Susan Cortese and her family installed a gigantic train set...

Susan Cortese and her family installed a gigantic train set in their Jericho backyard winding through a rock garden and small pond surrounded by tiny succulents, varieties of moss and trees just fit for the miniature town modeled in a '40s style. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Gardeners are nature’s true artists, painting their landscapes with the colors and textures of plants, trees, shrubs, vines and grasses. Patterns are created, often in groups of three or five, and repetition throughout the space contributes to a harmonic vista.

Bare patches of soil and fields of weeds provide canvases, and on them, balance, movement, unity and variety are forged.

Sometimes, however, it isn’t clear whether the garden inspired their art or their love of art inspired the gardener. French painter Claude Monet, after all, created both his gardens at Giverny, as well as their famed impressionistic paintings. And some believed he only planted the gardens to create the muse.

Similarly, gardens across Long Island inspire local artists, and they, in turn, use their creations to enhance their gardens and neighborhoods, sometimes even stopping traffic on their suburban streets.


Joe Telese of Westbury is one of them. By day, the hair stylist sculpts coifs in his home-based salon and, between clients, he steals time to work on more intricate sculptures. Telese’s shop is decorated with fish fashioned from rocks, animals created from tree roots and brightly painted shells.

“Other people see a piece of wood, but I see what it could be,” said Telese, 65.

It’s that potential that inspires his every creation and compels him to carve and glue and paint whenever he has a free moment.

The most notable of his works are five life-size musicians: mannequins born of 3- and 4-inch flexible piping, spray glue and Poly-Fil, a polyester fiber popular among crafters, and perched alongside his driveway for all to see.

“I make these guys from scratch outside the shop when the weather is nice,” Telese said. “The piping is plastic, so it lasts forever. I just have to change their clothes a couple times a year” because rain, snow and wind take a toll. “One by one, I take them down. I redo their hair, replace the Poly-Fil, paint their faces, change their clothes, redo the mustaches and change the sunglasses.”

And he likes to switch things up from time to time: “Right now, their hair and mustaches are gray,” Telese said. “For the holidays I dress them up for Christmas. I change their hats and their clothes, and put lights around.” Each of the five musicians’ makeovers takes two to three days.

Telese frequents Unique Thrift Shop in Westbury to shop for shoes, jeans, shorts, gloves and other garments for his perched mannequins, but the instruments they’re holding — a saxophone, two trumpets and a clarinet — are real, gifts he received from a client.

Years ago, Telese had another group of lifelike mannequins affixed to ladders along the roof of his house, posed as tool-wielding repairmen. But he is also a singer, and Telese breathed musical life into his latest creations. “I sing Italian songs at private parties on the weekends with two other guys, and I came up with musicians because they look good.” To make the show more realistic, Telese even pipes woodwind and brass music from Spotify into his front yard. “It makes a nice conversation piece,” he said.

Telese said his neighbors and the rest of the neighborhood love the mannequins. His creations are seemingly Florida-famous, too. While spending last winter more than 1,200 miles away near Delray Beach, Florida, Telese said, he struck up a conversation with a retiree on the beach and discovered, coincidentally, that the man had moved to Florida from Westbury. After talking a bit about where each lived, the man was incredulous that he’d been talking to the owner of “that house,” exclaiming, “I used to love those mannequins! I used to bring all my friends by to see them!”

The creations continue to attract a crowd. “Usually between five to 10 people a day stop by to take pictures,” Telese said. “They come in, they want to know where I got them. I make a lot of friends this way. It makes me happy.”


Ernie Rauch of Syosset doesn’t consider himself an artist, even though he spends much of his free time designing, measuring, sawing, nailing, painting and situating kitschy “fantasy houses” around his property. No grass grows under this retired real estate broker’s feet, as he also keeps busy by volunteering at a Huntington thrift shop, golfing and serving as umpire for girls’ softball teams around Nassau County. He even built a shed and poured the concrete foundation himself.

