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Planting a landscape

Page history last edited by Ian Stock 11 years, 3 months ago

Ian Stock

Phase 3 of our railway comprises not much more than would be one border in a larger garden. We have tried to plant for overall effect; the rear-most plants on the left will eventually be high enough to screen the wall. This view was taken in early May of the line's second season. Perhaps not everyone's idea of an acceptable garden, though...


I cannot claim to be anything of a plantsman, or even to have much experience in planting garden railways – the early parts of my railway were built in a location where almost nothing would grow – not least because of the ground-poisoning effect of the large privet hedge that formed one side of the plot. We found out the hard way what would survive – though some of the results were rather surprising.


For that reason my thoughts here do not comprise a horticultural exposition (if you want that, read Andrew Coward's article), but just a set of fairly random musings I have had about the more impressionistic side of planting. I will be only too pleased if people who know better over-rule me, or if it just starts some discussion. What I do know, however, is that I want to create something that looks like a real landscape without resorting to out-and-out miniature gardening.


When Phase 3 was built, we had rather more land that would take planting – in fact, Phase 3 was prompted by the need to re-plant the patch of land. It is south-facing, but composed almost entirely of clay, gravel and builder’s rubble, so again, we were very limited. We actually found it difficult to find a suitable compromise between things that would be sympathetic to the scale of the railway and planting the garden in its own right, especially given the severe constraints on plant sizes and tolerances that we faced. (In the end, we found that alpines and herbs were good fall-backs, judiciously supplemented with smaller shrubs.


There are some beautifully planted garden railways to be seen, though the majority seem to be beautiful gardens that happen to have a railway running through them rather than planted railways – while many people seem to use plants only because they have to, to keep the domestic authorities happy, or for screening purposes. Where they do bother, many garden railway makers seem to approach plants as they approach their locomotives – precisely, botanically, from a plantsman’s point of view. But I think that is area is the one where an impressionistic approach, considering composition and overall effect above species types, could pay maximum dividends.


I am more interested in how the planting, and indeed gardening in general, may be developed to be an integral part of our hobby, similar to the scenic side of the indoor discipline. What I don't want, however, is a full-on miniature garden. 


One useful little trick is to reverse your thinking: image that you are a railway gardener rather than a garden railway-er. Seen from the other end of the telescope, a different perspective appears. In that way, broad sweeps become more important than individual plants. It also emphasises our intention which is not to create a fully-focused miniature landscape – it is important that the garden looks first and foremost like a pleasing garden in its own right – but to achieve something that can double up as the railway’s landscape.


The same planting as seen in the header photo provides a backdrop for this cameo of our mid-way station. Blocks of plants are more important that individual specimens; much denser planting than might otherwise be the case hopefully adds naturalism.


1.       Acceptability. What one can achieve in this respect will always be dictated by what is felt acceptable in garden terms – if you want neatly planted areas of bedding plants you are going to struggle to  get a realistic landscape!


2.       Topiary.  One can trim many plants to represent scale trees etc. but I am not convinced that this is either effective or necessary. The main problem seems to be that the plants end up looking far too neat and tidy for realism. Better to let them grow in their natural habit, and just choose ones that will end up looking about right. Few people will inspect the plants to notice that they are ‘scale’ – a more impressionistic approach should work fine. For example, some people trim privet or box to produce a discernable trunk at the base – but is it really necessary? In relatively few places do plants grow in such isolation that it is necessary to produce faithful individual specimens – stately home parkland comes to mind! – but in the wild, things often grow in clusters or stands. This can work to our advantage – getting the stand outline/horizon line right is probably more important than individual specimens within it.


Does this privet really need a visible trunk to say 'tree'?


3.       Size and proportion. It is actually quite difficult to populate a garden with scale plants – especially in a small garden, where something 2m high – not big by plant standards – will dominate everything. The small-leaf rule seems to be useful. But a 90ft high tree is going to scale out at about 4ft 6” high in 16mm scale, which rules in a good number of plants – but the plot will need to be big enough that they do not dominate. Over-tall or large-leaved plants do seem to work so long as they are kept at some distance from the railway – either because the eye readjusts the relative distances to suit, or because one’s field of vision simply cuts off excess height when one focuses on the railway. My privet hedge is about 7ft high – but only the bottom two or three feet ‘count’ as a line of ancient trees as the rest can’t be seen. The closer the viewer to the plants, to more it works.


