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
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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.