Like many other kids, Paul Busse was fascinated with toy trains. Unlike his friends, Busse would grow up to act on his passion.
His love of trains dates back to a time he barely remembers, as an 18-month-old riding a miniature train in the backyard of his grandmother's neighbor. A Midwesterner growing up in Missouri, Iowa and Ohio, Busse received a wooden toy train set a few years later, and at age 5 landed many boys' dream: an American Flyer train set.
By 1982, Busse had become a landscape architect and, as a side project, he entered a model train garden in the Ohio State Fair. He placed in the competition, and since then, Busse, 53, has enjoyed a career in the unique artistry of garden train design. During the same year as the Ohio State Fair, Busse earned a commission to construct a Christmas scene depicting animals only in a storefront window in downtown Cincinnati. With the cooler temperatures slowing down work in landscaping that fall, Busse was able to focus a lot of time and energy on the storefront project, and that laid the groundwork for his current train gardens.
"[The storefront scene] was much looser and cruder than what we do now," Busse says, surveying the construction of his train garden on a recent rainy morning in City Park. Busse is a tall man, and he sports trademark yellow suspenders that feature a yardstick design, and bright blue eyes that light up as he surveys his latest creation. "But that's where a lot of our ideas came from," he continues. "We were dealing with animals, so we went with all-natural materials, and realized, 'Wow! This is really cool; it looks great.' We never wanted to be a traditional outfit. We saw the trains, and the natural gardens, and realized that the two together had never been done before."
Busse trains can be seen in numerous public and private spaces, including the New York Botanical Garden, the Chicago Botanical Garden, and now City Park's Celebration in the Oaks. Constructing train gardens now takes up more than 95 percent of Busse's work. His Kentucky-based Applied Imagination has a staff of seven, and Busse's background as a landscape architect means he pays strict attention to details of scale when he creates the buildings, train and fauna that adorn the garden.
"The combination of everything in the garden -- the train, the plants, the buildings -- makes it a really animated, exciting three-dimensional space," Busse says. "The gardens are, of course, beautiful, but by themselves, it's a still life. The trains bring life to the garden."
Busse says the opportunity to work with New Orleans' unique architecture and plant life makes him especially excited about his Celebration in the Oaks project. "In the majority of our commercial projects, the houses and background play an as important or more important role than the trains. That makes it much different from seeing just a model railroad. And doing New Orleans houses is probably the most interesting thing I've ever done. Especially the French Quarter. I've learned a lot about the mix of French and Spanish influence, and also about the great English and Federal styles.
"New Orleans architecture drips with charm," he says. "It's like we had an endless palette to choose from. We researched a number of books on New Orleans architecture, and we've included everything from the Creole cottage to Federal townhouse to the classic shotgun."
Busse uses only natural materials when constructing his gardens, a feat accomplished with such plants as Contorta (Harry Lauder's Walking Stick) and grapevine tendrils; the tightly coiled wood of these plants are used to recreate the elegance of French Quarter wrought-iron balconies. Details are endless: delicately shaved wood becomes the flowing tail of Andrew Jackson's horse that stands in Jackson Square; acorn tops crown columns on mansions depicted such as the one at 2222 Esplanade Ave.; and bamboo forms the calliopes of a Mississippi River steamboat. Leaves are pressed flat to collectively form the spires of St. Louis Cathedral, with the city's most famous church standing at a height of 39 inches and serving as the focal point of Busse's train garden.
In all, the Celebration in the Oaks structures will encompass more than 15 houses, a Canal Street streetcar, and more than 100 live plants, including miniature holly, poinsettias, live oaks, 2- to 3-foot crape myrtle, Alberta Spruce and assorted evergreens. Once all the houses are constructed, they are dipped entirely into polyurethane, which provides a weather-resistant coating as well as a glossy veneer. "Every single inch of the train garden is used," Busse says, "textured either into the garden, houses or train."
One of the obvious challenges faced by Busse is creating true scale. It is a problem he approaches more like an artist than an architect. "I definitely let my visual scale control the construction more than the ruler," Busse says. "My aim is just to make it feel right; it's more of a collage of scale."
Local City Park officials share Busse's enthusiasm for the train garden. "We really set out to try and give people more of an experience this year," says Paul Soniat, director of City Park's Botanical Garden. "I think this is something people will really like and enjoy. Plus, there's the whole connection we can make to New Orleans, with the architecture and the history of trains here, with the streetcar especially."
Soniat -- who heard of Busse after reading a profile of him and his work in the trade magazine Botanical Gardens -- adds that City Park and Busse are currently in discussion about having the train garden become a permanent feature in the park. "One of the great things about the train garden is that it can evolve so easily," Soniat says. "We can do a number of things. We can use it to illustrate the history of our city, we can feature a new neighborhood every year."
Busse believes interest in his train gardens will remain constant over the years. "Train gardens are fascinating for people because they combine so many different hobbies," he says. "It brings in gardening -- which is America's favorite hobby -- with model trains, ponds, rock gardens, architecture and history. It's the best of all those hobbies."
For this year's Celebration in the Oaks, plans call for Busse's exhibit to be housed under a tent behind the Conservatory, with the entire train garden situated in a space 12 feet across and 8 feet high. Visitors will enter the train garden through a tunnel, a perfect pathway for appreciating Busse's vision.
"When people enter through that tunnel, it makes it so they enter the train garden, not just looking at it from the outside," Busse says. "It breaks the scale barrier; they're no longer a giant looking down. It puts that person's perspective in there; the train garden evolves into its own world. People will feel like they're walking through New Orleans, from the French Quarter to the Garden District to Esplanade Avenue. It's a three-dimensional experience of sights and sounds."