DIY Outdoor Train Table: a Wooden Train Garden Railway



I’m always trying to think of ways to bring the Little Engineer’s favorite indoor activities and toys outside. I’ve wanted to make a “train garden” on an outdoor train table for a long time now. But I was always put off by the thought of all the work it would be to design and build one. Until this summer, when I realized that I could make a wooden train garden railway for the Little Engineer without using a single tool. This is a super easy way to bring train play outside, and the results have delighted us both!

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

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Train Table Guides for Parents and Teachers:

The Best Wooden Train Sets
The Best Wooden Train Tables for Toddlers and Preschoolers
Do You Need a Train Table?
Alternatives to Gluing Wooden Train Tracks to Train Tables
 

The Little Engineer was two years old when I first got the idea to make an outdoor train table. We had been watching videos of garden railways on YouTube, and I thought it would be fun to have a mini garden railway with wooden trains in our backyard.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

I had visions of building a train table that could hold a layer of dirt for planting a landscape. My husband pointed out that we’d need to work in some sort of drainage system. The idea started to sound more complicated than fun.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

The next summer, the train garden idea wormed its way back into the forefront of my mind — nudged there, I think, by seeing Fun at Home with Kids’ super cool dinosaur garden — but once again it sounded like a lot of work. And then what would we do with the table when the Little Engineer got too old for it?

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

This year, the right inspiration finally came to me. I was staring at a few big pots on our deck that were in need of new plants. For the first time, I noticed they were pretty much the perfect height for a train table!

Now, of course, this isn’t really a “table.” But it works pretty much how I imagined my garden train table would work, so I’m okay with that.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

 

DIY Outdoor Wooden Train Table How-to

I love that this is a project that anyone can make in an afternoon. I love that it can serve several purposes — already, our train garden has doubled as a bunny garden, and as a place to take pictures of LEGO minifigures. And I love that when the train “table” isn’t in use or is no longer needed, you have potted plants decorating your outdoor space.

Materials Needed

  • One or more big plant pots
  • Lots of planting soil: The pots need to be filled to the top, so it might take more than you think!
  • Plants: I picked “steppable” varieties for our plants so that the garden would hold up to being played on with wooden toys. (So far, so good as far as that goes!) For the outer area where the tracks go, I used Scotch and Irish moss, and also some creeping thyme that creeped out of the center where I planted it. You might consider planting herbs in the center of the pots to add another sensory element (look for ones that don’t grow very tall).
  • Rocks or other decorative features: We used rocks we already had lying around the backyard. As for other decorative features, check out the list of fairy garden links at the end of the post for plenty of inspiration!
  • Wooden train tracks: For one pot, you’ll want eight large curved tracks to make circle. You might be able to add a couple of short straight tracks to make an oval, but I think the circle would look nicer. For the two-pot version, you have more options. We used the figure-8 set from IKEA. I believe that set is only $10, so I figured if it got dirty while we were playing, it wouldn’t be a huge loss, but they’re staying clean enough so far. (I haven’t tried this, but I suspect you could coat the tracks with a non-toxic, glossy indoor/outdoor acrylic finish to make them more outdoor-friendly.) Note: You could also use plastic Trackmaster or Take’n’Play track and trains in these gardens.
  • Suretrack clips or no-residue duct tape: This is really helpful for keeping the tracks together on the moss, and over any uneven areas in the pots.
  • Wooden trains: Any trains will do, but it’s fun to have freight cars to pull stuff around the railway. (The cute little engine in these photos is Jack from the Bigjigs Rail Heritage Collection, and the freight cars come from various Thomas Wooden Railway cargo sets.)
  • Other accessories: So far, we’ve used pebbles and little bits of plants for freight, as well as Schleich bunny figures and some Safari Ltd. Toobs animals. This train garden is perfect for incorporating the natural items we played with for our Toy Train Freight from Nature: Summer post, or any other small, safe objects you can find in nature.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

Directions

  1. Fill the pot(s) with dirt. If you’re going to be connecting tracks across more than one pot, fill the pots all the way to the top. (I wish I’d filled mine a little fuller, so that I wouldn’t have to build up the crossing in the center as much with rocks, as I’ll show you below.)
  2. Plant low-growing, steppable plants, with flat plants like Irish and Scotch moss around the outside, and slightly taller ones in the center. Go for a mixture of colors, textures, and scents. To save some money on this step, I divided up the steppable plants up into 2-4 clumps and planted them spaced apart, especially the moss, which I dotted around the outer circle. However, it took about a month and a half of sunshine and water for the moss to fill in enough to lay the track on, so if you want the train garden to be ready sooner, buy more plants.
  3. Add rocks in the inner regions of the pots to decorate the gardens, create more distinct locations for storytelling and pretend play, and — when necessary — to hold back the larger plants from encroaching on the outer circle where the track will be laid.
  4. Water well, and watch the garden grow!

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

When the plants are established and filled in enough to support the track all the way around, it’s time to play! Here’s how I placed the IKEA figure eight set on my side-by-side pots.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

As you can see in the photo below, I used rocks to support the tracks where the tracks cross from one pot to another. If I had been smart and filled the pots to the top, they might not have been necessary for the lower track, but you would still want to use rocks with a flattish side facing up to raise the bridge up higher — that’s how I made it tall enough for non-IKEA engines to pass beneath!

