The Ladew Topiary Garden in Maryland is on the list of 1001 Gardens to See. Another list counts it among the top ten topiary gardens in the world. Others rank it as one of the top five gardens in North America. Wherever it falls on a list, it’s a true wonder. Yes, today topiary has its critics as it is not a naturalistic style for gardening. The best shrubs for topiary of yew, hemlock, and privet are not popular in today’s small private gardens. Yet a visit to Ladew Topiary is a walk in a world of green filled with art, color, and surprises.
My springtime visit on a cool cloudy day was perfectly timed to enjoy a ribbon of pink tulips and deep blue Siberian iris winding through the lawn. Arriving there I was perfectly content to simply enjoy this scene for the rest of the day. But I continued on as there is so much to see in this garden.
My next discovery was the Yellow Garden where a trickling stream wound downward on the sloping lay of the land. Here were all the shades of a day with the sun, from pale sunrise to deep sunset with Japanese maples providing a scarlet red accent.
A large yellow dovecot (big birdhouse for pigeons & doves) with golden straw bee skeps lined up behind repeating the color. A modern, stylized gazebo anchors the central part of the garden.
Two major axis (walkways) of lush green lawn bordered by flowering white shrubs lead you from one area to the next. There is a rose garden, a red garden, an herb garden, a keyhole garden, water lilies, iris and more.
So even if you think you won’t enjoy topiary there is garden beauty to be found here.
The topiary is whimsical, formal and surprising. The whimsical appears in the swans floating on top of an undulating hedge rimming the great lawn.
More whimsy is found in the topiary sculpture garden in the form of a unicorn, lyrebird (I first thought it was a peacock) and a nod to Churchill with his rotund top-hatted form and a V for victory sign.
The formal topiary is found in the four-level terracing near the Manor house where the cone-shaped shrubs create a symmetrical line of green. Geometry is on display here with various sizes of perfectly shaped forms.
The walls of the garden are complete with windows to frame the views and pointed tops and decorative green garlands. It is an amazing sight to see such clearly constructed shapes formed with living plants.
The surprising topiary includes a sailing vessel in the form of a Chinese junk floating on a pond at the bottom of the hillside iris garden. Bright red sails match the flowering shrubs nearby. A 20-foot high topiary buddha overlooks the scene.
The signature topiary reflects the passion of the owner and gardener, Harvey Ladew and it is a depiction of a fox hunt complete with the fox, six hounds, and horsemen in pursuit.
It is a spectacular creation with great detail and in the Summer it is surrounded by 100’s of pink naked ladies ( Amaryllis Belladonna lily) which livens the scene as an inside joke, a sign of Harvey’s sense of humor.
I visit many estate gardens that exist as the result of great wealth in a gilded age. I will admit to being a bit troubled by the grandeur and the life of the elite class building mansions and gardens. Still, when I dig into the story of the garden I find that somewhere deep inside the estate there is a person with a passion for gardening. Harvey Ladew had that passion.
An enormous fortune made in the leather business of the 1800’s shaped the lives of Harvey and his sister, Elise. Let me explain with a brief overview of his childhood, his friends, and his garden dedication.
As a child, Harvey loved to read which helped him fashion a unique education. His first language was French. As a young boy just as he would get settled into a school, his parents would decide to travel. So he was taught to draw and paint in Paris, studied architecture in Venice, studied sculpture with an artist of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, took dancing and riding lessons, and began a lifelong love of opera as a young boy.
Inheriting his fortune at age 25 he decided life would be best with lots of hobbies: traveling, fox-hunting, partying, and art collecting were among his favorites. He believed life itself was “Perfectly Delightful.” He made friends, to name drop just a few: T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, Clarke Gable, the Vanderbilts, Edna Ferber and Teddy Roosevelt.
Fox-hunting enthusiasm prompted him to buy the 230 acre Pleasantville Farm in Maryland. Fox-hunting requires miles of open spaces for the dogs to chase the fox with the riders in pursuit. In 1929 Maryland was just the place for this activity. The farm included a Manor house. Harvey had traveled nearly all over the world and in those travels, he had become particularly fascinated with the grand gardens of England and France. Now, 43 yrs of age, he settled into fashioning his own garden around his new home.
So this person of great wealth and privilege made a garden. His training in art, and sculpture, and his lively curiosity to find answers helped him design 22 acres of formal gardens to surround his house. He built a scale model of plasticine to illustrate his plans. He ordered topiary frames from England, bought plants, planted them, shaped them, and began making his own topiary frames. For the next 40 years, he worked in his garden. Though he hired help, he worked alongside them day after day. He trimmed miles of topiary and created 15 thematic gardens. His love of art inspired him to make niches within the shrubbery to place sculptures.
A wicked sense of humor was a guiding force for many of his ideas, the naked lady lilies for one and the other is the statue of Eve offering Adam an apple, while Adam is holding two apples in the hand he has wrapped behind his back.
He loved his garden and loved sharing it with others enthusiastically hosting parties, fundraisers for the hospitals and the arts. He set up a foundation to keep his garden growing for the future so others could still enjoy it. He had so many ideas for what he could do in his garden and at the end of his life he still said, “My garden isn’t finished yet!”
- Harvey Ladew 1887-1976,
- Sister Elise married W.R. Grace II
- Monkton, 20 miles N. of Baltimore,
- 22 acres of formal gardens
- Open April – October
- Manor House filled with art open for tours,
- “Perfectly Delightful, The Life and Gardens of Harvey Ladew” by Christopher Weeks, 1999