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Blow off some steam in the garden

The historic Colorado & Southern Railroad is making daily stops in Bill Derville's backyard garden in Beaverton these days. OK, the real (full-size) mining railroad runs through Leadville, Colo., but you can hop on board a special hometown replica this weekend.

Derville has a railroad garden, which combines a passion for gardening with a love of miniature trains.

Nationwide, membership in miniature-railroad clubs has doubled in the last four years, but not around here. When participation in the Rose City Garden Railroad Society started dwindling several years ago, the club decided to open up its gardens in the hopes of getting new people involved.

Most of us don't get a chance to get up close and personal with a railroad garden because, let's face it, they usually reside behind locked fences. This Saturday, 10 railroad gardens are on display from Vancouver, Wash., to Hillsboro. The entire family can see all the gardens for $10.

The whole thing might make you wonder, 'Hey, how'd they do that?' Well, the very same plants used for bonsai, rock and trough gardens (plants in a cement container) work perfectly in railroad gardens. The trains and tracks are scaled down 24-to-1. The trick is finding the right-size plants and rocks to make them look convincing.

That's why Derville is always scouting for new plants. 'The garden changes all the time,' he says.

Derville loves the trains; his wife loves the garden. He has a labyrinth of 450 feet of train track, five engines and 60 boxcars that travel, clickity-clack, over trestles and snake through three tunnels.

In this 'railscape,' tiny ground covers look like forests. Derville uses hardy lobelia, woolly thyme and miniature dianthus and then brightens things up with pansies and other annuals for quick summer color around the edges.

Luckily, more dwarf and miniature trees are on the market than ever, which is perfect for railroad gardens, bonsai and rock gardens. Because it can take a decade to grow a tree big enough to see (let alone sell), experts can spend a lifetime growing a large enough quantity.

By the way, just so we can speak the language of the little people, a miniature conifer is1 inch tall. A dwarf conifer is just a smidge bigger, anywhere from 1 inch to 6 inches tall. They come with adorable names such as 'Elfin,' 'Golden Fairy' and 'Lilliput.'

Larry Stanley's company in Boring is one of the best-known wholesale suppliers in the Northwest. In Stanley's little world, you can barely see the growth. Take, for instance, the miniaturized Japanese hinoki cypress 'Golden Hage' with its amazing golden yellow leaves. The tree took 10 years to grow 10 inches tall by 10 inches wide.

Or how about a Port Orford cedar (normally a huge forest tree) bred to grow an inch a year, called 'Green Globe,' or a holly tree with leaves a quarter-inch long called 'Dwarf Pagoda'? Cute as a button. In the world of little trees, you can't tell how old they are by their size.

If you've never been able to talk your kids into tagging along on a garden tour, this is one they'll really enjoy. Load up the car, head out to some railroad gardens, and watch everyone's faces as the tiny trains go around the tracks. Whistlestop gardens are fun for the whole family.

'Your Northwest Garden with Anne Jaeger' airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on KGW (8). Contact Jaeger via her Web site at www.gardengal.tv.