Bedrock: Susan and Coleman Burke’s Garden in Bedford
Return of the natives: Bedrock, Susan and Coleman Burke’s Bedford property, offers a spectacular spring display
Photo by Margaret Moulton
Off a dirt road in Bedford, the driveway into Bedrock is lined with a sweep of wildflowers—nature’s most sustainable little soldiers. And they’re just the start of an initiative to go native that continues to the front gate and runs riot throughout the two-acre property. If quantities of shrubs and trees can soften our carbon footprint, then Susan and Coleman Burke are doing their part to walk softly but wield a whole lot of big sticks.
Coleman Burke bought the property from a dedicated gardener, so the figure-eight pair of ellipses and some of the stonework that dictates the garden’s design were already in place when he married in 1981. But, aside from some “old, horrible lilacs and diseased roses,” Susan Burke confides, the property was not much more than a field ringed with boxwoods. Having gardened since she was 3 years old—both her grandmothers were gardeners—she was happy to take on the challenge.
Even though the property plunges down a precipitous breakneck embankment strewn with stones along one boundary, the deer still managed to intrude. “They ate everything, from the bulbs to the daylilies,” Burke laments. Desperation led to erecting a deer fence in 1986, but, before that barrier was installed, she researched plants that wouldn’t be pestered—such as mertensia, native pachysandra, cimicifuga, trilliums, and heucheras, as well as viburnums, cornus, and other shrubs that aren’t on the deer diet. In other words, she turned toward natives.
Meanwhile, she was getting up to speed with the nomenclature. Burke had gardening in her genes, but not necessarily on the tip of her tongue. She was volunteering to spruce up the plantings connected with Memorial Sloan Kettering when a fellow volunteer put the bug in her ear. “If you’re so curious about wildflowers,” the friend suggested, “you should go to the New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Garden.”
She followed that advice—in spades—and was so taken by it that she organized a spate of cookie and plant sales that helped raise a $2 million endowment for the Native Plant Garden. Plus, she found more volunteering opportunities, where yet another seed was planted. “If you don’t know your Latin, no one will speak to you,” a friend warned. Much studying later, Latin binomials were tumbling off Burke’s tongue with the greatest of ease.
Improvements on the home front were happening simultaneously. The deer fence was a major game-changer, allowing Burke to bulk up the wildflower/bulb garden that escorts the driveway in on both sides and bursts into flower in spring with Virginia bluebells (mertensia) galore, plus trilliums, dog’s tooth violets, Solomon’s seals, hellebores, narcissus, etc. And thanks to the fence, she suddenly had carte blanche to bolster the plantings on the rest of the property beyond the former deer-tolerant restrictions.
Burke jokes about her promiscuity when selecting plants. True, she’s a collector of astonishing magnitude, and no plant—save invasives—is off-limits. Her pursuit of horticulture’s Holy Grail is so intense that she haunts most of the region’s finest plant sales, including those at Caramoor, John Jay, and the Bedford Garden Club. Realizing that she could easily tumble into the bad habit of acquiring one of everything botanical, she has set up a system of checks and balances. “I try to force myself to buy three of things,” she says, citing the rule of planting in groups, “but sometimes, I just don’t have room in my car.” A number of the plants in her garden are rarities acquired by outbidding other equally obsessive collectors. The result is a garden with plenty of continuity, but also a horticultural mash-up. Even more important, Burke’s affair with any plant is not just a glancing flirtation. Once a plant arrives at Bedrock, it is thoughtfully placed, then pampered and primped into perfection.
While a keen eye has led to a lot of what is lovely about Bedrock, an attuned ear was also responsible for the jewel-like setting. Bedrock became such an impressive property because Burke pals around with some of the world’s greatest gardeners and listens to their advice. Take Russell Page, the legendary British landscape architect, for example. “I met him in Chile, and we bonded over Pisco Sours,” Burke says of her initial brush with the man who created gardens for Prince Edward, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Oscar de la Renta, and PepsiCo. That initial friendship strengthened over the years until Page became like family. Sitting on the Burkes’ bookcases are photos of Page happily coo-cooing over their newborn daughter, Ashley, who grew up to be a passionate gardener herself. She graduated from the NYBG School of Professional Horticulture and has a small landscape-design business of her own.
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You couldn’t hang out with Russell Page without considerable secondhand design knowledge rubbing off. Plus, Burke’s exposure wasn’t confined solely to him. A supporter and board member of the Garden Conservancy, she has rubbed shoulders with this country’s horticultural royalty: Marco Polo Stufano of Wave Hill mentored her; George Schoellkopf of Hollister House offered input. But it’s not just about who has floated through her flowerbeds over the years, it’s that she listened to comments, incorporated them, and the garden is richer as a result.
She combines her yen to acquire with an extremely astute eye for design. Her attitude of “I never met a plant I didn’t like—with the exception of bittersweet, poison ivy, and phragmites” could lead to a garden run amok, but she has categorically labored to create a sense of adventure, humor, and discovery in her landscape, although she claims it is “not a planned garden.” The figure-eight design may be fairly straightforward, but the plants are placed so effectively within its geometric form that the cadence slows foot traffic and lures visitors on to further delights. Plus, Burke takes some daring steps when it comes to color. Who else ferrets out black plants? Whether it’s the flowers of 'Queen of the Night' tulips and Fritillaria persica or the foliage of Cimicifuga 'Brunette', heuchera, or copper beech, she loves theatre noir. Besides her penchant for black, she claims that color does not rule her designs. “I don’t worry about pairings. Some people agonize when a pink rose clashes, but I don’t.” That said, there is one color that is verboten. “I have no yellow in my garden; it does not harmonize with my palette,” she claims, although golden spiraea foliage is permitted in spring, as long as it tones down its brashness later in the season.
Plants are only part of the picture. Burke was instrumental in the creation of the New York Botanical Garden’s prestigious Antique Garden Furniture Show, and her garden pays tribute to that penchant as well. Scattered around very sparingly and with supreme taste, carefully selected pieces of sculpture are tucked in. The Four Seasons are in residence as well as a few conspicuously unclad Greek gods. But it’s the pair of wild boars that causes visitors to do a double-take. Made of stone and considerably larger than life (I think), they guard the pool that Burke had the good sense to seclude on a ledge far from the house. Rather than putting the pool within leaping distance, she went for a terrace beyond the back door to seamlessly segue the house and garden. Surrounded by a lush garden but bearing considerable tusks, the boars are best kept at arm’s length.
In spring—and this is primarily a spring and autumn garden, because the Burkes frequent Nantucket in summer—Bedrock is bliss. All the treasured shrubs and trees that Burke squirreled home from points near and far are performing harmoniously. Clouds of blossoms burst overhead. Drifts of bulbs and wildflowers scamper underfoot. It’s heaven, right here on Earth.
Tovah Martin is also deep into the sustainable gardening movement. She writes about gardening organically indoors in her latest book, The Unexpected Houseplant (Timber Press) and she is an accredited Organic Land Care Professional. Plus, she spreads the word, lecturing throughout the region (her schedule can be found at tovahmartin.com) and blogs at plantswise.com.