Despite the number of loving hours you put into your layout, making it a masterpiece of art and engineering, the layout will probably not come to life until you start adding the trees. It is somewhat akin to painting in the eyes on a portrait, the trees on a layout give it that certain spark of life that can often be missing.
Unless your layout’s theme is “whatever I feel like throwing there” you will probably want your choice of trees to support your overall theme and locale. Indeed, trees will often set the location and tone for a layout, far more so than even land forms, especially if your layout is themed around an area with lots of level ground. It’s very easy to get carried away adding trees as the case is almost always for “more looks better.”
For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll focus on trees of the mainland United States, a popular area for modelers, since the majority of motive stock released in many scales is US themed with Europe following a close second. We’ll talk about the types of trees that are found and which areas would be the most appropriate, then we’ll discuss what you can get in the hobby market.
Deciduous Trees in Winter (left) and Spring (right) Photos from Wikimedia Commons
Trees generally fall into two types depending on the region and climate. Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves and go into a dormant cycle for part of the year, especially in colder climes where there is an additional advantage of less resistance to the weight of heavy snowfalls. Evergreens are trees that are continually renewing their leaf structures throughout the year, even during cold seasons. This generally includes tropical trees that remain green year-round and take advantage of extra sunlight even in areas where the soil is not heavily nutrient rich.
Because deciduous trees change throughout the year, they are very good for denoting a specific seasonal theme. If your layout is set in the dead of winter, you’ll want bare branches with no foliage. Spring trees will have a fresh growth of green showing. Summer trees may be covered with eye-catching blossoms in those species that flower. Finally, most pleasant of all is the autumn trees that are starting to turn colors as their leaves die off and drop. Fall coloration can range from red to orange to yellow in some trees. Train-spotting areas of the eastern US like Horseshoe Curve come alive with brilliant color in this season.
A SMARTT layout featuring PA’s Horseshoe Curve in Autumn. Notice the colors of the deciduous trees.
In the regions that experience significant cold spells, the evergreen population tends more to the conifer type of tree. These cone-shaped trees like Pines, Firs, and Spruces can more evenly distribute snow so that their branches don’t collapse under the weight in any one area. Conifers are heavily distributed across the American northern regions where snow is a fact of life. As also noted, evergreens do well in nutrient poor soil which is probably why you’ll find lots growing in the arid soil in areas of Colorado, along with Aspen trees.
If you are modeling actual desert like in the American southwest, there are models available of various cactus species including the saguaro cactus, and someone even makes Joshua trees. A Model Railroader article a few years ago featured one creative individual who found a way to plant tiny live cacti on his desert layout; nothing is more authentic than the real thing! If the California or Florida coast is your scenery of choice, a number of manufacturers sell palm trees in various sizes for your scenicing pleasure.
There are many manufacturers who produce scale model trees, from the obvious ones like Woodland Scenics and Scenic Express, to the less obvious choices of Bachmann and MRC (with their new JTT line-up). Their websites have pictures of their current offerings. Most of these big train manufacturer corporations’ selections are trees that work best for smaller scales like HO and N although there are some that will work in O scale as well. Because trees are constantly growing, there is no set scale so the best judge of what fits where will be your own eyes. Specialty model railroad scenery companies like Grand Central Gems and Timberline focus primarily on trees and have offerings that are larger and more appealing in big scales like G. The specialty companies are also more likely to have package pricing for a bigger number of trees than just the sets of 2 as the smaller scale trees come packaged.
Woodland Scenics Premium Oak Tree
The trees in the smaller scales come in a wide array of species, although many look pretty similar when you pull them further away from your face than a few feet. Most noticeable are trees with blossoms or fruit which stand out better against the green leaf canopy. The methods of manufacture differ as well, with some having trunks made of twisted wire, others of cast plastic; a few have wood trunks with wire branches inserted into them. The all-around nicest deciduous trees that I have ever seen used dried tumbleweed as trunks. That was a while ago so I’m not sure who makes that type nowadays. Higher cost does not automatically equal a better tree so you may need to hop down to the hobby shop yourself and look at actual stock to determine which is most aesthetically pleasing to you.
Installing trees on your layout is a project in itself and calls for plenty of patience (what in the hobby of Model Railroading doesn’t?). Our methodology calls for punching a small hole in the hard shell of the scenic surface and gluing the tree trunk into it using high viscosity super glue and accelerator. Be careful of hidden tracks below the scenery; cover them so no glue endangers them. Since some trees come with a molded root base, you may need to snip this off or even insert a wire up the bottom of the trunk if it isn’t long enough. Trees should occur in twos or threes of a species in a given area. There can be an occasional stand alone, but small groupings look more realistic. After installation, a little scenery may be needed at the bases to cover glue marks or scenic chips.
Sometimes, a large number of trees will be so close together that you really only need detailed trees at the front edge, where the trunks will be visible. Densely packed areas can be filled with tree-like balls of foliage that do not have trunks as the trunks can never be seen, just the canopy of the tree. This can be seen in many layouts in the train mags where a tree covered hillside is completely and realistically depicted using this method. The back part of the Horseshoe Curve above was created using such a technique.
Trees will bring your layout to life, but unless you are modeling a desert you will also be surprised by how many you really need to cover even a moderately forested area. This is one more reason that planning ahead and knowing what you want will make your project that much more enjoyable and stress free.
from the February, 2012 SMARTT Newsletter