seasonal flings and add effects to commemorate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other festivities.



If you don't have your own layout, many regions conduct events centered around public gardens railway activities. In my area the University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with Morris Arboretum picks a particular theme that resonates with visitors. Miniatures of life-size objects and buildings are highlighted, such as Philadelphia sculptures or Victorian houses. Of course, Thomas the tank engine appears wherever you go.

All Aboard Again

Seasons Greetings large G scale trolley.
Seasons Greetings large G scale trolley. | Source

To conclude, the garden railroading hobby is vastly faceted as we're sure you'll find out. You might excel at a certain aspect: historical bent, building aptitude, green thumb gift, and so on. Further pursuing one of these interests might reach more than hobby status by catapulting you into your purposeful vocation.

Start with some of our suggestions and add your own. Best of all enjoy yourself!

Model Railroad Videos Communicate In Any Language

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