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Abandoned Rail Tracks Become Green Space Haven

by Steve Jones, The Plant Man

Vinca minor
Vinca minor Common Periwinkle

When the original use for a piece of land becomes obsolete, it’s an excellent opportunity to turn it into an area that the entire community can enjoy as an attractive green space, rather than allowing it to degenerate into a weed-covered eyesore.

When a stretch of disused railroad track became available, this reader jumped at the chance to put her green thumb to good use.

QUESTION: "I love your articles and I have a few questions that hopefully you can answer. There is an old railroad track here that has been turned into a bike/snowmobile trail. There is a neighbor’s house next to it but there is enough space to put in a nice size hedge with no problem. The area is quite long before it meets the woods and starts at a city street."

"The suggestion from the County (I am volunteering myself because I am in a landscape horticulture program) was a line of evergreens/shrubs. The department just didn’t exactly know what to put there. On the other side of the trail is a large ditch that I thought may need to be covered in slabs as it is too steep to be easily mowed. Right next to that is the parking lot that needs a fence for bikes and a barrier for the cars to go no further."

"I have been looking for ideas as to what to put for the hedge without just using one type of evergreen but I am not sure how to go about making the easy transition into bringing other types of plants/shrubs to add some variation and would be pleasing to those that are on the trail or from the street where the trail begins."

"Any ideas that you think may be helpful?" – Sue Crabb

ANSWER: This sounds like a very exciting and worthwhile project! I think the evergreens would be excellent as a backdrop for other shrubs that you could plant in front of them. A rule of thumb is to plant the evergreens in odd-numbered groupings such three, five, etc.

For the shrubs, the key issue is “easy to grow.” Avoid high-maintenance plants and look for shrubs that are fairly self-sufficient. Create interest by selecting shrubs of different heights, shapes and colors. Mix evergreens and deciduous perennials, and think about planting some low growing groundcovers, such as creeping red sedum, along the front of the row.

Speaking of groundcovers, rather than cover the ditch with slabs, I suggest you investigate to see if groundcover would be a practical alternative. A hard-to-mow slope is often the perfect place for a dense groundcover that is green and attractive while keeping the weeds at bay.

Vinca minor or trailing periwinkle is a fast growing excellent evergreen groundcover for full sun, shaded and semi-shaded areas. It produces dark green oval-shaped foliage and conspicuous blue flowers in early spring. You can combine trailing periwinkle with Pachysandra if each kind is kept in large colonies, not mixed together. It grows almost flat on the ground, so in the location you describe it would follow the contours of the ditch creating a visually-pleasing undulating line.

You could also use evergreens as a "living fence" to form the barrier for the parking lot or centerpiece for both sides. A good choice might be pyramidal arborvitae, an evergreen tree with bright green foliage. Most pyramidal arborvitae can reach a height of fifteen to twenty-five feet and have a spread of about three to five feet, but can of course be trimmed to give a lower and flatter topside. They make an excellent screen, and can grow at a rate of about one foot per year. When young, the pyramidal arborvitae has a bright green color to its foliage, which darkens as the plant ages.

Remember, this is not something that needs to be done all at once. Do the base plantings first and then add to it as time and money permits. It makes the task more fun if you can make it a community project in which a number of people can get involved.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to and for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, visit


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