Experience beauty at Rocky Dale Gardens

ED BURKE, OWNER of Rocky Dale Gardens, welcomes visitors to the shop at the Bristol garden center and to experience the wonder of the place. Burke has owned Rocky Dale Gardens for 20 years and has turned it into an immersive plant experience for patrons. Independent photo/Amelia Seepersaud

BRISTOL — Rocky Dale Gardens is not your average garden center. As owner Ed Burke describes it, the Bristol business is “a specialty nursery that offers an experience, not just plants.”

The immersive experience that Rocky Dale offers is what Burke believes sets his nursery apart. 

Located in a beautiful corner of Bristol along Route 116 east of the village near the road up to Lincoln, Rocky Dale serves garden enthusiasts both local to the Bristol area as well as those from the larger New England region. He prides himself on the fact that Rocky Dale provides “an unusual palette of plant material.”

The nursery and garden center sells a wide variety of plants — around 12,000-15,000 flowering plants, trees, shrubs and more sold per year — on 5 acres. The grounds offer paths, barns and greenhouses for customers to wonder among and become enchanted by the plant life.

“We try to offer plants that are more difficult to find in the trade,” Burke said. “We really focus on a lot of woody plants and woodland plants that are harder to find.”

To keep Rocky Dale Gardens running is a collaborative effort among its 10 staff members. 

A POPPY AT Rocky Dale Gardens.
Independent photo/Amelia Seepersaud

“It’s ‘How can I help you?’” Burke said of his team. “We delegate the work, we try to teach people how to do things correctly.

 “We hope it’s a learning environment and a caring environment. I find that people who are interested in gardening, who want to work in this kind of industry, tend to be really nice people. Everyone is really kind to each other, we all take care of each other. It feels like a family.”

Though he has owned and kept Rocky Dale Gardens running for nearly two decades, Burke was not the business’s first owner. Before him were gardeners Holly Weir and Bill Pollard. Weir and Pollard, originally from California, moved to Vermont in 1981 and ended up buying an old hobby farm that became what is now Rocky Dale Gardens. 

After 20 years of running the business, Weir and Pollard sold the business to Burke, who had started a landscape architecture studio in Minneapolis in 1985.

In 2004, he had heard about the nursery being for sale in Vermont and thought it was the perfect opportunity for him to be close to his family, which was what he really wanted at the time, while also doing something he’s always enjoyed.

“I went to school for plant and soil science and environmental studies and I’ve always worked with plants my whole life. And so, it was just an attractive idea,” Burke said. 

Running a plant nursery came with some unanticipated challenges.

“I have to say that running a nursery is very different from running a landscape business,” Burke said. “And I probably went into it with a lot of ambition but was quickly humbled by the amount of work it takes and how difficult it is to actually make a living in this business.”

Two of the biggest challenges he found were managing the living plants in the face of changing weather and managing the cashflow in the face of downturns in the economy. COVID-19 posed additional challenges for his business.

THE VIEW AT Rocky Dale Gardens.
Independent photo/Amelia Seepersaud

“You can close your doors two or three days a week but your plants still need to be taken care of,” Burke noted. “It’s not typical dry goods inventory. You can’t just shut the doors and wait it out.”

He said that advising customers on plants has become more difficult due to the increasingly unpredictable climate patterns. 

“Plants have hardiness zones,” Burke explained. “Whenever somebody comes in and asks will that grow where I am, we have to ask them where they are. We have such wild winters, so it’s very hard to say this plant is very hardy in this zone. Because of the erratic weather, it’s made it much more difficult to garden.” 

Despite the challenges, over his almost two decades at Rocky Dale, Burke has managed to make a variety of improvements. 

“The gardens have needed a lot of work over the years,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of changes in the way things were laid out; we built a solar array, we’ve put up the arbor, and we’ve continued to make improvements.”

“Though we’re not organic, we don’t use any pesticides or anything like that. We’re very concerned about the environment. We removed invasive plants from our gardens, which the previous owners had planted. So, we keep an eye on that.”

Looking forward, Burke hopes to focus his efforts primarily on the gardens. 

“I’ll probably scale back on bringing in large specimen trees, things like that, and stick with the things we’re growing. Sort of like a piece of coal becomes a diamond. I’m trying to compress it to make it shine more.”

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