THE TRAIN YARD Tracks wind through gardens as outdoor rail hobbyu takes root


There's something a bit out of the ordinary in the gardens behind the cozy Havre de Grace home of R. Madison "Mitch" Mitchell Jr. and his wife, Kit.

The spacious raised flower beds are colorful and well-tended, in many ways not unlike the gardens in neighboring yards. But over near the Mitchells' pachysandra is a miniature burned-out house with a fire engine parked nearby. Not far from a dwarf Alberta spruce is a farm house and a barnyard. A general store, a water tower, a stone quarry and a coal tower are tucked here and there among the creeping juniper, Johnny jump-ups and marigolds.

This is not just any garden but a garden railway. And here come Mr. Mitchell's prized engines, steaming along under the open skies past shrubs, trees and ground cover and pulling the cars of the Great Upper Chesapeake and Susquehanna Railroad.

That's the name the Mitchells gave to the outdoor train garden they started six years ago. They've been refining, maintaining and expanding it ever since, and today the railway has about 210 feet of track.

The Mitchells enjoy combining two hobbies and spend a lot of time during the warmer months working in the garden and running the trains. Their locomotives are LGBs, which are bigger and sturdier than the model trains typically used for indoor gardens at Christmastime. These highly detailed replicas of full-size trains are made for indoor or outdoor use. The Mitchells can operate their railroad in the rain, and they even have a snow plow for winter use.

"We claim it's for the kids, but we enjoy it," said Mrs. Mitchell, a 56-year-old grandmother of four. "We really have fun with it. During the summer, we're out here daily. The plants are thriving, and we have to trim to keep the track clear."

The couple share gardening duties, experimenting with a variety of plants to "weed out" the ones that grow too full and too fast. Mr. Mitchell is in charge of construction, a job for which he has plenty of experience. When he isn't working on his railroad, he supervises plan review and inspections for construction in Harford County, where he is chief of building services.

"I'm working to support the railroad," Mr. Mitchell said with a smile.

He designed the original garden section and built it in about six weeks using landscaping timbers, pea gravel, concrete block and topsoil. He has built railroad cars from scratch as well as some of the buildings for the garden. Currently, he's working on a church.

He converted a wooden toolshed into a "depot" for use as a maintenance/repair workshop and parking facility for the trains. The track runs through the shed connecting two garden areas; the engines chug in and out of the building through tiny doors in two walls.

And last year he added the second section of the garden, using plastic foam to create a mountain setting. A waterfall cascades into a pond that drains through a flume into a lake filled with goldfish. Now he's talking about expanding some more, perhaps routing the trains around the depot or creating a third garden with a big top for his circus trains.

"I'm always changing things," said the 58-year-old Mr. Mitchell, whose father, R. Madison Mitchell Sr., is a noted decoy carver. "One thing about model railroading is that you're never finished."

This is certainly the case with an outdoor train garden, subject as it is to the whims of Mother Nature. Plants grow, ants build hills and trees drip sap. The ground freezes and thaws. Rain can cause flooding and snow will bury the entire scene.

But Mr. Mitchell said he has had very few outdoor problems. Ground hornets once built nests in his garden. But dogs walk around it and vandals have stayed away. A bit of emery cloth is all he needs to clean the track once a week. Lighting is built into the garden so he can run the trains at night. And his garden design has prevented the upheaval of track that often occurs with freezing and thawing during the winter.

Mr. Mitchell used to collect tiny N-scale trains, but sold them all because he "fell in love with" the big G-scale, or large-scale trains.

"You can do so much more with them," Mr. Mitchell said, adding that the large size of his trains makes it easier for his grandchildren to play with them.

The Mitchells hold an open house each year in September (call that month for exact date, [410] 939-2517) to display their garden railway, which was also featured on a recent garden tour. Mr. Mitchell has exhibited his trains at Christmas candlelight tours in Havre de Grace. And he is one of about 40 members of the newly formed Harford County Large Scale Railroad Society.

"We get together socially to exchange ideas and run big trains," said his friend Bill Oliver, coordinator of the club. "We have a good time and promote the hobby of large scale railroading."

Mr. Oliver, 56, became involved in garden railroading after retiring as a Baltimore County high school teacher in 1988. Now it's a joint project for him and his wife, Anne, 51, who works as a middle school librarian in Baltimore County.

"I was looking for something else to do . . . besides golf," said Mr. Oliver. "I heard that you could go outside with these trains and I had always wanted to run outside. When I was a kid, I had a Lionel set and I kept trying to take it out in the yard. I guess I just wanted them in a natural setting. They look so much better."

Still, from time to time the Oliver garden has been at odds with "the weather itself." The wind blows buildings over, and hail knocks the legs off miniature animals and breaks windows. Rabbits eat plants, sit on the track and hide in the tunnel.

Recent heavy rainfall has complicated the expansion of the Oliver garden railway, forcing the couple to make adjustments to handle drainage. The enlarged garden, which includes a waterfall and a pond, runs under their new deck -- which will be enclosed to provide a safe storage area for the trains.

"I try to run every day," said Mr. Oliver. "Once my neighbors

found out what this garden railway was, they'd come tell me they were having guests and ask me, 'Are you going to be running?'. . . If they give me a half hour's notice, I'll run it. I just enjoy it."

Garden railroading

The eighth annual national Garden Railway Convention will be held July 5-9 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Reston, Va. There will be dealer exhibits, how-to clinics, operating garden railways and home garden tours. There is an admission charge. For information, call (703) 882-3886 during the evening.

Magazines: Garden Railways, a bimonthly magazine, Box 61461, Denver, Colo. 80206; subscription price $21. LGB Telegram, a quarterly magazine, P.O. Box 187, Harrisburg, Pa. 17108; subscription price $24.

Book: "Model Railroading With LGB" by Robert Schleicher, Greenberg Publishing Co., 7566 Main St., Sykesville, Md. 21784; price $15.95; (410) 795-7447.

Area clubs: Harford County Large Scale Railroad Society, (410) 879-7218. Washington, Virginia & Maryland Garden Railway Society, (703) 882-3886.

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