If you needed a giraffe in your front yard, frolicking with a deer while foxes, bears and monkeys looked on, Carlos R. Mello Jr. was the man to call.
For more than 40 years, Mello was the go-to guy in Tucson for topiary work, the art of molding perennial plants into specific shapes, such as animals, letters or even humans, to create eye-pleasing horticultural scenes.
Mello, along with his wife, Anna Mello, designed and created hundreds of creatures, which they sold to Arizona residents from Green Valley to the White Mountains.
Prices ranged from $45 for a dove to $250 for a unicorn.
Dolphins were particularly popular.
“People liked to put them near their pools,” Anna Mello said.
Now retired at 85, Carlos Mello said he counts his blessings when he looks back on a career that allowed him to support his family while doing what he loved.
“With God’s grace, I’ve achieved so much,” he said.
Mello always had a talent for working the land.
He was born in 1928 and raised on a farm on the island of São Miguel, in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores.
“We still had dirt floors back then,” Mello said. “We didn’t have grocery stores. We had to live off of what we could raise.”
When his family immigrated to the United States in 1949, he relied on his skills to take on farming and factory work in Rhode Island.
He moved to Tucson in 1961 with Anna and their daughter, Kathy, to help ease Kathy’s chronic bronchitis.
Once here, Mello turned to landscaping and yard work to make a living.
One of his earliest and longest-running jobs was as the master gardener at Temple Emanu-El on North Country Club Road.
It was on the temple grounds where Mello made his first topiary figures, large-scale pyracantha shrubs in the shape of the Star of David and a menorah.
“My boss trusted me,” Mello said. “He allowed me to get creative.”
Mello opted to take his topiary talents to the next level after a trip to Disneyland in the 1970s, an amusement park known for its larger-than-life plant sculptures.
He was intrigued and perplexed at how the topiary giraffes, elephants and other animals in certain areas of the park kept their shape.
“I worked with plants all my life and I couldn’t figure it out,” Mello said.
After closer inspection, he noticed the chicken wire molds holding each creature’s form, just under the surface.
“I couldn’t wait to get home and try it myself,” Mello said.
From then on out, topiaries became a solid source of income for Mello.
In addition to the topiaries at the temple, he created animals for other locations around town, including the WIlmot Dental Center at 801 N. Wilmot Road, where he worked for decades.
“We were known as the office with the animals,” said Dr. Manuel C. Bedoya, whose dental practice is still based at the center. “Carlos was so dedicated. He groomed those plants. He even checked in on them on weekends.”
Reid Park had several Mello topiaries. As did Golf N’ Stuff on East Tanque Verde Road.
At one point, more than 50 chicken wire frames, made to resemble various creatures, sat along the grass in the Mellos’ backyard.
“We sold every last one of them,” Mello said.
Despite the thriving business, you’d be hard-pressed to find one of Mello’s topiaries today.
Mello stopped making the molds more than a decade ago.
Some of the existing creatures have fallen to vandalism. Others have gone into disrepair or have been removed altogether.
The only topiaries that are still in good shape are those in front of the Mellos’ home in midtown Tucson.
Their yard serves as a reminder of Mello’s hard work. A family of elephants march along rows of rabbits, dolphins and a topiary made in Mello’s image to keep the animals company when Mello is away.
They aren’t perfect.
“They are showing their age, just like us,” Anna said.
But Mello still treats them with respect. He is out front as often as he can, doing his best to keep his menagerie in order.
“People still drive by and ask who made these animals,” Mello said with pride. “I tell them it was me.”