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A gentleman's Portsmouth menagerie

The elephant and the giraffe behind it are among the oldest members of the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, R.I. The elephant and the giraffe behind it are among the oldest members of the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, R.I. (Ellen Albanese / Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / August 5, 2007

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. -- Preserving historic buildings such as the Newport mansions is one thing, and the Preservation Society of Newport County has been phenomenally successful in this mission. Preserving a historic garden, however, is a different matter. Plants, unlike buildings, grow. They have life cycles and are susceptible to weather and disease.

For all these reasons, Green Animals Topiary Garden is remarkable in the degree to which it reflects the vision of the Portuguese immigrant who designed it more than 100 years ago.

There are 80 pieces of topiary throughout the gardens, including 21 animals and birds in addition to geometric figures and ornamental designs, all sculpted from California privet, yew, and English boxwood. The oldest part of the garden features an elephant, camel, lion, and giraffe, all planted from 1910 to 1912. The largest is the giraffe, about 30 feet from the tip of its tail to the top of its head.

"Topiary is constantly trying to enlarge and change shape," said Jim Donahue, Preservation Society horticulturist and the grounds manager at Green Animals. The plants must be trimmed twice a month to maintain their distinctive shapes, he said.

This small country estate in Portsmouth was purchased in 1877 by Thomas E. Brayton (1844-1939), treasurer of Union Cotton Manufacturing Co. in Fall River. It consisted of seven acres, a white clapboard summer residence, farm outbuildings, a pasture, and a vegetable garden. Gardener Joseph Carreiro, superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, and his son-in-law, George Mendonca, superintendent until 1985 (and one of Errol Morris's four subjects in his award-winning 1997 documentary "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control"), were responsible for creating the topiaries. Today the property employs three full-time gardeners and depends on many volunteers.

What's unique about Green Animals, Donahue said, is that it is an intact gentleman's farm from the late Victorian era. In its heyday, the estate grew all its own produce and flowers. In addition to a vegetable garden, there were a grape arbor and an extremely productive orchard of apples, pears, cherries, and peaches. The fruit and vegetable plantings were set among the topiary to create a beautiful yet utilitarian landscape.

The current vegetable garden features the most sophisticated scarecrows we have ever seen -- an entire family dressed to the nines, wearing hats and carrying binoculars. The garden's bounty helps to feed the state's hungry, Donahue said.

The colorful flower gardens highlight the richness of the topiary, in a surprising number of shades of green. A boxwood border creates a wavy path along the driveway to the Brayton home.

Visitors can tour the house, designed with an abundance of windows to take advantage of the breeze and the view of Narragansett Bay. Particularly striking is the wallpaper in the parlor, featuring woodland scenes with hunters and bought in Paris in 1890.

The Preservation Society uses three upstairs rooms for displays of antique toys not connected with the house, including dollhouses and furniture, children's books, and games. The display of toy soldiers is legendary. The finely crafted pieces portray the French Foreign Legion on horseback in Morocco, the Union Army preparing to face Confederates in the Virginia countryside, and the US infantry repelling a Nazi attack in a German town. The figures are so detailed you can see the buttons on the uniforms.

Special events at Green Animals include an annual summer children's party with circus acts, magicians, music, and pony rides. A family festival on Sept. 22 will feature storytelling, crafts, and cider pressing.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

If You Go

Green Animals Topiary Garden
380 Cory's Lane (off Route 114)
Portsmouth, R.I.
401-683-1267
Green Animals Topiary Garden

Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 7-Oct. 8, 10-4 Oct. 9-Nov. 16.
Adults $11, children ages 6-17 $4, under 6 free.

Directions: Portsmouth, R.I., is about 60 miles or an hour from Boston. Take Interstate 93 south to Route 24 south to Route 114 south. At the first traffic light on Route 114, turn right onto Cory's Lane. Green Animals is at the end on the left.

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