Harvey Ladew and I have much in common. People have called both of us rare and unusual people with many diverse interests. Country Life is our favorite magazine. We both love to travel. I like royalty; he was friends with the Duke of Windsor.
We’re nuts about needlepoint; he was so fond of a settee with petitpoint hunt scenes that he sat on it until its owner, General Foods Corporation founder Marjorie Merriwether Post, gave it to him. But most of all, we think topiaries are pretty nifty.
Ladew (1887-1946) was the only son of a wealthy manufacturer of leather beltings used by factories during the Industrial Revolution. His life’s calling was to enjoy himself. The world traveler who could order breakfast in five languages developed an extensive set of friends, including Picasso and Edna Ferber, and he loved riding to hounds.
In 1929, Ladew bought 22 acres of land in Monkton, Maryland and called it Pleasant Valley Farm. He added two wings to the property’s original circa-1747 farmhouse. He painted his upstairs sitting room in aubergine, a color that hadn’t been used in an American home before. Turning the original dining room into an office, Ladew paneled the room with pine planks from an old cow barn that he bought because he liked the white wisteria growing on it. In the drawing room, he placed his Steinway grand piano, which Cole Porter would play during visits. He also filled a massive mahogany breakfront in the room with his collection of Staffordshire and Meissen porcelain fox figurines. In fact, Ladew loved fox hunting so much that he displayed fox-themed items everywhere: in Chippendale mirrors and on stirrup cups, on antique painted-glass windows and an Irish marble fireplace.
To create an “Elizabethan Room,” he installed 15th-century Scandinavian pine paneling on the walls and hired artisans to create a plaster ceiling based on a pattern he found in an antiquarian book. A copy of By Camel and Car to the Peacock Throne, by E. Alexander Powell, rests on a table. The 1923 book chronicles travels through Syria, Arabia and Persia by Powell, Ladew, DeWitt Hutchings, then vice president of the Mission Inn at Riverside in southern California, and Sherin, a young Irishman who had been in the service of the Duke of Portland and was Ladew’s valet.
He built an oval library to house a rare oval Chippendale-style partners’ desk and a carved pine door from a country house in Norfolk, England. Helen Comstock, author of One Hundred Most Beautiful Rooms in America, as well as Town & Country magazine, proclaimed it the best room in the house.
A secret doorway in the library opens onto a breezeway, which leads to a card room.
The gardens surrounding his home were Ladew’s real accomplishment. He envisioned a landscape featuring topiaries, or shrubs trimmed and trained into unique ornamental shapes. He and a surveyor designed the landscape around two intersecting axes: one leads from the house to a garden folly known as the Temple of Venus; the other leads from a brick-walled hybrid tea rose garden to an iris garden. He placed a swimming pool where the axes intersect, surrounding it with a topiary wall ending in large topiary obelisks. He topped window-like opening in the walls with topiary “swags.”
Without any formal landscaping training, Ladew started in on his project to create one of the first garden-room landscapes in the United States. Fifteen themed garden “rooms” with connecting “hallways” are planted with flowers that change with the seasons. During my visit, the gardens were filled with at-their-peak spring flowers, from daffodils, pansies and Virginia bluebells to just-about-to-burst azaleas, a yellow Butterfly magnolia, redbuds and flowering pear and crab apple trees. Ten thousand tulips are planted in the gardens every year.
Ladew’s eye for color served him well. He planted scores of pink, white and pale mauve azaleas underneath trees in his apple orchard, to bring out the blossoms’ colors. Amid the trees of this “Garden of Eden,” he placed a concrete statue of Adam and Eve, which appeared in magazine ads for Colombian coffee. A Belgian fence of apple and pear trees decorate the entrance to this garden. Beyond that, a keyhole carved in yew leads to a secret garden planted with an ornamental plum tree and oversized concrete chess pieces.
In the Yellow Garden, he placed bee skeps, dovecotes and a vibrant orange-and-yellow teahouse. Golden privet hedges frame the length of the garden, while yellow Laburnums descend from a tunnel of iron arches. In his Victorian garden, Ladew used rhododendron walls to create a room with concrete lawn furniture carved to represent scenes from nature. Another garden is filled with flowers in many shades of pink.
In 1948, Ladew rescued the 18th-century ticket office from the Tivoli Music Hall in London’s Leicester Square from demolition and moved it to his garden. Flowers of complementary colors are planted in a garden below, such as pink roses, geraniums in blue pots, lilacs, wild azaleas and iris.
He painted the interior walls a spectacular “Shocking Ladew Pink,” adorning them with bluebirds and trees to emulate Chinese wallpaper.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the self-taught gardener created what would become recognized as the most outstanding topiary garden in the country. Created from privet, boxwood, yew and hemlock, the topiaries were once trimmed by Ladew himself. Today, they are kept in shape by specially trained gardeners. To ensure their health and longevity, these special shrubs are trimmed once a year, during a three-month period, beginning in July.
The Sculpture Garden features Ladew’s first topiary efforts, including yew clipped in the shapes of Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” sign and top hat, a seahorse, teacups, a fish, a peacock, a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow and a butterfly alighting on a mushroom.
For more on Ladew Topiary Gardens, read “Perfectly Delightful:” The Life and Gardens of Harvey Ladew, by Christopher Weeks, and Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, by Caroline Seebohm.