Baltimorean carves a green menagerie DUCK WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS

September 11, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Though it's rush hour, traffic slows to a crawl along Lake Avenue as motorists study the exotic wildlife there -- and the well-dressed woman who gives the creatures haircuts and shaves.

Snip, snip. The bear looks good as new. Clip, clip. The elephant's woody whiskers are gone. The woman moves from beast to beast, pruning shears in one hand while she waves to a passing car with the other.

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. Her yard is a tribute to topiary, an art form that has turned this 54-year-old woman into a neighborhood celebrity.

Mrs. Taylor has spent 16 years creating a topiary garden in her yard in the 1200 block of Lake Ave., in the Lake Falls community of Baltimore County, just north of the city line.

A native of Scotland, she has lived in the United States 25 years.

There were no ducks, geese or teddy bears on the front lawn when the Taylors moved into their 150-year-old, two-story house in 1978. Only grass and a small privet hedge running along busy Lake Avenue, several hundred feet east of Falls Road. The yard "was a graveyard," Mrs. Taylor recalls. "It was dull; it needed brightening up." First, she let the short, trim privet hedge grow shaggy. Then she trimmed it into an undulating shape required to create topiary.

Neighbors looked at the bizarre, wavy hedge and perhaps questioned Mrs. Taylor's sobriety. "They thought I was into the wine bottle," she jokes. Gradually, however, several waterfowl took form.

Mrs. Taylor's husband, Allan, is an avid duck hunter. "The ducks and geese gave him something to look at, year round," she says.

Year by year, and yew by yew, the menagerie grew. Dogs and frogs. Elephants and eagles. Cats and crocodiles.

Children embrace the chubby Cookie Monster into whose leafy mouth they drop -- what else? -- cookies. Songbirds flit beneath the shrubs and peck at crumbs.

Teddy bears are Mrs. Taylor's favorites. They come in yew, cedar, spruce and boxwood and practically surround the house, part of the 50 figures that delight residents and passers-by.

Mrs. Taylor's only tools are a pair of pruning shears and hand clippers. Most of her work is done freehand. She taught herself the art of topiary.

Neighbors call her Mrs. Scissorhands and marvel at her efforts.

"She has a way of seeing things in bushes that nobody else can see," says Tom Marshall, who lives next door. "She's really quite good at it. Her hands move quickly, cutting and snipping. She often works in high heels, with grace and aplomb."

Mrs. Taylor says she can whip up a rabbit in 30 minutes or three years, depending on whether "the tree is growing the way it ought to."

Residents say the topiary garden helps deter speeding along busy Lake Avenue.

"In more paranoid neighborhoods, you'd get the feeling that people were casing her house," says Mark Glickman, whose 3-year-old daughter likes to cross the street and pet the "live" ducks and bears.

"Everyone slows down in front of Maria's house. You could put a cop with a radar gun out there, and he wouldn't slow traffic as much as Maria's topiary does," Mr. Marshall says.

Tourists routinely stop to gawk and take photographs of Mrs. Taylor's handiwork. "I told my kids they should put a lemonade stand in her front yard," Mr. Marshall says. "They'd make a killing."

Mrs. Scissorhands turned a ragged old yew in the Marshalls' front yard into a 6-foot likeness of Mickey Mouse, ears and all. She completed the job in two hours.

Motorists sometimes stop and ask Mrs. Taylor to landscape their yards. Last week, a woman from Ruxton asked her to sculpt several dogs. And "a young man in a red car" stopped to ask for help with his shrubbery.

She keeps an open mind.

"If I like their trees, and the people are nice, I'll do it," she says.

Now, she says, "there are 20 gardens around Baltimore where I pop in and give the trees and shrubs a haircut." For free. Gracious homeowners have given her everything from cookies to catered meals to cardigan sweaters.

"It's play, not labor, for me," she says. "It gives me a good feeling if the topiary works out and the person can recognize it, though sometimes they must be patient for a year or two."

Mrs. Taylor finds it difficult to drive past yards with overgrown topiary begging for help. "There's an overgrown camel on Greenspring Avenue that I'd like to bring back to life, if he's in there. That would be nice," she says.

Her own topiary is always changing. Snip, snip. A benign-looking basket becomes a ferocious dinosaur. Prune, prune. A unicorn is reborn a bear.

How does she know when to quit trimming?

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

"She can make just about anything out there," Allan Taylor says of his wife. "People always know where we live. It's like saying your home is the Washington Monument."

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