Just north of Baltimore, in Monkton, Maryland, is a place that will capture the imagination of any garden lover. It’s about a six-hour drive from the lake to Ladew Topiary Gardens and Manor House; it is well worth the effort of getting there.
The gardens were established in the 1930s by socialite and huntsman Harvey S. Ladew, who in 1929 bought a 250-acre farm to build his estate. Ladew, who was born into privilege in New York City during the Gilded Age, and was taught to speak French before he spoke English, inherited his money when he was orphaned in 1912 at age of 25. His parents bequeathed him a portfolio of assets that allowed him to live well off the earnings for the rest of his life.
Instead of toiling at a job, Ladew spent his life doing things he enjoyed, which included traveling, painting, foxhunting, entertaining and garden-making. The nearly 90 years of his life were lived richly, creatively and with great wit and whimsy. These last traits are reflected in his extraordinary garden.
In winter, Ladew fox hunted in England, Ireland, Italy and France. He hobnobbed with notable figures of his era, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Richard Rogers, Moss Hart, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Edna Ferber, Colette, Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan. He was a capable artist and famous for his lavish parties and fine sense of humor.
But the accomplishment that makes his fascinating life worth remembering is the garden he created at his home, Pleasant Valley Farm, in Monkton. Out of the fields and pastures that came up to the house, he carved out 22 acres for his garden. A novice in garden planning, he drew upon what he had observed in the great gardens of Europe, creating a garden informed by the influences of Gertrude Jekyll and other early 20th century English gardeners, as well as by the garden masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
To provide for long vistas, he designed two cross axes. At the intersection, in the center of the Great Bowl, is Ladew’s oval swimming pool. Fifteen garden rooms, each with a different theme, are arranged off the axes.
There is the yellow garden featuring plants with golden foliage, a white garden dazzling for its purity and an iris garden overlooked from an Italianate balcony.
Ladew dubbed his apple orchard his “Garden of Eden,” and added a statue of Adam and Eve in which Eve offers an apple to Adam who already has two hidden in his hand behind his back. The “sculpture” garden is packed with topiaries of mythical birds atop spiral-clipped pedestals, fanciful lyres, Winston Churchill’s bowler hat and another of Churchill’s “V” for victory sign. The terrace garden is hedged with hemlock and yew embellished with pruned garlands and pyramid finials. Another hedge features a flock of swans swimming along the top.
The art of topiary was virtually unknown in the United States before Ladew began creating them. He loved to tell the story about the time he was stopped by a woman who said to him, “I saw your lovely garden in Maryland. Those wonderful hedges and all that beautiful Tipperary.”
“It was hard to keep from laughing,” he said, “and I thought I would never again hear anything as funny about my garden, but when I reached Palm Beach, a man said to me, ‘Mr. Ladew, your name came up the other night at a dinner party. I understand you are the authority on Utopia.’”
Ladew’s fascination with topiary began when he was fox hunting in England and came across a hedge with a pack of topiary hounds running across the top after a fox. Vowing to create the scene in his own garden, he went further, creating a tableau that features three mounted horses, one jumping over a gate in a hedge, chasing after a pack of hounds that are in hot pursuit of the fox out in front. This scene has become the iconic symbol of Ladew Topiary Gardens.
When the Garden Club of America awarded Ladew its Distinguished Achievement Award in 1964, they praised him for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help.” In her nomination letter Sibyl Brown wrote, “Mr. Ladew has through the years shaped and clipped the topiary himself.” She went on to describe and praise the many garden rooms: “The proof of the excellence of these gardens. …Is that they all communicate with each other harmoniously.”
Before Ladew died at age 89 in July 1976, he established a nonprofit organization he called The Ladew Topiary Gardens Inc. to guarantee Pleasant Valley Farm’s survival into perpetuity.
In his book “The Life & Gardens of Harvey Ladew,” Christopher Weeks wrote, “When he started to think about his garden’s future, he charted new territory, for no endowed gardens – as opposed to gardens coincidental to historic houses – existed in Maryland at the time: in 1967, for example, Annapolis’s now famed [18th century] Paca Garden was a parking lot. Even the concept of garden history as a discipline was, at most, as dormant as a tulip bulb in February: England’s pioneering Garden History Society dates from 1965; the Garden Conservancy, dedicated to preserving historically important American examples of the horticulture arts, dates from 1990.
Ladew first opened his garden to the public in 1968 at the time that he was setting up his foundation. He wanted to make sure that the public would indeed be interested in paying to come to see it. He would give the proceeds for this venture to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Writing to the organizers in January of that year, Ladew suggested that they open the gardens on weekends in May when the irises were in bloom. “That is when my garden looks best,” he explained.
Nowadays, the house, garden and grounds are open to the public seven days a week between April 1 and Oct. 31. And yes, the public wants to visit the garden. As Ladew himself was wont to say, it’s all “perfectly delightful.”