There’s no better place to be than a greenhouse in February.

(Ken Selody)

One of the happiest times of year I believe is when the foliage returns to the trees and when we can enjoy the outdoors, and this year that feeling for me was amplified with the pandemic and quarantine. During the winter months, I was daydreaming about everything coming back to life and porches filled with potted plants.

When I mentioned this to my friend Mary Beth Brown, Regional Sales Manager of Clarence House she shared with me that she was meeting some clients at Atlock Farms, a nursery specializing in topiaries which are a type of living sculpture. The setting makes a charming backdrop for her fabric presentations and it also a safer option for everyone to do business outside. I was intrigued and I wanted to see what it was all about and so I headed on a two-hour drive from my home to meet Mary Beth and Ken Selody, gardener and the owner of Atlock Farms.

When I arrived at Atlock Farms I was greeted by Mary Beth and introduced to Ken Selody. There are multiple greenhouses filled with topiaries of row after row of various heights and different plant varieties.

While we walked through the grounds I had a chance to speak to Ken about his calling into gardening. It all happened while he was studying photography at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York when he came across photographs of sunflowers by the photographer Paul Caponigro that captured his attention and eventually led him to find his passion and career in gardening. For years in addition to his topiaries, he offered an array of plants - annuals, perennials, succulents, tropicals for sale, and rent.

His work is well sought after and it came as no surprise to have learned he was a contributing editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine where he worked for some years. Now, Ken focuses most of his attention on topiaries with a ball or balls on top of tall stems.

I learned about some of the different types of plants Ken uses and how they are grown and maintained.

Topiaries have been around at least since Roman times and their popularity has gone in and out of favor for centuries. Living sculptures are a creative way to transform a space that combines art, horticulture, and function.

To make a topiary with a myrtle plant, for example, it involves training the plant to grow laterally by stinting vertical growth and then trimming new growth overtime to get the desired sphere shape. Ken advises one not to get discouraged whether you buy a topiary or try to grow one on your own; if it doesn’t work out, try it again.

Here’s a list of some of the topiaries - common and scientific names Atlock Farms specializes in:

  • dwarf myrtle: Myrtus communis compacta
  • coleus: Plectranthus scutellarioides
  • cotton lavender: Santolina chamaecyparissus
  • curry: Helichrysum italicum
  • Japanese Euonymus: Euonymus japonicus microphyllus
  • rosemary: Rosmarinus officinalis
  • honeysuckle: Lonicera nitida
  • mirror plant: Coprosma

Rhode Island

After visiting Atlock Farms I decided to take a day trip to Portsmouth, Rhode Island to visit Green Animals Topiary Garden to see a different type of topiary. However, when I got there it was closed temporarily due to the Coronavirus. So, instead, I went to see The Breakers, one of Newport’s famed summer “cottages,” and belonging to the Vanderbilt family. This grand estate faces the Atlantic with stunning views from the upper loggia.

Following, the visit, I had a chance to speak with Jim Donahue the curator of Historic Landscapes and Horticulture of The Preservation Society of Newport County to learn a little bit more about Green Animals Topiary Garden and the gardens of The Breakers.

Green Animals Topiary Garden is unique because it is a completely surviving gentleman’s farm that overlooks Narragansett Bay. There are over eighty living sculptures - some a century old-and in addition to the larger than life-size animal topiaries, there are vegetable and herb gardens, orchards, and a Victorian house.

The estate was the property of Thomas Brayton who purchased it in 1872. Shortly afterward, he hired the gardener Joseph Carreiro, a skilled gardener from Azores, Portugal. Carreiro - and later his son-in-law George Mendonca - created these topiaries. Carreiro brought his gardening ideas and expertise from Portugal with him and what they created is a type of folk art and truly unique. Though, the garden is temporarily closed, they have maintained keeping multiple gardeners on staff as it is a full-time job to maintain.

Landscape restoration at The Breakers

The Breakers is known for its architecture, and interior design and yet not so much for its gardens. In 1938 most of the gardens were destroyed by a hurricane and they were never fully restored. A planned restoration of the entire site will recapture the spirit of the original designs by the landscape gardener Ernest Bowditch.

Ernest Bowditch designed the grounds for Pierre Lorillard and later for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Though the original plans of the grounds were not available, photographs and plant lists were sourced by the landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architects and Robinson Associates.

The project is anticipated to be complete in three to five years. In the late nineteenth century, it was fashionable to collect plants, and importing them from Asia, and evergreens were particularly desired. Certain substitutions will be made. For example, perennials will replace annuals. The restored garden will be a sustainable one that returns the glory of how the grounds appeared in the early 1900s and reflect the needs of the twenty-first century.

I have a greater appreciation for this “cottage” The Breakers than I had in the past. It was terrific to see the Atlantic again, and to hear the sounds of crashing of the waves on the rocks, to smell wild roses, the cut grass, the greens, and the ocean. I look forward to coming back soon.