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Go Green: A Visit to Portsmouth’s Topiary Garden

GreenanimalRemember Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s portrait of the lonely, sensitive outsider who just happens to have razor-sharp blades for fingers? I was thinking about that movie–and specifically Johnny Depp, who plays the film’s tragic star–as my daughter and I pulled into the parking lot at the Green Animals Topiary Garden.

I’d known about the garden for a while but hadn’t found a reason to visit since, frankly, I’m no gardener, and driving an hour from Providence to look at a few clipped hedges never sounded very compelling.

But there we were, and let me tell you–it’s FABULOUS. What I had failed to appreciate is that the property, owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County, consists of much more than a few “clipped hedges.” It’s an entire–and entirely gorgeous–country estate that overlooks Narragansett Bay. Besides the gardens, there is a gracious nineteenth-century house filled with Victorian furnishings and a collection of antique toys.

But first, the so-called “Green Animals.” There are more than eighty pieces of topiary scattered throughout the gardens, some easy to spot (like the elephant) and some more difficult (we never found the peacock). You’re handed a map when you purchase tickets, but it’s more fun to wander through the garden in search of the various animal and geometric shapes (my personal favorite is the armchair).

When we’d finished our topiary hunt, we lazed by the fish pond, dating to the 1920s, which contained enough jewel-colored goldfish to entertain my daughter for quite a while. Then we headed to the main house, purchased in 1872 by Thomas Brayton, who served as the treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company in Fall River, Massachusetts. When the guide seated inside the front door informed of of us that fact, I had to ask, “A cotton company in Fall River produced this kind of wealth?” Fixing me with her eyes, she replied, “The company outfitted all the soldiers during the Civil War.” That shut me up.

We wandered through the downstairs, which consists of perfectly preserved rooms–down to the four forks and four knives for each setting in the dining room–but the real treat was waiting for us upstairs. Someone was clever enough to save several roomfuls of toys from the Victorian era. Dolls big enough to ride in full-size strollers (a little creepy but amazing) and shelves upon shelves of tiny toy soldiers, Indians, canons and other artillery (my favorite was a miniature horse, lying on his side to provide cover to his dismounted rider who has his rifle propped up on the horse’s flank).

Leaving the house, we greeted a lush, rolling lawn that descends to the water. There are extraordinary trees on the property–several with old-fashioned rope swings–that are great for climbing or just admiring for their awesome size and venerable age. The only thing I wish we’d done differently is to have brought a picnic lunch. I simply didn’t want to say goodbye to this magical place–with its living sculptures and bygone elegance.

Special note: Green Animals’ annual Fall Family Festival takes place on Saturday, September 20. The day’s events include scarecrow-building, kids’ crafts, live music, plant sale, artisans, and more. For information, go to www.newportmansions.org.

Green Animals Topiary Garden
380 Corys Lane, Portsmouth, RI 02871
(401) 683-1267

Open every day from 10 to 5
Admission: Adults $11; Youth (6-17) $4; under 6 free

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