Part Two: Climates and Micro-Climates

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by Don Herzog

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

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

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In the second portion of this three-part article, we will look at the overall climates in our area, which range from coastal to inland, and we will consider a few of the tricks and tips that master gardeners use to create micro-climates or small areas of differing climatic conditions in a single yard, to provide the best environment for particular miniature plants that might not otherwise grow in all areas.

When selecting which plants to grow on your garden railway, you will first need to consider your overall climate and then the location on each part of your layout in terms of sun and shade. If you build mountains, if your land is on a slope, or if buildings cast strong shadows part of the day, different parts of your layout may be brighter and hotter or darker and cooler than other parts, and will require different kinds of plants.


SUN: Most plants grow in the sun and require a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight per day during the growing season to do their best. Too much sun can harm plants that prefer partial shade; however many sun-loving plants will survive in shaded areas, even though they may not produce full crops of flowers or fruit due to a lack of light.

SHADE: There are many species of shade-loving plants, such as ferns, primulas, perennials, and alpines that prefer growing in the shade, all of which have miniature forms perfect for our use. However, if the shaded area in which you wish to put plants will not grow weeds, then it is generally too shady to grow even shade-loving plants and the land might best be used for structures or train yards.


Heat varies in its effects in this country, depending where you live. 100 degrees on the East Coast, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Mid-West states is vastly different from the same temperature in desert areas and alomg the West Coast because of the humidity -- or lack of it -- that goes along with it.

Many plants can survive and grow well with high temperatures as long as they also have high humidity, whereas the same plants will fry in areas of heat with low humidity. This difference has created many diverse plant groups that thrive in their native areas and theoretically would do well in our USDA Zone, based on their level of heat tolerance, but will disappoint if you try to grow them in places that don't suit their humidity requirements.


In many instances you can change local heat conditions to satisfy the needs of plants not generally grown in your area. To do this, you can create a micro-climate, a small area that is less hot or more humid than the layout in general.

Here's an example of how a micro-climate can assist plants in hot areas: The San Diego Garden Railroad Society had a gathering in the 1970s where the concept of the Garden Railroad Convention began. There were several tours of garden railroads and on one of them I saw, to my amazement, a well-groomed, fantastic specimen of a Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Kosteri'. It should not have been able to grow there, as the area is too hot and dry and the plant would surely die in the sun. However, there it was in all its glory. I looked the situation over and found out why this plant was thriving, despite the hot climate. It was growing at the base of a 30-foot cliff, on the north side, where it got plenty of light but was in the shade all afternoon, so that it did not burn. It was also at the edge of a well-watered lawn which gave it sufficient humidity to withstand the heat. I then realized that afternoon shade can help many plants survive that would not normally grow in a particular area.


Afternoon shade can be provided to plants that would benefit from it by positioning them near full-sized buildings, trees, fences, and rocks, and also by strategic placement of G-scale buildings and other miniature trees and shrubs on our layouts. In addition, you can employ lathe-work of create shade through the use of shade cloth.

There are many varieties of shade cloth available, including woven and knitted types. They come in several colours, black and white being the most common, and they range in density from 30% shade to 90% shade. Their installation can be permanent, temporary, or seasonal.

In Phoenix, one of my customers uses shade cloth on frames over his layout that he removes whenever he is operating his trains.

Another customer of mine uses 83% shade cloth to protect his plants from the heat. He had grommets placed every few feet along the opposite edges of the shade cloth, then threaded wire through them. Next he had 6 inch by 6 inch posts installed at the 4 corners of his layout. The wires on each of the 2 sides of the shade cloth were stretched and put into place on the posts. To create the optimal amount of shade, he pulls the shade cloth open in the winter and draws it over his layout in the summer. This has permitted him to grow multitudes of miniature and dwarf plants that he otherwise would not be able to keep in his climate.

Other garden railroaders in hot dry locations have installed permanent shade cloth over their layouts. If you like the look, the plants will certainly like the micro-climate.


A group of <a href=>evergreen coniferous plants</a> called Chamaecyparis thyoides or Eastern White Cedar, native to Georgia, seems to do well in warm, dry areas if given afternoon shade. One variety, Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Ericoides', seems to adapt quite well in otherwise unsuitably hot areas. Other varieties to try with afternoon shade include Little Jamie', 'Top Point, and andelyensis conica.


Many plants have marginal survival rates in cold areas. What kills plants in the cold is the tearing of the leaves as the frost turns to ice.

PROTECTIVE MULCH Cold-sensitive plants are usually mulched in the winter. Just covering them -- with anything from straw to gunny sacks or old bedsheets -- on the coldest nights keeps the frost off the leaves and gives them a few vital degrees of protection.

ELECTRIC LIGHTS Where I live, about 65 miles northwest of San Francisco, I like to grow citrus plants that will not usually survive in a cold winter. I weave old-fashioned Christmas lights -- the kind that are about the size of your thumb -- throughout the trees in the fall, then turn them on and cover the plants with a sheet or tarp on cold nights. It works just fine.


In some areas on a layout your drainage may not be the best. If amending the soil by adding sand does not help, you will note that some species of plants have a tendency to drown or develop crown-rot in those overly-wet areas. Dialing back the amount of water you give the plants is a first step, but unless you hand-water the entire layout, these too-wet areas will continue to give problems.


To keep plants out of standing water, plant them a little higher than ground level, say about a half to � inch. Then use chicken grit or other small gravel around them out to the drip line, allowing the crown and leaves to stay drier. Each plant is on its own little mini-plateau and incidences of crown-rot will be dramatically decreased.


In areas where it is extremely dry, your first choice is to select drought-tolerant plants. Your next choice is to creade some shade -- espcially afternoon shade (see above). If that is not sufficient, you can use foggers.


Foggers produce a very fine mist -- much finer than a sprayer does. There are available low-pressure foggers that you can run intermittently or constantly during the time needed, by mens with a time clock. The major drawback to foggers is that when the wind comes up, the fog will drift with the wind and your most vulnerable plants may not get enough fogging. Try to counteract this by setting up the foggers so that under the most common or prevailing wind conditions they will blow their mist over the layout.


Should you find plants wilted or in distress due to high temperatures or overly dry soil, water them with a product called Superthrive using 1 cap full per gallon of water for the next 3 days. I have had some of my Bonsai trees return from the grave using this product. It is a good idea to keep a small bottle of it available "just in case."

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.