Gardens Among Us

Gardens Among Us

I know lots of people who live in northern New Jersey who have never been to see the Statue of Liberty. I also know people who live in western New York State who have never visited Niagara Falls. Chances are very good that some Philadelphia natives have never seen the Liberty Bell, as well. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate or even see things that are familiar.

Freeman Gardens in Glen Ridge is so familiar to borough residents and so reliably beautiful during the growing season, that it is sometimes taken for granted. It shouldn’t be so. As public gardens go, it is tiny. As treasures go, it is large.

The garden itself was created in 1935 for Clayton Freeman, a prominent Glen Ridge resident and civic benefactor. Another borough resident, Ethelbert Furlong, was the landscape architect responsible for the project, one of many that contributed to his long and distinguished career in landscape design. Starting out, before 1910, as a teenage “gopher” for a landscaping firm, Furlong, who was largely self-taught, eventually hung out his own shingle in 1921. Twelve years later he became a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. But even before his admission to the ASLA, he designed many formal layouts for a number of estates in Montclair and elsewhere.

Furlong’s career was interrupted by voluntary military service during World War II, and the end of that conflict also marked a turning point in his life as a garden designer. In the late 1940’s his designs evolved from English-inspired formal schemes to more stark, modern plans with a decidedly Asian feel. Some of these gardens still exist in northern New Jersey, including the one at his own home. Furlong’s work was widely published in trade and shelter magazines, including House Beautiful, which commissioned him to design a landscape for its 1949 “Pace Setter House”, featured on one of the magazine’s covers. At the zenith of his career, he collaborated with celebrated architect Phillip Johnson on the design for a Japanese Garden for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Though the style of Furlong’s gardens changed over time, some elements remained constant, and Freeman Gardens is full of them. In the less formal parts of the layout there are many subtle changes of level that invite garden visitors to step carefully and observe closely. There are also mixed hardscaping materials such slate walks, brick walls and rough stones. At the back of the garden, unworking but still extent, is a small, characteristic water feature. At one time the fountainhead, which is affixed to a brick wall, was meant to spill a trickle of water into the basin below. If you stand at the foot of the central axis of the garden’s formal area, this water feature emerges as the focal point that it was intended to be.

The garden has beautiful bones all year long, but during the growing season, the roses hold center stage. Two arches flank the north/south axis, and every spring they are covered with hundreds of golden blooms. The rose beds are formal, and filled with hybrid tea roses whose health is a tribute to the volunteer “angels” who tend them. My favorite of all the roses at Freeman is ‘Double Delight’. It is a robust shrub to begin with, and some of the specimens in the garden produce flower stems so tall that I barely have to bend to sniff the blossoms. And sniffing is a must with ‘Double Delight’. Its big rose and cream blossoms are among the most highly scented of any hybrid tea’s.

When I walk among the roses, I also take a trip back in time. My father’s favorite red roses, ‘Chrysler Imperial’ and ‘Mr. Lincoln’ are there, as is that perennial bestseller, ‘Peace’. The Freeman ‘Peace’ bushes sport flowers as big as butter plates. My father, if he were still alive, would die of jealousy.

Though I am an unabashed rose fan, I find myself drawn to the corners of this vest pocket garden, away from the formal beds. In the early spring, the margins and shady areas are full of snowdrops and violets. Later in the summer there are scads of hostas, including exceptionally fragrant white ones that I think must be the ‘Aphrodite’ cultivar. There are also some lovely rhododendrons and an apple tree in the middle. In the fall, a sign exhorts garden visitors to help the clean-up efforts by picking up the windfalls and depositing them in a conveniently placed bucket.

The out-of-the-way corners contain at least part of the soul of Freeman gardens, but they also give mute testimony to the need for additional “angels”. Members of the non-profit Freeman Gardens Association have cared for the little park since 1968. Now, Ray Heun of Glen Ridge, who is President of the Association, is trying to interest a local service club in providing additional volunteers. He also hopes that some of the local people who come to Freeman to stroll, or picnic, have parties or listen to summer concerts will pitch in.

At this time of year, all gardens, public and private, sleep, like bears in winter. Come spring those bears will need a gentle awakening in the form of a good clean up. Consider the public garden nearest where you live, and mark the first day of spring on your calendar. When it comes, call to volunteer.

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