Maybe I’m being lazy, or maybe it is this busy time of year, but with the holidays coming, I’m falling back in this posting to a day trip I took this summer to Ladew Topiary Gardens (www.ladewgardens.com) in Monkton, Maryland. While the garden is closed until April 1st, it is worth putting on a to-do list. To begin, the rolling hills around Monkton came as a surprise to me – I keep forgetting that not all of Maryland is as flat as the Eastern Shore. I was there on a rainy day in August giving me the advantage of having the garden almost to myself. Because it is a topiary garden, and one of the best (The Garden Club of America rates it as the most outstanding in the country) most of the features were a deep summer green – a restful interlude from the usual riot of annual color. Shrouded in the mist of a light rain, the gardens took on a magical quality that could almost make you believe that the fantastical creatures carved from the hedges could come to life. Ok, it is a stretch, but it was that kind of day.
Harvey Ladew was the son of a manufacturer of leather industrial belting – the kind that ran the big machines of industry in the day. While in his twenties, Harvey chose to “withdraw from business” to pursue his passions, which did not, apparently, extend to the manufacture of industrial belting. They did, however, extend to fox hunting and gardening. In 1929 he purchased Pleasant Valley Farm, 200 or so acres outside of Monkton, Maryland. He spent several years renovating the houses and barns, all the while riding to the hounds in England, Ireland, France and the United States. At one point he set a record for hunting on both sides of the Atlantic within a 72 hour period, a most amazing feat in the day.
In 1937 Harvey began work on his gardens which today encompass 22 acres. Since he traveled extensively in Europe, Harvey based his gardens on designs from England and Italy, breaking the acreage into a series of “rooms” that provide a number of surprisingly intimate spaces, as well as making room for an oval swimming pool in the middle of the Great Bowl, a wide meadow bordered on one side by swans sailing atop an undulating hedge.
It is quite a wonderful balance between formal garden design and rather absurd garden design, reflecting, I think, Harvey’s personality and sense of humor. Within the boundaries of the garden there are vistas and follies, meadows and secret places, fountains and constructed waterways. There is a Chinese junk under sail, a giraffe and a full fox hunt, as well as topiary drapery that makes one part of the garden look as decorated as a wedding cake. There is a moon gate and a beautiful Italianate garden, a pagoda and a temple. It is the imagination of a wealthy man running playfully wild down a hillside, and it is a delight to have the opportunity to share in the fun.
Then, of course, there was a lunch to consider – and I can certainly recommend the food and most especially the crab soup at Monkton’s Manor Tavern, (www.manortavern.com) just around the corner from Pleasant Valley Farm. Currently undergoing major renovations as the new owners revamp the decor and facilities, it is clear that it is a gathering place. That soup would be worth a couple hours of driving all by itself. It makes me look forward to when the gardens open again in spring and I can have a cover story for a return trip to Monkton.