Going Back to My Garden Roots

June 29, 2011 | By | Comments (5)


Where did you start as a gardener? For me, it was a special place named Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, about 35 minutes north of Baltimore. My dad, a lifelong gardener desperately searching for something to motivate his listless teenage son, got me a summer job there many moons ago. I pulled weeds, mowed grass, pruned shrubs, planted flowers, and sweated like a pig from dawn to dusk.

It made me Grumpy.

That photo at the top is the Garden’s centerpiece called the “Great Bowl.” A 2-acre bowl-shaped lawn with a pool and fountain sits in front of the Terrace Garden, featuring hemlocks and yews sheared into obelisks, cubes, garlands. Pruning plants into both representative and fanciful shapes is the art of topiary. More than 100 topiaries find a home at Ladew, but the one below is its most famous.


The Garden’s creator, Harvey S. Ladew, wanted nothing more than to be an English country gentleman. This meant that instead of going to work every day like the rest of us rubes, he spent his time puffing on cigars, sipping brandy, chasing ladies, growing flowers, and hunting foxes. (I know, I know — that sounds a lot like chasing ladies.) In the Hunt Scene, above, a topiary horse and rider leap a fence hot on the heels of topiary hounds and a distant topiary fox.

Radiating out from the Great Bowl are a number of theme gardens. Some, like the Rose and Iris Gardens, are centered around a particular plant. Others, such as the Yellow, White, and Pink Gardens, have a unifying color in the flowers and foliage of their plants.

Grumpy’s Favorite Spot

Whilst enjoying a recent well-deserved vacation in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, I had the opportunity to take my family on a tour of Ladew one sunny afternoon. I quickly led them to my favorite garden in the place — the Iris Garden. Because it’s the lowest point in the Garden and is surrounded by trees, it was a brutally hot place to work in summer — not a breath of air. But to my mind, it was always the prettiest. So let’s explore it, as you enjoy the air-contioned comfort of your home.


Here we are at the top, looking down. You’ll notice that although it’s called the Iris Garden, its beds are filled with all sorts of perennials, grasses, grasses, shrubs, trees, and ground covers. This gives it color and form the year-round.


And here we are near the bottom looking up. That’s catmint (Nepeta x faasenii) in front and a huge ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple in back.

I love all the textural and color combinations here. Note how mounds of garnet-leafed Heuchera echo the color of the Japanese maple. And don’t you like how they look paired with yellow daylilies? Hey, what’s that white stuff just beyond?


As Gomer said, “Go-OLLL-ly!” Grumpy guesses it is gaura (Gaura lindheimeri). White blossoms on wispy stems hover like butterflies above the garden. This native perennial loves sun and heat and laughs at drought. If you hate maintenance, you’ll love this.

Grumpy knows what’s you’re thinking: “Why do they call it the Iris Garden? So far I’ve seen everything but irises!” OK, here you go. How’s this?


These are Japanese irises growing near the bottom of the garden. At the very bottom sits a pond with a topiary Chinese junk in the middle. Harvey was very protective of this topiary. I clearly remember hearing him say, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”


Those people in the back are my family peeps, Judy and Brian. Brian is about the same age as I was when I worked at Ladew. He says this tour has inspired him. Having grown an avocado tree from the pit and then a pot of basil from seed, he’s now trying his hand at a Chia head. Don’t be too ambitious, Son!

Parting Thoughts

On our way back to the car, we passed through the Garden of Eden, where I spotted these wise words carved into the steps below. Can you read what they say? (Photo not so good — but it’s free!)


It’s a Chinese proverb. They say, “If you would be happy for a week, take a wife.” (Really? A whole week?) “If you would be happy for a month, kill your pig.” (Makes sense. Our pig loves to waller in the kitchen. So embarrassing.)

But it’s the third and final step I couldn’t fit into the picture that says it all. “If you would be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.”

So true. Of course, you might wind up Grumpy instead.

For Your Information & Edification

You can walk in Grumpy’s teenage footsteps and reenact his every move! To visit Ladew Topiary Gardens, go to http://www.ladewgardens.com or call (410) 557-9466. Tell them Grumpy sent you. They will bow in your honor.


  1. Darren Green

    I also got my start in gardening as a worthless brain dead teenager. I worked in a nursery pulling weeds, planting cuttings, tagging plants, and filling buckets. From that point on I was addicted to the smell of dirt.
    Darren Green, ASLA
    Landscape Architect

    July 4, 2011 at 10:46 pm
  2. Jean

    So this is what got you into the gardening business? I think you chose well. Your gardening expertise and humor are always welcome here. Pretty garden Grump.

    June 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm
  3. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Cameron, your suggestion inspires me! I can think of no loftier goal.
    Helen, Southerners love pig guts. And big guts. And big pig guts.

    June 30, 2011 at 8:06 am
  4. Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence

    You have shared this story with me before so I can attest, the ending is the same. My fave is the Chinese proverb. Not real sure about the pig bit; but my gut tells me it has nothing to do with it rooting around in the kitchen. H,

    June 30, 2011 at 7:19 am
  5. Cameron

    I had no idea that you had such a lofty start in gardening. Clearly, you were inspired. Sharing that with your family…priceless!
    Sharing the tour with us….now we want to see you create topiary in the shape of a beer bottle! Make it portable. I see a Super Bowl half-time show in your future.

    June 29, 2011 at 8:58 pm

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