Ladew's legacy a topiary delight


Even though he died nearly a quarter of a century ago, Harvey S. Ladew's 250-acre landmark estate on Jarrettsville Pike near Monkton continues to draw more than 30,000 visitors a year from 40 countries. They come to visit its 22 acres of formal gardens and legendary topiary that the Garden Club of America has designated "the finest topiary garden in America."

Known formally as Pleasant Valley Farm and perhaps more commonly as Ladew Gardens, the 15 formal gardens and restored 18th-century manor house are the lasting vision and handiwork of Harvey S. Ladew, the wealthy raconteur, horseman, writer, collector, artist, gourmet, world traveler and horticulturist, who died at 89 in 1976.

Christopher Weeks' "Perfectly Delightful: The Life and Gardens of Harvey Ladew," a colorful full-length biography published last year by Johns Hopkins University Press, chronicles a life that was replete with notable friendships and one that reveled in the simple rural pleasures of the Maryland countryside while creating one of the most important gardens in the nation.

Born in New York City, Ladew was raised in a townhouse on East 67th Street and also at Elsinore,the family's summer estate near Glen Cove, Long Island.

Despite being an articulate and erudite individual who spoke several languages and was an accomplished art collector and engaging conversationalist, Ladew lacked a formal education.

After the sale of the family business, the E.R. Ladew Leather Co., after World War I, Ladew explained in a 1973 interview, "I had money in the bank and no immediate problems. I thought about what I could do and just couldn't see working like a dog so I could retire when I was 50. Instead, I decided to enjoy life and then go to work."

An accomplished fox hunter, Ladew first came to Maryland after S. Bryce Wing, a friend he was hunting with one day in 1927 at Meadowbrook Hunt Club on Long Island, suggested that he visit Harford County.

Ladew was so taken with the rolling Maryland countryside that he purchased a bungalow in Baltimore County and joined the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club. In 1929, he bought his Monkton farm from Harry Scarffand settled there permanently.

A jet-setter before there was such a term, Ladew's friendships on both sides of the Atlantic included the glitterati from the Roaring Twenties through the 1970s.

Noel Coward, Lawrence of Arabia, Osbert Sitwell, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Edna Ferber, Elsa Maxwell, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable are just some of the names represented in the voluminous guest books that Ladew maintained through the years.

He was also an insatiable adventurer who crossed the Arabian desert as a passenger in a Bedouin caravan, collected butterflies in the dizzying heights of the Andes, shot game in Alaska and explored Greece with a tent on his back as his only shelter.

But it was to his Monkton estate that Ladew turned his attention. When he moved there, the only blooming plant was an ancient lilac bush.

Influenced by, and a lover of, English gardens, Ladew sat down and designed the 15 gardens that cover 22 acres. The themed gardens, called "rooms," would be bordered by manicured hemlock hedges, some as tall as 30 feet.

The hound-shaped yews of his friend Lady Sophie Scott, which had fascinated him years earlier, now served as his inspiration. After ordering wire frames from Scott's English suppliers, Ladew set about creating on his Long Island estate the topiary displays - later re-created in Monkton - that are such a whimsical feature of the gardens.

Some are in the shape of horses and hounds while others are trained ornamentally to represent swans, sea horses and even a top hat and a teacup.

"No one gave me any advice in gardening but I had read a lot and knew what I wanted," he told the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1957. "Now I look back and wonder how I ever got the job done."

Ladew's passion for gardening is echoed on several stones placed near a garden entrance. It is said to be an old Chinese proverb: "If you would be happy for a week, take a wife. If you would be happy for a month, kill a pig. But if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden."

Anxious to create a foundation to maintain the gardens and estate in years he would not see, Ladew was the financial and spiritual inspiration behind the Harvey Smith Ladew Topiary Garden Foundation, which came into being in 1970.

The house and gardens were later placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I think I have managed to create something beautiful and worthwhile in my life," he wrote in the 1960s.

And in a letter to his sister in 1969, Ladew wrote, "My garden isn't finished yet. I have only worked on it fifty years and it will take another fifty years to finish it."

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