My affection for Ladew Topiary Gardens north of Baltimore continues, 20 years or so after I first saw the enchanting gardens of their colorful creator, Harvey S. Ladew.
If you haven’t been, you should go, because Ladew, in Monkton, Md., is both grand and whimsically self-mocking; it captures the essential pleasure of a garden that is laughing out loud.
You have an excuse to make the trek (a leisurely two hours from the District) this Saturday, when the garden holds its fourth annual Garden Festival. The heart of the event is the appearance of more than 40 plant vendors. Many of them are specialists who are passionate about gardening and have some mouthwatering plants for sale.
But do leave enough time to wander around the 22 acres of Ladew, whose tone is set near the entrance where you see a hunt scene in clipped yew: Topiary gardeners have been training evergreens into sculptures and figures since at least the time of the Romans, but Harvey Ladew’s hunting tableau, for all its jocularity, is a topiary for the ages because of its inventiveness and real sense of movement.
Classical gardeners grew their boxwood and laurel to spell out their own names, but Ladew, who died in 1976, didn’t need to. His singular personality is captured in the designs of his box, holly, hemlock and yew. He was a bon vivant whose passions ran to fine and decorative art, entertaining, garden design and sport, particularly fox hunting. He obviously enjoyed life and took as much out of it as he put in, which was considerable.
Parts of Ladew’s and his plant choices are inherently dated, though not neglected, and reflect the American garden before its current golden age. The Iris Garden, for example, offers a stunning display in May and June but come August probably feels the lack of other perennials.
Other parts of the estate, fully developed since Ladew’s time, are very much contemporary in their naturalistic sensibility. The Wildflower Meadow is a five-acre feature full of native forbs and grasses that peaks in summer and early fall. The Nature Walk is a 1.5-mile trail though the woodland at the edge of the property.
The Rose Garden is a period piece but a lovely one and, with this year’s precocious growing season, will begin to show off this weekend. The Berry Garden is as inventive today as it was in the 1960s and is full of woody plants that fruit in a showy way, including mahonias, cotoneaster and hollies.
Ladew was a self-taught designer and plantsman with a gifted eye. The Yellow Garden is dominated by blocks of yellow-leafed and -flowered plants, particularly the bold ribbons of golden privet. (The tulips, sadly, are over by now.) The concept works, I think, because he doesn’t use yellow as an overwrought accent but as a pigment. He has painted the place with it, and the composition is particularly effective in spring, when the red-leafed Japanese maples are still crimson.
Keeping Ladew’s fantasy going requires a team of gardeners headed by Tyler Diehl. Interestingly, in caring for a large and complicated garden, they have eschewed the chemical culture prevalent in Ladew’s day. The rose garden, for example, has new and old roses chosen for their resistance to disease and pests. “We are now in our third season with no spraying at all,” he said. The tough bush varieties include Belinda’s Dream, Thomas Affleck, Ducher and Joe Woodard.
In replacing a failing section of nearby yew hedging, the gardeners have reworked paths and created a berm to prevent rainwater from flooding the bed. Yew hate to have wet feet, but beyond that, the water was bringing the deadly blight named phytopthera. Other steps (gardeners call them cultural practices) involve removing mulch from the yew beds in the fall to allow the soil to get cold and then freeze to kill off the deadly mold.
Elsewhere there are signs of renewal to the greenery, particularly in the Sculpture Garden, where Ladew produced some of his most whimsical work. Throughout the garden, the hedges and topiary appear as passive and architectural and thus deceptively permanent. Maintaining their health and shape is a big job, and interrelated.
Shearing is inherently stressful to plants, so the gardeners tackle the work after the spring flush has finished and darkened. The evergreens expend energy producing the new shoots, which then put food reserves back into the plants. As Diehl points out, if you were to shear in early spring before the fresh foliage did its work, you’d be putting the hedge on a starvation diet, as well as promoting a further sapping regrowth.
Generally, the gardeners clip the plants beginning in July and then return for a light grooming after the first hard frost of fall.
These are the practical lessons of Ladew, but the more important idea is that a garden is a place to discover your own sense of adventure.
The Garden Festival at Ladew Topiary Gardens is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15. Ladew is at 3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, Md. 410-557-9570. www.ladewgardens.com.