How To Projects Handmade hardscape using hypertufa

Handmade hardscape using hypertufa

By Nancy Norris | May 1, 2023

Creative ways to use this cement-based product on your garden railroad

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In my last column for Garden Railways (Tunneling through tough times), I mentioned learning more about making handmade hardscape using hypertufa “in the next issue.” Little did I know how much would change in the next couple of years—the print GR is no longer produced and has been revamped.

I’m finally ready to showcase how hypertufa can take your garden railway from good to great! See a number of ideas here and get a preview video of an upcoming clinic I’ll be doing at the 2023 National Garden Railway Convention in California. I’ll soon be sharing the recipe and other ways hobbyists use hypertufa on their railways.

train rounding curve on elevated garden railway
Step way back in time to view the formation of Earth’s crust. Imagine natural history depositing strata — layer after of layer of lava, bones, petrified plants, and minerals. Maybe dinosaurs still roam the plateaus noshing on dino kale trees and hiding in caves to avoid the Garrett running overhead. A modern caveman, Nick Schofield, formed the “ancient” cliffs for my Cretaceous Caves II division for kids on my Aggie. Hypertufa is safe for climbers or leaners when anchored deep into the ground. Nancy Norris photo

Here we’ll show how we broke up the rock-wall look on three sides of my house, starting with the children’s division. Each structure differs depending on needs, but all retain soil and act to anchor and elevate the track work. And for fun — create pockets for plants and creatures. Hypertufa allows for freeform design.

Curing completely

Cement products do not cure by drying but by a chemical process that requires water. The strongest concrete fully cures underwater. I wrap my projects in plastic tarps for about three days, with daily misting by hose, then keep them moist for another several days. This will ensure that the final products have had time to develop most of their strength. Although cement must have moderate temperatures, because too hot or cold inhibits curing, here’s a story how to use your garage in the winter to make hypertufa pots. You could make a stylized bridge:

train rounding curve on elevated garden railway
For three years we ran trains on track elevated on a core structure of steel studs and Flex-C Trac steel roadbed, cantilevered for easier reach of trains. It worked! Each vertical steel pipe had been anchored at least a foot in the ground, then gussets formed a viaduct-like network, which we beefed up with hardware cloth before covering with hypertufa. The hypertufa cliffs at the bottom support the kids’ point-to-point line. Note the two spray-irrigation pipes (left and far right), soon to be dressed up! This photo shows 8 of the 24 dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees in the backyard, carrots on the hill, and dwarf corn in the valley interplanted with red lettuce. Chives and oregano green the base. Nancy Norris photo


backed off shot of garden railway with elevated track
Because the Muir Trestle is cantilevered over the walkway, posts needed good anchoring in holes filled with concrete. Then the author’s first attempt at hypertufa created retaining walls to elevate the garden and green up the wall. Plastic 1-gallon plant pots held the space for plants while the hypertufa set up. Nancy Norris photo


model train on trestle
Over three years later Muir Trestle is finished, complete with authentic rust and railings welded on for a strong performance. The retained hill grows dwarf Japanese maples, strawberry begonias and sweet alyssum. Nancy Norris photo


a trestle with cliffs on garden railroad
Behind Muir Trestle, hypertufa cliffs straddle the gorge, which doubles as the gardener’s access port to the inside of the railroad. Because of the peat in the hypertufa mix, green moss quickly covers the surface, at least during winter and spring. Rabbits-foot fern, lime-green sedum, and Japanese maples add green to the hillside. Leftover hypertufa mix stuck together comprise the slate-chip steps. Nancy Norris photo


model mill on garden railroad
Also behind Muir Trestle on the other side of the gorge, a commercially-made grain mill, all out of hypertufa, allows workers to load flour sacks onto waiting flatcars and pick up fresh grain, of course. This building loves rain! One spreading asparagus fern forests the back yard and covers a tunnel. Nancy Norris photo


model train on track with grapevine railing edges
Before the cretaceous look transitions into old wooden bridges, I created a rough wooden-sided bridge, still using the grape-vine railings. Some edibles include (l to r) dwarf lettuce, Redbore kale, Mandarin sour orange, dinosaur kale and Sweet 100 cherry tomato. Nancy Norris photo

Hardscape retaining walls clinic

During a steamup on the author’s elevated Aggie (all edibles), train operator, Bill Bivings, made a video you can watch, above. In the middle, see a still shot with logging steamer, Russ Miller, director of this year’s 2023 National Garden Railway Convention in Santa Clara, CA. At the convention, the author will give a clinic on “Hardscape Retaining Walls” and demonstrate the use of hypertufa.

Get ideas for working with hypertufa in this companion article.


• Bivings, Bill, video of author’s railway: “Bill Bivings Train Day at the Ag & G El”
• Norris, Nancy, GR Feb. 2015; “Hardscape using cement product,” GR Feb. 2020, “Bigger and better: 7/8n2 in the garden.”
• Verducci, Jack, GR Dec. 1997, “Hiding an ugly fence with Gulapata”
Working with Gulapata
• Jones, Peter, GR Nov. 1984, “Scribblings on a workshop wall,” (cement scenery)

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