Maria Taylor

Maria Taylor trims her "Cookie Monster," one of the many topiarys that adorn her front yard in the 1200 block of Lake Ave. (SUN STAFF PHOTO 1999 / March 26, 1999)

Maria S. Taylor, a gardener called the "Picasso of privet hedges" after she transformed a suburban front yard into a topiary menagerie, died Saturday after a fall at her home in the Lake Falls section of Baltimore County. She was 71.

"Though it's rush hour, traffic slows to a crawl along Lake Avenue as motorists study the exotic wildlife — and the well-dressed woman who gives the creatures haircuts and shaves," a 1994 Baltimore Sun article said of her.

Born Maria Swandell in Glasgow, Scotland, she was raised by nuns in an orphanage. As a young woman she worked as a companion to the elderly and sold carpeting before moving to Baltimore in 1968. She met her future husband, Allan E. Taylor, a master plasterer, and settled into an Ednor Road home near the old Memorial Stadium.

"She helped out in the orphanage kitchen to get some little treats," he said. "Throughout her life, she was always helping people."

Mrs. Taylor explained how she got her start designing topiary menagerie in a 1999 Baltimore Sun article. She began trimming a hedge in the shape of a duck. "It's just a thing that I did for my husband that backfired and grew," she said of her work, which was meant to reference her husband's duck hunting. "The ducks and geese gave him something to look at, year round."

After moving to the 1200 block of W. Lake Ave. near Falls Road in 1978, she began more planting and trimming. "It needed brightening up," she said of her front yard.

"It's like cutting hair. When it looks right, you stop," she said.

"She was a wonderful mixture of Mary Poppins and Dolly Parton," said Jennifer Burdick, a friend who lives in Charles Village and met her nearly 35 years ago, when Mrs. Taylor was a baby sitter for couples renovating houses.

Friends recalled her generous nature, flamboyant costumes and outgoing personality.

"No matter what I did for her, she would do twice as much in return," said a friend, Ray Brocato, who lives in Jupiter, Fla. "She did good for the sake of doing good."

"Maria made the world a better place," said Angela Oriente, another friend. "Her pockets were always full of things she gave away, little trinkets or maybe a dog biscuit. She was the most giving person I have ever known."

She recalled that Mrs. Taylor was fond of hats. She also wore a traditional Scots tam and liked to dress in holiday themes, including red, white and blue outfits for patriotic occasions. She wore heels, not gardening shoes, to clip her shrubs.

The 1999 Sun article described her "postage-stamp front yard" with more than 40 topiary examples.

"The horticultural barbershop is in the front yard of Maria Taylor, a self-taught Picasso of privet hedges, a woman who looks at shrubs and trees as a sculptor would a slab of granite," the 1994 Sun profile said. "Her yard is a tribute to topiary, an art form that has turned this woman into a neighborhood celebrity.

"Ducks and bunnies cavort with crocodiles and dogs made of yew, Alberta spruce, cedar and boxwood," the profile said. "But what many people don't know is that Maria Taylor's specialty is rescuing shrubs, ones their owners have given up on, by snipping away at dying branches. And in the process, she creates small works of art. She's the SPCA of the topiary world."

The article said her backyard became her green hospital. "These are the animals that are sick," she said as she pointed to a row of topiary shapes in large containers, shapes created from woebegone plants that people donated. "I'm trying to bring them back."

Mrs. Taylor's only tools were a pair of pruning shears and hand electric clippers; most of her work was done freehand. Neighbors named her "Mrs. Scissorhands."

In the 1999 article, Mrs. Taylor said she could whip up a rabbit in 30 minutes or three years, depending on whether "the tree is growing the way it ought to." She also helped numerous friends with their topiary projects.

"People always know where we live," said her husband of 43 years. "It's like saying your home is the Washington Monument."

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at the Burgee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home, 3631 Falls Road.

There are no other immediate survivors.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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