'Sad day' for good of Ladew gardens

October 12, 1995|By PHYLLIS BRILL | PHYLLIS BRILL,SUN STAFF

Chain saws roar as Lena Caron walks the perimeter of the Croquet Court at Ladew Topiary Gardens shaking her head, holding back tears. This is the week the 60-year-old wall of Eastern hemlock trees surrounding the courtthan 100 trees that had been shaped over time into a perfectly manicured garden of 15-foot-high windowed walls and archways. The stumps make the northwest Harford County estate, considered one of the premier topiary gardens in the United States, look like the victim of bad razor cut.

And all because of a bug: the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insidious killer that sucks the tree's sap while injecting lethal spittle. The tiny insect has destroyed more than half the hemlock hedges and topiaries planted by the gardens' founder more than a half-century ago.

"It's a sad day, but we had to do it for the future of Ladew," said Mrs. Caron. As executive director, she has overseen the gardens in Monkton for more than 15 years.

"It's just something that had to be done," she said, again and again.

Ladew Topiary Gardens were designed and built by Harvey S. Ladew, an avid fox hunter who purchased the 250-acre estate near Jarrettsville in Harford County in 1929. He renovated the 18th-century farmhouse into an English manor house and created 15 formal gardens of flowering plants and topiary -- trees and shrubs trimmed into ornamental shapes.

Mr. Ladew died in 1976, five years after creating a foundation to keep the gardens alive and open to the public. The house and gardens are on the National Register of Historic Places and are visited by more than 30,000 people a year.

The hemlock devastation isn't all the insects' doing, Mrs. Caron said.

The hemlocks are graceful trees with soft needles meant to grow in the wild, not in formal gardens where they are subject to continual pruning, leaving them vulnerable to illness. In 60 years, the hemlocks have withstood droughts, soil compaction, heavy shearing in hot summers and, of late, repeated spraying to control the adelgid.

fTC Old age and stress have been particularly hard on the trees, said Mrs. Caron, "but it was the bug that brought it all to a head."

The adelgid, which are active in winter, live by the hundreds in tiny white pods that give a snowy look to branches and leaves. Once infected, even an intense treatment of spraying the hemlocks with a horticultural oil and pumping them with nutrients can't keep them from dying. The insect, which invaded this country from Japan decades ago, has killed thousands of acres of hemlocks from Maine to the Carolinas.

"We first saw spots about 10 years ago, and we'd just spray them. Then suddenly, it exploded," Mrs. Caron said.

The insects so heavily damaged Ladew's hemlocks that in the fall of 1993 the entire north rim of the Great Bowl -- the large round open garden where Sunday evening concerts are held every summer -- had to be torn out.

More than 70 hemlocks, the oldest and tallest on the property, were replaced with smaller yews at a cost of about $45,000.

On Tuesday, workers began chopping down about 130 trees, some with trunks nearly a foot in diameter. The entire perimeter of the rectangular Croquet Court garden and the Secret Room, created in a corner of the court, will be gone by week's end.

In place of the 15-foot-high hemlocks, workers will plant an emerald green variety of arborvitae half that size and two varieties of a shorter yew.

"The whole look of the garden will not be the same. It will be healthy and nice, but it will take many years to get it back to the secretness and feeling of being enclosed," Mrs. Caron said.

Some of the sculptures at Ladew, like the hedge in the Great Bowl with floating swans carved across its top, were created of yew or privet and have been untouched by the adelgid.

But more than 80 percent of the topiaries on the estate were carved from the Eastern hemlock, a favorite of Mr. Ladew because it grew rather quickly and had a graceful look.

Inside the house and away from the buzz of the saws, Mrs. Caron tried to focus on the improvements.

Renovations to the Croquet Court will take about a month to complete, she said. Besides replacing trees and shrubs, crews will install a new drainage system in the garden, replace existing soil with a better mixture and reroute a couple of fountains so that water can be recirculated more efficiently in the area.

The whole project, at a cost of about $60,000 taken from the foundation's private funds, should be complete by Nov. 15. The other gardens at Ladew will remain open to visitors during the renovation.

"The foundation and the staff are trying to look at this in a positive way," Mrs. Caron said.

"With improvements to the lawn and soil, I think we can make the garden just as attractive as when Mr. Ladew first started it.

"It's ugly now, but sometimes things have to be ugly before they can be beautiful again."

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