Video by CAITIE MCMEKIN | Multimedia Editor
Betsy Burgeson’s eyes sparkled.
“I love this job,” she said.
Chautauqua’s new supervisor of gardens and landscapes has been on the job since the beginning of the year.
Growing up in Lakewood near the Cummins plant, Burgeson is the daughter of a prominent Jamestown attorney and an elementary school teacher in the Jamestown area. She earned a Bachelor of Science in earth science and biology education and a master’s in science secondary education at Fredonia. Burgeson then taught biology for seven years at Panama Central in southern Chautauqua County.
But Burgeson is a “third-generation gardener,” and it was that love for gardens, ecology and Chautauqua Lake that led her to the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, often known simply as the ’Shed.
There, from 2008 to 2009, she held a grant position that promoted outreach and greater public awareness of the effects of human activity on the health of Chautauqua Lake.
“I was a ‘ ’Sheducator,’ ” she said.
While “ ’sheducating” the public, Burgeson became familiar with Cornell University’s Master Gardener Volunteer program in Chautauqua County. She was hired to direct the program, which focused on recruiting volunteers to be trained and, in turn, spread the word about the benefits of soil health, composting and ecological landscaping.
“We trained 85 master gardeners while I was with Cornell,” Burgeson said. “I think 60 of them are still active, despite the fact that the program has lost some of its funding. Some of our master gardeners are members of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club. I learned a lot in that job about delegating and managing people. It was an invaluable experience.”
BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
Supervisor of gardens and landscapes Betsy Burgeson spreads soil along the bank of Chautauqua Lake on Monday afternoon. Burgeson, who started in her position in January, said she views her position as an opportunity to not only plan and organize gardens but also work directly with people.
According to Burgeson, there’s a key to her work.
“Do what you love, and love what you do,” she said.
In the course of her work over the years, Burgeson crossed paths numerous times with former Chautauqua Grounds, Gardens and Landscaping Manager Ryan Kiblin, who passed away unexpectedly last summer.
“I certainly was well aware of Ryan’s contributions to the Institution,” Burgeson said. “Now that I am here, I have a much greater appreciation for her work. People see the wonderful gardens she created. Less apparent to others, but critical to me, are the excellent records she kept. That has helped me a lot as I move into this job.”
Burgeson said there are many important elements to her job overseeing a staff of 35 seasonal workers.
“It’s coaching, leading, teaching, teamwork, vision, looking forward to our amazing gardens as they bloom — and fun,” she said.
Burgeson has organized her troops into five crews with two to seven members in each. They are responsible for trimming hedges, mulching, deadheading, weeding and mowing, in addition to ongoing special projects, maintenance and unanticipated emergencies.
“When Chautauquans see our crews out and about on their jobs, we encourage their questions, which should best be directed to the crew leaders in their distinctive green shirts,” Burgeson said. “The crew leaders will get messages to me as needed.”
The crews want people to report issues to them, too, Burgeson said.
“Chautauquans can be our eyes and ears and alert us to problems,” she said. “A report just the other day helped us nip a potential problem in the bud — so to speak.”
Burgeson is also available in her office across Route 394 from the Main Gate, but cautions that she will often be out.
“People can leave a note on my door or speak with our administrative assistant, Amy Hummel, if I am not around,” Burgeson said.
Travel and outdoor adventure have long been a key component of Burgeson’s life. She has visited every state except Alaska, and she worked summers during college as a hiking and backpacking leader in New Hampshire. She lived in New Mexico for a while after college and took time out to go with her husband, Mark, on commercial construction jobs in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Colorado.
Burgeson and Mark, who is now a local construction contractor, have kids Oliver, 4, Lilian, 2, and Elsie, 1. Her mom, now a retired schoolteacher, helps out.
“I’d have to say my life is pretty full right now,” Burgeson said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”