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Gardening Articles: Health :: Garden Travel

Where Green Animals Roam

by Shila Patel

Shaped by constant pruning over decades, an elephant and giraffe welcome visitors to Green Animals Topiary Garden.

Perched at the edge of Narragansett Bay and just 10 miles north of Newport, Rhode Island, lies a slip of land that is home to the oldest topiary garden in the country. Once the summer retreat of a manufacturing executive, the property has been gradually transformed into a museum of living sculpture. With dozens of topiaries in forms ranging from wild animals such as giraffes, lions, and camels, to more formal geometrical and architectural shapes such as spirals, globes, and archways, Green Animals Topiary Garden is the original magic kingdom.

From the moment a visitor enters the garden, the passion and dedication required to create this enchanted place are apparent. Unlike many modern topiaries that are trained on a metal frame or trellis to save time, every topiary at Green Animals has been painstakingly cultivated over the course of decades. Here, the traditional art of trimming and training woody plants into stylized ornamental shapes remains intact.

Following the elegant paths from the entrance, visitors can see the evolution of the garden's style from formal, classic plantings to more contemporary free-form topiaries. The grounds also include a small orchard, a cutting garden, a vegetable patch and gourd arbor, and a damask rose garden. Each spring thousands of annuals planted within the low boxwood hedges add seasonal color.

Bringing the garden to life
The story of Green Animals -- one that involves a passionate gardener and a clever socialite -- is fit for film, and it served as a subject for Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a 1998 documentary by Errol Morris. Despite the film's title, the creation of Green Animals was anything but -- vision, forethought, and patience are the requisites of creating topiaries.

The transformation of this particular plot of land began in 1872, when Thomas Brayton purchased 7 acres in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He intended the property to be his country estate and recruited Joseph Carreiro to design and maintain ornamental and edible gardens around a modest house. Besides planting fruit trees, perennial beds, and vegetable gardens, Carreiro experimented with some fast-growing shrubs to create whimsical animal forms. His work delighted Brayton's daughter, Alice, a writer, scholar, and horticulturist who named her father's estate Green Animals.

After her father's death, in 1940, Alice resided at Green Animals, and under her direction a menagerie of 30 topiaries was created, first under Carreiro, and later under his son-in-law, George Mendonca. During five decades of Mendonca's care, the garden grew into a horticultural destination. Although Mendonca retired more than 10 years ago, the garden owes its fame to his unswerving devotion.

Upon her death in 1972, Brayton bequeathed the property to the Preservation Society of Newport County, and Mendonca remained the grounds manager until his retirement in 1985. Crisse Genga, grounds manager since 1988, now works with a staff of seven gardeners to preserve Green Animals' historical integrity.

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