Ladew vision in full bloom

Irises: A $500,000 restoration has completed the last piece of the late Harvey S. Ladew's topiary garden.

May 20, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Jim McDaniel recalls watching many visitors to Ladew Topiary Gardens stop at the edge of the overgrown iris garden, peering into thick trees and shrubs that overshadowed the delicate flowers.

Most never got much farther than the rickety steps, said McDaniel, Ladew's head of gardens.

But today, after a $500,000 restoration at the Harford County landmark, the now-sunny garden is filled with people strolling among more than 700 irises planted around a bubbling 200-foot stream. "It's everything I hoped it would be," McDaniel said. "It's a peaceful garden to walk through. I like the sound, the way it flows."

The iris garden was the last to be installed by Harvey S. Ladew, a foxhunter and horticulturist from New York, who designed 22 acres of striking formal gardens and whimsical topiary at his 250-acre estate on Jarrettsville Pike.

His vision for the iris garden was to blend Mediterranean and Asian themes along a stream. However, illness and advancing age prevented him from finishing the project before he died at age 89 in 1976.

Over the years, the stream never evolved beyond a leaky concrete culvert. The irises withered under a canopy of overgrown trees. "It just lost that iris-garden feeling," McDaniel said.

Two years ago, the nonprofit foundation that has run the gardens since the 1970s set out to renew the garden and complete Ladew's vision of "garden rooms," with names such as Yellow, White and Meadow, that grew out of a color or natural theme.

"The initial challenge was to keep in the spirit of Mr. Ladew. He had a great sense of whimsy. He also had an understated elegance in everything he did," said Allan Summers, project manager for Rodney D. Robinson Landscape Architects, the Wilmington, Del., company that designed the garden, stream and raised overlook at the head of the garden.

McDaniel said the design called for keeping original crab apples, magnolias and a Japanese maple. They were fenced off before excavators came in and peeled away the rest of the garden, down to the roots.

For two years, Robinson worked with the garden committee, using photographs and old correspondence as a design guide. He consulted noted iris expert Bruce Hornstein in choosing the iris varieties (there are more than 60), and Hornstein provided about 600 irises for the project.

Nancy Brewster, Ladew's garden committee chairwoman, says the results are terrific.

"I'm absolutely thrilled with it," she said. "I like the layout more. It's a wide vista."

From the overlook at the head of the garden, visitors get an expansive view of the stream splashing across hand-laid stones into a trio of pools as it winds down the garden's middle. Italianate scroll topiary curl around the top pool while a red-sailed Chinese junk topiary pops up from the bottom pool. Ladew's Japanese maple graces the edge of the second pool, creating a transition between the two themes.

In the streamside beds, Mediterranean bearded irises blend with Japanese and Siberian irises and other flowering plants and shrubs to extend the time when the garden is blossoming, Summers said.

"What strikes me is the wonderful flow and elegance that's been restored, not only in the water feature but the way your eye travels down the garden," Summers said.

The project is one of the largest for the Ladew foundation, which has an annual operating budget of about $820,000. The $500,000 was fairly evenly divided among the landscaping, stream rebuilding and overlook construction, said spokeswoman Karen Babcock.

The public gardens are the site of a full schedule of events each year, including lectures, plant sales and performances. The Ladew Concert Series of concerts from 6 to 8 p.m. Sundays, begins June 9 with the bluegrass Satyr Hill Band. Ragtime, Gaelic, jazz, steel drum and Cajun bands also are scheduled.

Speakers will include Hornstein, who will speak May 31 on iris culture, and Amy Goldman, who will discuss preserving agricultural heritage in fruits and vegetables June 13.

On a recent morning, lemon-colored laburnum hung full and heavy like grapes on an archway in Ladew's Yellow Garden. Topiary swans floated along a neatly clipped yew hedge.

Near the croquet court, a few young hemlock topiaries, filling in around their metal frames, were the only vestige of a woolly adelgid infestation in the mid-1980s that forced the garden staff to remove and replant almost a quarter of Ladew's original hemlock topiary.

Walking across the Great Bowl, an open expanse of green that sits in the center of the gardens, Ladew's executive director, Emily Emerick, said she hopes the restored iris garden and the busy events schedule will draw new visitors and old friends to Ladew. "I think it will blow their socks off if they come see what we have now."

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