The Five Who Sculpt The Beauty Of Ladew

June 25, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

In other lives, they were a cook, a welder, a photographer, a teacher and an artist.

Today, they are the Edward Scissorhands of Harford County, snipping and clipping the plain into the fancy at Ladew Topiary Gardens. A tiny yew is transformed into a whimsical shape, a hedge into a geometric marvel.

Their work is world famous, but virtually no one knows them by name. They are the gardeners of Ladew -- the lush, plush garden in Monkton recognized by the Garden Club of America as one of the country's best.

"We are the backbone of it all," says Max Perra, 30, one of five full-time gardeners who work year-round on the 22-acre former estate of Harvey S. Ladew. "I see what I create and walk away with a smile on my face."

So do the other gardeners.

"We're artists," says Timothy Vadas, also 30, who majored in art in college. He prides himself on taking care of one of the garden's best-known topiaries, the hunt chase.

More than 25,000 visitors from 40 countries saw this green scene of hounds pursuing a fox at Ladew last year, as well as other topiaries, such as a leafy replica of Winston Churchill's top hat, a teacup and swans on a magnificent rippling hedge.

Though the grounds are dedicated to green topiary, there are other delights too, from themed gardens laden with roses, wildflowers and irises to meandering streams and waterlily ponds. Tomorrow night, guests will be able to absorb these surroundings as they ease into one of Ladew's summer concerts in its Great Bowl area. Foggy Bottom, a bluegrass band, will play at 6 p.m. with background sounds provided by the birds and the bees.

"People are always so surprised that we have insects," says an amazed Phil Krach, a former cook and auto mechanic who has been shaping the Sculpture Garden at Ladew since 1981.

And that there are birds, too, says Shauna Pinhey, the lone woman on the gardening crew. "One woman asked me if the bird sounds were piped in -- or are they real?" she says with a laugh. Ms. Pinhey, 38, is the new kid on the block. She arrived three

years ago and takes care of the flower beds. "I just like to garden," says the former health and physical education teacher. Even though they come from divergent backgrounds, all were brought to Ladew by a love of the outdoors, the gardeners say.

"I enjoy it out here," says Mr. Vadas, who paints in acrylics in his free time. "I like being outside."

"It's so peaceful," Ms. Pinhey says. "Look at the view."

It's a changing scenery that keeps the gardeners especially busy when Ladew is open, from mid-April until the end of October. Two summer workers have been added to the staff. For the full-time gardeners, their creative topiary endeavors are only part of their jobs. They also prune, water, weed and cut the grass, no matter the temperature. And steamy weather does have its drawbacks, even for these outdoor enthusiasts who start work at 7 a.m.

"The first year I was here I passed out from the heat. I fell and displaced three vertebrae," Ms. Pinhey says.

"I get head rushes from the heat," says Mr. Perra, adding that the job can be physically demanding.

"I lost 20 pounds last year," says a trim Mr. Vadas, who wraps a bandanna around his head.

"It saves health club fees," says Mr. Krach, 38, who lives on the property and feeds Ladew's numerous cats. "People do come to [adopt] the kittens," Mr. Krach says.

In the winter, the gardeners move indoors to work in the greenhouse or make routine repairs to the genteel white farmhouse, which wealthy huntsman Harvey Ladew bought in 1929 and maintained until his death in 1976. It was his fascination with topiary that started it all -- a legacy that the current gardeners keep in shape, in addition to their own creations.

Senior gardener Frank Perra, who has been at Ladew since 1978, makes the wire frames that are the basis of the new topiaries and those of the future.

Near the concert area, visitors will notice a towering pyramid frame waiting for a yew to grow into it. "It'll take about 20 years," says Mr. Perra, 63, an Italian who speaks little English. He was a photographer in Germany before he migrated to the United States via Canada and eventually settled in Greenspring Valley as opera star Rosa Ponselle's gardener.

His son, Max, remembers moving to the Ladew estate as a 15-year-old and sleeping in the main house. Even today, the younger Mr. Perra is convinced that a ghost, perhaps the eccentric Harvey Ladew himself, was lurking about. "I had a little dog who would be so scared," he says. "No one would listen to me."

Now Max, a former plumber and welder, is back on the property -- if not under the watchful eye of the ghost, at least under his father's gaze.

"It's hard sometimes," says Mr. Perra about working with his father. "He picks on me first. But he's a cool dad."

His real boss is Lena Caron, executive director of Ladew since 1981. "She tells us what to do," the younger Mr. Perra says.

One of Mrs. Caron's chief concerns about the garden is the condition of the estate's 60-year-old hemlock hedges, which are dying after being weakened by a tiny critter called a hemlock woolly adelgid.

"The first part has been replaced," Mrs. Caron says of the hedges. "We will be holding onto the others a long time. Eventually, all will be replaced."

That means there still are plenty of the impressive 15-foot-high hemlocks for visitors to view, even though the first section has been replaced with 2-foot yews.

"It's really sad [because] the staff worked so hard on these things," Mr. Krach says. "But I always say, 'Nothing lives forever.' "

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