A garden tended with love

This garden shines because of its volunteers.

Photos by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rosarian: Horace Ashenfelter of Glen Ridge, N.J., who began volunteering in Freeman Gardens 20 years ago, is now the primary caretaker for the hundreds of roses in the garden. The public garden, designed by Ethelbert Furlong, has formal spaces as well as places to sit and rest.

Almost every day during the growing season, Horace Ashenfelter of Glen Ridge, N.J., leaves his house early in the morning and walks up the street to unlock the gates to Freeman Gardens, a tiny public space filled with plants, songbirds, and local history.

Several times a week, he brings along a pair of sturdy clippers and spends an hour or two tending the garden’s extensive rose beds.

Freeman Gardens has been around for more than 70 years. Mr. Ashenfelter has been around for a few more. Fifty-six years ago, he broke a world steeplechase record as a member of the US Olympic team. Now, at a more leisurely pace, he is part of a small but devoted corps of volunteers who maintain the singular vest-pocket garden.

Freeman Gardens, which is about the size of two residential lots, came into being in 1935, at the end of the heyday of American estate gardening. Its designer, Ethelbert Furlong, worked mainly in the Northeast, creating many English-inspired formal gardens in the years between the two world wars.

Furlong’s client, Clayton Freeman, was a wealthy local businessman and philanthropist who wanted a garden to complement his graceful suburban house. The landscape architect responded with a design that featured a rectangular, formal rose garden.

The rose beds have been expanded over the years, but the brick path that forms the main east-west axis still draws the visitor’s eye back to a brick wall situated on an elevated terrace.

The wall’s focal point, a dolphin-shaped fountainhead, stands ready to pour water into the basin below.

The Freeman family donated the garden to the Borough of Glen Ridge in 1967. The Freeman Gardens Association, a committee of volunteers, has maintained it ever since.

The rose beds command center stage when the bushes are in bloom, but the garden also features less formal spaces, including a sitting area and grassy lawn.

In spring, hundreds of snowdrops announce the season and a spicy fragrance wafts from the flowering viburnum shrub near the entrance. A weeping cherry tree clothes itself in pink blossoms, as does a Carolina silver bell tree.

At the end of the annual May rose riot, beds of iris come alive with color. By August, a shady area behind the rose beds is fragrant with the scent of old-fashioned, white-flowered hostas, while grapes ripen on an arbor.

The roses return to glory in September and early October and sometimes continue flowering sporadically into November.

Nearly a decade ago, the association added another piece of local history to the garden with the addition of the Sunnycrest Gates, a pair of wrought-iron gates that once adorned a long-demolished local estate. Saved from the scrap yard by an anonymous donor and refurbished by the association, they now stand in front of the rose garden.

Ashenfelter began volunteering in the garden about 20 years ago when the association needed someone to spray the roses. As a Pennsylvania farm boy, he had learned to spray the fruit trees in his father’s orchard, and the experience proved invaluable at Freeman Gardens.

Spraying inevitably led to pruning, deadheading, weeding, and general rose care. Now he is the primary caretaker for the hundreds of roses in the garden.

His work as a volunteer rosarian caps a long and illustrious career. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he attended Penn State University, breaking records as a competitive runner.

After graduation, the student athlete became an FBI agent and continued running in his spare time. He won the gold medal in the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. A few years later, he and his family settled in Glen Ridge.

“I have a lot of fun down here,” says Ashenfelter, as he clips rose canes, lops root suckers from grafted bushes, and inspects the plants for signs of rose midge, a tenacious pest.

Most of the roses are hybrid teas, with a few older varieties interspersed throughout the beds. A vigorous yellow climber, Golden Showers, scrambles up the two arches on either end of the rose garden. He is especially fond of Double Delight, which has ivory petals tipped in red and a rich fragrance.

The garden comes alive in Ashenfelter’s descriptions of the weddings, band concerts, parties, and other events that have been held there over the years. He is devoted to the resident songbirds and small wildlife.

Freeman Gardens casts such a spell that he even admits to visiting sometimes without his clippers. “Once in awhile, I come down in the evening just to sit,” he says. “Others do the same.”

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