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Plants and gardening ideas for O scale railways

By Nancy Norris | January 25, 2019

Get ideas for your own line from the owners of the Verdi Railroad

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Photo 1
The Verdi Railroad’s village hub models an “everywhere America” theme. Small 1:1 shade trees (Pittosporum tenuifolium, Zones 9-11) provide a canopy over seating near the rear-access railyard. Dwarf creeping fig softens the keystone blocks. Miniature (slower growing than dwarf) conifers and the tiniest leaved groundcovers do not obscure Acmeville’s busy O scale world.
Nancy Norris
Photo 2
Groundcovers, Elfin thyme, hen-and-chicks, and cranesbill geranium drip over flexible “cut-stone” retaining walls to terrace two levels of track. Miniature conifer trees of Gold Cone Irish juniper and green chamaecyparis varieties landscape the town of Acmeville.
Nancy Norris
Photo 3
The Southern Pacific Daylight looks at home in the desert. Succulents bask in the hot western sun below Mt. Acme’s craggy peak, recycled from a posthole. It matches concrete-stacking blocks and contrasts snow-capped mountains on the far-east side of the yard.
Nancy Norris
Photo 4
After a hardy campsite breakfast, Scouts trek out to explore the wilds of Mt. Acme’s desert. A reddish sedum variety, Coral Carpet, seems to be reverting to its wild, green version on the left.
Nancy Norris
Photo 5
Vehicles, O scale buildings, and homemade billboards fit this scene’s 1950s to 60s era, while a steam engine fits in as a museum piece on a siding. Trees on Grizzly Peak include (left to right) a Jean’s Dilly spruce, Buffalo junipers, and a Hinoki cypress.
Nancy Norris
Photo 6
Behind the Verdi Railroad, full-size chairs line up for an alternate view of Grizzly Peak, including the backdrop painted by Angela Lagomarsino. Between two transmitter towers above Berkeley’s tunnels, Nancy staked Buffalo juniper. Young Rachel enjoyed her time as a guest by placing ½”-tall wild animals on each mountain and ravine.
Nancy Norris
Nancy Lagomarsino and Jacques Verdier are long-time O scale (1:48) collectors. After volunteering at the San Leandro Historical Railway Society’s ( G&O Railroad (containing both G and O scales), they were understandably inspired and motivated to dust off their collection to run in the great outdoors.

Choosing O scale gives garden railroaders the advantage of building a smaller layout. If you have a larger space, O scale allows for more scenes with structures and copious plants. At approximately half the scale of large scale (1:48 versus 1:19-24), we need to lean over and examine teeny details, but it’s worth the effort.

Rare is the garden that enhances O scale trains as well as the Verdi Railroad. Photo 1 presents a broad picture of Jacques Verdier’s peninsula trackplan with 1:43-48 equipment. Photo 2 focuses on Nancy’s living green scenery—Verdi means green. We’ll identify plants that easily could work in your yard, too, whether small or large scale.

Concept and design
To stake out the layout, Jacques snaked a garden hose to outline three projecting masses of land to create distinct habitats for their backyard railway, yet leave plenty of room for walking and viewing. He and Nancy laid out O gauge (three-rail) Atlas-brand track along the hose for 250′ of three main lines on two levels. When they got it right, they raised it all onto keystone blocks, explained in the cover story, “Build a raised railway,” GR October 2016.

Photos 1, 2, 5 and 6 display the center peninsula, while photos 3 and 4 focus on the right peninsula. We show the left peninsula in Regional reports, where the owners describe their work. Many indoor railways use this lobed technique, which facilitates access and separation of scenes, but in photo 3 we can look across their small backyard (only 1000 sq. ft.) to view the mountains in the distance.

Nancy and Jacques organize their figures and trains in their garden-level storeroom next to the patio. Like using “extras” in the movies, they create stories in the railway just before each open house (photo 5). They generously host G&O members as well as the Train Collectors Association ( and the Bay Area Garden Railway Society ( Guests often lend a hand (photo 6). Even I happily directed a 1″ Pope to bless the new Copper Gorge from a hot-air balloon (see Regional reports).


“A catalog of useful plants,” or GR Feb. 2013
“In-scale flowers for the garden railway,” GR Feb. 2008
“An innovative indoor/outdoor O scale line,” GR Aug. 2002
Miniature Garden Guidebook, Kalmbach Media,
The Garden Railway Manual by C.J. Freezer, Patrick Stephens Limited.
Model landscaping supplies and figures,
Paul Race’s blog of O scale stories,

The painted green 2-D hills reflect the closer 3-D hills of Upper Niles on the far left peninsula of the Verdi Railroad. Gold moss stonecrop will add life between the three retaining walls once the sand-covered cuttings take root.
Copper Gorge may show the source of water that feeds one of the many stories Jacques shares with guests. Buff-colored mortar, coppery flagstones, and “waterfalls” of recycled auto-glass create pockets for lemon-scented geranium, gold-moss sedum and mini conifer trees.
Nancy Norris
Regional gardening reports
Zones are USDA Hardiness Zones

How do you blend the living scenery with the equipment on your O-scale garden railway?

Nancy Lagomarsino
San Leandro, California, Zones 9-10
O-scale gardening

I make sure that my railroad gardening supports the realism of our O-scale world. I’m careful to choose plants that will stay manageable in size. I only buy plants from reputable growers that are carefully labeled as miniature cultivars and varieties. Growers like Iseli Nursery ( and Lone Pine Gardens (, both specializing in miniatures and wholesaling to local nurseries) have developed named varieties. Their plant tags provide specific data about final size and growth rate, as well as soil, sun, and moisture requirements. Using a bargain plant of unpredictable habit just isn’t worth the risk.

The most important aspect in choosing types of plants is foliage size. Leaves need to be small and believably represent 1:43-1:48-scale; the leaf shape should occur in 1:1 scale in the type of scene I’m aiming at. Branch structure also needs to make sense for the kind of flora I want to show, and internodal distance [between branches] needs to be small.

Careful pruning is often necessary to ensure that branch structure reflects mature plants. I always prune new specimens before I plant them on the layout. When the specimen is in a pot at eye level on a potting bench, it’s much easier to get a good look at the original structure, plan how to shape it, and do the actual cutting.

A variety of landscapes represent different habitats so that all scenes don’t look alike. We have desert flora in one area, a forest in another, and a town in between. This helps meet varying cultural requirements. For example, our 2′ high Mount Acme creates two distinct zones – desert flora on the sunnier west side and a forested camp scene on the shadier side.

The lowest planting of dwarf creeping fig along the retaining wall forces a far-away perspective on everything above. We prune the vines below the top tier of keystones to prevent their migrating to the garden soil above. Root-barrier fabric behind the keystone blocks prevents that.

The painted green 2-D hills reflect the closer 3-D hills of Upper Niles on the far left peninsula of the Verdi Railroad. Gold moss stonecrop will add life between the three retaining walls once the sand-covered cuttings take root.

Nancy’s tips for starting tiny plants
• I create a temporary watering basin by cutting a ring about 1½” tall from the top of the nursery pot (usually I work with 3-4″ pots), which I push into the soil around the plant. I cut through the ring so it will be easy to pull off after the plant is well established.
• If I need to plant in hot weather, I create temporary shade over the area with a framework of garden stakes covered by shade cloth.
• I also add water-holding products (like Soil Moist) to the planting soil.

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