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.
Creating the topiaries
More than 21 animal topiaries grow in several adjacent garden areas. Many of the oldest and most famous, such as the giraffe, camel, and lion, are in a formal parterre edged in meticulously trimmed boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). They were shaped from California privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium), ideally suited for the purpose because it is fast-growing and malleable. These topiaries were started in a greenhouse in 1912 and later moved to their current locations.
In the 1940s, Mendonca added a boar, an ostrich, a reindeer, and other forms, also in California privet, to another area of the garden. The most popular topiary, however, is a teddy bear made of English yew (Taxus baccata) that Mendonca created in the 1970s. It sits at the end of the topiary garden.
To create his topiaries, Mendonca first selected appropriately shaped plants, then meticulously pruned and trained the branches. He worked from memory to make the enormous lifelike animal forms, shearing carefully to remain within the imaginary lines. Because many of his topiaries are several decades old, in the interest of conservation metal supports have been discreetly positioned inside the forms to provide stability in wind and snow.
Almost all of the animal topiaries are California privet, which forms a dense thicket of erect stems that naturally reach 10 to 15 feet high. It requires regular pruning and maintenance, so Crisse Genga and her team hand shear the animals weekly. Genga stresses that frequent hand trimming is essential for keeping the lines sharp. But the grounds keepers do use power shears to maintain some of the larger privet archways.
The slow-growing yews require pruning only two or three times a year. However, yew's dense, multibranched habit is more difficult to manipulate. To retain all of the topiaries' original shapes and to avoid bare, leafless patches, Genga also needs to anticipate new growth, then train it to replace older, woody growth.
For anyone with the patience to try a topiary garden, Genga advises starting with California privet or with yew, which is not as easy to train but remains evergreen year-round. She also recommends that home gardeners use a supporting frame and monofilament line to tie and train young plants. Recently, Genga found the time to make topiary birds for her own home. Her advice for the uninitiated: "Don't slack for a minute."
Green Animals, off Cory's Lane (State Route 114) in Portsmouth, is open May 1 to October 31, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission is $9. For more information, call (401) 847-1000, or visit www.NewportMansions.org.
Formerly managing editor at National Gardening, Shila Patel is currently the editor of the garden channel at marthastewart.com.
Photography by Charlie Nardozzi/National Gardening Association