It can be a comfort to have things stay the same. Especially in this constantly changing world, it’s good to know you can go to a place of beauty and find flowers, trees, green spaces just where you left them.
Of course, nature doesn’t stay the same. Seasons may change; flowers bloom and fade; trees bud, sprout green leaves that turn to red and gold before falling off again.
But at Ladew Topiary Gardens, one of its charms is its insistence on keeping things the same way Harvey S. Ladew left them back in the mid-1970s.
I’ve been to Ladew — in Harford County in the middle of Maryland Hunt country — three times: 25 years ago, about 10 years ago, and just a few days ago.
Each time, I found the Victorian garden unchanged, the great bowl surrounded by carefully trimmed trees still as breathtaking as ever. Flowers changed — I’ve been there all three growing seasons — but its lovely roses, whimsical topiaries and beds overflowing with flowers are still where I remembered them.
“Only two gardens have changed,” said Tyler Diehl, Head of Gardens for Ladew. The woodlands garden and iris gardens have seen a few changes over the years.
Otherwise, Diehl said, “The design hasn’t changed.”
Most importantly, says executive director Emily Emerick, the gardens have stayed true to Mr. Ladew’s vision. The water lily and yellow gardens were restored seven years ago; the sculpture garden was restored two years ago. “All restorations are undertaken with the overriding goal of maintaining or returning the garden to Mr. Ladew’s original design,” she said. “It can be quite a challenge as they grow.”
Mr. Ladew who designed these gardens himself through the 1930s to the 1970s, planted many of the plants and even helped built the brick wall around the roses, would know his way around all 22 acres of plantings.
An avid fox hunter who discovered this verdant section of Maryland during a visit for one such hunt, he bought the estate — adjacent to the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club —and began work, first on his house and then on his gardens. Ladew’s love of horses, hounds, foxes and English gardens are evident at every step. Winston Churchill’s hat has been jauntily trimmed into a hedge. The Tivoli Theatre ticket kiosk has been turned into a charming tea house. Ladew designed garden rooms filled with flowers of a single color surrounding the Great Bowl. A great reflecting pool in the center of this green room was once Ladew’s swimming pool. (It was filled in and converted to a shallower reflecting pool in 2001.) The space is now used for summer concerts on Sunday evenings June to August.
You can spend hours in the gardens, taking in all the colors and floral scents and listening to the peaceful babbling of brooks and fountains and the songs of the birds. And a nature walk, added in 1999, takes visitors through the countryside, past polo fields and the quarry pond, near wetlands and woodlands.
And then there is the house. A simple farmhouse when Ladew bought it in 1929, a two-on-two originally built in about 1747 by the Scarff family who added a wing in 1849. Ladew added more wings and a portico. His love of English culture is evident at every turn, especially the Elizabethan Room, and the grand 3,000-book Oval Library, designed around an oval partners desk he bought on one of his trips to the United Kingdom.
George Washington may never have slept here but the Duke and Duchess of Windsor did. Opera singer Enrico Caruso left a pen and ink self-portrait. A who’s-who of early 20th Century celebrities visited Ladew, from Moss Hart and Cole Porter to Clark Gable and Peter O’Toole. Every corner has a little treasure. Too bad the tour only lasts about 45 minutes — but the docents, learned and fast-talking, fill in every moment with some choice fact about Ladew — a fascinating man no matter where he lived — as well as the house or tidbits about all the glitterati who visited.
A Garden Clubs of America Distinguished Achievement Award for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help” still has a place of honor in his house.
When you visit, plan to spend the day. It’s a beautiful drive up from the Baltimore Beltway to Dulaney Valley Road and Jarrettsville Pike, about 14 miles from the Beltway. By the way, Harford County offers a two for one admission discount.
Bring a picnic. Cold drinks are on sale in the gift shop, along with plenty of lovely souvenirs. Or stop at the small cafe where tables have been set up in the stalls of Ladew’s beloved horses. Sandwiches and salads, as well as kid-friendly fare, are on the menu.
Bring the kids. They’ll love all that open space to romp in, besides all the flowers, shady spots, gigantic birdhouses, statues and of course, the fox hunt topiary.
Don’t bring your watch. Take a break and enjoy the gardens that may change seasonally but always seem to stay the same.
© Text and Photos Mary K. Tilghman
Photo of drawing room of Ladew manor house by Helen Norman