Jim Donahue, horticulturist for the Preservation Society of Newport County at Green Animals since 2004, was made an honorary member in 2007 as a result of his work with RIDS to re-establish a dahlia garden at Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
ABOUT GREEN ANIMALS
Located at 380 Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth, this small country estate was purchased in 1877 by Thomas E. Brayton (1844-1939), Treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company in Fall River, Massachusetts. It consisted of seven acres of land, 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, were responsible for creating the topiaries. There are 80 pieces of topiary throughout the gardens, including 21 animals and birds in addition to geometric figures and ornamental designs, sculpted from California privet, yew, and English boxwood. Green Animals is the oldest and most northern topiary garden in the United States. Mr. Brayton’s daughter Alice gave the estate its name because of the profusion of “green animals.” She made the estate her permanent residence in 1939. Upon her death in 1972, at the age of 94, Miss Brayton left Green Animals to The Preservation Society of Newport County. Today, Green Animals remains as a rare example of a self-sufficient estate combining formal topiaries, vegetable and herb gardens, orchards and a Victorian house overlooking Narragansett Bay.
Jim is responsible for the day-to-day operation of Green Animals. He also works with the Preservation Society’s grounds department in the area of landscape design. He is the horticulture chair for the Newport Flower Show and has designed exhibits for the New England Spring Flower Show, the Boston Flower & Garden Show and the Providence Flower Show. In 2007, he created a spectacular underwater exhibit comprised primarily of cacti and succulents, a giant snapping turtle made of sea shells, a sunken ship and, of course, topiary in the forms of an octopus and mermaid. The exhibit won many awards from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. His design for the New England Spring Flower Show in 2008 celebrated the botanical explorations of Ernest Henry Wilson in early 20th century China. As part of this educational exhibit, a full-sized Victorian conservatory was staged as a Wardian Case, into which wild-collected specimens might have been placed. This exhibit also won several top awards from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
In 2006, Jim requested RIDS assistance in two ways: help with planning the garden and donations of tubers for the garden. One of the greatest challenges of working for a non-profit is the lack of resources, Jim says. He greatly appreciates the fact that RIDS stepped up to the challenge. “I really appreciate the volunteers who come to plant the tubers, the donation of tubers and the knowledge-based help the Society members provide,” he said. In 2006, there were about 80 dahlias on the property, with 60 different varieties. Today there are more than double that number.
Jim’s goal is to bring Green Animals back to its former stature, and to give it the “vintage appeal” it had in the mid 20th century. The dahlia garden is one of the first steps in that direction. Dahlias were always grown in the garden thanks to Joe Carreiro and his son-in-law George Mendonca, the original gardeners and creators of Green Animals.
Trying to get the garden back to its original stature is a challenge due to the maturity of the trees and the visitor traffic which compacts the soil. “This was originally a garden for two people.” Jim says “It now welcomes over 12,000 visitors each summer.” When asked about visitors’ responses to the dahlia garden, Jim says he most often hears comments such as ‘Oh, my grandmother has/had dahlias. I’m psyched to see them again – maybe I’ll start growing them.’ The most asked questions he gets from visitors are about dahlia storage.
Prior to working at Green Animals, Jim spent 10 years as a residential master planner for a landscape architecture firm. This creative and talented horticulturist takes his inspiration from architecture more than from garden elements. While we hope some day he will say the dahlia is his favorite flower, currently he does not have one.
When asked what he learned about dahlias that he didn’t know when he initiated the garden project, Jim said he didn’t realize there was such a diversity of forms. His favorite varieties (this year, anyway) are Camano Buz, Gloriosa, Show ‘n Tell, Harvey Koop and Woodland’s Wildthing. He likes what he calls Chiquita Banana colors.
The collaborative Green Animals Dahlia Garden is a win-win project for RIDS and the Preservation Society. Our combined stewardship of this garden will hopefully get more people inspired to grow this beautiful flower and the additional promotion will help to bring needed funds to preserve this lovely property. In 2006, the dahlia garden was dedicated to Roberta Achtermeier, former president and long-time member of RIDS who passed away that year. Many of her plants were used for the original garden. August has been proclaimed Dahlia Month at Green Animals.