GARDENA — When Mits Mitsueda was cited by the city for having a horse, a goat, a seal, an alligator, a turtle and a bear in his front yard, neighbors agreed that he had it coming.
The animals--sculpted by Mitsueda out of Eugenia and juniper plants--have been at tracting attention for more than 20 years at his home on Cassidy Street at Normandie Avenue.
Fran Weber of the Gardena Beautification Committee, who nominated Mitsueda's house for the "Home of the Month" award it received from the city last year, remembers taking her children--now 29 and 32--to see his creations when they were youngsters.
"In my opinion, the Mitsueda home is definitely one of the best in the city," said Weber, a real estate broker. "When we first saw it, there was just a horse . . . and he just kept adding to it.
"Everyone knows that property--you just have to say, 'It's that house with the animals in front.' "
Mitsueda, 66, a plumber who recently retired after 25 years, said creating the animals is his hobby. Despite the professional, well-crafted look of the foliage beasts, he has had no training in this specialized form of garden art, known as topiary.
"You know what an animal looks like, and you just shape the tree to look like that," he said. He described it as "actually very simple."
But it takes years.
"There's a lot of people who want me to make an animal for them. They say they have a big tree in the front yard and they want to know if I can make something out of it. I have to tell them that you can't take an old tree and cut it, because the leaves won't grow back. You have to start with a small, young plant."
As an example of the time required, Mitsueda pointed to a topiary seal he is working on for his daughter Judy--one of four grown children--and her husband, Mike Williams, an officer with the Gardena Police Department. "That's been in the can about five or six years already. It takes about that long so you can know what it is."
Keeps Menagerie Trimmed
Mitsueda trims his green menagerie every two weeks during the summer and once a month in the winter. "I trim it when it starts to look a little hairy on the sides," he said.
Len Pozzi, a landscape supervisor at Disneyland in Anaheim, said most topiary uses wire molds, and he cited the foliage animals in front of Disney's "It's a Small World" attraction as an example. "You need a good eye," he said, to work without wire as Mitsueda does.
Amid the budding tourist attraction in Mitsueda's yard is one human form: the leafy shape of a man sitting on a planter, his legs draped over the edge with an arm raised in greeting.
"Well, a lot of times I'm out here in the front yard and when friends and neighbors drive by, I'm forever waving," Mitsueda said. "Somebody told me, 'Boy, you're like the mayor here--everyone knows you!' So I though I'd make a man here, sitting and waving.
"Every day, people come to look at the animals. Some of them knock on the door to ask for permission to take pictures . . . or just to tell us how nice the animals look."
Despite the daily visits from strangers, which increase on the weekends, Mitsueda and his wife Emi don't consider them a nuisance.
"It's flattering for Mits," Emi said. A longtime neighbor and friend, Mary Tanigawa, also tolerates the traffic cheerfully. "I like it when people stop and look. And any friend who comes to visit us just raves about the animals next door."
Notice has come from other sources.
"There's a stable just west of here," Emi Mitsueda recalled, "and this lady was riding her horse on the east side of Normandie and wanted to turn into our street. But the horse saw the horse in our yard and he wouldn't go any farther--he was afraid. She kept telling the horse that it was only a plant . . . but the horse would just stretch out his neck and look at our horse, refusing to go forward. Somehow, he knew it was the form of another horse."
The horse, which is the largest and most striking of the ensemble, is the only plant to have suffered from the collection's notoriety. "Once," Mitsueda recalls, "some kids tried to sit on it. It took over a year to repair it."
Mitsueda is as unassuming about other aspects of his life as he is about his hobby.
As an infantryman in the famed Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, he was part of the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history. Mitsueda, who saw action in Italy and France, is casual about the Purple Heart he received. "I just had a small shrapnel wound, that's all."
Ed Sato, owner of the Gardena plumbing firm where Mitsueda worked, said his former employee applied the same painstaking care to his trade as he does to topiary. "When a man even polishes his work shoes you know he's meticulous," Sato said.
Gardena Councilman James Cragin, chairman of the Gardena Beautification Committee, points to the Mitsueda home as an inspiration. "I wish other people would be motivated to improve their yards to even half that extent. When you go by there and see this thing of joy and love and dedication . . . it's just a marvel."