The first topiary sculptures were trimmed in 1st century Roman villas. By the 16th century, topiary had become an emblem of European landscape design, and it was embraced by colonial American gardens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these Victorian-era menageries still grows today at an historic country estate in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. With its century-old living sculptures, Green Animals Garden is the oldest topiary in the United States.
The Sakonnet Garden in Little Compton, Rhode Island, began as the private domain of the then 12-year-old John Gwynne—“a place I could explore,” says Gwynne, now retired and again spending much of his time in the one-acre plot. Situated on a peninsula brushed by the Gulf Stream, Little Compton enjoys a maritime climate that allows Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, his partner of 30 years, to grow a wide variety of plants, from Himalayan blue poppies to palms. “We started collecting just to see what we could grow,” says Gwynne.