Given four acres in Greenwich just a stone’s throw from his new Armonk nursery, Mark Mariani went straight for Eden—apples included.
Chances are you’ll find him in the orchard. Of course, you can look for him beneath one of the twin wisteria-wrapped pergolas beside the pool, or try to find him in the boxwood parterre or by the hornbeam allee. But generally, when Mark Mariani is at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, he’s in his orchard.
Granted, these days Mariani’s free time is limited. With the opening of his new state-of-the-art nursery (and garden center, design boutique, floral shop, and café), Mariani Gardens in Armonk, his loyalties—and his time—are rather divided lately. But whatever free time he can snatch is spent outdoors at his Greenwich home. (Mark and his wife, Cathy, also have residences in Anguilla and Telluride, Colorado.)
If an orchard doesn’t strike you as the logical place to hang out, you need to sit down and have a good, long chat with the Marianis. When they bought their home 11 years ago, the couple swung right into renovation mode, spiffed up and expanded the house, switched the faÃ§ade from boring white brick to earthy fieldstone, and made the interior their own. But that was just the beginning—because Mark Mariani had a vision, and its focus was outward bound.
Ask Cathy Mariani about the evolution, and she’ll tell you that her husband laid out the entire four-acre property pretty much at first glance. When the couple was first introduced to the property a dozen years ago, he gazed out the back door and surveyed the land. Anyone else would have been content to look out into the wild blue yonder without further ado. But not Mariani. He began to envision how the garden would look once his name was on the deed, framing the view in pergolas dripping with wisteria vines. He pictured those wisterias, lush with purple blossoms in spring, cascading from the top and trailing over the stone columns of the pergolas with lacy green leaves in summer, and still weighing in with their strong, sensual tangle of arms and legs during winter. He visualized secluded tables, set for breakfast, basking in the wisteria’s shade. In his mind’s eye, he framed the pool in mature, statuesque palms. And beyond that, he perceived deftly clipped parterres, majestic hedges, and—of course—the orchard. The scene was conceived as a whole, complete with richly colored copper beeches playing off the spring-green new growth of boxwoods.
In reality, there was nothing in residence at the time. The canvas was actually as close as anyone cares to come to blank—at least, it was naked from a horticultural standpoint. But from day one onward, Mariani went to work grading, reconfiguring, and landscaping the land into something that reflected his dreamscape. The endeavor was totally in character for a man who’s been moving earth since he traded in his tricycle for a tractor at an age when other kids were still blithely building sand castles.
Born in the Bronx, Mariani moved to Armonk during his formative years and spent the bulk of his childhood immersed in the natural world. “I would stay perched eight to ten hours in a tree watching the relationship of a mother deer to her fawn, the subtle changes spurred by temperature, a hawk circling—all to understand the rhythm of the natural world.” As a result, he honed his observation skills and cultivated the patience needed to sculpt trees and shrubs into specimens. Monitoring nature from a vantage point aloft, he says, was when the first seeds of his career in landscaping, excavation, contracting, and real-estate development were sown.
When dealing with nature, sensitivity may be a plus, but experience is imperative. Realizing that at the precocious age of nine, Mariani sought to gain the necessary skills. “I started at the bottom, raking leaves, weeding, maintaining gardens,” he says. “But even back then, I knew that I could make a difference. Who wants to be like everyone else, right?”
As a young teenager, he began formulating his own design ideas and ideals, seeing the big picture with properties punctuated by architectural trees and a rich palette of shrubs. He went to Europe and saw majestic, focal-point trees and soon began to perceive woody plants as art. By the age of 25, Mariani was landscaping for the rich and famous. He began developing what would become his signature style, which incorporated the use of mature trees, full of grace and character, accented by a variety of shrubs and other plantings.
Eleven years ago, when Mariani jumped the Westchester border to buy his Greenwich home, he already had a series of personal goals that were just waiting for a place where he could realize them. “He helps customers see their own potential expressed in a garden,” Cathy Mariani says. Why not do the same for himself? Having created paradises for other people, he wanted to seize it for himself. And two years after purchasing the house, he had two children—a pair of twins, Isabelle and Sandro—in addition to his wife as a target audience.
Essentially European in flavor, the garden is Tuscan in style, set in the area’s rolling hills. Mariani’s goal essentially was to create “rooms,” each with different feelings, all connected, but delivering a series of surprises. Actually, staging an evolving sequence of events is more accurate for defining the experience, from the instant you take in the lush view from the terrace and then look down to survey the plush tapestry of a boxwood parterre laid out below. (Mariani admittedly has a thing for boxwood; for him, any excuse is a good reason to incorporate them into a scene.) Not just any parterre, Mariani’s is defined by scrolling, swirling flourishes reminiscent of stylized musical notes. Take a few steps around the side of the house, and you’re dwarfed in a hornbeam hedge that looms high and interlaces so densely that it hides statues in its crannies.
That’s the serious side of the place. The remainder aims for a more light-hearted and recreational arena. Farther afield from the hornbeam hedge is the play area, with a whimsical, totally asymmetrical playhouse and other kid-friendly apparatus meant to lure the twins outdoors and hold them transfixed. There’s a cutting garden and a vegetable area, also formulated as family affairs. An adult recreational space merges seamlessly into the design, as well. Faced with an existing tennis court that seemed more like a jail with chain-link constrictions rather than a pleasing facet of the landscape, Mariani saw the playing field as an opportunity to create a living tapestry by weaving a series of dense vines (wisteria, clematis, ivy, and climbing roses) into its surrounding fence. More than merely a stroll in a park, the whole landscape is meant to engage the senses—all of the senses—and keep them captivated throughout the entire year.
The subtle interplay of colors and textures, the immensity and density of the interweaving hedges, the water music of fountains, everything is quietly urging earthly delights as second nature. But the orchard is the property’s crescendo. Secluded by a wall, secured from nibblers by fencing, the orchard has an embracing appeal that hits everyone’s innate need for retreat far from the frenzied crowd. Dense with trees, surrounded by pollinators of all types (Mariani has his own personal set of beehives close by), the orchard is populated by apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, and pears. Exquisitely pruned into a canopy, the trees form an umbrella overhead. But the beauty of this particular orchard is that the cast of characters isn’t confined to hardy fruit only. Massive potted fig and olive trees also are in residence during summer, stored in greenhouses over the winter. Around the periphery but within the wall are caged raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, while grapes scramble over the gates. In the center of it all, flanked by trees, sits a large dining table under a canopy with lanterns hung. And finally, as if all that wasn’t enough heaven to sate the soul, in addition to the hum of the pollinators, music is piped in to serenade.
Like its patriarch, the family drifts toward the orchard, coming to relax or arriving with baskets to harvest the crops. “We can peaches, we make jams and marmalade,” Cathy says. There’s an added benefit to Mark Mariani’s garden, one that goes beyond beauty and respite: it’s an unsurpassed vehicle for teaching the twins how to observe nature, much as their father did as a boy. In the orchard, they follow the cycles of flower pollination and fruit growing and ripening on the branch. And although their father has got the new nursery to fill his every waking hour, he still finds refuge in his own garden. And not surprisingly, the lure of the orchard is most tempting.
Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, including View from a Sketchbook: Nature through the Eyes of Marjolein Bastin (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004). She is also an editorial producer and frequent guest on the PBS television gardening series “Cultivating Life”