GARDENING: Austin enthusiasts all aboard the garden train in backyards
An orange refrigerator freight car is stopped on the tracks alongside a platform; a man wearing a hat leans way over. In the background, there appear to be mountains underneath white clouds and blue sky. Nearby is what seems to be an exceptionally tall tree trunk. It all looks so real, except perhaps the single leaf that spans across two railroad ties. This could be one of numerous train cars of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway, running through small Texas towns in the late 1940s.
Or it could be the backyard of Gerald Burgess, an avid garden railroader. Burgess, 67, is an enthusiast of this activity that combines the love of gardening with a passion for model trains.
At his Cedar Park-area property, Burgess made scenes along a “point-to-point,” L-shaped track — about 80-feet long — to look like stops along the railway in Brady, San Saba and Lampasas. Structures such as a water tower, single-engine house and warehouse dot the way. The wood fence is painted as backdrop.
Overall, the yard is shady, with many trees Burgess planted, and plenty of rocks.
“Instead of using plants, I use stone as a form of landscape. … Nothing will grow under crepe myrtle,” says Burgess, semi-retired. “I had to make the trains fit around the trees.” He also had to work around certain complications; he put up a wire fence to keep the dog out.
In a separate part of the property, he has a raised bed area with snake herb, thyme and other plants growing in the middle. Train tracks, including a trestle bridge, loop around the edge.
Overall, he says, he likes this hobby “because it gets me outdoors.” His love for model trains started when he was a youngster after his dad bought Lionel trains.
“I just got hooked,” says Burgess. “I got interested in the art,” such as the details and the scenery. “This is what fascinated me: to make it look real.”
As Burgess grew older, he didn’t have much time for model railroading, but one day he saw a flier for a group called the Heart of Texas G-Gaugers, made up of about 25 families who met monthly, he says.
“Almost everyone had a garden railroad,” he says. “The whole object of G-gauge is to put the love of trains and the love of gardening together.”
Many hobbyists such as Burgess can easily digress into jargon about ratios and scale, as well as which manufacturers make certain types of model trains.
The G-gauge, he says, has not been as popular as other gauges. (The “gauge” is the distance between the rails.) “You can’t use it as much because it’s outside. … the heat, the rain. You have to clean the track. …. Anything you leave out there is subject to the environment,” and ultimately, he added, “Nature wins.”
The landscaping can be difficult, too, he says.
“If you’re a true model railroader, you want everything to scale,” he says. “That’s almost impossible. Most people don’t do that. They’ll put plants they like with their trains.”
Some enthusiasts are worried that the hobby might fade out because “there’s not as much younger people interested in it,” he says. However, devoted fans, such as Burgess, are often willing to spend several hours setting up or putting away equipment and scenery for visitors or special occasions, he says. He now owns about 30 freight cars, three cabooses and four engines and more.
“I love trains as much as gardening,” says Burgess, “but I practice gardening about 10 times more.”
A hobby for many
Burgess is not alone in this interest. The group that initially inspired Burgess has since disbanded, but nowadays, a loose association of local hobbyists get together. The Texas Garden Railroaders, has about 15 families involved — spread out over Central Texas, says Steve Blackson, an active participant.
“We’re just an ad hoc group,” Blackson says. “All we do is get together and run trains.”
Five times, the group has put on a self-guided tour called Spring Bloom, in which people could visit garden railroads at various locations. (The last tour was in 2014, but the group intends to start it up again, Blackson says.) The 2014 tour also included a stop at the San Antonio Garden Railroad Engineers Society railroads at the Texas Transportation Museum (www.txtransportationmuseum.org).
As well, the Texas Garden Railroaders has set up a “Garden Train” for the past two years for the Zilker Garden Festival, Blackson says.
