A Railroad Garden: Engineering Togetherness

About 400 feet of track, seven engines, and 30 railroad cars create a family favorite railroad garden in this pretty backyard.


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Grandparents often plan trips to amusement parks with their grandchildren, hoping to shape summer memories. Instead, Mike and Janet Elmore brought a theme park to their backyard, designing a railroad garden that would bring their family together more often than a yearly vacation.

"It all started with a track I bought for ninety-nine dollars one Christmas," recalls Mike. "It circled around the Christmas tree, and when we took down all the decorations, I told Janet I wanted to leave the train up year round." He kept the track, and shortly thereafter bought another, ultimately moving the train into their 25-x-60-foot backyard in Marysville, Washington.

When they began, the couple knew less about railroads and more about gardening, since Mike had owned a landscape design firm and was familiar with the art of matching plants with their proper habitats.

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"We knew the first order of business was to organize the garden and create a home for the railroad," says Janet. "We were as passionate about the garden and its design as we were about the railroad." At the outset, they uprooted 30 fir trees, then laid a blanket of wood chips on the sloping lawn and waited for them to settle before they could begin constructing the railroad tracks.

In the interim, the Elmores selected plants from local nurseries and discovered a newfound appreciation for all things miniature. Standing like tiny soldiers around the garden are dwarf versions of lilacs, pieris, bamboo, Alberta spruce, and tiny crab apples. 15 varieties of hemlock and maple seedlings are pruned to keep them small. Native mosses create a soft tapestry of ground cover that also includes sedums, thyme, Corsican mint, New Zealand brass buttons, and cotula.

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"While we were working on the main garden, our family was growing," says Janet. "We had a fifth grandchild, Caty. And they were all getting antsy for a railroad, so we built a little side garden to keep them occupied." The Sherwood Forest Shortline, named after the couple's fir-studded neighborhood, runs alongside the house. "We were slaving away in the backyard, and the children's giggles would echo back to us."

For the backyard, the couple, who are fans of steam locomotives, opted for a late 1800s theme, complete with Victorian structures. Grandson Nathan, now 16, helped build the set -- a G-scale, the larger version of model trains. "When we first laid the track out on the backyard grass, I was only 5. But I worked all day, and I ran the very first train."

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While Nathan's sister, Natasha, worked with Mike to cement rocks in the waterfall, Nathan helped Janet place elaborate miniature structures around the premises. Built from kits and repainted by Mike and Janet, the homes, farms, church, and saloon became a playground for Justin, who was responsible for placing the townfolk and houses. Granddaughter Caty got her own train in a small garden on the side of the house, one that rides past all her favorite Disney characters.

"I'm only 5 1/2 years old, but there's been a train at my gamma's and bompa's house all of my life," says Caty. "It looks like a real village, just the way old-fashioned people would be."

Janet smiles. "Caty's still young enough to appreciate the imaginary world," says Janet. "It's been this great playground for the kids, and it's grown and changed as they've grown and changed."

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Mike is most proud of how his passion encouraged his grandchildren's creativity. "It inspired them to be creative, to invent characters. They would spend hours outside rather than inside being fed by the television. I can't think of a better gift we could have given them than a place to let their imaginations roam free."

He recalls the first run with Nathan at the control. "That was the most special moment for us, to see the look on his face when he saw all of our work had paid off. He and the other grandkids learned the valuable lesson of seeing a project through to completion and fruition."

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The garden has also taught the Elmores' grandchildren about their local history. A miniature logging site and sawmill reflect a bygone era when those industries fueled the town of Marysville. "All the scenes depict everyday life," says Mike. "It's a living classroom." And it remains a classroom -- and playground -- for Mike and Janet, who come out daily, rain or shine, to tend the aptly named "Drizzle and Downpour Railroad."

"What appealed to us about the hobby is the fact that it has little to do with money or space. You can spend lots or little on details that don't really matter," Mike says. "What's important is the fact that it inspires teamwork, that it creates memories, that, in this hurried age, it brings families and children together."

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The track remains outdoors throughout the seasons, though the engine and cars brought inside when not in use. Each scene in the Elmores' garden depicts life in Washington State. Mike says the garden is a "living classroom" for his grandchildren, who bring their imaginations to the little railroad that could.

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The Elmores' railroad garden is one of 37,000 in the country. "It's a project that brings parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren together," says Janet, whose grandkids have watched the railroad garden evolve. Nathan has learned how to prune the little trees to keep them in scale. A depot serves as a garden tool storage shed.

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The early logging industry of the Pacific Northwest is the theme of the railroad garden, complete with miniature logs and main street storefronts. Janet's dentist created the sawmill as a gift.

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Mike says grandson Justin is responsible for most of the placement of the houses and all of the miniature people who make up the town they have named "Dogwood." Nathan Demmig, now 16, has been working on his grandparents' railroad since he was 5. Brushing litter from the tracks is an essential part of garden railroading. "The kids have learned a lot about gardening with us out here," Mike says.

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