Jurassic lark: One man's vision

Edward Scissorhands has nothing on Manuel Fernandes.

For the last 12 years, the Burnaby resident has transformed his front lawn and backyard into a topiary oasis. His house at 7726 Taylor Pl. is home to bears, dinosaurs, birds and a seahorse, to name a few.

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Fernandes picked up the horticultural practice, which involves shaping trees and shrubs into ornamental structures, because he was looking for a challenge.

“This was a new field to me, unexplored,” the semi-retired paint inspector told the NOW. “If it’s not challenging, I get bored.”

With no official training, his first topiary was a small chicken. From there, Fernandes “graduated” to a heron, then a dog and a pig, until he eventually took on bigger animals, like his 12-foot giraffe.

The first step of every project is to build a metal frame, which Fernandes does from a picture off the internet. Depending on how big or small the subject is, he welds the pieces together, a process that can take one or two days.

The Portuguese native then digs a hole and plants the shrubbery. For smaller projects, boxwood is used because the leaves are so small. The only downside is it grows out too slowly, about two to three inches a year, Fernandes noted.

“If you have an animal that goes four feet tall, (that’s) a lot of years,” he joked, noting he uses cedar hedges for the bigger pieces.

Once the metal frame is put on the shrubbery, the next step is manipulating the growth of the tree by tying up all the small branches, so that when they grow, they fill up the frame.

“Everything’s gotta be tied up; otherwise, that thing would just grow one way,” Fernandes said.

After a few years, when the wire disappears, the real fun begins. He gets out his pruning shears to shape the structure.

Since his first chicken, Fernandes has added 50 more animals and has space for just one more. He plans to do one of his wife, Sally. (He made one of himself, too, which sits at the front gate.)

“I love it because I gave him ideas to do and he did it,” Sally told the NOW, pointing to the giraffe and a few of the birds.

Once the last topiary goes up, it’s all about maintenance. Pruning the bushes can be time-consuming, but Fernandes doesn’t mind.

“In the summertime, I’m out there all the time,” he said, noting he loves to listen to Portuguese tunes on his small internet radio while out in the garden.

“Sometimes he just comes in for lunch or for dinner; that’s it,” added Sally.

The Taylor Place home has been an annual attraction for many, according to Fernandes, who said his art display attracts garden clubs, school groups and neighbours on a regular basis during the spring and summer months.

One time, some six-year-olds asked him to make them an elephant. He was in his garage building the frame later that day.

“The best part is to watch the people going, ‘Wow, look, look!’ It’s incredible the amount of people that come through,” said Fernandes, adding a newlywed couple also stopped by in their wedding attire to take pictures.

The 68-year-old has always had an artistic side, according to his wife. A tour of his home reveals he’s also an advanced carver, with wood and soapstone pieces on display. (He had no official training in those crafting hobbies, either.)

“He’s a very talented man,” Sally said with a smile.

The family also owns an Osoyoos home, which, too, contains a host of topiaries. Passersby can find Ogopogo and many of his friends there.  

Before the NOW’s interview concluded, Fernandes wanted to share one last story. It was about a weekend he spent in Osoyoos. A group of ladies stopped to chat with him while he was out in the yard.

“One of them said, ‘Oh, you gotta see this guy in Burnaby. He’s got the whole boulevard; he’s got elephants; he’s got giraffes,’” said Fernandes. “I said, ‘Oh really?’ When I told her that it was me, she almost freaked out. She was laughing so hard.”

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