Making a business
Like many others, Blackson, 68, got more involved in this pastime once he retired. Before then, though, he had spent his spare time with the more popular HO model railroads, which is for indoor use, he says. “I spent over 30 years in the garage. My wife never parked in the garage,” he says. “When I retired, I traded my wife the garage for the backyard.” About that time, he says, the pricing for G-gauge became more affordable. And he was thrilled to get to be outside.
Blackson took two years to build his setup. His trains run on battery across 350 feet of track that winds around his Anderson Mill-area yard.. His setup is a realistic, point-to-point depiction of a railway running in places such as Fredericksburg and Llano.
“Mine is set in the 1930s, no later than the 1940, pre-war,” Blackson says. Currently, his garden railroad is undergoing extensive maintenance, including repair of a retaining wall.
In general, he says, “The maintenance is 95 percent in the garden. The train takes very little maintenance.” But it’s worth the effort: “It’s beautiful when it’s all together.”
In 2010, Blackson also started a part-time business, Windy Point Garden Railroads, navigating the difficulties and setting up garden railroads for others. He has designed and/or built 13 so far, he says.
“Outside, our No. 1 thing we have to worry about is drainage,” he says. “We have to put in hardscape, which means bringing in landscaping contractors.”
Blackson, recognized as a “master model railroader” by the National Model Railroad Association, says it takes roughly one year for a job, from planning to completion. In Mississippi, he did a large project with 750 feet of track, 14 bridges, a river with two waterfalls and more.
“It’s very impressive,” he says.
Enjoying a hobby together
While some garden railroaders might be meticulous about keeping the trains and other items entirely realistic, others are quite playful, such as the Waltons, both retired.
“You’ve got to have a little whimsy,” says Andy Walton. He and his wife of 46 years, Nancy Walton, have model trains running through the garden in their Hays County backyard. As well, humorous items — such as a fairy on a swing and toy dinosaurs — embellish the scenery.
Like many other people who have taken up this pastime, Andy Walton, enjoyed model trains as a child. Later, in the 1980s, Walton went Christmas shopping for his two sons and he came home with a surprise.
“I thought it was a computer, and on Christmas morning, we opened trains,” Nancy Walton says.
He built layouts for the trains in various homes where they lived, but the hobby got a serious jolt in 1992, when Nancy Walton bought him a subscription to Garden Railways magazine.
Eventually, says Andy Walton, “The trains had to go outside.”
The Waltons moved to their current house in 2009, and keeping in mind the model trains, they had a stone wall in the backyard redone with numerous tiers. This allowed for various features such as a tunnel for the trains.
Nancy Walton enjoys creating the scenes. “They change from time to time,” she says. Meanwhile, Andy Walton crafts some of the miniature buildings, such as a station house, out of wine corks.
“It’s a nice hobby for a couple,” Andy Walton says.
Though some pieces can withstand harsher weather, much of it has to be put away in winter, stored in a full-size, red-and-white shed that is decorated like a rail station.
Unfortunately, one year, after a storm, “All the buildings ended up that way,” says Nancy Walton, pointing away.
Each year, setting up the elaborate “Rockland & Somerset Garden Railroad” — named for the two counties where they were born — is a big job.
“In the spring, the first thing we do is the weeding,” Nancy Walton says. “We’ve got to find the track.” Then, she says, “(Andy) re-ballasts” the little rocks around the track. … He sifts the granite gravel.”
For the landscaping, Andy Walton says, “We try to find the stuff with small leaves so it blends in. … The ground covers are good.”
Overall, Andy Walton says, “The gardening not only is therapeutic, but contributes to the ambience of the property. … You work it so the train fits into the landscape.”
Now, in the backyard loop, about 480-feet of track meanders through the garden, Andy Walton estimates.
Just about everybody admits this can be an expensive hobby. Track can cost about $6 or $7 per foot, Andy Walton says. Looking at magazine ads, Andy Walton points to a yellow caboose selling for $135.99.
And there is always plenty more to do.
“It doesn’t finish,” Nancy Walton says. “You’re always adding or rearranging.”