5-10-5: Mark Veeder, Plant-Obsessed Gardener

I have known Mark Veeder for some time when I first worked for him at his upstate New York garden a few years ago. When Mark isn’t busily running his NYC public relations, marketing, and event design firm VP+C during the week, he gardens actively while looking after his young family of two daughters with his partner and country singer Cooper Boone. ~ Eric


Please introduce yourself.

First off, you need to know that I am a TRUE Gemini and therefore I can be: Weekend “Obsessive Gardener” and Weekday “Serial Entrepreneur” 

The arts or horticulture?

Why do you separate the two?  For me, horticulture is art — it’s how I express my artistic energy.  My garden is a live performance and my monologue that is ever-changing and that never ends.  The cast is not only me and the plants, but the people and wildlife that interacts with us — the stories that evolve from each individual moment — the emotions that are immortalized in every vista or tiny vignette — and the memories that are married to each and every plant in the garden.

Pinus strobus is a familiar tree that marks the treeline at Stone Arches.

Pinus strobus is a familiar tree that marks the treeline at Stone Arches.

You were brought up in upstate New York where you helped your family with their Xmas tree farm. Raising Xmas trees is altogether a different endeavor than building a garden since one is an essentially a monoculture and the other a more personal statement. Then you worked as a flight attendant, a poorly paid assistant, then in public relations, and finally one of the founding partners behind VP+C, a PR and Experiential marketing agency in Soho, New York. The world of public relations is a fast-paced one, nothing like the slow, unforced pace of gardening. How did you become interested in horticulture?

I was always fascinated with the gardening process — that you can plant a seed and watch it grow and change and turn into something beautiful and impressive — and how plants can change the aesthetic of a property and bring a special energy to a place.  When I was a kid, on those cold winter nights, while my friends were looking at the Sears catalog, I was laying on the floor in front of the wood stove looking at plant catalogs.   We were poor so my mom would order me seeds or tiny bare root plants so I was forced to have patience and enjoy the process of gardening and growing.  When I finally had my first garden, I went through a phase of wanting to buy everything big — it was my “rebellion” phase and I wanted instant gratification!!   But now, I enjoy starting with small stock and watching the garden evolve and grow and change with each season.  Everything comes full circle…

The view from the perennial plantings towards the house surrounded by a woodland garden.

The view from the perennial plantings towards the house surrounded by a woodland garden.

How did you happen onto this rural property? It isn’t an obvious location, somewhat secluded from the commercial sprawl that marks Monticello and not necessarily within vicinity of other neighbors.

I believe properties have a way of waiting for their rightful owners.  I was renting a small cabin with some friends in Cuddebackville (about 8 miles from Stone Arches) that ended up being sold and at that point I decided I should buy something rather than rent (because I took such good care of the house and installed a woodland garden at my own expense, so why not do that for myself).  When I met with the Real Estate agent, she asked me to describe my dream property — a stone house, barns, a pond and no neighbors!!  She had a property that fit the bill, but it was way above my means, but she showed it to me anyway.  It was the first house I saw and I was in love and would go back every weekend to walk the property and sneak into the house and pretend I lived there.  I asked if the owner would finance and she stuck her nose up and said “there is no way” and “don’t waste my time”.  I told her that while I didn’t have much money, I had passion and drive and ingenuity and would write a proposal to the owner and all she had to do is present it.  She called me the next day and said with amazement…”he accepted your offer”.  The next day I ordered 1,000 daffodil bulbs and planted them on the hill before the deal was even signed to ensure at least some beauty come spring.  I was blessed on all levels to find Stone Arches.

Exbury azaleas, the only living evidence of the former nursery, are left to be incorporated in the garden.

Exbury azaleas, the only living evidence of the former nursery, are left to be incorporated in the garden.

What was the original garden like, if any that did exist on the property?

