Ladew gardens losing its perennial director Began as volunteer: Longtime boss Lena Caron is retiring after her gardening expertise and fund-raising made the topiary wonderland in Monkton world famous.

April 12, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk and Sherrie Ruhl | Suzanne Loudermilk and Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

The name of Mrs. E. Phillips "Bunny" Hathaway, former chairwoman of the Ladew garden committee, was reported incorrectly in a photo caption in yesterday's editions.

The Sun regrets the errors.

When Ladew Topiary Gardens in Harford County opens its wood gates for a new season April 21, one perennial will be making a final opening day appearance -- Lena Caron.

The executive director is retiring after 15 years to spend more time with her family, especially her 11-month-old granddaughter.

Mrs. Caron leaves behind a topiary and flowering wonderland that has become world famous during her tenure. It also has been recognized by the Garden Club of America as one of the country's best.


"When I came, things were getting a little bit seedy," said Mrs. Caron, who started at Ladew in 1981 as a volunteer in the gift shop. "Things needed a lot of work, and money was scarce."

Over the years, she has encouraged fund-raising events to meet the private Monkton gardens' $600,000 annual budget and has overseen a recent $2 million capital projects campaign to keep alive the dream of Harvey S. Ladew, an avid fox hunter who purchased the 250-acre estate in 1929. He created 15 formal gardens that have attracted 35,000 visitors a year from more than 40 countries.

Although Mr. Ladew died in 1976, he is not forgotten at the estate, Mrs. Caron said. "His presence is very much here. It's absolutely wonderful. He is helping us."

And, in many ways, he is. Mr. Ladew set up a portfolio of investments to maintain the gardens. But with today's labor and utility costs, the trust has not been able to cover all the expenses, including an expensive battle with a little bug -- the hemlock woolly adelgid -- that destroyed many of the property's hemlock trees.

Mrs. Caron said she wept when a large portion of the hemlocks had to be cut down last year. They have been replaced with smaller yews.

Some argue the hemlocks didn't have to be eliminated.

"The hemlocks were not in that bad of shape. And if they were cut down, they should have been replaced with other hemlocks," said landscaper Edward Hogarth, who has worked in the gardens at Ladew.

Another blow to Mrs. Caron was the loss of Mr. Ladew's original rose garden, which was destroyed by an ice storm two years ago. It has been replanted.

The top job has been a labor of love for Mrs. Caron, who said she was a housewife with little experience as a gardener before coming to Ladew. When the job of executive director became available shortly after she arrived as a volunteer, she asked for a chance to try it.

"Best decision we ever made," said Elizabeth Constable, 80, a former Ladew chairman of the board and friend of Harvey Ladew. "Lena never needed a degree. She taught herself; she loved to plant, and she can grow anything."

In addition to her duties as executive director, Mrs. Caron, who lives in Bel Air with her husband, Roger, became the gardening superintendent in 1983.

"I learned on the job," the mother of three and grandmother of one said. "I just started looking after the garden and became very interested and started visiting gardens all over the United States and Europe."

Mrs. Caron poured her soul into the job, Mrs. Constable said. "She did everything we asked her to do. She never thought about a 40-hour week, more like 60 or 65 hours a week."

The hard work has paid off. Now, Mrs. Caron, who declined to give her age but is said to be in her mid-60s, is well-known on the gardening circuit, traveling around the country lecturing and touting the beauty of Ladew in such publications as Southern Living magazine.

Replacing the energetic director won't be easy, board members say. But the process has begun, and 30 people have applied. A successor is expected to be named by June 1.

"We are not looking for someone to do both jobs like Lena did. We are looking for an executive director," said Mrs. Constable, who is on the search committee. "That person's mission will be to see that the whole place runs smoothly."

The Ladew staff includes 12 full- and part-time gardeners plus workers who are hired during the summer. There also are 80 to 100 volunteers who perform duties from staffing the gift shop to giving tours of Mr. Ladew's manor house, which is open to the public and included in the $8 admission.

Visitors can skip the house tour and view the gardens for $6. The cost for children is $2 for the house and gardens, $1 for the gardens; senior citizens, $7 for house and gardens, $5 for the gardens.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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