Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Mr. Tilly’s garden: Laying down tracks

by cathym on March 16, 2020

story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Learning is designed to be fun here—the only hard part is deciding what you want to see first

When Paul Tilly was a kid, he longed for a train set. “I grew up on a busy farm and there just wasn’t time for playing with trains,” he said. Besides that, most of the places he lived didn’t have a big enough basement for them.

As an adult, he’s making up for it. This octogenarian is still a kid at heart, with plenty of time and more than enough room for trains. In fact, they’ve taken over his entire backyard garden.

It’s a kid’s dream on steroids. More than 200 feet of tracks traverse nodding swaths of daylilies, fragrant phlox- and billowy hydrangeas. A shiny locomotive blows its horn and rumbles across a bridge. Tiny people await its arrival at a train station that’s nestled into a bunch of large leafed hostas. Watch out for King Kong—he’s on top of the bridge that crosses the blue pebbled river! Toy dinosaurs and pretend snakes sun themselves near the tracks. Those trains have plenty of stops to make: several villages packed with miniature houses, farm equipment, water towers, and various animals stand waiting.

Tilly’s garden is a destination for neighborhood kids
Fantasies can run wild in this playful garden. Either King Kong or the dinosaur is going to pounce on that locomotive.

Creating a train garden wasn’t part of the plan back in 1976 when Tilly and his wife Betty Lou bought their house in Avon. They just wanted to turn their small overgrown backyard into a garden they could enjoy. They enclosed it with flowering trees, shrubs, and plenty of pollinator plants. It was certified as a wildlife habitat in 1984.

Everything changed after Tilly went to a train show at Rochester’s flower and landscape show, GardenScape, in 1992. “I had never seen trains displayed in gardens before,” he says. “It inspired me to incorporate them into mine.”

Intent on his mission, Tilly began laying down tracks. He created villages out of birdhouses he found at lumberyards and populated them with miniature trucks, toy cars, tiny animals and figurines he picked up at tag sales. He kept collecting engines and eventually had to turn the chicken house into a shed to store them all.

At first the train garden was just for him—his two kids were already grown and gone. The idea of sharing it came after a local nursery school heard about his garden and asked if they could visit for a field trip. It caught on, and soon he and Betty Lou began hosting other area preschools. She helps organize the tours and Tilly instructs, using the some of the training he received when his garden was certified as a wildlife habitat.

Finds from hardware stores and tag sales supply the tiny villages. Here, birdhouses have been transformed into miniature buildings.
Paul introduces teaching opportunities throughout the garden—a giant ladybug helps young visitors find out about beneficial insects.
Kids learn about pollinators by seeing them flock to the bee balm, coneflowers and phlox.

As an experienced father, grandfather of four and great grandfather of eleven, he gets young children. “Kids around three to four years old are very curious and observant about everything,” he says. “A lot of trains get knocked off the track when they visit, but that’s ok—they learn by touching.”

But it’s not just about trains. There’s plenty more to learn about here. Tilly makes a game out of teaching them to observe. He might ask kids to hunt for Godzilla, King Kong, or a certain type of frog, snake, or dinosaur. Maybe they’ll have to search for a particular vegetable—all are grown in containers so they can be found and observed easily.

He uses his habitat garden as an opportunity to teach kids about plants and their environment. “You can’t start too early,” he claims. Young visitors can discover the worms in the compost bin and see how they benefit the soil. Which flowers attract butterflies and birds? There they are, flitting around masses of beebalm and coneflowers. How do the plants get watered? Tilly shows them how his rain barrels help conserve water.

This terracotta chicken heads back toward the hen house with hens and chicks on her back. Touches like this delight and instruct young visitors.
That frog on the left might be on the treasure hunt list. Maybe he’ll tell us what insects he likes to eat.
Passengers wait to board Thomas the train as he pulls up to the local station.

There’s plenty more to delight young hearts—a giant red ladybug, Thomas the train, a pink lady scarecrow holding a basket of flowers, a giant teddy bear, and a locomotive that blows bubbles as it chugs down the tracks. Tilly recently built a miniature playhouse, complete with Elmo and his friends all set up for a tea party. “Even the boys loved that,” he laughs. 

Local garden clubs, family and neighborhood kids can’t resist the appeal. During the Avon Corn festival in August, it’s packed with visitors. “I open it so people can have a place to sit and relax,” Tilly says.

It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun here, but one thing is clear: It’s never too late to have the childhood you want.

Find Christine Froehlich at gardeningwithwhatyouhave.com.

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