Harvey Ladew had already lived the good life when in 1928, he bought a 250-acre farm in the Maryland countryside to indulge his passion for fox hunting.
Pleasant Valley Farm, as the white farmhouse was then known, was in pretty bad shape at the time. But that didn’t bother the lifelong bachelor born into the upper reaches of New York society in 1887. He had both inherited wealth from his family’s leather business and a sophisticated eye cultivated by years of extensive travel.
He renovated the manor house into something fabulous, but it was the masterpiece of a garden he worked on for more than four decades that would become his claim to fame.
Known as Ladew Topiary Gardens, the garden estate just north of Baltimore delights with 22 acres of flower and topiary gardens created in the English Arts and Crafts style. It includes 15 garden “rooms” and over 100 larger-than-life shrubs or trees clipped into ornamental shapes. Adding to its appeal is that Ladew, who died in 1976, designed nearly every inch himself, with no formal training.
He drew inspiration from the great Edwardian and Renaissance gardens he’d seen globetrotting, says Emily Emerich, executive director of the gardens. “He got a taste for style and architecture during his travels.”
Such is the site’s splendor that Architectural Digest in 2012 named it one of the top nine topiary gardens in the world. Garden Club of America also has high praise for the lavish garden estate that opened to the public in 1971, designating it “the most outstanding topiary garden in America.” Both the house and gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and attract 50,000 visitors a year.
Key to Ladew’s master plan was the creation of a sweeping expanse of lawn called “The Great Bowl” that’s enclosed by tall hedges of wavelike hemlock and yew hedges topped with swimming topiary swans. Yet that’s just the start of the estate’s surprises.
The art of topiary dates from Tudor and Elizabethan England, and generally has limited use in modern gardens because it is expensive and time-consuming to maintain. A form of living sculpture, the greenery is grown on a steel wire frame and must be clipped often to maintain its defined shape.
One of the first topiary visitors see is a fox running across the lawn with hounds and a mounted rider in pursuit. Crafted from living Japanese yew hedges, it captures Ladew’s beloved field sport in life-size motion.
The gardens rooms also show their creator’s sense of humor. Each is devoted to a single color, plant, bouquet or theme. In the Garden of Eden, visitors find a statue of Adam accepting the forbidden fruit from Eve — while hiding two apples behind his back. The Sculpture Garden includes living sculptures of Winston Churchill’s top hat and “V” for victory.
Other structures include a butterfly house and a charming little tea house created from the former facade of London’s Tivoli Theatre ticket booth. It includes a wet bar, “so I don’t think they had tea there very often,” Emerich says with a chuckle.
What you see and smell at Ladew depends on when you walk through its gates; the experience changes with every season. This time of year, billowy masses of sweet autumn clematis and hardy hibiscus are in full bloom along with dahlias, roses, re-blooming bearded iris and fragrant, light-pink plants known as naked ladies (Colchicum).
Some of the gardens have blocking vistas so visitors have to “peek around the corner and be surprised,” says Emerich.
Topiary trimming begins in July and takes three months, so if you’re lucky, you might see one of the estate’s specially trained gardeners pruning the yew and boxwood to keep the shape.
The antiques-filled manor house, which was expanded in the 1930s and once hosted such famous guests as Cole Porter, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, is also worth a visit. It celebrates Ladew’s love of horses with a plethora of equestrian-themed art and tchotchkes. Of particular note is the oval dining room, included in Helen Comstock’s book “The 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America.” A handle on one of the bookcases opens a hidden doorway that allowed Ladew to slip into the garden when unwanted guests arrived.
If you go
Ladew Topiary Gardens
Getting there: Ladew Topiary Gardens is in Monkton, Maryland, about 20 miles north of Baltimore.
Garden details: The estate comprises 250 acres, with 22 acres of formal gardens. Many of the existing hedges and other topiary are more than 50 years old. Visitors can experience more than a dozen “garden rooms,’” a 1.5-mile Nature Walk, a native Butterfly House, and the circa 1747 Manor House.
Hours/admission: Ladew is open every day except Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and until 7 p.m. Tuesdays, April through October. Admission is $15, $10 for students and seniors, and $4 for ages 2-12 at ladewgardens.com or the gatehouse. Docent-guided tours of the house are $5. Parking is free.
Food/drink: Ladew Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and offers a variety of sandwiches, seasonal salads, quiche, soup and baked goods. Nearby Iverness Brewing offers more than a dozen beers on tap, along with food trucks Thursday through Sunday. Independent Brewing Co. in Bel Air (26 rotating drafts) and Harford Vineyards & Winery (17 wines) in Forest Hill are other options.
More info: ladewgardens.com or 410-557-9466