A Gentleman's Garden
Photograph by Stacy Bass
On the afternoon of the Greenfield Hill Garden Club’s “Secret Garden” Tour two years ago, Chester Burley III and his fiancée were still outdoors in work clothes, sweating under the sun. Eighty “guests” would begin arriving at 3:30 p.m. to stroll the garden rooms, blossoming creek banks and rough-cut meadows. At 3:15 p.m., the two finally went into the house, showered and changed into white linens. They were seated on the patio with glasses of wine in time to lead the tour.
“As if all this happened by itself,” he says, smiling broadly outside his 1834 Colonial in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield. This is Burley’s style — casual perfectionism, downplayed professionalism, quiet attention to detail — and it has had a magical effect on the four-acre Redding Road property he bought eleven years ago. Hidden from view, the once-stripped acreage — which has also been kept all but secret over the years — has gradually transformed into an exquisite pastoral setting. His gift lies not only in hand-sculpting the land, but also in opening the garden gates to friends and guests. To spend an afternoon or torch-lit evening here is to return, if only for a short time, to Eden.
Chester Burley is tall and lanky and patrician, with an aquiline nose and well-tempered voice. In the garden, at least, he favors a brimmed straw hat and gentleman-gardener work clothes — as if he had gone to a good horticultural boarding school or a clematis-league college — though any thoughts of class gamesmanship are dispelled by a mild, engaging manner and quick smile.
He grew up on a 150-acre orchard and horse farm and on a smaller farm in Far Hills, New Jersey, attended the Lawrence School and majored in international studies with a minor in architecture at the University of South Carolina. As his father and grandfather before him, he went to Wall Street after college, but his field of dreams always contained houses and gardens.
“I’ve had a vegetable garden since I was five,” he says. “And in different houses I’ve lived, I’ve always created some kind of garden environment.” (Several years ago, when senior management in his company was given an aptitude test, all of his results came back indicating he would make an excellent architect.)
Hunting for a place in Fairfield in the late-1990s, Burley put a binder on the former Walter Binger estate on Redding Road, despite the fact that many of the original stone walls had been dismantled by the previous owner and the property denuded by the man’s pet goats. But then Burley discovered additional deficits: The back thirty acres had been split from the estate by Binger’s heirs and was scheduled for a fourteen-home subdivision, and the thirty-acre tract across the street — the old Morehouse farmstead — was being considered as a site for a state DOT maintenance barn.
Although he walked away from the listing, he kept coming back to the place. “We would say, ‘You know, the house has good bones, the land has potential,’ ” he recalls. The land also had a stream running through the middle, open meadows on either side and a gentle, undulating flow to the landscape.
Six months later in a speculative move, he bought the house, fully aware of the development risks but with determination to save the land. Applying business skills, he talked the Binger heirs into keeping the thirty acres as a nature preserve by selling it to the town for use as open space, then encouraged the town’s acquisitions’ committee to negotiate with the State of Connecticut into deeding the Morehouse site to Fairfield for use as additional open space. Finally, Burley told his real estate agent, “This’ll do” — an expression that grew into “Thistledew,” the whimsical name given to the property.
Paths on either side of the house lead to the rear patio — “the epicenter of the property,” to Burley’s eye — as well as the staging area for the garden parties and tours he gives in the spring and summer.
The original patio was constructed of bluestone slabs that Walter Binger, a former director of public works for New York City, had appropriated from old Manhattan sidewalks. Burley expanded the area and built walls with stones from the creek bed and from piles of fieldstone found on his and a neighbor’s property. (Binger was also Master of Hounds at the Fairfield Hunt Club in Westport. He kept his horse in the barn next to the house and rigged a line and pulleys so he could send a bucket of feed into the horse’s stall without leaving his bed or bedroom. “He was an engineer, and very clever,” Burley notes. “Winter mornings can be very cold.”)
Since the land falls away from the back of the house, the garden is divided into upper and lower sections and the tour follows these contours in a long, slow loop around the four acres. There is no time limit to Burley’s tour — guests can dawdle along the way — but he does impose one rule: Handed a glass of wine at the start, guests must complete the course before getting a refill.
More than hubris lies behind this. There’s an ebb and flow to the landscape, and a unity and harmony that’s apparent only in full context. “There’s no one aspect of this garden that stands alone,” Burley explains. “It’s the totality of it. Each component is not unique or that unusual, but you put them together and they create a stunning composition.”
