Deep Roots – Digging in with Susan and Coleman Burke
Susan and Coleman Burke’s garden is alive with the sound of birds and insects: a pollinator’s paradise. Susan, sitting in the sunshine on her red brick patio, is debating the growth of the fig trees she has planted in pots—just released from their winter hibernation in the basement—while pausing to name the various birds swooping through her garden. She pauses again to point out the plants and trees in bloom, using their Latin names.
Cardinals, finches, bluebirds, a scarlet tanager all flit between the magnolia and willow trees.
The Burkes have lived in this historic farmhouse, built in 1803, since 1980. It is a well-proportioned sidekick to the main event: the garden, a favorite among Bedford horticulturalists, and a regular on the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour.
The garden grew alongside the Burkes’ horticultural knowledge, gleaned from a lifetime of working with national environmental organizations. “Coley’s a passionate environmentalist,” says Susan. Last year, through the National Audubon Society they funded a website—the Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants. It was founded to promote the use of plants loved by birds. “And we’ve had almost a million hits on it,” she says.
Susan has spent 30 years on the board of New York Botanical Garden where she started working for the Native Plant Garden and is also a member of The Bedford Garden Club. She has been president of Hollister House, a preservation project of the Garden Conservancy, which is a classic formal English garden in Washington, Connecticut. But, she says, nothing replaces “pure passion as a gardener—fingers in the dirt.”
When the Burkes moved into their home, there was a “figure of eight” design grounding the garden. They have since added stone walls, renovated a barn, installed a pool at the top of a gently sloping hill, and filled the five acres with both rare and native trees. There is a native big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia ashei) with white flowers the size of dinner plates, four matched fastigiate oaks, Metasequoias, two types of willow, a rare “Slender Shadow” liquid amber discovered in Tennessee, a pink variegated copper beech (fagus silvatica ‘tricolor’), a “handkerchief tree” (Davidia involcrata), red horse chestnut (aesculus x carnea), an Ohio Buckeye (an ode to Coley’s family state), and crab apple trees so heavy with blossom they can only be described as decadent.
Susan is an unofficial member of the next generation of strong women environmentalist Bedford gardeners. Stalwarts such as Mrs. Percy Douglas, Mrs. Todd Rockefeller, and Netta Lockwood mentored Burke in the ways of conservancy and green issues years before the future of the planet and its conservation became a political battleground. “They were the Grand Dames of Bedford,” Susan says.
Coleman Burke is a rare species himself: a lawyer by training, property developer by trade, and amateur dinosaur bone hunter. He has led bone hunting expeditions in Patagonia, in southern Argentina. He also serves on the board of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Audubon Society, as a director of The National Forest Foundation, and is a trustee of The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—he is obsessed with deep sea exploration. He has tracked the flight paths of condors in the Andes and ospreys down in South America.
The Beaver Dam River runs through the Burkes’ property, winding around the lower field and down towards where the barn sits—where the kids made a makeshift squash court inside for family games. When the children were little, Coley, an avid fly fisherman, stocked the river with trout. He bought a snorkel and mask and would lie at the bottom of the river, watching his beloved trout swim by. The endeavor ended when local poachers—from a fish smoking operation—started stealing the fish and were caught. The stocked fish were just too tempting for thieves.
The children all worked in the vegetable garden, the site of the pool now. Ashley, 34, their youngest of four, was featured in a book, A Very Young Gardener by Jill Krementz, and it featured the gardening and botanical adventures of the then six-year-old girl. She and her siblings made up a song one summer called “Weedin’ is Boring” with a full score, and to this day still sing it when they visit their parents.
Today, Coley is sitting inside their cozy, wood-paneled dining room looking out onto a stone terrace. He’s writing a speech for the opening of the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law at his alma mater, Case Western Reserve University.
Beyond the traditional dining room accessorized with Susan’s vintage collection of blue and white dishware, there is a mix of modern pieces—minimalist frames with enormous taxidermy bugs inside, and fine oil paintings of ships, next to a pair of lamps with porcupine quills for shades. The eclectic interiors of the sitting room, music room, and living room just fit together, coming as they do from the minds and tastes of enthusiastic travelers. Here is the natural world—a little bit of the Amazon, with the bugs—entering the old walls of an early 19th-century farm.
After a tour of the house, Susan returns her attention to the fig trees. They might need pruning, but she is not sure whether to leave them for the summer and just let them run riot for now. “All trees have problems,” she says, pulling at one of the stems. “They’re just like all of us.”