What may be America's finest topiary gardens are tucked among rolling farmland about 80 minutes from Washington.

Although topiary, the art of training shrubs and trees into ornamental shapes, dates back to Caesar's time and has graced English manor homes for centuries, the time-consuming skill never has become popular in this country.

Determined to surround himself with topiary elegance, wealthy bachelor Harvey Smith Ladew planted 15 different gardens, whimsically creating animals and famous objects out of yew and hemlock on 22 acres flanking his Pleasant Vally House in Monkton, Maryland.

One theme, or a variety of shades of a single vivid color, unifies each garden. Ladew produced them to match any mood.

The wild garden has native wildflowers. The berry garden, filled with shrubs and tree, provides fall and winter treats for area birds. It's adjacent to a croquet court ringed with six varieties of flowers in hues of blue.

Confirmed bachelor Ladew had an ancient Chinese proverb carved in the steps leading to the Garden of Eden: "If you would be happy for a week, take a wife; if you would be happy for a month, kill your pig; but if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden." Of course an apple orchard surrounds the Adam and Eve statue.

The white garden, with tulips, dogwood, azaleas, lilacs and pansies, instills a sense of purity and peace.

To ensure total privacy when entertaining a female friend, Ladew bought the box office of London's Tivoli Theatre and installed it as the centerpiece of a secluded garden. Used as a teahouse, it is decorated inside with pale-pink walls and a deep-pink loveseat.

Over the working fireplace an ornately framed window encapsulates a view resembling a museum painting, labeled by Ladew "The Everchanging Landscape." Over the loveseat a similarly framed mirror opens to reveal a hidden marble bar stocked with pink elephant-decorated glasses.

The path from the teahouse meanders through flowering shrubs and scented plants, leading to benches beside a little pool and fountain. Nearby stand several topiary sculptures: a spotted giraffe, a Chinese junk with bright-red fabric sails and a majestic Buddha perched atop a flight af stairs.

Topiary creations concentrated in the sculpture garden include Churchill's top hat and victory sign, seahorses, lyrebirds, peacocks, a heart pierced with an arrow, a butterfly and a unicorn.

A few yards away a dozen topiary swans float upon a rippling hedge and French setting hens roost on nests.

Steps lead to a large, tastefully decorated home created from a rundown farmhouse. Although he died six years ago (at a feisty 90), Ladew's verve, zest for life and wide interests are evident in every room.

His handsome oval library, cited in Helen Comstock's The 100 Most Beautiful Rooms in America, was built around an oval Chippendale partners desk. Ladew had his architect install an "escape" -- a movable door indistinguishable from the rest of the bookcases. Pull a small, almost-hidden handle and the entire unit swings around to reveal an exit to the gardens. There is an elegant white-and-green Irish marble fireplace.

The 40-minute tour conducted by a volunteer docent provides a glimpse into the active lifestyle of this international traveler and collector, who was a close friend of the famous -- the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lawrence of Arabia, George VI of England, sheikhs and maharajahs.

A Ladew portrait in the entrance hall depicts him astride his favorite hunter, Ghost. The hunt themes, evident in every room, are repeated on the front lawn, where a topiary rider vaults a white picket fence in pursuit of a topiary fox.

As Ladew requested in his will, the gardens and home, supervised by a private nonprofit foundation, are open to the public. TOPIARY TOURING

The gardens are open from 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday and on Sundays from noon to 5, through October 31. The house is open Wednesdays and Sundays during garden hours. Tours for groups of 15 or more can be arranged any day; call 301/557-9466 or write ladew Topiary Gardens , 3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, maryland 21111.

Admission to the gardens only: adults, $2; students with I.D. and senior citizens, $1.50; cildren under 12, 50 cents. For house and garden the fees are $3.50, $2.50 and $1. You may picnicon Ladew's benches.

TO GET THERE -- Take the Beltway to Exit 27 (I-95 north). At the Baltimore Beltway (I-695), go west towards Towson. Get off at Exit 27, head north on Route 146, Dulaney Valley Road. This road forks just past the bridge over Loch Haven Reservoir. Stay to the left, which is Jarrettsville Pike. Ladew Topiary Gardens, nine miles from this fork, are on the right, just past Pocock Road.