From dirt patch to a gateway garden, a Randolph volunteer cultivates community

By AUDITI GUHA

VtDigger

Published: 05-04-2024 4:52 PM

RANDOLPH — On a sunny afternoon in late April, a woman with a shock of white curls was hunched over a corner of a park, digging intently in the dirt.

Local resident Rosalind Burgess, 75, has been working to beautify that particular corner of town — above the ‘Welcome to Randolph’ mural at the intersection of Elm and Central streets — for more than a decade. When she started, the two-acre patch, owned by the town, was overgrown and unused. 

Approached from Elm Street on that April afternoon, she was barely visible at the far end of the property, crouched over digging weeds, turning the earth, planting daylilies, irises and forget-me-nots.

“This area has gotten neglected so I’m trying to revive it this year,” she said, her dirt-stained hands pushing silver curls off her sunglasses as she looked up. “It’s a work in progress.”

Around Burgess, spring buds poked up colorful little heads at many sections of the sloping corner park — around a birdbath, between the stones of a central labyrinth and walking path, around benches and lining the colorful mural on the street below.

Yellow daffodils, pink hyacinths, blue scillas and purple crocuses nodded in the breeze as she pointed out the garden’s features to a reporter. Many of the tulip and iris buds have been eaten by deer this year, she noted. Metal chimes trilled over an antique bench in one corner. “I can’t believe I did all this. I must be nuts,” she said, looking around, pointing out where the hostas and buttercups grow. 

Burgess is modest and matter-of-fact when asked how she did it. “The town gave me money to work with. I donated my time and people donated money to help buy flowers and other people donated flowers to make it look nice,” she said.

Others in town say it is really all her design and labor. One of the flower pots in the labyrinth is actually an upside-down chute she spray painted. She even made a concrete birdbath in the shape of a shell with an engraved pattern made from a rhubarb leaf. Her favorite feature, however, are the rose bushes that are yet to flower this season.

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“And here is trillium. I dug those up from the river. They haven’t quite opened up yet but soon. I got hyacinths in here and a little bit of everything – daylilies, forget-me-nots, daisies, coral bells…”

She urged a reporter to come back in June when the garden will be in full bloom.

Burgess, or Roz as folks in town call her, moved from Maryland to Vermont in 1969 after she got married. Years later, after her son graduated from college and she got divorced, she decided to move to Randolph because it seemed like an interesting place. She has lived in town for 40 years, she said.

She learned how to garden by watching her mother as a child and set about beautifying several spots around town soon after her arrival. That got noticed. About 13 years ago, Mel Adams, then the town manager, asked her to lend her efforts to the patch of town land between Elm and Forest streets, she recalled.

She lives about a block away and usually walks to the garden. Most days she works there all day, weather permitting.

“I love my colors and it’s a nice place to be,” she said.

Burgess never wears gloves — she likes to touch and feel the earth, said Pam Overstrom, a friend and member of the Randolph Sunrise Rotary, which has contributed to the garden. “And from the results, I’d say the earth responds and appreciates every touch.”

Noting that she has a hard time getting her granddaughter to leave the garden when they visit, Overstrom called Burgess “a garden artist to the highest order.” She continued, “Every plant, stone, color and texture is envisioned in her mind before it is planted each spring and summer. No one could possibly count the hours of love and care she has given to this space.”

As Burgess’ plantings grew, so did the town’s enthusiasm for the previously vacant, neglected plot. Volunteers came to help with fundraisers and plantings, donating both bulbs and time. Joe Miller was hired to build a storage shed; Paul Calter installed the bright yellow and green central sculpture called “Lemon Lily”; Jeremiah Sperry at Randolph’s Green Valley Memorials provided the stone plinth it stands on, and the town’s two Rotary clubs pitched in money, park benches and a picnic table.

The sculpture represents a yellow day lily “because that was the first flower that blossomed up here,” Burgess explained.

As the garden bloomed and spread, more and more people stopped by to visit. In 2021, the town officially renamed the garden in Burgess’ honor, adding a large wooden sign with the words “Rosalind Park” in red letters. 

Morgan Easton, the town’s recreation director, said she is “a big supporter” of sustaining Burgess’ “fabulous work” as she finds folks in the community to help maintain the beauty that welcomes people to Randolph.

Burgess, whose family threw her a birthday party in the park last June, said she loves seeing people stop by to sit and read or have picnics or to walk in the garden that forms a beautiful gateway to the Orange County town of about 4,700.

The garden continues to attract community volunteer efforts. On April 22 — Earth Day — the National Honor Society of local high school students stopped by to help Burgess with winter clean-up work.

Marjorie Ryerson, a poet, journalist and former lawmaker, called Burgess “a stunningly generous artist” whose gardening skills have created “a rare gift” for all who live in or visit Randolph.

“Roz has dedicated many years of her life creating a breathtaking, gorgeous park for the entire community to enjoy. Her park is filled with gorgeous flower gardens that blossom throughout each spring, summer, and fall,” she said.

Burgess had planted every single flower, Overstrom said, estimating there are more than 1,000 over six different spots in the garden. She basically took a derelict, empty lot and transformed it into a magical space, Overstrom said, summarizing her friend’s efforts: “Who says one person cannot change the world?”