‘WE NEED TO come back when the gardens are at their peak,” said My Prince. “When would that be, do ya think?”
“Now,” I said. “And then.”
There are 20 garden “rooms” at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, about half an hour north of Baltimore. Spread over 22 acres and connected by winding paths of stone or moss or chipped wood and lined with towering hedges, each is devoted to a single theme or color or type of plant and each peaks at a different time, so there’s always something in perfect bloom.
On a brilliant September Sunday, a slight breeze, topiary the scent of boxwood, the umami of the shrub world, lending a savory backdrop to the sweetness of lingering roses. Overhead, the sun is intermittently hidden by genteel poofs of white cloud; visitors tread quietly, drinking in the hush.
A born New Yorker and world traveler who spoke French before he learned English, Harvey S. Ladew came into a vast fortune on the death of his parents. Having no particular need to work, he didn’t. It is said that he said he might settle down when he turned 50. That never happened.
The “life-long bachelor,” as the brochures delicately have it, bought a rural Maryland farm in 1929 and spent just shy of the next 50 years turning it into an English country estate, indulging in his passion for fox hunting and entertaining a roster of celebrity friends and gadabouts who included Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, T.E. Lawrence, Colette and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
While the estate is huge—with a stable converted to a café and stone dining terrace, a gift shop, a butterfly house and the main house, which is open for guided tours—the gardens are intimate, cozy enough in scale to inspire a city gardener possessing a minuscule plot.
Even the Iris Garden (here’s a video), which features a meandering 100-yard stream that trips over rocks and flutters with hundreds of butterflies, is viewed in manageable bites, each twist in the path revealing a singular display. The small waterfall at the top of the sloping lawn burbles down and down to a grand finale at a koi pond, where fish the size of puppies flit about a topiary Chinese junk.
A passionate anglophile, Ladew designed his gardens in classic English style and converted the original 18th-century farmhouse into an English country estate, filling the rooms with English antiques, and decorating in English style—there’s an Elizabethan room with a plaster ceiling molded into a 16th-century Tudor rose pattern, and a rare four-partner oval desk in the oval library, which has been called “one of the hundred most beautiful rooms in America.” The house and gardens are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dotted about the property are benches and tables, sheltered nooks, and whimsies like the petite Tivoli Tea House, once the façade of London’s Tivoli Theatre ticket booth. A small table is set for tea in the bay of the Pepto-Bismol pink room, a bar hides behind a mirror etched with a portrait of Ladew, and above the mantel is a splendid steal-this-idea: a gilded frame surrounding a window that reveals an ever-changing woodland view.
Around every turn is another photograph, trees and hedges exquisitely shaped and posed. Several ponds float waterlilies; apples and pears hang heavy from a Belgian fence, a lattice frame arched above the entry to the Garden of Eden, and billows of dahlias, hydrangeas and cosmos grace the cutting garden.
While the topiary hedges are breathtaking, the topiary sculptures, with a few exceptions, are less so. Ladew won awards for his amateur work, done with secateurs not power tools, which considerably upped the difficulty. But the Prince and I struggled for some minutes over what might have been either a rabbit or a fish. It was as if Ladew had been overtaken by the need for a martini in mid-clipping and forgot the ears.
There’s a team of professional and volunteer landscapers maintaining the property—perhaps they’re continuing that tradition.
Ladew Topiary Gardens are open April 1 through October 31. From now until frost there are hardy hibiscus, colchicum, iris, dahlias, asters and roses among the grasses and annuals.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” knows a great garden when she sees one.