One miniature log home on Jim Shaver’s garden railway in Mound mirrors his own residence.
Shaver designed and built both himself, and the mini one still took him plenty of time to construct — about 200 hours. The home, roofed with tiny cedar shakes, is situated near a waterfall and surrounded by a forest of ferns. In front, sedum blossoms are tucked in fairy garden planters.
Since Shaver started his garden railway in 2000, he has built many of the buildings and structures from scratch — a grain mill, covered and trestle bridges, and a sawmill with a “steam donkey.”
“It’s never done,” Shaver said. “It’s a journey, not a destination.”
That sentiment is echoed by many Minnesota Garden Railway Society members. The growing group, which started in 1990, meets at open houses on summer weekends, where members chat, swap garden railway paraphernalia and talk gardening. Two decades ago, there were about 20 members, said Roger Baumann of Plymouth. Now there are over 100 members.
Part of the fun is sharing bouts of ingenuity. For example, Shaver made one of his first buildings, a train depot, with two hexagonal bird feeders and scraps of granite. He once found sections of actual train track and used them for a human-sized footbridge leading into his garden.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Mike Haugen of Burnsville. “There’s no wrong way to do this.”
Haugen’s advice to potential garden railroad hobbyists? “Learn how to dumpster dive. Our members are real good at it,” he said.
Like other members, Shaver spends winters building. In his downstairs workshop, a train track overhead runs the ceiling’s perimeter. Right now, he has 300 feet of track in his back yard. If he wins the lottery, he said, he’ll extend the railway out into the woods. More immediate plans involve staging a train wreck scene like the one well-known from “The Addams Family.”
“I have to polish up my pyrotechnics,” he said.
Garden railroaders usually use G-scale trains, which are more rugged and less likely to tip over in the wind. Steve Monson, an electrical engineer from Brooklyn Park, said some model railroad enthusiasts losing their eyesight appreciate G-scale because they can see detail better. Unlike some model train enthusiasts, he said, those who run G-scale trains in their gardens tend to worry less about perfection.
“We don’t look to see if there’s lipstick on the ladies’ lips,” he said. “If it’s outside, it’s more carefree.”
Monson and his wife, Annette, have been working on their garden railway for 18 years. What started out as one loop of track in a flower rock garden now extends 400 feet, through vegetation like parsley, artemisia and oregano, past a farm, a circus and a small town where, one July 4th, they hung sparklers over the railway to resemble fireworks.
Linda and Bob Gilbert’s Stillwater garden railway, built in 2010, is inspired by the locale. It runs through a rock quarry, with a tunnel covered with limestone indigenous to the area, Linda Gilbert said. The couple built replicas of a family member’s cabin and of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, with tiny tiles cut to size. And she planted ninebark to resemble maple trees, as well as plants like Asiatic lilies, begonias, wild geranium, Alberta spruce and creeping woolly thyme.
She gardens and her husband, a mechanical designer by trade, works on the trains. She said duties for member couples are often divided along gender lines.
“Your spouse might be working on something else,” she said, “but you’re out there together.
Open to the community
While it’s tough for non-club members to glimpse railroad gardens, people can see the Wayzata depot garden railroad, which many members have worked on, on the shore of Lake Minnetonka on weekends and Wednesday nights.
Bud Lutz’s Eagan garden railway opens monthly during warm months. Built in 2001, it has two towns, one modeled after Lutz’s hometown of Bowman, N.D., an early railroad stop. Nearby, a volcano emits steam, a cable car lift brings passengers up to a mountaintop resort and a geyser shoots up from a tiny lake. Lutz said up to 400 people at a time have shown up for his open house.
Frank Bifulk of White Bear Lake, a retired locomotive engineer, said his wife, Dede, an avid gardener, talked him into building a railroad in her already-established garden. Because of limited yard space, he based his on a Colorado narrow-gauge railroad, which twists and turns and runs over steep grades.
“I had to do it like the big boys did it,” he said. “I had to figure out how to get over and under and through things.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer and photographer.