Some would say that Philip Krach is just a gardener, a man whose existence revolves around the seasons, the emergence of hundreds of iris blooms and roses in the spring, the relentless growth of weeds and grass in the summer, the quick disappearance of the perennials in the fall frost.
But watch Krach take hold of a pair of electric hedge clippers at Ladew Topiary Gardens and attack the yew, carving perfect straight lines and curves that only he seems to see so clearly in his mind’s eye. Working on a 10- to 15-foot high topiary seahorse, he wields the clippers as though they are an extension of his arms and hands, with a flick of the elbow or wrist this way or that producing a clean line.
He doesn't so much use the long, thin clippers to trim as to sculpt, as though this year's new soft growth of yew was just clay in his hands.
How does this artist do the work freehand? How does he sculpt without so much as a yardstick or twine? "Thirty-three years of practice," he says, with just a touch of a grin.
Flecks of green clippings stick to his deeply tanned arms and hands, making him look, he says, like a chia pet. Seeing the grounds through his eyes involves peeking inside bushes and noticing the imperfections of a leaning topiary here and a broken esplanade vine there, details that are invisible to a visitor.
Ladew Topiary Gardens is known worldwide for its long allees of topiary hedges, for the round bowl of green lawn with a pool in the middle, for views of rolling countryside and intimate color-themed garden rooms. If the Domino Sugars sign is a symbol of Baltimore’s harbor, then the topiary hunting scene of hounds and a man on horseback chasing a fox bounding across an open lawn at Ladew might be the symbol for our countryside.
It has been there for more than half a century, since the gardens were created by Harvey S. Ladew, a transplanted New Yorker who grew weary of the encroaching suburbs in his home state. In 1929 he purchased a 246-acre farm 20 minutes north of Towson, across the Baltimore County line in Harford County.
He loved fox hunting, painting and gardening, and because he was independently wealthy, he could immerse himself in them. He traveled widely in Europe, transplanting ideas and sculptures back to his Maryland house. Friends came and stayed in a country house decorated with antiques, dozens of painting scenes, walls of unusually deep colors and comfortable chairs. Those friends included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, songwriter Cole Porter, actor Charlie Chaplin, author Somerset Maugham, and T.E. Lawrence, known better as Lawrence of Arabia.
In the attic is what was referred to in an old magazine article as the Mae West room, but the staff is not sure whether Ladew called it that or whether the writer just saw the garish furnishings that were not Ladew’s style and imagined Mae West there. The room now holds the archives.
Before Ladew’s death in 1976, friends established a nonprofit organization to preserve the gardens and the house. The first garden tours began even before he had died. In 2012 the Canadian Garden Tourism Council named Ladew one of the top five gardens in North America, and Architectural Digest featured Ladew in October 2012 as one of the top 10 topiary gardens in the world. Tens of thousands of visitors are drawn each year to the gardens.
"I think any time you have an historic house and award-winning gardens in your tourism portfolio, that is a plus-plus," said Kathy Whitehead, marketing assistant for the Harford County Office of Economic Development and Tourism.
Krach did not know Ladew, but he and other gardeners have faithfully cared for the man's topiary and garden designs for decades, finding ways to make the living sculptures seem new for visitors while maintaining the spirit of the designs.
This is no small job because the topiaries are live trees trained into unnatural shapes. Ladew created the topiaries by first building metal frames in the shape of whatever he wished and then allowing the tree to grow up and around it. The topiaries are trimmed once a year between July and September, after the new growth has finished and the plants have had time to take in nourishment from that growth.
If they were clipped at other times in the year, they would starve to death, Krach said. For some months every year before they are clipped, they look a bit shaggy. Some people "think this looks terrible," Krach said. "We think it looks great because it is healthy and growing."
Just a quarter of an inch of growth a year can add up over the decades. So Krach must take off as much growth as he can, while still allowing the tree to grow a little each year. He also occasionally clips 4- to 5-inch branches off, creating small holes from the outside that are designed to promote more growth inside the trees to keep them healthy.
One of the most recognizable topiaries is the swan hedge, which has been allowed to grow by many feet since Ladew planted it. When Krach pulls open the branches in one of the hedges, the old metal frame that formed the shape of the swan can be seen buried far below the leafy swan above it.
At one point, Krach said, the swans began to look like spouting whales, so the gardeners had to build new frames and cut off the old necks. It took four to five years for the new necks to fill in, but they are now recognizable. In the garden that Krach worked on in early August are whimsical shapes: a salmon on a platter, Winston Churchill’s top hat, a butterfly on a flower, two fingers making a peace sign. Children, whose imaginations are still vivid, see those topiary for what they are much more quickly than adults, Krach said.
Ladew has four full-time gardeners as well as a wealth of volunteers and some part-time help to care for 22 acres of gardens and 150 topiaries. The gardens and house are maintained through dues from Ladew's 4,000 members, an annual fund drive, and events. The nonprofit also has an endowment.
Krach, the senior gardener, has lived on the property for 18 years. He wears a straw hat, sunglasses around his neck and sturdy shoes. He's 56, but he has to stop and calculate his age when asked.
He happened into the job when he was young, and after being trained by a series of expert gardeners has just stayed on. He doesn't know why. "I like being outside," he said. "I like doing things. It is nice to do something that makes people happy."
Each morning he stops in at a large tool shed -- somewhat hidden down a hill from the visitors entrance -- neatly lined with dozens of shovels, clippers, hoes and rakes. Then he heads to the gardens around 7 a.m. A few hours later, the summer heat is thick around him as he perches on an orchard ladder, leaning against it with a knee so both hands are free to maneuver the cutting.
On the lawn, Chris Hacker is seated on a short stool, trimming one of the hounds. He’s taken over the job of keeping Ladew’s signature topiary at the same size, but the work is so exacting that he can only do a dog and a half a day. He is currently working to give more definition to each dog’s ears; the gardener before him spent 15 years reshaping the hounds so that they looked less like they were floating on their stomachs.
"Each person who cuts a hedge has their own interpretation of things," he said.
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