The lasting legacy of a master gardener

Profile: Born to leisure, Harvey Ladew created a work of art that continues to delight.

May 09, 1999|By KAROL V. MENZIE | KAROL V. MENZIE,SUN STAFF

Harvey Ladew was a horseman, artist, traveler, raconteur, wit, bon vivant, generous host and superb gardener who never held a job, never married and rarely completed a project. He lived on inherited wealth and spent his days wining, dining, partying, playing polo and chasing foxes. Yet when he died in 1976, he left the world a 22-acre masterpiece of a garden, now known as Ladew Topiary Gardens, that has been admired and written about by visitors from all over the world.

"A lot of his life was 'Been there, done that, what's next to try?' " said Christopher Weeks, whose biography of Ladew, "Perfectly Delightful," is being published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press ($32.50).

"He was many things," Weeks said. "He barely finished boarding school, and he must have viewed himself as self- educated. He remained a little boy all his life, interested in everything -- sports, music, theater, gossip.

"If he hadn't made the garden, his life would be like a Liz Smith column -- with all apologies to Liz Smith. But he did do something. We value artists, and he did create something that will endure. ... I'd say his life was worthwhile."

Whatever else it was, Ladew's life was lots of fun. He had money to entertain, and to travel (he visited Turkey, Jerusalem, Iraq and Persia when those lands were known to only a handful of Europeans). He counted among his friends T.E. Lawrence, Billy Baldwin, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and scores of other royalty, including that of stage and screen.

Ladew was influenced by the gardens he saw while fox hunting in England and in Italy, which featured clipped hedges and plants clipped and trimmed to resemble animals or geometric shapes. He was also influenced by the Arts and Craft Movement, which favored garden "rooms" with hedges and fences for walls. The gardens in the rooms were often planted in one color. In his turn, Ladew continues to influence gardening in Maryland.

was influenced by the gardens he saw while fox hunting in England and in Italy, which featured clipped hedges and plants clipped and trimmed to resemble animals or geometric shapes. He was also influenced by the Arts and Craft Movement, which favored garden "rooms" with hedges and fences for walls. The gardens in the rooms were often planted in one color. In his turn, Ladew continues to influence gardening in Maryland.

"I remember my grandfather and maybe my father working with him," said Michael McWilliams, president of Maxalea Inc., a Baltimore plant and landscaping firm. "He bought plant materials from us."

Besides the topiary, McWilliams said, Ladew brought two other things to Maryland that continue to be popular today: garden rooms and the use of water as a decorative element. "We have a lot of clients that go there and see something they like," and want to create something similar, McWilliams said.

When Weeks, 49, a local architectural historian who has been on the Ladew consulting committee since 1985, was asked about 10 years ago to write about Ladew, the book was meant to be a history of the garden in southern Harford County. But as he began the research, he realized there was far more to the story.

"There's so much about him that it would be a shame not to get into print," Weeks said. "I don't think he ever threw anything away -- that's a biographer's dream and nightmare."

Among other materials stashed away all over the house, Weeks had an unfinished autobiography and 50 years' worth of letters Ladew wrote to his sister Elise, to whom he was very close, to work from. There are also photographs, invitations and greeting cards created by Ladew to illustrate the book amply.

"No one had ever written about Mr. Ladew," said Ladew's executive director, Jenny Shattuck. While he was known for the gardens, he lived a life as colorful as his flowers, she said. "Not many people get to pursue their interests as he did."

Ladew had a wide circle of friends, both male and female, but there never was a Mrs. Ladew. In the book, Weeks is discreet without being disingenuous about Ladew's sexual preferences. Ladew, born in 1887, "was literally a Victorian," Weeks said. "Some things he didn't discuss. What is it they said -- there are three things you don't talk about: money, religion and sex."

Toward the end of his life, Ladew fretted that he was going broke, and was troubled by illness. He feared his hopes of leaving the garden for the public to enjoy would not be realized. Although he complained about all these things in letters to his sister, Weeks said, "He always added, 'Fortunately, I never worry.' "

Now that the book is finished, Weeks has discovered that he misses Harvey Ladew. "I've missed having him as a daily friend."

Fortunately, there is a great deal of Ladew in the garden -- from the witty topiary hounds and fox that first greet visitors inside the gates, to the sumptuous Great Bowl with its oval swimming pool in the center, to the beautiful color-themed gardens and floral "hallways."

It may matter only to other gardeners that Ladew created his white garden long before the much more famous one Vita Sackville-West made at Sissinghurst in England, Weeks said, but everyone can enjoy seeing it.

"I have found it's fun to take young children and watch them run around. It may be more fun to think of Harvey and Cole Porter with martinis running into the Great Bowl to the pool, but it works for everybody."

If you go:

Ladew Gardens, 3535 Jarrettsville Pike in Harford County. Open April 15 through Oct. 31. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tours range from $8 to $12 for adults. Call 410-557-9570.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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