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Old 10-26-2010, 01:28 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

Is there really a difference? I believe there is … at least conceptually. When I decided to transition into outdoor large scale railroading, I brought with me many of the ways of doing things I had used for many years in my indoor smaller scale modeling. Things like forced perspective, selective compression, scale fidelity, controlled lighting, controlled focal points, and many of the other tricks-of-the-trade that model railroaders utilize to alter a viewer’s perception of their models. Many of these modeling concepts tend to clash head-on with the constraints imposed by garden landscaping. After all, any layout in the outdoors must endure the whims of Mother Nature. We can try to fight her, but we all know that Mothers always have the final say. The key is to achieve a balanced compromise that provides the best of both worlds and minimizes the apparent conflicts.
As I work on my latest – and hopefully my last – outdoor layout, I want to take advantage of all of my previous experiences, both good and bad. I hope to utilize lessons-learned and take advantage of the multitude of great ideas willingly shared by others on this great forum. As I performed the various trade-offs associated with designing the layout, I quickly realized that there is no such thing as a “standard” outdoor layout. All of our layouts represent the uniqueness that each of us bring to the hobby. All of us must deal with various constraints, whether they be space, weather, our individual state of health, available budget, or our simple likes and dislikes. That said, in general I feel that most outdoor layouts fall into one of the following types. I am interested in hearing if others feel likewise, and into which type your own layout falls. I am also interested in hearing things you may feel to be the pros and cons of each type. In other words … if you had it to do all over again, would you do it differently?
Railroad Only – No Garden: Many outdoor layouts emphasize the railroad as the primary object with the garden only serving as an accessory. In some outdoor layouts, the garden is actually non-existent! The layout is nothing more than a model railroad located outside. On these layouts, items such as landscape timbers or block walls usually define where the layout begins and clearly separate it from the lawn or garden in which it resides. Some are nothing more than a continuous bridge structure. This type of outdoor layout is all about the railroad. Many of them are elevated above the level of the surrounding lawn or garden for easier access. Don’t misunderstand me; I love this type of outdoor layout. They are easier to build … they are easier to maintain … they are easier to operate … and they are fun.
Railroad First – Garden Later: Many outdoor layouts incorporate garden elements within the railroad. On these layouts, the builder usually designs the track plan first with all of the necessary contours and elevations. After the track is in place and the trains are running, the builder then begins to move vast amounts of dirt and rocks, and to populate the layout with appropriate plantings and textures needed to transform the raw layout into a garden railroad. Probably most outdoor layouts fall within this broad category. The garden portion of the outdoor layout may be scale-oriented and naturalistic, with small-leaved plants and shrubs selected to mimic representations of prototype vegetation. Or, conversely, the garden portion may be populated with amazing diversity, using profuse colors and textures of plantings to create a sensuous treat for the viewer as the trains traverse the layout.
Garden First – Railroad Later: Most of these layouts started with an existing garden or yard space and the railroad was designed to fit within it. Minor changes to the existing landscape may have been made be made to accommodate the track, but for the most part, the trains traverse existing terrain. At maturity, this type of outdoor layout is hard to distinguish from the previous type. Both have a natural blend of railroad and landscape elements. But on careful examination, subtle differences do exist. In a garden first type of layout, the track right of way carefully follows the terrain of the garden. Every curve, every grade, and every bridge is located strictly by the demands of the garden terrain. Few items, if any, look out of place.
Garden and Railroad Together: At first glance, one might think that this type of layout is just like the garden first type of layout. After all, the garden is the primary emphasis and that the railroad is nothing more than an accessory that runs through it. But this is actually a carefully constructed illusion. It is true that the garden portion of the layout is designed first. But, every feature of the garden landscape is designed with the railroad in mind: rivers and valleys to cross … mountains to climb over or tunnel through … towns and villages to connect. The layout is easily divided into multiple scenes or vignettes, each of which can be designed to optimize both the modeling and landscaping perfection. The garden terrain can be manipulated to accommodate minimum radii and maximum gradients required by the railroad. The railroad track plan can be manipulated to accommodate the placement of terrain and vegetation features required by the landscape. It is a give-and-take exercise; with continual trade-offs involving desirability, feasibility, cost, accessibility, maintenance, operation, and ultimate effect.
Bob Hyman
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Old 10-26-2010, 01:44 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?


Interesting post. I fall in to the 2nd category, railroad first, garden later. My railroad is located generally along the fringes of the property, in an area that was overgrown with weeds and trees when we first moved in. I had grand dreams of filling in a large 20' diameter loop, but that fell by the wayside as budget constraints dictated that monies be spent on other more essential items. Gradually, some plants have been cultivated, but by no means is my railroad a beautiful garden.

I think this has a lot to do with the planning, or complete lack thereof, of my railroad. I got track and made that fit within the space I had. In the next iteration of outdoor railroad, I will be planning for people a lot better, since that has become one of the main reasons to rebuild. Plants will be third!! People, trains then plants!