From the patio, stone steps descend into the “inner garden.” A circular room, neatly inscribed by sharply edged beds and protected by a rising and falling wall of green, it is tiered with tulips, daffodils and other perennials, and azalea and rhododendrons, that “sequence week and after week,” Burley notes, “from spring to summer.” In the center is a smaller circle ringed with low, shaped boxwood around an ornamental orb. The space is both extravagantly verdant and orderly — a contrast Burley cultivates.
Here, as elsewhere on the grounds, the dominant colors are blue and yellow. “That’s by design and preference,” Burley says. “Those are the colors of the stabilized garden in summer.”
Along the far rim of the inner garden, a gated arborway, choked with climbing Akebia, opens into the “outer garden” — a grassy field of big, curving beds and island gardens that stretches to the Sasco Creek estuary. The creek itself is lush with bankside plants and trees: cattails, ferns and yellow flag iris; willows and river birch. Burley used stones from the creek bed to build a small island in the center, and a barricade to hold back water. But not all of it.
During the wicked nor’easter of April 2007, the water rocketed through the creek before overwhelming (by five feet) the barricade, banks and lower field and laying waste to many of the plantings, trees and turf. Over the past decade some 350 trees and bushes have been planted, a number of them in the same spots, to fill in the landscape but also to replace those damaged by deer and weather.
Across the creek via the lower, hand-built bridge, a shade garden of ferns and skunk cabbage gives way to higher, open grounds. » Here guests leave the relatively formal world of flower beds for a wilder realm.
Chester Burley is a gardener of the Robinsonian school, after the nineteenth-century Irish horticulturalist William Robinson, who radicalized English landscape architecture by advocating natural, organic, rambling gardens over formal design, and he has studied Robinson’s The English Flower Garden. “The formal English gardens are impressive, but they don’t resonate with me. Fields of wildflowers do,” Burley says. “It’s more a matter of what feels good. I think a garden should be visually pleasing and soothing to the soul.”
The big, wildflower meadow north of the creek, “the upper field,” is pleasing to the soul. Burley keeps it rough-cut in the summer so that the purplish, burnt-umber grasses undulate in the breeze, but mows a curving walking path across the top for guests. At the very top, a wide break in the old stone wall accesses the Walter Binger Open Space, the thirty acres once headed for a housing development, which Burley also mows to maintain the path system there. The property backs up to the eighteen-acre Greenfield Farm (formerly Haydu’s Farm), the last working farm in Fairfield.
From this vantage point, guests can see the patio and almost taste the second glass of wine. But first they must recross the creek by the upper bridge. Burley restored and upgraded the existing bridge, and its graceful arch and Chippendale-style railings signal a return to order and society.
Just across the bridge, to one side and semi-enclosed by flowers and shrubs, is a private spot with chaise lounges and a sunbrella. To the other side is a small herb garden and, beyond that, a gated vegetable garden composed of four, eight-by-eight-foot raised beds, ringed with marigolds, where tomatoes climb on pyramidal trellises. (When not throwing parties or giving tours, Burley finds solitude here. “It’s a wonderful place for lunch or tea,” he says.)
A Summer Night
The tours end back on the patio, though not necessarily the parties. “I’ve never had a bad garden party,” Burley says. “I’ve been lucky on the weather and everybody seems to enjoy them. They love walking around, and they stay way beyond sunset when the torches,” placed throughout the gardens and paths, “get lit.”
Where is Chester Burley’s pleasure, and personal path, in all of this? “It’s in the creation of something beautiful and artistic,” he says. “It’s in the loose, flowing aspect of the garden, in the sort of randomness about the way it evolves and in the comfortableness of it. There’s a certain balance to the garden — that’s the architectural side of me — and a looseness, a friendly and casual aspect to it.
“This garden came about out of a common desire to create something visually interesting — my former fiancée is an artist,” he adds, “and to share that creation with friends.”
But there’s no time to rest on his laurels or birches. Burley has a few more projects planned for the spring and summer: a cutting garden at the far end of the upper field; beehives near the shade garden; a replacement structure for the original barn, lost when the property was subdivided in the 1980s.
Will he ever be finished? “No, there’s never an end to a garden,” he says. “In the formative years, you’re constantly creating, creating, creating. Then you level off and are maintaining and dividing so things don’t grow too big. And then you’re constantly tweaking. When is enough enough? That’s a function of how much labor you want to put into the garden, and how enslaved you are to it.” Chester Burley doesn’t appear to have had enough.