Spreading a fancy picnic on the grass of Ladew Topiary Gardens and listening to an open air concert in the Great Bowl is one of the distinct Sunday summer pleasures of Harford County.
The inviting cushion of turf, the comforting expanse of cultivated greenery, the unhurried informal dining, the captivating music that floats over the spacious lawn without overpowering -- these are the genteel delights of a (non-rainy) Sunday afternoon at this fabulous Monkton estate.
Over the years, our well-stocked picnic hamper has typically included a cold bottle of wine to add to the festive outing. But not this year. The Harford County liquor board suddenly decided that the Gardens outdoor cafe could not serve alcoholic beverages if it also permitted patrons to bring their own drinks to the lawn party.
There was apparently no rowdy incident that precipitated the board's enforcement of the long-ignored rule; Ladew is not the type of place that draws a boozy or boisterous clientele, even if visitors can get enthusiastic about the (non-rock) music. One now buys a plastic cup of passable quality from the establishment to accompany the repast, and delights in the pastoral table setting.
So change does occur at Ladew, although the imagination likes to keep this re-creation of an English country manor frozen in time. Visitors who have returned regularly to the 22-acre estate since it opened to the public in 1971 may have noticed the disappearance of a single foxhound from the hunting scene topiary tableau at the entrance and a slenderized replacement neck on a swan sculptured hedge inside the grounds.
The Tivoli teahouse, a former ticket booth for a London theater, has been restored, and a few small sculpted shrubs donated by the Ladew family are planted near the barn, which has added a collection of yesteryear carriages.
The number of visitors has continued to climb, to more than 30,000 last year, and bus tours now have to be scheduled to prevent overcrowding. The Garden Club of America recognizes Ladew as one of the finest in the country, and Ladew is ensconced in the official National Register of Historic Places. "There's hardly a gardening magazine that hasn't done at least one article on Ladew," adds Hamilton Whitman, the public relations officer for the non-profit public foundation that manages the property.
The gardens are the unique legacy of Harvey Ladew, who created them shortly after acquiring the hunt country estate in 1929. Heir to a New York manufacturing fortune, Ladew dedicated his life to the pursuits of a bachelor gentleman: hunting, foreign travel, collecting antiques, painting and writing, and, most passionately, creating topiary.
Working with only two full-time gardeners, Ladew crafted more than a dozen thematic gardens that vary widely in size, color, perspective and decoration. There are hedge-walled private gardens for privacy, rambling paths, formal centerpieces and open fields offering a natural vista.
3# Training and trimming the slow- growing, long-lived Japanese yew into green sculpture was a lifetime hobby for Ladew, who lived in the manor house until his death in 1976. Depression-era labor using hand tools helped him carve out the original layout, but Ladew kept adding to gardens and to the 18th century farmhouse.
His fascination with topiary, acquired during his travels to
England and Europe, even overtook his love of hunting; he converted a trap shoot into the Sculpture Gardens, which contains an eclectic assortment of shaped hedges depicting such things as lyrebirds, a teacup and Winston Churchill's top hat.
While there is a rose garden, a carefully planted array of colorful flowers and plants by the parking lot, seasonal berry bushes and stoic waterlilies throughout the grounds, these gardens are dedicated to green topiary. There is a calmness of controlled nature that is different from the experience of arboretums and formal gardens.
The house, which Ladew expanded and renovated, contains the art and antiques he collected, much of it related to fox hunting and the trappings of English gentry. There are photos of the British royalty he knew, such as the Duke of Windsor, and letters from T. E. Lawrence of Arabia.
The library is dominated by a huge Chippendale partner's desk he acquired in England, curved bookshelves holding thousands of volumes and a secret passage that Ladew used to escape from unwelcome callers.
The cafe that serves from the remodeled kitchen is a popular attraction itself, with luncheon fare that is healthful and appetizing and inspired by the changing bounties of the season. (The cold blueberry soup is divine.)
The screened gardens on Jarrettsville Pike are quietly marked but motorists are pleasantly apprised of their proximity by the signature topiary that depicts a hunter on horseback jumping a gate in pursuit with his hounds of a fox that has not to this day been caught.
The Sunday summer concerts -- from bagpipe to Big Band -- are held every two weeks or so, and draw the biggest crowds. Today's 6 p.m. feature is a bluegrass group. Children's Day (Sept. 19) is a major event. So is the April sale of flowers and plants.
But Ladew is a spring-to-fall attraction that doesn't depend on imported entertainments. It is man-shaped nature that is balm for hurried souls, a garden of earthly delights in our midst.
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.