Part One: Soil and Water

From Redwood Empire Garden Railway Society Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search


by Don Herzog

Originally Presented at the 17th National Garden Railway Convention in Seattle, Washington, 2001

Planting Your Railroad Garden by Don Herzog

Part One: Soil and Water
Part Two: Climates and Micro-Climates
Part Three: Plant Diseases and Pests

REGRS logo black and white large.jpg

In the first portion of this three-part article, we will look at the best practices for growing and mainaining the garden in which you run your model railway. Although members of REGRS are located in the Redwood Empire of coastal Northern California, these fundamental principles apply to all outdoor miniature gardens around the world. They can be applied by anyone embarking upon the development of a large-scale model railroad in a garden of miniature or dwarf plants -- or even by those who want to develop a garden of minitaure plants or a rock garden that has not been graced by the addition of a working model railroad.


Soil, also known as dirt, is comprised of minerals and organic matter. Before you start a garden, it helps to know what kind of soil you have -- clay, sand, loam, adobe, etc. -- and to add whatever amendments will help it retain water and nourish your lants. You can start by taking a sample of your soil to a local nursery and asking for advice, or by talking to your neighbors about how they have improved their soil. However, if grass or weeds can grow on your soil, it is probably good enough for a start,


Soil acidity or alkilinity is measured by the pH scale. On this scale, 7 is neutral, less than 7 is acidic, and higher than 7 is basic or alkaline. Many plants prefer to be grown in acidic or basic soils.

I try to keep my soil at a pH of 6.9, which is slightly acidic and seems to accommodate most everything. However, there are certain plants -- especially the many fine miniature azaleas and rhododendrons that do well in our ckimate -- which have very strigent requirements when it comes to acidity or alkalinity, and they will only thrive when the soil in which you plant them is right for their needs.


If you want to test your soil, dig a hole about 3 inches deep in the ground, then scoop out about 3 tablespoons of dirt. Place it in a coffee filter in a drinking glass and add enough DISTILLED water so that you have about 3/4 of an inch of water that came through the soil in the glass after passing through the soil. Test the water with a pH test strip to determine the pH. Test strips are available from the drug store for diabetics and also at many garden supply stores. You get 50 from the drug store or 200 from the farm supply store of the same brand for around $10.00.


Those of you who get your water from the Colorado River, particulary in areas of Southern California where the pH is over 8, need to use an acidifier if you want to grow azaleas, rhododendrons, gardenias, or other acid-loving plants.

There are two ways to do this. The first is to create large holes and fill them with specially mixed nursery soil marketed for use with rhododenrons and azalaeas. The holes should be largesr than a 5-gallon pot.

A better long-term solution to the problem is obtained by buying a commercial acidifier for all the soil on the layout and following directions. Adding soil sulphur to the soil helps, or, if you are good at chemistry, adding phosphoric acid to the water with a proportioner works extremely well.


Fertilizers are soil amendments applied to promote plant growth. The main nutrients present in fertilizer are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (the 'macronutrients'). Other nutrients (the 'micronutrients') are added in smaller amounts. Fertilizers are usually directly applied to soil, and also sprayed on leaves ('foliar feeding').

Fertilizers are roughly broken up between organic and inorganic fertilizer, with the main difference between the two being sourcing, and not necessarily differences in nutrient content.

Fertilizers typically provide, in varying proportions:

  • The three primary macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).
  • The three secondary macronutrients: calcium (Ca), sulfur (S), and magnesium (Mg).
  • The micronutrients or trace minerals: boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), and selenium (Se).

The macronutrients are consumed in larger quantities than the micro nutrients.

There are many formulas of fertilizer, so this is what I use on everything:

OSMOCOTE 18-6-12 is an encapsulated fertilizer and is applied to the soil in the early spring. A tiny bit squeeks out of the pellet every time you water when the temperature is above 65 degrees. I use:

  • A quarter level teaspoon on 2 inch pots.
  • A half level teaspoon on 4 inch pots,
  • 1 level teaspoon on 1 gallon cans.
  • 1 level tablespoon on 5 gallon cans.

I also use MIRACID on basic soils and MIRACLE GROW on acidic soils starting 1 month after the new growth appears and each month until September, when I fertilize with a 0-10-10 mixture which promotes root growth and flowers for the next spring.

Fertilizer can only be utilized when the plant is growing. So, if you are in an area that has a longer growing season you will have to continue fertilizing later into the fall. Be sure to spread the fertilizer around the plant base.

Some plants and trees are also heavier feeders than others and require more fertilizer,. For instance, drawf pomegranates are heavy feeders and I fertilize these every 2 weeks until the fruit sets.


I use overhead sprinkler irrigation on my nursery, which is very convenient for me. However, as we have a lot of iron in our water and it turns the leaves a brown color, so I will use drip irrigation proceded by an iron filter on my new layout. What is important, is not the delivery of the water, but when.

Water early in the morning so that the plants are full up for the day. I set my clocks to start about 5 a.m. On hot days, I water again at 1 p.m. The important thing is to NEVER SEND YOUR PLANTS TO BED WITH WET LEAVES as this promotes fungus!

About the Author:

Don Herzog has owned and operated Miniature Plant Kingdom in Sebastopol for more than 50 years, specializing in miniature and dwarf flowers, shrubs, groundcovers, and trees. During that time, he purchased one of the first LGB brand large-scale trains to arrive in the United States and helped start the LGB Club, the REGRS club, and the first Garden Railroad Convention. In 1972, he built a 30 by 40 foot garden railway layout and in 1992, he built a second garden railyway layout 55 by 85 foot in size. After retiring from the nursery business, he tore out those layouts and commenced work on his final layout of 1/4 acre.