Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Behind A Garden Wall: Ladew Topiary Gardens


Maryland State Highway 146, north of Jacksonville, meanders through gently rolling countryside featuring forest glades, verdant pastures and horse farms. Occasionally a fence, hedge or wall obscures a landscape from prying eyes. These always pique my interest. But there is one among them that welcomes public visitors to enjoy its pleasures: the Ladew Topiary Gardens.

In 1929, Harvey S. Ladew (1887-1976) purchased Pleasant Valley Farm and set about creating a 22-acre flower and topiary garden. Like most of us, he was a self-taught gardener who dreamed of creating an idyllic hideaway where he could garden to his heart's content and share it with friends. And like most of us, his garden grew along with his ideas. But unlike most of us, he had the means to create something really outstanding and keep it properly maintained.

Ladew loved to travel, so he gathered inspiration as he went. In the 1920s, he became fascinated with the art of topiary while visiting England. Topiary is the practice of training and trimming shrubs and trees into unnatural shapes. He was also very much taken with the idea of creating garden "rooms" or defined areas devoted to particular colors, plants or themes. So he gathered up his tools and set to work to create what The Garden Club of America named "the most outstanding topiary garden in America."

Before he died, Ladew made sure that his garden legacy would be preserved for public enjoyment. It exists today as a not-for-profit organization "to maintain and promote the gardens, house and facilities in keeping with the creative spirit of Harvey S. Ladew for the public benefit and for educational, scientific and cultural pursuits.


One of the first features to delight you upon visiting the property is the topiary Hunt Scene, which has become the symbol of Ladew Topiary Gardens. Yes, indeed. A green fox is frozen in time on the front lawn, chased by equally stationary hounds, and followed by top-hatted hunter made of shrubbery charging across a hedge astride his leafy steed. I wondered whether the bushy canines are ever visited by real dogs.


The existing home at Pleasant Valley Farm was originally a modest, four room house build around 1747. The Scarff family, from whom Ladew purchased the property, had enlarged the home during the 19th century. Ladew enlarged it further in the 1930s to create what is called the "Manor House." It is an imposing white residence that anchors the gardens around it. The garden rooms become living spaces as extensions of the home. On a smaller scale, this is something which I believe every home lawn and garden should be designed to achieve.

The first garden room to visit is a small woodland area featuring a large dovecote and antique aquarium. Shade loving perennials such as Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese spurge), Aserum europeum (European wild ginger), Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells) surround the area. Pachysandra is such a successful ground cover that is is used in many of the other garden rooms.

A Victorian garden room is walled by rhododendron and features a carved concrete table with chairs with natural scene motifs.

The Berry Garden is planted with Viburnum and other species that produce colorful fall and winter harvests for birds.

A garden was also designed for sports. A tennis court built by Ladew was later turned into a croquet court. Border plantings begin with tulips in spring and change with the seasons. At some distance from the gardens, two well-manicured polo fields are on the property.

Three garden rooms are devoted to particular color themes. The Pink Garden is planted with Rosa 'The Fairy', cannas, Hydrangea macrophyllum, Phlox paniculata, Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea, Sedum x 'Autumn Joy' and plants of other appropriate shades. The Yellow Room, pictured above, features Ligularia, Ligustrum, Ilex x Foster hybrids, Chamaecyparis obtusa and C. pisifera cultivars, Hosta 'Sum and Substance', Hemerocallis and the like. The White Garden is planted with "more than 35 different types of plants" with white flowers and variegated foliage. Those include hostas, Aruncus, Actaea racemosa, variegated lacecap hydrangeas, Philadelphus, Cornus alba 'Elegantissima', Phlox, Hypoestes and more.

A "Garden Of Eden" cordoned with a Belgian fence of pome fruits features a statue of Adam and Eve. The sculpture can be viewed to good advantage looking back through the entrance of the Keyhole Garden. The Keyhole Garden is shaded by a mature Purple Leaf plum and planted with Phormium, Salvia, Celosia and Berberis 'Crimson Pigmy'.

The delightful Water Lily garden features PeeGee Hydrangea standards, Clethra alnifolia, Liriope spicata 'Variegata' and variegated hostas.
The Ladews loved to entertain in the garden, so the old facade of London's Tivoli Theatre ticket booth was moved to the garden and converted into a wonderful little tea house. At some distance, a Temple of Venus folly entices intimate visitors.

Magnificent topiaries can be found in many places around the property. The Sculpture Garden includes shrubby creations in the form of a top hat, a heart pierced by an arrow, birds, a butterfly and flower, seahorses and a victory sign. The 2-acre Great Bowl holds a shallow swimming pool in the center and is surrounded by wavy hedges afloat with swan topiaries. To the east of the Great Bowl, a walk through a gateway in a hedge leads to the Iris Garden, divided by an attractive brook. At the end, a koi pond features a topiary Chinese "junk", overlooking which a topiary Buddha meditates. The Terrace Garden is guarded with windowed walls, obelisks and garlands of Canadian hemlock.

So many wonderful areas invite us to linger: the portico, herb and cutting garden, cottage garden and wildflower meadow. When you've had enough order, a 1-1/2 mile nature walk provides a stroll through somewhat trammeled wilderness.

If you ever have an opportunity to visit Ladew Topiary Gardens, I encourage you to do so. There is no better way to spend your hours than in a garden. You'll come away with many ideas you'll want to try on a smaller scale at home. But don't hurry away; stop for refreshment in the Cafe. In addition to the gardens, tours of the manor house are available, and throughout the year special events and concerts will entertain you.
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