A Tribute in Topiary

Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton | Photo by David Stuck

“The lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives.”—Gertrude Jekyll

Who among us hasn’t experienced the satisfaction of immersing oneself in a garden? A garden’s ephemeral beauty—the ever-changing nature of its existence—mirrors life in many ways: planning, plotting, waiting and witnessing hearty growth in areas that we’ve cultivated and nurtured.

For 50 years, Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton has been a source of inspiration, a respite from the frenetic pace of daily life and a living tribute to the legacy of a gentleman whose affinity for landscape design is reflected in the graceful forms of topiary.

The Founder: Harvey Smith Ladew

Avid artist, fox hunter, gardener and traveler, Harvey Smith Ladew led an aristocratic life supported by his grandfather’s leather business. His birthplace, New York City, introduced him to a diverse culture where he learned to speak French and studied drawing from the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1929, in a serendipitous venture to Maryland, Ladew encountered a rather unappealing 250-acre farm. The main house, he reported, was a wreck; the surrounding landscapes supported only a few meager lilac bushes. But Ladew saw potential in the property, which he purchased and set about transforming.
Inspired by the world-class gardens he encountered during his European travels, Ladew cleared away brambles, established garden plots and introduced what would become his property’s signature feature—topiaries. Topiary is the art of training plant material to form a desired shape. The word topiary is derived from the Latin word topiarus, meaning ornamental gardener. Looking back at history, the ancient Romans liked to create topiaries in the form of animals, obelisks and ships. The English are renowned for their life-sized topiaries of people and settings.

As his gardens developed and matured, Ladew’s property became a destination for gardeners of all plant persuasions. Accounts from guests detail the card tables that his friends would set up in the front yard to collect 75 cents from visitors who wanted to tour the grounds.

Ladew’s beautiful 22 acres are managed by Ladew Topiary Gardens Inc., led by executive director Emily Emerick. | Photo by David Stuck

Ever the forward thinker, Ladew desired a way to ensure that his gardens would continue to provide enjoyment and inspiration after his death. After unsuccessfully finding an existing entity to care for his home and gardens, he created Ladew Topiary Gardens Inc. in 1971. Today, this organization, under the leadership of executive director Emily Emerick, continues to preserve Ladew’s 22 acres of gardens and home.

A Landscape of Garden Rooms

Exploring Ladew Topiary Gardens is a lot like visiting an old friend or family member. There’s always something new to discover. Ladew’s travels throughout England and Italy inspired his creation of garden rooms within the landscape. His careful eye for detail—and his sense of humor—is present in one such garden room, the Garden of Eden. Taking its cues from the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden bursts into bloom each spring with a riot of color from the azaleas and apple and pear trees that grow there.

Additional garden rooms include the elegant Rose Garden, Pink Garden, Yellow Garden, Sculpture Garden and Iris Garden. Throughout the year, these garden rooms display an ever-changing tapestry of colors and scents that delight visitors young and old.

These extraordinary gardens complement the historic 18th-century Manor House. Ladew’s affinity for hunting is exhibited throughout the property, from equestrian-themed art to English antiques. Noted architects James W. O’Connor and interior designers Billy Baldwin, Jean Levy and Ruby Ross Wood worked with Ladew to turn what was a rustic farmhouse into an elegant country manor home. One of the home’s highlights is the signature Oval Library, containing more than 2,500 books and a secret door that opens to the gardens. Helen Comstock profiled the library in her book “The 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America” (Viking Press, 1969).

Senior Gardener Phil Krach, with 40 years of service at Ladew, has an intimate knowledge of its grounds and history. | Photo by David Stuck

While Ladew Topiary Gardens continues its work to preserve and interpret the gardens and home—both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places—its staff also continues its focus on education. Established in 1999, a nature walk allows visitors to explore Ladew’s habitats—a contrast to the cultivated, formal gardens—along pathways through the natural landscape. Stroll along the boardwalk through the wetland forest and witness diverse bird species through the bird blind on the property.

Opened in 2014, the native butterfly house gives visitors a close-up view of the habitat and life cycle of native butterflies and caterpillars. Young guests to Ladew can learn about chrysalises, cocoons and the role of butterflies in nature.

Living Treasures

They are the living tribute to Mr. Ladew himself. More than 100 topiaries on the property are what close to 50,000 visitors from across the country and around the world come to this corner of Harford County to witness. Showstoppers include a life-sized fox-hunting scene featuring riders and horses
jumping a hurdle with foxes and hounds in the foreground. A pair of giant swans perch atop exquisitely shaped large boxwoods.

Senior Gardener Phil Krach and Ladew’s gardening staff lovingly maintain these living treasures. One could even consider Krach a living treasure himself—he’s worked at Ladew for 40 years, almost as long as Ladew has operated as a public garden. As the “living encyclopedia of all things Ladew,” Krach is humble about his role as the horticultural artist and topiary caretaker. His pleasure, he says, comes from seeing guests admire the beauty of the gardens as they learn about Ladew and his legacy.

Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton | Photo by David Stuck

To Learn More …

Visit ladewgardens.com for upcoming events and more information about the gardens. Get expert tips for creating a herb topiary.

Ladew Topiary Gardens
3535 Jarrettsville Pike
Monkton, MD 21111

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