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

I would also recommend using either the Suretrack clips or no-residue duct tape to hold the tracks together. Our Suretrack clips really helped keep the track together on top of the slightly uneven surface of the carpet-soft plants.

Super easy way to make a DIY outdoor wooden train "table"...no tools required to make this mini garden railway!

Indoor Train Tables

If you’re looking for a more traditional wooden train table to go inside your house, you can find out all the details you need to know in our guide to the best wooden train tables. Make sure you also read my answer to the big question, Do You Really Need a Train Table?, and my list of temporary alternatives to gluing wooden train tracks to a train table.

The Play Trains Ultimate Wooden Train Guide: The Best Wooden Train Tables for Toddlers and Preschoolers

The Best Wooden Train Tables for Toddlers and Preschoolers

Do you really need a train table? Honest advice and the pros and cons of train tables from a wooden train expert and mom. http://play-trains.com/

Do You Need a Train Table?

Temporary alternatives to gluing wooden train tracks down to a wooden train table, recommended by Play Trains!

Alternatives to Gluing Wooden Train Tracks to a Train Table

More Outdoor Train Play

Natural Freight for Toy Trains: Late Summer @ Play Trains! http://play-trains.com/

Natural Freight for Toy Trains: Summer

Ice Train Play @ Play Trains! http://play-trains.com/ice-train-play/

Ice Train Play

Customize this travel-friendly mini sand play kit to match your child's interests!

Custom Mini Sand Play Set

Pool Noodle Train Tracks: Summer Train Fun for Kids @ Play Trains!

Pool Noodle Train Tracks

Pumpkin Mountain Railroad Building: a Halloween Train Activity from Play Trains!

Pumpkin Mountain Wooden Train Railroad Building

More DIY Train Projects

DIY Castle for Wooden Trains @ Play Trains! http://play-trains.com An inexpensive craft perfect for playing out the new Thomas & Friends movie, King of the Railway!

DIY Wooden Train Castles

DIY Zoo Set for Wooden Trains @ Play Trains! Our train twist on the Jungle Diorama from Jo-ann's Cape Discovery summer crafting challenge. #summerofjoann

DIY Zoo Train Set for Wooden Trains

Add excitement and realism to your child's wooden train layouts with this Recycled Cardboard Box Platform for Wooden Trains @ Play Trains!

Recycled Track Platform for Wooden Train Layout

Kids' Crafts for Train Sets: Dryer Sheet Box Engine Shed @ Play Trains!

Dryer Sheet Box Engine Shed

More Train Garden Inspiration

We’ve kept our train garden intentionally simple so far for the sake of versatility, but there are so many fun things you can do with garden small worlds — check out these fairy garden and outdoor small world posts for more ideas!

Make a Terrarium Fairy Garden from Twodaloo

Our Fairy Garden from Buggy and Buddy

Not a Fairy Garden — a Dinosaur Garden! from Fun at Home with Kids

Fairy Garden from Tinkerlab

Small World Play: Gnome and Fairy Garden from Where Imagination Grows

Simple Small Worlds: Farm World from Fun at Home with Kids

How to Make a Fairy Garden from Nurture Store

Fairy Garden Play Dough from Fantastic Fun and Learning

In the Fairy Garden…a Very Magical DIY for Kids from My Small Potatoes

DIY Car Track Rocks from Playtivities

Small World Pretend Play in the Great Outdoors from Sugar Aunts

Quick & Easy Fairy House Craft for Kids from No Time for Flash Cards

Let’s Build a Fairy Garden Table! from Inner Child Fun

How to Make a Fairy Garden that Children Will Love from The Magic Onions

Make Your Own Fairy Garden from Happiness is Homemade

DIY Mini Tire Swing from Paging Fun Mums

Making a Fairy Garden from The Imagination Tree

Simple Small Worlds: Insect World from Fun at Home with Kids

Small Worlds and Fairy Gardens from Happy Hooligans

Magic Fairy Painted Rocks and Storage Tower from Twodaloo

Making Fairy Houses with Boys from Boy Mama Teacher Mama

Fairy Door Craft for Kids from Fireflies and Mudpies

 

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Comments

  1. says

    This is brilliant! I seriously want to do it asap! Have you noticed how the tracks respond to weather/rain? Or do you cover them? I’m pinning this too!

    • says

      Thanks, Carla! I take the tracks inside after we play with them and store them separately from the others. With the Suretrak clips or no-residue duct tape, the tracks can be moved as one unit, too, if you have somewhere to put them still put together. If I were going to leave them outdoors, I’d either use Trackmaster track or find a really good weather sealant…but we live in Seattle, so you just have to assume that everything’s going to be soaking wet half the year. :-)

  2. says

    This is adorable! I am wondering if you would be able to tell me the diameter of the tops of your pots? I want to make one for my son as a Christmas gift and plan on using the same track set. Thank you!

    • says

      Oh, um…I will try to go out and measure later! :-) From a quick measurement of a circle of track, I’m guessing the inside diameter of the top is around 22 inches…that would give a little over two inches on either side.

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