4.       Representing real plants. There are some useful plants that can represent scale versions of real things, but again I am doubtful that it is necessary to do this much of the time. Perhaps larger plants benefit more, but beyond the leaf-size issue, I doubt it is important with ground cover. Sometimes one plant can suggest another e.g. thymes can suggest purple heather, aubrietia can be redolent of rhododendrons and dwarf red maples make good ‘copper beeches’. But in my opinion, there are far too many dwarf conifers to be seen from this reasoning!


5.       Signature plants. Very few needed! Real landscape rarely has individual specimens that dominate the whole.


6.       Consistency. For the most part, railways of the type we model were short in length. For this reason, the vegetation did not vary hugely along the route, except possibly with altitude. Therefore, bulk use of a restricted number of species is likely to look more naturalistic than a wide range of plants with only one or two specimens of each.


7.       In something of a contradiction of no. 5, it is possible to select plants to create different character in different areas – so long as they remain internally consistent within a scene, and perhaps that they feature certain common-theme plants that tie them into the whole. The upper end of my line has a conscious effort to create a woodland setting, by using dwarf maples to arch over the line, and a denser general planting to suggest undergrowth. This is quite different from the sparser moorland effect of the lower line – though I suppose that technically, the forest should mostly be at lower altitude than the moor!


Top end of the line - woodland. Moss and selected (i.e. small) weeds help! The much-hated fence is screened by the plants, and is gradually 'dissolving' into the background. Laurel on the left has far too large leaves, but it is just about O.K. as it is away from the railway. For photographic purposes, I have taken to desaturating the colours, which seems to re-scale them relative to the railway (below).



8.       Colour/ texture. Horticultural considerations may impinge here – for example the desire to have year-round colour. However, we have found that it is better to restrict the colour range, at least amongst things that flower simultaneously. We have also largely used muted colours such as blues as they recede and suggest distance. They are also more representative of wild plants. We have especially used blues and whites only in the wooded area. Purples of thymes are good at suggesting moorland heather. We have also found that using texture rather than colour can be effective – real vegetation is largely grey/green when seen from a distance, so that a multitude of blended textures can look more plausible than lots of highly contrasting bright colours. There are some obvious exceptions, such as rhodendrons, azaleas and heathers, but they are easily overdone – unless you are modelling the Darjeeling Himalaya line in all its tea-plantation glory!


By contrast with the woodland, here is some mid-line moorland. Thymes are doing the work. The large flax in the background is less obtrusive in real life than in the photograph, and in any case adds verdance and height. Range of textures is quite appealing - no need for more colour!The view of the chapel next door would not be better!


9.       Actual versus photographic purpose. What the eye sees in the flesh and what appears on a camera can be two different things. We have found that areas that are meant to function in a particular way in their own right can have a secondary photographic function. For example, my line climbs through a line of shrubs intended to recreate the forest stretch of the Ffestiniog Railway, but thanks to its position, it also acts as a handy backdrop to photos of the station in the foreground, screening and softening a brick wall.


10.   Positioning. Putting tall plants in front of the railway as view-blockers creates an engaging impression of depth, and adds intrigue. Planting a number of specimens rather closer together than a gardener might otherwise advise can create interesting contrasts of texture, and looks more like a thicket of natural growth than neatly spaced specimens.


11.   Gastronomy. We have found that many herbs lend themselves well to railway gardens, and they have the added benefits not only of smelling wonderful on a hot afternoon, but of being harvestable for cooking.


12.   Screening. It is far better to use plants to screen undesirable full sized features such as fences than to attempt artifice. Painting such things blue only draws attention to them (though a dull green can work better). The visual softening effect of planting up against them can be sufficient in itself, simply by breaking up the strong lines of something’s outline.


13.   Rocks. Probably so obvious that it doesn’t really need to be said, but sometimes hard to achieve, nonetheless – rocks look better when laid in clear strata.


14.   Numbers. Odd numbers of plants look best, as with most things; planting them in regular patterns of size, height or spacing looks contrived, but truly random planting is very hard to achieve. Looking for sites where plants would naturally have established themselves can help a bit.


15.   A bit of wildness can help a lot, as can retaining a few dead plants – but don’t overdo it, or we will all suspect that you are a plant-killer!


16. Compromise. Becoming too rigorous about this can kill the pleasure of gardening: spring bulbs, for instance are grossly over-scale, but they I think are a joy in themselves and are therefore worth compromising for; they do reinforce the seasonality of the railway, in any case. I also tolerate thirty-foot high daffodils for a few weeks...


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