Local News

Garden Railroading: Great for Couples

Posted July 13, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— Don't look now, but is that a locomotive steaming through the lantana? A boxcar rolling past the begonias? More track curling through the thyme?

If so, it could well be another backyard depot that unites a love of model railroading with a love of gardening. Such as can be found in the northern Durham backyard of Beth and Mark Haskell.

She is the gardener; he is the model railroader.

They say this is a great hobby for couples because while each pursues his or her own specialty, it is for a common project.

Mark Haskell says he was bitten by the train bug when he was but one year old, and a house his parents bought had a model train in it. He likes to make the trains from kits, and gets further pleasure from creating a backdrop for them in the outdoor setting.

When the Haskells moved from Michigan in 1993 to their basement-less Durham home, they had no indoor room to display Mark's train collection. So they set up the track outside and began construction on a diminutive rail town, replete with a waterfall-capped tunnel, a goldfish pond, quarter-inch railworker figurines and a balsa wood coal tower.

Though the project consumed the better part of two months, three tons of field stone, 150 feet of track and countless small-growing plants, the Haskells take pleasure in sharing their hobby's secrets.

"I wouldn't recommend (railroad gardening) unless you have a train nut in the family," Beth Haskell said.

The hobby, which originated in England, has about 10,000 to 15,000 enthusiasts in the United States. The number of statewide clubs for enthusiasts has grown to more than 100, said Sharon Grefsle, who is helping to organize the national convention for railway gardening to be held in Herndon, Va. The annual event, which looks like a colossal train store, Grefsle said, moves to a different city every year and usually draws up to 2,000 fans, some from as far away as Australia.

Railway gardeners even have two industry publications. Garden Railways and Outdoor Railroader.

Everyone's familiar with the toot-toot of the model steam locomotive as it whirls around the tracks. But the "presidents" of these miniature railroad lines can also add sound effects, so that a boxcar can squawk as if it were transporting turkeys.

For Beth, the train layout enables her to incorporate various plants, especially the miniature and dwarf varieties, into a landscape that shows off both plant and train. The gardening part is a matter of trial and error, she said. She maintains and continuously adds to the plant collection, which includes a dwarf crape myrtle, ajuga and several variations of thyme, which resembles miniature pine trees.

She also has charge of the houses along the right-of-way, as well as the little figures and accessories for the various scenes.

Toot-toot-toot. Did you see the caboose disappear into the coleus?