Ladew Gardens turns trimming into an art

Photos Courtesy of Ladew Topiary Gardens.

The next time you think about complaining while trimming a client’s shrubs, think about the grounds staff at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Md. Not only do they have 22 acres of manicured grounds to keep up with, there are also scores of topiaries to keep trimmed. Ladew, after all, is the largest topiary garden in North America.

The world-famous grounds were originally installed by Harvey S. Ladew in the middle decades of the 1900s. Ladew was born into wealth, and pursued his passions for gardening and sports, most notably fox hunting. In some cases, those pursuits overlapped. To this day, visitors to Ladew are greeted by a massive topiary scene of a horse jumping over a fence and six individual topiary hounds and a fox. The property, which includes the gardens and Manor House, opened to the public in 1971, and some 25,000 visitors stop by each year to marvel at the topiaries and grounds.

Tyler Diehl is head of gardens at Ladew, where the gardens staff numbers four full-time employees supplemented by an additional six or seven seasonal employees at certain times throughout the year. “Everyone helps with everything,” he says of the approach to grounds care at Ladew.

A hunt scene, complete with topiary rider and horse jumping a fence and individual topiary hounds and fox, greet visitors toLadew Topiary Gardens.

Diehl worked at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania before coming to Ladew, where he has been for the past nine years. A well-rehearsed system has been put in place for keeping the entire property looking great.

There is one large area of turfgrass, the 1-acre Great Bowl, at Ladew. The rest of the lawns are smaller and woven throughout the gardens. The turf is overseen by Phil Krach, longtime Ladew employee.

Preemergent weed control is done in the spring, followed by a monthly spot-spraying with a backpack spray­er for crabgrass and dallasgrass. “The goal is just to keep things under control,” says Diehl. “We used to do a mass spraying of all areas, but Phil has really done a great job at improving the health of the lawns and reducing the weeds, so much less spraying is done today. That also helps reduce our costs, which, for a nonprofit group such as ours, is important.”

Two zero-turn mowers, a 63-inch Dixie Chopper and a 46-inch Ferris, are used for most of the mowing, supplemented by two 19-inch Toro walk-behind mowers used in tight areas. A John Deere 545 is used for outlying rougher areas around the property. “With five people mowing, we can knock everything out in about four to five hours,” says Diehl. After the mowing is done, walkways are cleared with blowers. String trimming, another time-consuming task, takes place on a nearly ongoing basis around Ladew, he adds.

Turfgrass is an important aesthetic element at Ladew and helps to frame theproperty’s renowned topiaries.

Unlike many gardens and grounds open to the public, Ladew welcomes visitors throughout the week, so there’s no day off from visitors to get mowing and other intensive maintenance done. “We usually start mowing around 10 a.m., after the grass has dried,” says Diehl. “We just try as best we can to avoid disturbing visitors. Sometimes mowing takes a bit longer because we’ll stop the mowers when we’re near visitors in order to let them pass by.”

High-traffic turfed areas are core-aerated and topdressed with sand; the remaining portions of the lawns are core-aerated and topdressed with compost. These practices take place twice each year, the first mid-spring and the second mid-autumn. “We have pull-behind unit for large areas, and we rent a walk-behind unit for smaller areas,” explains Diehl. “We use a graded sand for topdressing, it’s all one size rather than different sizes, which we’ve found works better. We put that down by hand using coffee cans in areas that receive a lot of wear.”

The topdressing is then raked in by hand using the back side of a dirt rake. In larger areas, where compost topdressing is applied, a homemade drag mat is used to bust up the cores. “It’s all hands on deck during this process. There’s anywhere from six to eight up us working on aerating. We take turns on the walk-behind unit, because that can wear you out in tight areas.”

An older Ryan slit seeder/dethatcher is used throughout the grounds at Ladew as needed, depending on the condition of the turf. A local contractor does the fertilizing and spraying of turf. “A lot of areas we do just once per year; some other high-traffic areas get two applications per year,” Diehl explains. “In some other outlying areas, we don’t fertilize at all, we just take soil samples and monitor the conditions. Our compost topdressing really improves the CEC [cation exchange capacity] of the soil, so it holds on to the nitrogen longer.”

In addition to the topiaries, Ladewfeatures different garden érooms_with no shortage of landscapeplantings and turfgrass.

The lawns are an important part of the aesthetics of the landscape at Ladew, helping to frame the rest of the gardens, which are divided into “rooms” filled with extensive tree, shrub and flower plantings (along with the topiaries). “We have the White Garden, the Red Garden and so on,” explains Diehl. “Mr. Ladew was on the forefront of gardening, so we have a lot of unusual plantings and some state champion trees. The woody plant material stays pretty much the same, but we change out annual flower plantings each year, and we usually do about 8,000 to 12,000 bulbs in the fall. We all work together and with the auger running it actually goes pretty quickly.”

