ALEXANDRIA — Every year at Christmastime, tens of thousands of people flock to the botanical gardens in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to see their city's landmarks miniaturized and covered in plant materials, with waterfalls, bridges and model trains running through the scenes.
The U.S. Capitol building, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty and just about any other immediately recognizable landmark are all there in amazing detail.
The man making them is Paul Busse, a Northern Kentucky landscape architect whose company, Applied Imagination, has gained international acclaim.
Busse, 59, is just starting to work with The Arboretum on Alumni Drive to create a railway for the new Kentucky Children's Garden, which is expected to be completed next year.
Someday visitors might see Kentucky landmarks such as the state Capitol building, Churchill Downs or Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home replicated there.
Busse's buildings are constructed from a sturdy foam product. Then every square inch is covered with botanical materials, such as pine cones, tree bark, black peppercorns and leaves.
A twisted branch or hollow log is a treasure that Busse can transform into a whimsical chimney or a tunnel for trains.
"There's really nothing you can't express through plant material," he said.
Each building is soaked in eurethane to help it withstand the elements, although Busse recommends that the buildings be brought inside during winter.
"Our garden at New Orleans Botanical Garden survived Katrina," he said. "They floated around for a week or so, but they all survived."
Busse takes delight in using natural materials to replicate architectural details, sometimes giving them even more character than the original edifice.
The first time he saw St. Patrick's Cathedral, a building he had already miniaturized, he was surprised.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh, it's just plain gray,'" he said.
In addition to the buildings, Applied Imagination constructs the giant bridges that people walk under and sets up the trains running from ground level up over the viewers.
"What I love to do is immerse the viewer three-dimensionally into the scene," Busse said. "I'd rather erase all the barriers between your world and the world you're entering."
The path Busse's life has taken began in childhood.
"As long as I can remember, I always had a toy train," he said.
Even in grade school, he said he loved gardening. He began his career doing traditional landscape architecture, but in 1982 Busse created a train exhibit with landscaping for the Ohio State Fair.
Several years later, he covered some of his first buildings with plant materials for the Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati.
After he made a German village railroad display for AmeriFlora, an international horticultural convention held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1992, the garden railway business blossomed.
"It was always a creative choice," Busse said. "I'm sure I could've made a lot more money doing repetitive decks."
These days, Busse is primarily concerned with designing garden railways and making sure proportions are right on the structures that go in them.
He oversees a staff of 12 people at the workshop near his home on a wooded hillside.
"It's been a while since I glued on a bunch of leaves," he said.
His work meets the criteria for the Rose Bowl parade, Busse said, and he's experimented with driving model trains around town on a trailer hitched to a truck.
"Alexandria thinks he's a pretty colorful guy," joked Cindy Johnson, an employee whose title is "botanical architect."
Last Christmas, Busse and his staff decorated the window for ABC's offices in Times Square.
Last spring, they built the centerpiece for the Macy's Flower Show — a five-foot-tall replica of Macy's historic building used as a large floral vase.
Two years ago, Busse was the subject of a documentary that aired nationally on PBS.
"Paul is an amazingly creative person," said Andrea Schepmann, director of the Krohn Conservatory.
The centerpiece of the conservatory's annual Christmas show is a 17-foot-tall music box decorated with famous Cincinnati landmarks created by Busse. Trains run up and down the entire display.
In past years, Busse's lighthouse collection and structures from Washington, D.C., have been brought in for summer shows.
"All of these were done impeccably," Schepmann said.
As Busse's fame has grown, she said, "we feel very fortunate to still be able to work with Paul."
Marcia Farris, director of The Arboretum, said she met Busse about 10 years ago in a garden outside Philadelphia and has wanted to work with him ever since.
"It has been my experience that people love the garden train," she said, adding that one of the main goals of the children's garden as a whole is to "really connect them with nature at an early age."
The project is still in the design stages, and more money needs to be raised to help see it through.
"We're going to make it happen," Farris said.
Busse has agreed to work with The Arboretum to help control the cost of the railway, but he still has materials and other costs that will have to be covered.
One option being explored is a collaboration with the University of Kentucky School of Architecture in which students might help construct the railway.
"We do everything else everywhere except Kentucky," Busse said. "I thought it would be nice to see something happen."
To contribute to the Kentucky Children's Garden or for information on volunteer opportunities at The Arboretum, call (859) 257-6955.