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Ladew Topiary Gardens

Ladew Topiary Gardens
Monkton, Maryland

I had seen images of some of the more popular creations of Ladew Topiary Gardens in my garden books already—the iconic fox chase across a lawn rendered totally in yew hedges is perhaps the most famous. Sometimes the whimsy conjured by these sculpted hedges can be a little too sugary-sweet for my taste, with oversized cartoonish characters looming over gardens like parade floats. And while plenty of animal-shaped topiary can indeed be found at Ladew, there is, however, true artistic craftsmanship evident throughout the twenty-two acres of former farmland that is simply undeniable. I challenge anyone to not be totally enamoured by this magical place nestled in the unlikely farm country just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

My amazement began almost immediately as I passed under a covered walkway hung with wisteria and made my way into the Terrace Garden. I was so taken with this three-level garden where walls made of hedges enclosed each terrace, some of which were shaped to appear hung with garlands or with cut-out windows framing a pastoral vista. There were endless details to discover, like the stunning geometry of sharp-cut squares topped with triangular accents in varying sizes. Through two such mighty pyramids of brilliant green hedges is the first dramatic view down the central axis of the garden. Another one of the most arresting views is from The Great Bowl looking back up at the bright white silhouette of the main house across row after row of lush greenery in regimented shapes.

The place goes full fairytale when you step into The Great Bowl, a giant, circular clearing at the center of the garden where an oval fountain appears almost mirage-like at the center. The giant expanse of tidy clipped grass is surrounded by tall hedges on almost all sides giving the space a feeling of protective serenity. The most notable of these is an expanse of bulbous yew hedges topped with elegant swans riding undulating waves of green. A more structured set of bushes on the far side of the “bowl” frame a dramatic view down a hedge-lined hallway that continues the main axis of the garden layout. I often praise gardens for their use of natural, organic layouts, but this world of total artifice is endless fun to explore.  

The sculpture garden features the most playful selection of topiary figures, but somehow the overall arrangement keeps their effect from veering fully into kitsch territory (not that I mind kitsch, necessarily). Silly though they might seem, a hand forming a peace sign or a peacock in full courtship mode perch atop tiered pedestals, and the effect playfully mimics a proper museum gallery. The stately bust of a unicorn was my favorite of the works in this section. Short rows of boxwood frame each bed of larger hedges and create a focal point for a jaunty sculpture surrounded by azalea bushes.

I was especially taken with the Iris Garden on my most recent visit, perhaps because I was lucky enough to catch a majority of the irises in full bloom. I appreciated that the topiary features in this garden were kept to a minimum, tucked off to one side or as a simple focal feature in a larger picture. Here, the flowers guide you onward down a gentle slope, clusters of deep purple irises seemed to hover a few feet off the ground along a small channel of water edged with japanese maples in sultry shades of deep red. There was a whole garden filled with varieties of peony in bright white and pale yellow, their fluffy petals contrasting the upright irises nearby.

It is hard to believe this garden was created through the passion, determination, and physical labor of one man who took his amature love of horticulture to the extreme. A man of money who bought the farm because of its proximity to a hunting lodge, Ladew hired local farmers to help clear the land that would be the stage for the grand gardens he envisioned, inspired by his travels to Italy and France. Over his lifetime, Ladew created the master garden design himself and after bringing it to life, he eventually opened up his masterpiece to the public. We are all that much luckier that this garden treasure wasn’t kept hidden away only to be seen by visiting celebrities and foreign royalty.

Final Rating: This is one of those gardens where the unexpectedness of the location really adds to the charm of the whole experience. Who would expect to find a first-class topiary garden wedged in-between Maryland farms? This remarkable place has all the pomp of a classical formal garden, balanced out with a humorous sensibility that makes it approachable. It is worth a visit, and worth setting aside a full day to explore, since there are over twenty different themed garden rooms and sections, each interwoven into a master design. The upkeep is impeccable, allowing you to fully explore and appreciate all of the intricacy and ingenuity on display in every corner of the astounding Ladew Topiary Gardens. FIVE BLOOM RATING

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