A fresh white topcoat echoes the lines of exquisitely clipped evergreens in this Maryland garden.
Snow is the ultimate transformative blessing. Within a night, it etches twig and berry, cottons shrub and lawn, and swallows every sound into the hush of a midwinter’s dream. We awaken to a world where familiar haunts become terra incognita (unknown land). This morning at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, I find myself in such a place.
These gardens were created by Harvey Smith Ladew, whom I met only once toward the end of his days. Born into wealth and leisure, he passionately fancied everything English, especially the life of a country gentleman. He loved ladies, fine drink, horses, the hunt, and the hounds. Oh, and he loved country gardens too.
In 1937, he embarked upon the design and planting of 15 themed gardens (including a formal rose garden, terrace garden, iris garden, water lily garden, berry garden, yellow garden, white garden, and pink garden), all linked by the thread of topiary—the art of shearing trees and shrubs into ornamental shapes.
He’d never particularly cared about topiary until one morning, while fox-hunting in England, he chanced upon a topiary portraying a fox hotly pursued by hounds. Smitten by the find, he reproduced it in his own landscape. Today, the hunt scene remains the garden’s most iconic and photographed feature.
Ladew’s gardens quickly became a sensation when he opened them to the public in 1971. Few Southerners had ever seen topiary on this grand a scale.
Painstakingly sculpted from densely branched evergreens such as Canadian hemlock, boxwood, ligustrum, and Japanese yew, his creations vary from the geometric (imposing obelisks reigning high over the terrace gardens) to the graceful (swans riding along the rippled waves of a trimmed yew hedge) to the whimsical (a lyre bird, a peacock, a hunt scene, a unicorn, a sea horse, and Churchill’s top hat and victory sign).
Even in December when blanketed by white, the gardens retain color. Hawthorns, crabapples, and viburnums cling to bright red fruit; scarlet masts rise from a topiary Chinese junk; and the yellow foliage of false cypress glows in the morning light. Yet green dominates, and cleverly so, because in this season of naked bud and branch, clipped evergreens give the garden bones, delineating artistic form and providing structure.
Ladew Topiary Gardens
The house and gardens are open April-October and for a Christmas open house select days in December.
3535 Jarrettsville Pike, Monkton, Maryland; 410/557-9466
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
2499 State 245, Clermont, Kentucky; 502/955-8512
1 Approach Road, Asheville, North Carolina; 800/922-0091
Missouri Botanical Garden
4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, Missouri; 314/577-5100
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Delaware; 800/488-3883