Where the Wild Things Are

Step into the whimsical world of Lucy and Nat Day—where lions reign supreme, a regal elephant greets guests and crocodiles lie in wait



stacy bass

Lucy and Nat Day emerge from the garden path, their shoes crunching cheerfully on the gravel drive. “Sorry I can’t shake,” Nat says, pointing to the petite bouquet of greenery he’s clutching in his left hand. I’ve been out weeding.”

As he continues plucking and primping the meticulously manicured grounds, Lucy leads the way inside the house, which is where the garden views begin.

The grounds that housed the two-story Dutch Colonial, which the Days bought some three decades ago, were adorned only with a few forgettable perennial borders. It wasn’t until the home’s centennial in 2001 when the Days bought the property next door and nearly doubled the house’s size that their glorious garden grew up. “We made sure that every window has a garden view,” Lucy says of the Greenwich home. “We planned the garden around the architecture of the house.”

She’s in the new windowed wing, peering outside at the plantings. There, framed by the fenestration are William and Henry, a pair of life-sized lions that reign over the ground’s treasure trove of topiaries. “I get up every morning and look at them,” she says. “I can see them perfectly from my bedroom window.”

It’s only right that William and Henry occupy such a prime spot in Topiary Fancies. After all, they were the first living sculptures planted in this green menagerie. “I had seen photos of them in a garden magazine,” says Lucy. “So we brought over the creator, Steve Manning of England, and he spent three weeks living with us and fashioning them in our garage.”

William and Henry, who are named for English royalty, truly are the king of beasts. Weighing in at 800 pounds each, their bespoke welded-metal forms are stuffed with potting soil. Their grass bodies are accented by manes and tail tufts of the groundcover acorus gramineus “ogan,” whose glossy golden stripes wave in the wind like flags. Internal and external sprinkler systems gently mist the feline forms to keep them mint green from the top of their ears to the tips of their twisty tails.

The lions inspired the Days to commission an exotic zoo of fifteen additional topiaries, most of them by Matthew Larkin, owner of Black Barn Farm Topiary in Richmond, Massachusetts. “Very few gardens in America are dedicated to topiaries,” says Larkin. “Green Animals in Rhode Island, the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland and Disney are the only ones I know of besides the Days that are filled with animal topiaries.”

 

The Care and Feeding
Unlike traditional topiaries, which are grown then sculpted into shapes, the Day’s topiaries are made of metal frames packed with plantings that are woven and tied through. “There are only a couple of people, myself included, who create these kinds of topiaries,” Larkin says.
What really sets the Day’s animals apart, he says, is the attention to detail and the fun fantastical features that are designed to delight the eye and tickle the funny bone. The lions, in fact, are the most serious sculpture in the garden. Indeed, they resemble the mammoth mascots that guard the New York Public Library. “The library copied ours,” Nat says jokingly.

The pair of proud peacocks, which are made of Graham Blandy boxwood and Green Velvet boxwood, and ilex crenata Sky Pencil, also are covered by royal purple clematis that resembles the iridescent “eyes” in the plumage of live birds. Jumbo the elephant, made of boxwood, has gold-leafed metal ears. Jumbo, who is twelve feet long, seven feet high and five feet wide, makes himself at home amid a mini-jungle of tropical plants, including a Bismarckia nobilis, a blue-leaf fan palm native to Madagascar that is stored in a commercial greenhouse in the winter, and castor bean plants that the Days grow from seeds.

A fire-engine red stairway leads to Jumbo’s silk-cushioned howda, the perfect perch from which to watch him spray water from his trunk into a circular pool surrounded by two crouching topiary crocodiles with gold-leaf teeth. “I need to get this guy a bigger set of choppers,” Lucy says and laughs as she passes one of the cavorting crocs.

Some of the other topiaries are reflective of the Days’ hobbies. The hunting dog that ruffles the pheasant’s feathers, for instance, was created for Nat, who is an avid sportsman. And the three funny frogs, one of which is jumping head-first into a pond of John Creech sedum, pay homage to the family’s favorite collectible. “Actually, we’re more into toads than frogs,” Nat says. “I read The Wind in the Willows every year. Toads are witty and smart.”

