A train rolls though a bridge in Patricia Moss’ backyard in Yorktown, Va.
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. It’s still fall foliage time in the tiny town of Sugarland.
As the weather turns cool and crisp, life chugs on — the dairy farm supplies milk to the sugar refinery so the bakery and candy shop can provide lots of sweets for Candy Cane Village residents. The town, served by the Southern R&R railroad, is also home to the Donut Police Station, Red Hot Fire Department, Ginger Snap Park and Rollo Golf Course. Kids attend the M&M Elementary and Sugar High school; Graham Cracker Farm is home to cows, pigs and chickens.
-- Book — “Gorgeous Garden Railways” by Marc Horovitz, editor of Garden Railways magazine, and Pat Hayward, horticultural editor of Garden Railways. Full of large photos and helpful text on garden railroad landscaping, trains, infrastructure and water features.
-- Online — Garden Railways magazine, with online plant library and pond-care basics, at grw.trains.com; and Family Garden Trains, including garden railroad construction and plant selection articles, at www.familygardentrains.com.
As Christmas approaches, residents look out for a visit from the Polar Express.
Welcome to Patricia Moss’ backyard, host to Sugarland and the many mini residents who dwell in her railroad garden.
“I love gardening and my husband, Charlie, and I like model railroads, so I’ve combined the two,” says Patricia, who lives in Yorktown, Va.
“All buildings have candy or sugary-like names, and most reside on Lemon Drop Lane.”
Patricia’s railroad garden — 200 feet of G-scale track winding through a 40-by-12-foot space — started in 1997, when she first laid the track on concrete blocks. When voles and moles kept disrupting soil under the blocks, Charlie rebuilt the track on treated lumber supported with plastic PVC pipe.
More than 50 colorful cookie jars in the shapes of houses and businesses make up most of Sugarland’s buildings. Patricia finds them in antiques and thrift stores, and many are gifts from friends and family.
“I never knew that cookie jars came in so many wonderful shapes and colors,“ says David Taylor, a member of the Hampton Roads Horticultural Society, which recently visited the railroad garden.
“Charlie and Patsy have created a jewel right in their back yard.”
Plants that fit
While trains and buildings form Sugarland’s energy, plants give the town Mother Nature’s special ambiance. Trees such as pines, sweet gums and crape myrtles are pruned to stay small; nandina is a natural because its tall, stalk-like presence naturally looks like a clump of close-growing trees. Creeping Jenny and moss are used for green spaces.
“I covered concrete block with outdoor carpet to set the cookie jars on and a beautiful moss started growing there — perfect for my lawn in front of the houses,” says Patricia.
“Any plants with small leaves such as nandina, Mexican heather, sedum, dusty miller and pencil trees are used to make a realistic look of a miniature town.
“Garden Railways magazine always has a section on miniature plants to use, but the main idea is to look for plants that resemble realistic scenery for the trains’ background. A bonsai book can help you learn the art of keeping plants small, and ground covers will spread quickly.
As winter nears, Patricia takes the buildings indoors where she cleans and stores them. The trains are never left outdoors, even during warm weather. When the mood strikes her, she’ll bring them out to run while she has morning coffee or at night when the train lights can illuminate the darkness.
“It’s like an expanded playhouse,” she says.
“It’s also a tribute to my father, who died when he was 59 and was still working for the railroad. My father was a pipe fitter, my uncle an engineer and both grandfathers made their bread and butter from the Southern Railway.
“For me, it’s displaying life in miniature.”
Patricia Moss offers these tips on creating a railroad garden:
-- Decide how large you want your railroad garden to be and where you want to place it.
-- Plan your road bed. The simplest is floating track on ballast, or installing track directly on chicken grit (oyster shells) mixed with fast-drying concrete bought at hardware stores.
-- Buy commercially made track of G scale, which is available in different lengths for running electric or battery-operated trains. A battery-operated train eliminates the need to clean the track.
-- Decide on a garden name, one that allows you creativity and expansion options.
-- Create realistic scenery. Use miniature plants and buildings, relying on 3-inch people as your guide. For example, doors on buildings should be at least 3 inches tall.