Mission Accomplished

A stunning garden in Zanesville is fostering a community-wide interest in preserving green spaces.

A path winds through mature plantings at Mission Oaks Gardens.

Dan Mosora

Volunteer Stephanie Zullo leads Josephine and Leo, dogs that greet visitors and help to chase deer away.

Dan Mosora

One of two ponds on the property

Dan Mosora

Mission Oaks Gardens is a private oasis in Zanesville.

Dan Mosora

It's a Thursday morning at Mission Oaks Gardens in Zanesville, and this five-acre oasis tucked into a residential neighborhood is full of activity. Two walkers take their daily 10:15 a.m. break by the lily-padded pond. Three master gardeners deadhead faded golden blooms of Lady’s Mantle. And a retired forester installs a nameplate for the garden’s latest addition, a Cunninghamia lanceolata (China fir).

For 20 years, Albert “Bert” Hendley, the now-public green space’s original owner, passionately acquired unusual plants from around the world to fill his garden, but today this 74-year-old’s greatest pleasure is seeing others enjoy his plants.

“I love to show visitors something that they haven’t seen,” says Hendley of his collection of 300 hardwood trees, 200 conifers and hundreds of flowering shrubs and perennials.

It’s no wonder visitors and gardening volunteers are intrigued by this once-abandoned property. Hendley was first introduced to gardening at age 6, when he moved with his family to a historic home in rural North Carolina. There, he says, a retired plantation worker let him tag along as he restored the six-acre property’s orchards and gardens. The lessons proved invaluable years later, when Hendley and his wife Susan began the overwhelming task of restoring Mission Oaks.

When Susan first showed him the abandoned mansion in 1988, he had his doubts. “[I said] you’ve got to be crazy. This place is a dump,” he recalls. The home had been built in 1925 by a businessman for his mistress, a party dress designer during the Roaring ’20s. Over time, it passed through multiple owners and eventually sat empty for a few years before the Hendleys took possession.

After a team of local craftsmen helped restore the indoor living spaces, the couple turned their focus to the gardens. They began by removing invasive honeysuckle, privet, multiflora rose and poison ivy, then planted the garden’s now stately oak trees. For the remainder of the garden, Hendley says they didn’t have a design; rather, the landscape evolved as they collected plants and trees discovered while traveling and from gardening friends’ recommendations and books.

When Susan suggested planting ivy vines to climb the property’s fence posts, Hendley joined the American Ivy Society, returning home from his first meeting in Lebanon with multiple ivy varieties. “If you want to know about unusual plants, join a society,” he advises. The strategy has served him well; he’s involved in boxwood, conifer, hosta, rhododendron and rock gardening groups. “I don’t know horticulture, so I sit at the knees of the experts,” he says.

In 2003, he expanded the gardens with two adjoining parcels of land, one filled with discarded auto parts and the other buried in broken pottery from a former tile company. An excavator worked for six months, hauling away 50 dump truck loads of rubble to clear the site. The ravine now features a pond and 200 conifer varieties from around the world.

“We don’t want any ordinary trees,” says Hendley. Indeed, this collector’s garden contains mugo pine from Europe, Japanese larch, dawn redwoods from China, a Lebanon cedar and a bald cypress from the southern states — all adapting well in the protected grove.

This year, the gardens were accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Gardens’ Garden Club of America Collection. The prestigious nomination speaks to Hendley’s influential connections in the horticultural field. Over the years, he has hosted numerous tours for gardening groups from around the country, generously passing along bits of information he’s learned along the way. For local groups, he promotes his favorite plants, including a namesake, explaining that HerHendley and Delaware Valley White azaleas and the Snow Queen variety of oakleaf hydrangea perform well in Midwestern gardens.

In recent years, Hendley has turned his attention to community gardening. In 2001, he created a Mission Oaks Foundation to preserve the gardens and other local green spaces for future generations. He later teamed with local arborist Brian McLoughlin to host the city’s first Spring Gardening Symposium, which led to the founding of the Muskingum Valley Garden Society and subsequent symposiums now headlined by national speakers. Hendley also helped establish the Muskingum County Parks District’s new office building on the Mission Oaks property, and is in the process of turning over Mission Oaks Gardens and its buildings to the organization.

To assist with the care of the gardens and lead tours, Mission Oaks has recruited a corps of nearly 30 Master Gardeners and garden society members.
“Every time I go there, I learn something new,” says Beth Brown, a Mission Oaks volunteer and president of the Muskingum County Master Gardeners, which recently celebrated the opening of an education building at Mission Oaks Gardens. She says more and more people are learning about gardening through Mission Oaks and its partners, and their enthusiasm is taking root in neighborhoods throughout the area.

“He’s initiated a pride in our community,” says Brown about Hendley’s gardening passion and vision for the community.

McLoughlin, now president of the Muskingum Valley Garden Society, confirms Zanesville is experiencing a renaissance and points to the beautification projects along Maple Avenue near Mission Oaks, the restoration of Gale Gardens in the McIntire Historic District of Zanesville, the installation of 16 hanging baskets along the city’s famous “Y” bridge and the numerous container gardens in the city’s downtown.

While Mission Oaks Gardens was originally named for the property’s mission-style home and its surrounding oak trees, the name now aptly suits the garden’s mission to preserve green spaces and build local green pride.

“We used to be the pottery capital of the world,” says Hendley. “One of these days, we’re going to be the gardening capital of Ohio.”

When You Go:

Mission Oaks Gardens 1865 Norwood Blvd., Zanesville 43701, 888/422-1600. Open seven days a week, dawn to dusk. Admission is free.