The frogs also remind them of their frog, Joe, which they raised from a tadpole. “Joe lived seven years in a small aquarium on the kitchen counter,” Lucy says. “I used to feed him with a tiny sterling silver spoon, and he used to sing to me.”

The Animal Habitat
The topiaries may be humorous, but the garden is quite serious. It is one of more than 6,350 in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens and is featured in 2008’s Gardens Private & Personal: A Garden Club of America Book by Nancy D’Oench and Bonny Martin.

The Days have visited some of the world’s greatest gardens and the topiaries in theirs were influenced by Highgrove, Prince Charles’ garden; Ladew; and Quebec’s Les Quatre Vents, the private garden of Francis Higginson Cabot, the founder of the Garden Conservancy.
The Days also have a greenhouse, which is filled with orchids and tropical curiosities like Elephant’s Foot. Lucy, a longtime member of the executive board of the Garden Club of America and of the board of the Garden Education Center of Greenwich, has won several national medals at Garden Club of America shows.

“I don’t know how you would classify my garden,” she says. “It’s not a formal garden, it’s not a wild garden, it’s not a natural garden. I’m interested in the architecture of plants, and that’s how I make my selections.”

She planted two types of pineapple bulbs—Eucomis bicolor Alba and Sparking Burgundy—outside the backgammon game window because of their striking shapes. “They are native to South Africa, and they’re not supposed to be winter-hardy in Connecticut,” she says, “but they overwinter in our garden.”

The evergreen art of the topiaries forms a backdrop for a variety of mature trees and shrubs. “Every tree was imported,” Nat says, adding that the Japanese cutleaf maple beyond the greenhouse is an unusually large and old specimen, and the Japanese cedar between the lions and frogs is particularly beautiful when it moves gently in the breeze.

Lucy is partial to the thirty-foot-tall Southern magnolia, whose snow-white fragrant flowers scent the air on and off throughout the summer. Even when it’s not in bloom, its seed pods, the size of ostrich eggs, command notice. She walks over to the Japanese maple, whose six-foot skirt of leaves fans out like a ballerina’s tutu. She has had it since it was only eight inches tall and one foot across. “It needs a trim,” she says, lifting up its leaves to reveal a sinuous, sculpture-like stem.

It is the weeping higan cherry that next catches her attention. It is standing by the armchair topiary, which is made of boxwood. Trimmed to look like a floor lamp that wraps its leaves around a metal shade, the light fixture installed inside illuminates the chair and the carpet of Wagon Gold hosta and Catlin’s Giant ajuga and Chocolate Chip ajuga.

“The topiaries are very easy to maintain,” Lucy says. “The lions get clipped with special clippers each time the lawn is mowed. But the others are only clipped twice a year.”

The Grand View
One of the newer elements of the garden, what Nat likes to call the belvedere, came into being almost by accident. Nat, who loves to stroll the grounds, enjoyed seeing everything from the highest point. He mentioned this to Lucy, who took the idea and created a secret stone pathway that leads to a semicircular terrace, complete with a powder-coated steel table, bench and chairs that are shaped like gingko, maple and oak leaves. “I find the roofline very interesting from up there,” Nat says.

Gardens are for growing and for sharing, the Days say. The couple frequently entertains, and the events revolve around the garden.

“We like to have cocktail parties,” Lucy says. “But lunch, dinner, you name it, we use any and every excuse we can to be out there.”

In a typical summer season, they host not only friends and family but also arrange tours for a variety of organizations that range from the Garden Club of America to the Bruce Museum, where Nat is cochairman of the board of trustees. On the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day, it’s not unusual for some 500 people to take a peek at the topiaries.

But there’s no need to step outside to feel the full effect of the garden. The windows turn the house into a giant terrarium that showcases each carefully cultivated custom vignette. The snowy-white bloom of a potted hosta, an unashamed eavesdropper, presses its head against the pane of the windowed wing where Lucy is sitting at a glass table. What’s inside? What’s out? It’s hard to tell.

The garden, Lucy reminds us, offers a different view every day, every season. “Everything looks great in the snow,” she says. “All the topiaries except the lions are evergreen. So the lions go dormant just like the lawn. But they get red bows and Christmas lights around their necks so they still show up.”

The sprinkler system goes on, and William and Henry bask in their afternoon mist. “The lions are my favorite,” says Lucy with a thrill in her voice. “But please don’t tell the other guys.”

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