Dan Merrill’s “Railroad Garden” is featured on the Soroptomist North Valley Garden Tour. - Jim Craven

Soroptimist Garden Tour coming June 28

Among the tinkling waterfalls and eye-catching koi ponds in the backyard of Kristine and Dan Merrill, you'll find large-scale model trains chugging charmingly along a winding, 680-foot path.

Their little piece of heaven is part of the 6th annual Soroptimist North Valley Garden Tour on June 28. This year's tour will visit five featured gardens — all in east Medford — starting at Roxy Ann Winery, where tickets and self-guiding maps are available.

The tracks, ponds and landscaping at the Merrill homestead spring from the experience of Dan, who works as a landscaper for the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. He has created a main, 24-foot-long koi pond with lily pads, water hyacinth, Jurassic lettuce and dwarf cattails, accented by a central island made of lava stones and crowned by a windmill palm.

Around it go the trains, chuffing and tooting their way through many tunnels, over bridges (all hand-built by Dan), even behind the barbeque at the far end of the yard.

As Dan's passion is trains, Kristine's is koi, and the couple struggle to keep them safe from blue herons who invade the yard. At night, subtle lights come up around the railway features and the pond lights up red.

The couple have even built a "hospital" tank for creatures needing attention. Dan is getting certified as a koi health advisor and will soon take other fish at their hospital.

"We built the pond for the beauty, then put koi in it as an afterthought, but we fell in love with the fish," says Kristine, describing how her favorite, Oblio, will suck your fingers as you feed her watermelon, Cheerios or peas.

The Merrills' reclusive backyard paradise is bisected by a winding path of paver stones, flanked by lush green grass where gatherings of train-club friends can listen to the whisper of waterfalls and anticipate the next passing of a locomotive — or a burger or ribs coming off the stone grill.

"It's so beautiful. You feel like you're on an island somewhere far off," says tour organizer Margaret Dial, noting that all proceeds from the event go to scholarships for college and youth summer camps, Start Making a Reader Today (SMART), Arts Council of Southern Oregon, KidSpree and other local causes.

As gasoline prices soar, more and more people are taking "stay-cations," not vacations, and are spending the time improving their gardens and raising more vegetables, so as to reduce market bills, says Dials.

Also on the tour is a garden on Terrace Way, which features 45 feet of streams and falls, landscaped with stone and gravel pathways, raised vegetable beds, plus a deck under a big oak.

An English cottage garden on Modoc Street has shady trees, native shrubs, a variety of bulbs and flagstone flower beds, with koi pond.

A garden on Blueblossom Drive features large, natural landscaping, with a dog walk, large rocks and water feature.

Tickets cost $12, available from Four Seasons Nursery, Fidelity Print Quick in Central Point and at Roxy Ann Winery (including on the day of the event). The self-guided tour runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For details, call Margaret Dials at 601-3437. Participants can taste wines for a small fee at Roxy Ann and eat their picnic lunch on tables overlooking their vineyard and garden.

Note: The published version of this story that appeared in the June 20 issue of the Mail Tribune listed the wrong date for the tour. The correct date is June 28.

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