In 2014, Rauch, 83, removed six of the 25 overgrown hemlock trees from his backyard, then hauled them away himself. “That was a big mistake; really knocked me out,” he said. Still, he went the extra mile and strategized for the final outcome: Instead of taking the trees down completely, he left behind stumps of varying heights to serve as pedestals for flower pots, which he made from square buckets.

The remaining trees, which surrounded his in-ground pool, “kept growing and growing, and I couldn’t trim them anymore,” he said. “Needles were falling in the pool, making a mess, so the next year I decided to cut them all down and keep the stumps, only this time I left them all at 3 feet.”

Because flower buckets were so last year, Rauch summoned his inner creativity for inspiration: “I thought of little houses, like Hansel-and-Gretel houses, with no straight doors or windows, but with everything crooked intentionally,” he said. The following year, Rauch started building what he calls “fantasy houses” and perching them atop each stump to add a whimsical touch to the garden.

Starting by drawing his ideas on paper, Rauch fastidiously made plans for his first house, cut out scraps of plywood, nailed them together and applied paint, then made another and another until he had 10 different models. To create a “whimsical fantasy” style, he added unique touches. Those crooked doors and windows are made of cutup paint stirrers, for example. “And I built little miniature houses and set them near the other houses with a little half-moon on them to indicate an outhouse.”

Each house is painted six or seven colors, and after cutting all the bases at an angle, Rauch had to get them to match up.

“Holy mackerel, it was a lot of work!” he said. “It’s very time-consuming, but I enjoy it so much.”


Enjoyment, too, is what drives Debra Sellitti of Bethpage. Well, that, and “only-child syndrome,” she jokes. “I’m an only child, and I like to be surrounded by beautiful color and movement, and I go overboard. Being an artist, I see too much creativity, and when I see something, I see more in it.”

Some of the “more” that Sellitti, 57, notices everywhere she looks is movement and color, and she wants as much of it surrounding her as possible.

When she moved into her home, “it was a jungle,” Sellitti said. “I put over $100,000 into the backyard over 22 years. I put in an in-ground pool, a lot of stonework, a dance floor and the gardening. Then I kept redesigning the garden. This is my canvas, and when my canvas is full, it becomes like moving furniture in a room.”

Nearly five years ago, Sellitti, a federal employee, noticed a beautiful tree while driving along Route 109 in Farmingdale. She investigated and learned it was a crape myrtle. Not long afterward, a train ride into the city unveiled another revelation: “I looked outside the window and I saw some metal spinners along the way, outside an iron store,” she said. “It was a ‘wow’ moment for me.”

To complete her inspiration trifecta, the 1996 movie “Twister” featured a character who resonated with Sellitti. “She made metal spinners and attached bells to them so that when there was a tornado, it was a warning,” Selliti recalled. “And I thought, ‘How beautiful all the movement and sound is with the wind.’ ”

So Sellitti set out to bring that color, movement and sound home with her. She found a grower in Florida who hybridizes small varieties of crape myrtles, and arranged for him to ship plants to her. She began making annual pilgrimages upstate to Woodstock Chimes in Shokan to buy unique, high-end wind chimes, and she started buying metal and rhinestones in stores and online. Then she got to work.

Sellitti’s first order of business was to maximize the color in her garden, so she planted more than 200 small-variety crape myrtles on her just-shy-of-a-half-acre property. “It was the color!” she said. “They are so beautiful, and they keep blooming all summer long.”

The spinners came next. They vary in size — the largest are 44 inches across and 10 feet tall — and take about four hours to make. The work is not without its hazards.

“The glue I have to use is very dangerous, so I have to do it outside, poolside, and I have a fan on and I wear a mask,” Sellitti said.

After fashioning the metal into colorful blades, Sellitti paints them, then affixes rhinestones “so when the sun hits them, it makes them shine like diamonds. It’s amazing how they just sparkle,” she said. But the effect isn’t solely dependent on sunlight. By night, the backyard is lit with solar lights, and Sellitti now has more than 100 wind chimes placed around the yard. One, called “King David,” weighs 40 pounds.

