Sometimes you discover an art environment in a box. Or at least, that’s how I first learned about The Hedge Garden—picking through a battered shoebox at a New Jersey postcard show in 1996. Bunched together were several photo postcard views of a topiary display that made me stop and take notice: the sculptured hedges were uncommonly delicate. One photo showed a privet clipper ship with masts so slender they resembled calligraphy. On the reverse of each card was stamped: “Yearicks Nursery, Tabernacle Road, Fishing Creek, N.J.”
Fishing Creek, I soon learned, is a small, unincorporated part of Lower Township, in Cape May County—home to Cape May, the nation’s oldest seashore resort. When I called the local library to inquire about Yearicks’s topiary—hoping I could visit there from northern New Jersey—the reference librarian sighed deeply. “Oh, The Hedge Garden,” she said. “That used to be quite an attraction.”
I was already too late. Now I traveled to the library to gather reports of the vanished garden’s sixty-year evolution and the life of its patient creator, Augustus “Gus” Yearicks.
Topiary is a gradual art, evidenced by daily care, and Gus Yearicks had devoted himself to its demands. He rose at dawn in the summer months to water, tie back, weave, and shear his creations; in fall and winter he pruned established works and tended new shoots for future exhibits. Yearicks cultivated and shaped his first series of living sculptures—a small flotilla of ships—for twenty years before he opened his one-acre yard to visitors. Among the topiaries he first displayed in 1947 were two I later saw on postcards: a full rigged clipper, the Cutty Sark, and a green Queen Maryattended by tiny privet tugs.
The Hedge Garden’s initial nautical theme grew out of family tradition. Born in 1892 in the nearby town of Dias Creek, Gus Yearicks—like his father and two brothers—was a waterman, clamming and crewing on schooners for many years. He once told a reporter he’d enjoyed a brief job motoring the Cape May trolley mostly because he could watch ships at each end of his run. And though he later found steady work at a local magnesite plant, Yearicks’s artful first sculptures remained testament to a way of life.
With its proximity to Cape May, and early, free promotion via a Universal Pictures film short screened in movie theaters, The Hedge Garden quickly became an area tourist attraction. It was open to all, and was eventually illuminated at night by floodlights. Like many creators of art environments, Yearicks did not charge admission. Next to a sign-in book, he placed a box for voluntary donations.
During the following four decades, Yearicks expanded his range of subjects, which grew ever more fanciful: Santa and his reindeer, a replica of the Statue of Liberty, a bicyclist, a miniature village, a green Liberty Bell. He sculpted camels, panthers, crocodiles, elephants, and giraffes, and for many years adorned his creatures with artificial eyes—until sightseers, seeking free souvenirs, pocketed so many of the glass orbs he ran out of replacements.
Over time, Yearicks grew and shaped a remarkable, living portrait of America’s favorite pastime: a verdant baseball game rose up in his garden. His privet ballplayers, including a leafy Babe Ruth, were always in mid-play.
The Hedge Garden drew hundreds of thousands of travelers from across the United States to Fishing Creek. Some arrived by tour bus, and more than a few returned annually to exclaim over an exhibit that grew to more than 175 sculptures. The garden’s guest books were said to fill an entire closet in his home.
At 89, the topiarist was still rising at 5 a.m. every summer morning to water and trim.
And then he fell ill. According to a blog written by a neighbor, Bobbie Petrucelli, when Yearicks knew he was dying, he extracted a promise from his son to destroy his labor-intensive creations after his death, rather than allow them to become overgrown.
Topiary artist Gus Yearicks died in October 1986. His son fulfilled his wish—with one exception: he left intact his father’s Statue of Liberty. As Gus had predicted, without the artist’s guiding hand and eye, the topiary Lady grew shaggy, then disappeared completely.