Ladew Topiary Gardens is typically open from about April 1 to October 31, and then again in December for Christmas open house events. The off-season gives the grounds staff a chance to handle tree maintenance. “The best scenario is when it gets cold enough for the ground to freeze; then we can do a lot of work without tearing things up,” says Diehl. Most tree work is done in-house, with contractors and bucket trucks brought in if trees next to buildings or gardens require work.

Of course, for visitors, the trees and turf are nice, but most come to see the majestic topiaries. About half of the topiaries on the property are Canadian hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis), followed by yew (Taxus), privit and a small amount of boxwood and carpinus. “Hemlock is very uncommon as a plant material for topiaries,” says Diehl. “It’s more common to see yew and privit.”

In addition to the fox hunting scene near the entry, the grounds contain many buttress hedges, as well as a large swan hedge with a total of 12 topiary swans swimming on what appears to be waves and a sculpture garden comprised of many different topiary designs. “We follow the original designs that Mr. Ladew installed in the gardens, so we’re maintaining something that’s anywhere from 50 to 75 years old, which can be difficult sometimes,” says Diehl. He says that as long as the plants remain healthy and are growing well, it’s possible to do a lot of rejuvenating, especially with the yew and privit topiaries. “Of course, just like any type of gardening, there are times when plants just die, either from disease or rodent damage, when there’s just nothing you can do about it.”

Zero-turn units handle much of the mowing at the property, helping to navigatetight areas between topiaries.

If a major plant in a topiary dies, it can take a long time to replace it fully. Some might take five  years, others can take 25 years. “A few years back, we had one plant die in a topiary called The Modern Man, which includes one plant that’s a dog and two other plants that made up a man. It just turned completely yellow. So, unfortunately, we had to replace both plants,” Diehl recalls. Even small damage can be a major issue. A visitor later damaged the nose of the dog in that topiary, and it will take three to five years for the plant to grow back into shape. “You just have to have patience,” says Diehl of the secret to caring for topiaries.

As long as the site is determined not to have contributed to the plant’s death, new plants are typically place directly back into the original hole. “They go back on top of where the other plant was,” he explains. “Mr. Ladew used a lot of metal frames, and we have a person on staff with welding skills. In other times, we just start the plant freehand.”

The staff scouts the topiaries for pests and disease throughout the year, but the most attention devoted to this centerpiece of the grounds comes during regular trimmings. Hemlock, boxwood and Taxus are trimmed once per year. The hemlock, for example, can’t be trimmed until the summer heat has passed to avoid “sunburning” the plant. The others can be trimmed after growth has hardened off. In some plants, the new growth each year can be extensive (12 to 18 inches with the hemlock); others grow much slower (Taxus might have 4 to 6 inches). The privit topiaries might be sheared up to seven times each year. Some other plants require a second trimming to clean up any late growth, usually in November. “We usually just go around with hand shears for that job,” says Diehl.

The topiaries are pruned with both commercial electric pruners andhand-held pruners, and at times can involve ladders, lifts and hundreds of feet ofextension cords.

The major midyear trimmings, however, are completed mostly with commercial Little Giant electric hedge shears with 18 to 36-inch blades, some double-sided and some single-sided. “We have extension cords running all over the place,” says Diehl. The process is aided by ARS hand shears. “The hand shears are fairly expensive, but the metal is very hard and they work very well,” he says. “We have one pair here that’s nearly 20 years old and still works fine, and they get used a lot.”

Diehl says that trimming topiaries takes both an artistic vision and some skill: “There are some people who just can’t seem to cut a straight line,” he jokes. “The most important thing is to have a lot of patience, you can’t hurry it along.” The forms can help in terms of trimming, but over time they can also hurt, he adds. “If the branches get too large for the holes in the form, it can lead to girdling.”

The different plant species also respond differently to trimming. “Taxus is very forgiving. You can whack it pretty hard, and it responds nicely. Of course, you still need to be careful not to do something like cut the wing off a bird,” says Diehl. Boxwood, on the other hand, is very slow-growing and therefore requires a more delicate touch. Some of the topiaries are so large that a 40-foot articulating lift is brought in to trim the tops.

Visitors are full of questions when they watch topiary trimming take place, says Diehl. “Many people are surprised to learn that only about 30 percent of the time is spent shearing, the rest of the time is spent with the hand pruners, either deadwooding or making small holes in the shape to help get light and air into the plant. If you have a plant with a dense mat on the outside, it will keep the plant wet on the inside and cause disease and insect problems.”

That’s an important lesson that Ladew Topiary Gardens tries to convey to the many landscapers and gardeners who stop by or call wanting to learn more about topiaries. “What people see on the surface is very impressive, but it’s just part of the plant,” says Diehl.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.