By Elaine Mills, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © 2019 Elaine Mills
Located about 75 miles from Northern Virginia, the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, are a great destination for a day trip. The manor house and 22 acres of gardens, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were originally the property of Harvey S. Ladew (1887-1976), a man of leisure and a self-taught gardener.
Ladew’s passion for fox hunting drew him to the Maryland countryside where he bought Pleasant Valley Farm with its historic manor house in 1929. After completing renovations and additions to his home by the mid 1930s, he turned his attention to his grounds where he intended to undertake all the landscaping himself.
Ladew was attracted to the art of topiary (trimming and training trees and shrubs into ornamental shapes) on a trip to England in 1920s. Over the years, he created more than 100 topiaries on his property. The most famous depicts a hunt scene complete with riders, a fox, and pursuing hounds.
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The Sculpture Garden displays numerous individual topiaries, including lyre birds, Churchill’s top hat, a victory sign, a heart with an arrow, sea horses, and a butterfly on a flower. The Great Bowl, a 2-acre lawn at the center of the gardens, is bordered by topiary swans that swim on waves of yew. Topiaries representing a Chinese junk, a pagoda, and a Buddha can be found in the Iris Garden. Finally, the Terrace Garden contains Canadian hemlock hedges sculpted into obelisks, garlands, and windows.
In 1971, the Garden Club of America awarded Mr. Ladew the Distinguished Achievement Award for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help.”
Named one of the “10 incredible topiary gardens around the world,” by Architectural Digest, the estate is also noteworthy for its extensive formal flower gardens. Ladew was among the first Americans to adopt the concept of a garden room devoted to a single color, plant, or garden theme. Influenced by his extensive travels in Europe, he arranged his garden rooms off two crossing axes with long vistas.
The Pink, Yellow, and White Gardens rely on colored foliage and flowers to carry out the color themes. Garden rooms devoted to individual plants are the Berry Garden, the Rose Garden, the Waterlily Garden, and the Iris Garden. Themed rooms include the Woodland Garden, the Victorian Garden, the Garden of Eden, and the Keyhole Garden. Other formal areas are the Croquet Court, the Portico Garden, the Cottage Garden, and the Herb Garden and Cutting Garden where plants are grown to supply arrangements for the house.
Follies, charming and whimsical ornamental structures, also play a role. The Temple of Venus is the hilltop focal point of a long vista across the Great Bowl from the Terrace Garden. The Tivoli Tea House was created from the façade of a ticket pavilion Ladew purchased from Tivoli Music Hall in London.
Two naturalistic areas also may be explored. The Wildflower Meadow is planted with 30 species of native wildflowers, including black-eyed Susan (the Maryland state flower), evening primrose, yarrow, prairie aster, pink coneflower, and New England aster. The Nature Walk, a mile-long boardwalk and trail, exemplifies the wetland forest and freshwater marsh habitats within the Piedmont Plateau. Printed maps and educational stations aid visitors in their self-guided tours, and guided tours are offered monthly.
Ladew Topiary Gardens hosts over 125 special events a year, including guided hikes, concerts, painting workshops, and a summer nature camp for children. Educational programs include a spring and fall lecture series, gardening demonstrations in advanced techniques with professional staff gardeners, Q & A sessions, and plant identification.
3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, MD 21111