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

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OPhoto by Margaret Moulton  ff 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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