The only thing a fairy-tale garden such as this would be missing is bubbles — except it’s not. “I bought two bubble machines, and I turn them on and let bubbles go across the whole garden,” Sellitti said. “My neighbor has a baby grandson and says they love the bubbles on a windy day. This is my entertainment, I just love it.”


Not too far away, in Jericho, other children grew up enjoying a different kind of fairy tale in their garden, and the adults there are still being entertained.

Lou Cortese, 62, can trace his affinity for train sets to a day 57 years ago when he was growing up in the Bronx. “When I was 5 years old, my father introduced me to train sets,” Cortese recalled. “He kept a four-by-eight piece of plywood in the garage, and every year after that, a week before Christmas, we would set it up on a horse in the den. But my mother only let us keep it up for a week, until right after New Year’s, because we were encroaching on her space.”

Fast-forward to 1985, when Cortese had three sons of his own who were gifted a train set that was put up in the house. “One day, when my wife, Susan, wasn’t home, me and the boys set them up all over the living room, the dining room and the kitchen. And when Susan came home, she said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ” Cortese recalled with a chuckle. Rather than relegate the trains to one week per year — or have them take over their house — the Corteses decided to move the fun outdoors.

Cortese, who owns a home-improvement company, bought most of the trains but made many pieces in the intricate, to-scale set himself. “The station took me 2 1⁄2 years to make,” he said. “It’s an exact replica in half-inch scale of an actual station that was on the New York Central Railroad Line in Cleveland, Ohio, which is now a restaurant.”

After finding plans in a magazine, Cortese converted the sizing to his scale, then “put it on paper, laid it out, researched what materials were available — and then set out to locate them.” Many of those materials were born from Cortese’s out-of-the-box thinking: He ordered small stones from a supplier in Georgia, and from them made thousands of “bricks” for the station building, then glued them together, one by one. He made all the windows and doors, and simulated a slate roof. “I used the backs of sample pieces of Formica countertops, which look like slate, then Susan and I cut those samples into more than 2,000 tiny pieces and used them as roof tiles.”

Along the way, the setup grew to incorporate 200 feet of track, multiple buildings and a landscape, taking over a 20-by-30-foot section of the 40-by-100-foot backyard. And as it grew, so did the weeding and maintenance chores, which include leveling and ballasting the tracks, cleaning the set and the blue stone, and “if we have heavy rains, we have to check to make sure everything is level and clear before we start running the trains. It’s a lot of work,” Cortese said.

And a fair amount of family nostalgia, too.

“The set’s farm is called ‘Three Sons Farm,’ for our three boys,” Cortese said. “We have a pond in the middle of the set, and it’s called ‘Rob’s Pond’ because when our son Rob was 3 years old, he fell in headfirst and we had to pull him out by the ankles. The mountain is called ‘Mount Louis’ for my oldest guy, and there’s ‘Michael’s Church.’ ”

Signs mark each landmark, and to honor his wife, Cortese built “Sue’s Salvage Yard.”

The landscape required research and planning, too. “All the plants are dwarf and miniature, and they’re all real,” Cortese said, referring to the ground cover, arborvitaes, dwarf spruces, yews, sedums, Japanese maples and Spanish moss within and around the set. The latter serves as a to-scale grass substitute. There are three water features, as well, and a handmade mountain topped with a water mill in the center of the set. “I made the mountain out of 25 bags of cement, and it has a tunnel, so the train goes through the mountain,” Cortese said. He also made three bridges and several trestles to accommodate the hilly landscape.

Just as the Cortese boys have changed over the years, so has the train set. It grew bigger as the children grew, and then smaller when they were teenagers, when driving and commitments to school, jobs and friends meant they spent less time at home. In recent years, however, the Corteses have expanded the train set as a sort of last hurrah: “We don’t know how much longer we’ll be in the house, and we have a grandson on the way in November,” Cortese said. They’ve already bought him a train and plan to introduce him to the family tradition.

“There’s nothing like having our trains in the backyard,” Susan Cortese said. “It’s a very enjoyable hobby when you can incorporate a passion for flowers, plants and the outdoors with my husband’s love of trains.”