Ladew Topiary Gardens is colorful, witty and beguiling, just like its founder, the late Harvey S. Ladew. Anyone who enjoys horticulture, interior design, history or unconventional characters should make a beeline for the site that the Garden Club of America named “The Most Outstanding Topiary Garden in America,” 20 miles north of Baltimore.
Outside, more than 100 topiary forms—privet, boxwood and yew trained and trimmed into ornamental shapes—define a series of “rooms” in various hues and themes. Elsewhere, a nature walk provides the opportunity for a quiet stroll, and the Butterfly House lets visitors get up close and personal with native caterpillars and butterflies. Indoors, the Manor House showcases Ladew’s vast collection of English antiques and equestrian-themed art.
Born into New York Gilded Age splendor in 1887, Harvey Ladew inherited the family leather fortune with his sister in 1910. Financial freedom allowed him to indulge in his favorite pursuits, including travel, socializing and, his most intense passion, fox hunting. The hunt brought him to the Maryland countryside in the early 1920s, where he found the area and his new friends so agreeable that, in 1929, he purchased Pleasant Valley Farm, adjacent to the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club. From then until his death at age 89, Ladew transformed the property to fulfill his unique vision.
First came the house. It’s well worth taking a guided tour to experience Ladew’s style and to learn about his exploits. Among other things, he’d been the guest of a maharajah, lent a horse to the Prince of Wales and journeyed across Arabia via camel caravan after receiving advice from T.E. Lawrence. He was also friends with Cole Porter, Wallis Warfield Simpson, Gertrude Stein and numerous royals.
Ladew converted and expanded the circa-1747 wing and a taller Federal addition into a luxurious country home ideal for entertaining. The Chippendale partners’ desk he bought on one of his English holidays was too big for his office or the drawing room, so he built the Oval Library around it. An elegant space with a secret door through which the owner could escape to avoid unwanted visitors, the library was featured in Helen Comstock’s book, 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America.
Here a boot jack, there a spur rack—Ladew’s mania for fox hunting is evident from the abundant equestrian art and objects on display. The second floor is undergoing restoration but Ladew’s bedroom and sitting room are open to visitors. Notice the four-poster rice-pattern bed and the newly discovered historic fabric in the bedroom curtains. The sitting room is famous for its precedent-setting wall color: aubergine.
By 1937, the house was substantially finished, and Ladew turned his attention to the garden. Visitors are met by the hunt scene—a fox with hounds and riders in hot pursuit—that symbolizes Ladew Topiary Gardens. Harvey Ladew had seen a topiary fox hunt in England in the 1920s.
Topiaries appear throughout the rest of the 22-acre formal gardens. Along with geometric forms, there are living sculptures of Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” and top hat, an arrow piercing a heart, a keyhole carved in yew, seahorses, even a re-creation of Henry Moore’s “Man Walking a Dog.” Seven swans a-swimming wouldn’t have been nearly enough. Here, 12 yew birds glide serenely around the border of the Great Bowl.
The topiaries partition the space and give visitors little surprises around every turn. Pink, yellow and white each have their own dramatic areas. Flowers burst into color and fragrance all summer in the Rose Garden. In the Iris Garden, a topiary Chinese junk “floats” in the pool. Nearby, a topiary Buddha has undergone assertive trimming in the past few years after historic images indicated that he was originally a Tibetan Buddha and should have a slighter frame than the chubby version Americans are used to.
Featuring vivid azaleas in spring, the Garden of Eden hosts a statue of Adam and Eve, with a sly Adam hiding three apples behind his back. The Victorian Garden, meanwhile, boasts walls of rhododendron.
Shade-loving and late-blooming perennials are highlights of the Woodland Garden. Other zones are equally delightful, as is the Wildflower Meadow where black-eyed Susan, Maryland’s state flower, blossoms among other native wildflowers.
Ladew Topiary Gardens offers restful, restorative and contemplative benefits—especially for youngsters. “About 4,000 children visit for our educational programs every year,” says Emily Emerick, Ladew’s executive director. “At least a third are from Title 1 schools.”
Kids and adults alike are fascinated by the fanciful, sometimes extravagant structures known as garden follies. From the pagoda in the Yellow Garden to the domed Temple of Venus, these creations are one of a kind. Don’t miss the Tivoli Tea House folly. Ladew purchased the façade of the ticket sales pavilion at London’s Tivoli Music Hall and installed it as the front wall.
There are also sculptures and artwork to enjoy. For 2018, these include the exciting kinetic pieces of sculptor-in-residence Paul Daniels and the evocative plein air landscapes of artist-in-residence Henry Coe.
Amazingly, Harvey Ladew did the landscape design and a lot of the labor himself.
In recognition, the Garden Club of America awarded him the Distinguished Achievement Award for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help.”
A tip of the topiary top hat to this high-society gentleman who was so willing to get his hands dirty.
Ladew Topiary Gardens: 3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, Md. 21111, (410) 557-9570, www.ladewgardens.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 1-Oct. 31. House tours offered on the half-hour Monday- Friday at 11a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Café open daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Go online for admission fees and membership information. Special events: The Annual Garden Festival, a greens sale, a Christmas Open House and more. Go online for complete listing.