Mark Oles
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Old 10-26-2010, 02:46 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

Definitely the fourth category for me! The concept for the Kansas Central & Colorado RR is "Trains running in a garden." The track may have been layed first but the whole concept was an integrated one.
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Old 10-26-2010, 03:02 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

I have plans drawn up for my railroad, and a long-term landscape reconstruction project underway, but I haven't yet built a garden railroad, so these are only my thoughts, preferences and plans, not a "if I had it to do all over again" perspective:

I, too, am coming to the large scale side of the hobby after having done a fair bit of work in HO scale. I'd still prefer an indoor HO scale layout, but my current house is not amenable to that, so I've resigned myself to building an outdoor railroad if I'm going to have one at all. Being able to run live steam will help ease the resignation. My interest is in having a functioning, purposeful logging and mining railroad that I can operate as such; I know absolutely that I would quickly tire of simply "running trains". My house is on 0.6 acres, so I have plenty of space for conventional landscape gardening, thus my railroad area, which will be a 75 foot long ("tall") 'P' shape varying from 15 foot to 40 foot wide, will be primarily focused on the railroad. That said, I still want it to integrate nicely with the rest of the landscaping and not be a liability in case I ever sell the property, so it will be built in a raised planter manner using the same wall blocks and undulating curves that I've used for the ornamental beds. I'll use miniature and dwarf plants in the railroad area to create the forest areas and provide greenery among the rocks; I know it won't be true to scale, but I can live with that. The terrain will be manipulated to work with the railroad except for a low-in-front, high-in-back trend to work with the existing slope along that edge of my property.

For most of my planning period, the above was as far as the railroad went, but recently I've been noodling on how to extend it to circumnavigate a couple of large planting areas in the main part of my yard, knowing that there will be still be days where I might want to just let a train run for entertainment. I can pick up about 300 feet of run if I do that. That will fall into the garden first - railroad second category.
Jim McKim
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Old 10-26-2010, 04:09 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

Odd at first I wanted to say yes, but then again I value my learning experience from my first and growing layout.
The Unlearning curve was intolerable until the lazy factor plus a 10' blind eye kicked in.

Dad switched me to HO from Lionel 1960, I graduated to 'sloppy' or 'near' fine scale On3 in the 80s. Some whimsy kept it funner....
'Where are we going today Mr. Peabody? Well Junior, I have the wayback machine set for the 60s and Atlas fiber tie flex track. That's when our friend T-wrecks ditched sectional track!'

The loop of brass that came in the starter set never sullied a wheel. Sectional was all my one local store carried, I was lucky to find SS and so that's what I used. A do over would be flex as I long for true spiral transition curves...

I don't have a garden, nor much beyond weeds that the critters won't eat. I gots lots of rocks tho'.

I would like to rip it all out and go linear w/ return loops at each end, single track w/ passing sidings.. That would depend on Javalinas being willing to use over tunnel paths. Presently they do walk around, but my topography creates a line across their migratory route...that might push them to far and they'd go back to forward gear. Up to 300 pounds of cloven hooved peccary! Still I can dream as grow into what I have.

These trains have let the child come back out, I know enough to get a realistic feel without as much detail. My environment is too harsh for some things and just buries others... who has time to garden when a layout beckons?

Happy Rails,

His friend Jerry Dillon looked up at the hillside and said; There is a big ledge, and the whole damned hill is a total wreck with quartz boulders of ore.
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Old 10-26-2010, 04:20 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

Good posts and responses. I have been an avid gardener all my life so suppose garden first is where I come down. However I enjoy my ponds and and created them with railroads in mind.
So I should say ponds (2), rails and then plants mostly shade and marginal plants in that order.
Pictures to follow when I can pull all of this together.

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Old 10-26-2010, 05:18 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

CATAGORY 4 FOR ME, well kinda. Railroad is primary but the landscape has to be in place initially, although plantings, water feature etc. comes later. I gotta get some track down! Goal was by years end but it's not going to happen. One more rather large bridge project has to be completed 1st

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Old 10-26-2010, 06:36 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

I'm in the 4th category and though we have a lot of track for the area (~600 ft over ~1,200 sq ft), it is so well integrated into the landscape that people first notice the miniature garden. The fact that it is in the front yard means that everyone who comes to the door sees it so I keep it immaculate.

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Old 10-29-2010, 06:00 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

last category
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Old 11-16-2010, 10:55 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Default RE: Outdoor Layouts: Garden Railroad or Railroad Garden?

At my last house I was RF-GL. I laid the track around the trees, then built up and added plants, small pond, bushes, etc as I saw fit. It was actually coming together quite nicely when we decided to sell and move about 15 minutes away.

At the new place I am blessed with fresh lawn....nary a tree nor bush to contend with. The wife's given me the back half of the back yard, from the septic mound on (the front half of the back yard is supposed to be for something silly, like a pool or some fool thing). Since it's all "new", I'm taking the G&RT approach. Taking the time to plan it right, knowing what I want and what i like to see running, the scenes I want, the water features, "mountains", etc. Look me up again in about 20 years when it's done!!
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