Gardens, Landscape History

Ladew Topiary Gardens

June 15, 2016


“Never be under the weather, there are so many other places to go.”

Thus was the philosophy of  Harvey Smith Ladew (1887-1976) creator of the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, considered by the Garden Club of America as “the most outstanding topiary gardens in America.”


A lifelong bachelor and renaissance man Ladew was, among other pursuits, an American horticulturist, golfer, painter, socialite, decorator, collector, writer and avid fox hunter. Born into a wealthy New York City manufacturing family his youth was one of privilege, enriched by international travel and artistic pursuits. As an adult Ladew merged his interests in the design of his home and gardens.


Drawn to the Maryland countryside for its equestrian culture, Ladew single-handedly transformed a rather unremarkable farmhouse into a 22-acre garden that is both a whimsical homage to famous gardens of the world and a serious horticultural endeavor. He was a master of detail and a collector of ornament integrated by a sophisticated design sensibility.


Ladew purchased Pleasant Valley Farm in 1929 and for 47 years worked on both the house and gardens, creating a backdrop for a life devoted to pleasure.  An adventurer who socialized with a sophisticated crowd, including Lawrence of Arabia, decorator Billy Baldwin, and the Prince of Wales, Ladew brought the same sensibility of discovery, albeit on a more intimate scale, to his country estate.

His oval library, seen below, was described as one of the most beautiful rooms in America and contains more than  3,000 volumes of modern first editions including biographies, art and gardening books, French literature and travel guides. IMG_0294


While Ladew’s motto was “play now, work later” he clearly worked passionately to design and maintain his gardens, thoughtfully assuring their continuation after his death. Drawing inspiration from gardens throughout the world, each and every one of the garden “rooms” he designed bear his imprint. Gardening was for Ladew a highly personal endeavor.


Ladew’s garden “master plan” began with the creation of the “great bowl,” a sweeping expanse of lawn north of the house embellished with an oval swimming pool. Enclosed by high hedges of hemlock and yew and accented with twelve topiary swans, today the great bowl serves as a venue for garden concerts.


Harvey Ladew trims up a swan in his garden in 1957 from:

Familiar with famous gardens throughout England and Italy, Ladew drew inspiration from their designs, combining formal and informal elements that are both intimate and public.  Two cross axis allow for uninterrupted vistas while a series of 15 garden rooms, each devoted to a single color, theme or plant are sited off the main axis.


Ladew reportedly visited and was influenced by Hidcote and is credited with being one of the first Americans to develop gardens designed in this manner within the United States.

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In 1971 he was awarded the Garden Club of America Distinguished Service Medal for developing and maintaining the most outstanding Topiary Garden in America without professional help.


I visited at the end of April when the dogwoods, azaleas and spring bulbs were in full bloom.  As is often the case with gardens, I walked through once and then proceeded to do so again backwards, seeing completely different things. The more I looked the more impressed I was both with Ladew’s sense of design and his horticultural sensibilities.

The plan below is from the guidebook, The House and Gardens of Harvey S. Ladew written and designed by Dee Hardy.


A Quick Garden Tour: It’s here that I use my editorial judgement to share my favorite garden rooms and details, a challenging process as there are many. To see them all visit the Ladew Gardens webpage where you will also find a listing of events.


The Woodland Garden serves as a transition between the visitor center and house.  The garden’s curved pathway provides an informal entrance to the rooms beyond and really is quite modest given the extent of the garden.  A centrally placed dovecote is but one of many ornamental features, emblematic of Ladew’s attention to detail, sited throughout the garden


While the Berry Garden was designed by Ladew as a fall and winter attraction for birds, its sense of enclosure, views to and from the house and larger landscape and simple, formal design serve (from my perspective) as the formal forecourt to the gardens beyond.



The photo below is of the Pink Garden a transitional space between the Croquet Court and Rose Garden.  It is planted with crab-apples, birch, dogwood, smoke bushes, Fairy and Carefree roses, astilbe, weigela, rhododendron, zinnias, snapdragons and bleeding hearts.




To enter the Garden of Eden one passes through an arch and over steps engraved with the Chinese proverb, If you would be happy for a week, take a wife, If you would be happy for a month kill a pig, But if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.

I was fortunate to visit when the azaleas, which Ladew carefully selected, were in bloom. Appropriately the garden contains a statue of Adam and Eve nestled in the shrubbery (with Adam hiding an apple behind his back).


The Keyhole Garden is a curious space, bringing to mind images of Alice in Wonderland. Containing chess pieces, it is planted in shades of red.


Described as cool and serene, the Water Lily Garden serves as a central forecourt, connecting to the Topiary Sculptures and a series of other smaller, more intimate spaces within the gardens.



The 250-foot long Yellow Garden was inspired by Gertrude Jekyll and features tall chartreuse chamaecyparis and golden privet framing a stream flanked by yellow tulips.



Accessed from a terrace contiguous to the “great bowl,” the Iris garden includes a topiary Chinese junk floating in a pool. The garden features 65 varieties of iris.  A Chinese gateway leads to a lawn providing access to the main house and the 1.5 mile nature walk, opened in 1999.   



The gardens contain various and assorted structures, each uniquely and exquisitely crafted to complement the landscape setting.


The Temple of Venus (above) terminates the garden’s long vista while the Tivoli Tea House was created from the former façade of the Tivoli Theatre ticket booth in London. During my visit the interior of the tea house was being restored. Within is a framed window labeled “Ever Changing Landscape” that pays homage to Ladew’s vision.


Open seasonally the Ladew gardens offer a comprehensive educational program.  On my visit, which was during the week, there were school groups and families exploring the garden and nature trail.  I’d like to think that Ladew would take great pleasure in this fact, knowing that through his careful planning and creative genius his gardens have endured and are enjoyed today.


There is a studio (where Ladew painted) and a barn gallery which is used for special exhibits.  His stables have been converted into a cafe.


The Gardens, Manor House and Nature Walk are open daily from April 1 through October 31 from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.

The Gardens, Manor House and Nature Walk are open Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day – same hours as above.


Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

















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  • Reply Maureen Bovet June 15, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Patrice, thank you for again writing an inspiring piece on a garden and it’s history. When I see you have sent a new piece I make myself comfortable and enjoy. Are you working on a book? Your posts are so complete with your photos and the additional images you add. I so admire your technical skills.
    I hope to visit this garden someday,

    • Reply Patrice Todisco June 15, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      Maureen, Thank you for your comments. I am glad you enjoy my posts as each one is a unique exploration (and process) that I enjoy sharing. I do have a couple of book proposals in process and have been using my research to determine a topic/sphere of garden/landscape history that is “underserved” in contemporary scholarship. There are surprisingly many options. As for Ladew gardens they are well worth a visit.

  • Reply Pat Webster June 18, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I visited Ladew a few years ago. Reading your post allowed me to walk through the garden again, in my memories at least. It’s a fascinating place, and one I’d enjoy re-visiting.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco June 19, 2016 at 9:02 pm

      Visiting was a pleasant surprise and it was difficult for me to imagine that the gardens were the efforts of an individual without professional assistance. Fascinating is a great way to describe them and by all means, do visit again.

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