There were no real gardens on the property, just a grouping of ferns and laurel by one corner of the house and a line of day lilies at the base of the stone entrance wall but all had been neglected for years.  The property was previously a nursery for many years that specialized in growing Exbury Azaleas and there were still a trace of them left in the overgrown field.  The pond was indistinguishable with large white pines and brush growing in and around it.

Using simply sticks, a spray paint can, and a measuring tape, Mark nailed down the landform, inspired by Richard Serra, in front of the greenhouse.

Using simply sticks, a spray paint can, and a measuring tape, Mark nailed down the landform, inspired by Richard Serra, in front of the greenhouse.

Given how you don’t have professional credentials in landscape architecture, your grasp of spatial scale is remarkable. How did you go about laying out the arrangement of the various areas in the garden?

It’s all been intuitive and gradual.  I never started with a master plan, but rather, would concentrate on one location and dream it into existence — I am obsessed with preparing beds properly before any plants go in.  I would sketch out the space I was developing on paper — usually on a flight somewhere  as I was traveling a lot for work during the early years — then mark it out on the ground (I did most of my dreaming in the winter so would wait for the first snow and then draw out the garden in the snow).

Being one half of a couple who seriously gardens, how does your partner Cooper react to your horticultural interests?

He doesn’t garden AT ALL — but loves the magic that the gardens bring to the property.  He has finally come to realize what it all means to me and how the garden affects not only me, but all who encounter and experience it.  It’s a big part of who I am and who we have become as well.  Recently, he has started to test the gardening waters with vegetables and is now understanding the lure, but only wants to “grow what I can eat”.

Non-horticultural spouses often wring their hands in despair at their partners’ surreptitious plant purchases – one person I heard of hid their plant purchases in the empty rubbish bin, only to forget them on the collection day, and another person shrugs the new plants as ‘gifts’ from gardening friends.  Set loose in a nursery, you’re like a child who goes on a rampage in a candy shop. Any tips on hiding purchases from spouses or maybe having a budget?

A budget???  What’s that?  I am a kid in a candy shop at a nursery — I can wander and dream for hours while designing in my head and imagining endless scenarios.  You (Eric) were my budget and voice of reason and restrain the few times we visited a nursery together.  My trick is to be sure to arrive home with my treasures when Cooper is either in the house or away — rush to unload and immediately set the pots out in the garden as if they were always there.  Cooper looks at the garden as one big tableau and never really saw the details — so it was easy to camouflage my obsession.

You seem to be a regular attendee of the Hardy Plant Society’s study weekends on the West Coast. What is it about the West Coast people and their gardens you find interesting? Any funny stories from these trips?

The West Coast is so rich with amazing plants that I long to grow — my visits teach me about what is out there and inspire me to try new and unusual plants, defy the USDA zone guidelines and meet some amazing gardeners that have become very close friends.  Since I essentially have gardened alone all these years, my trips helped validate my design style and sensibility and bring a sense of belonging to my obsession.  Each trip have funny moments etched in my memory — most of which include some antic with Dan Hinkley, Tom Hobbs (and Brent), Tom Fischer or the “Kilt Moderns”(aka Lisa + Dan) — and some form of plant smuggling.  One trip in particular — it was my Birthday weekend and I was at the Hardy Plant Study Week in Eugene, OR — Tom + Brent met me there and Helen Dillon was on the docket to speak and I met Lisa and Dan (quickly dubbed the Kilt Moderns because Dan was wearing his utilikilt) — we celebrated my birthday, then Helen, Tom, Brent and I drove up to Windcliff for dinner on the way back to vancouver — was a wild and zany birthday!!

You have no problems bridging the urban and rural environments – by weekday a high-powered creative director of a PR firm, by weekend a plaid-clad or t-shirt grubby gardener. You are still involved in the garden, despite hiring some part-time help to maintain the lawns and gardens.

That’s my Gemini nature — I love to bridge both worlds!  I will always be very involved and in control of my garden no matter how much help I have.  I have an incredible duo (josie and dodo) of very talented and knowledgable women that have helped me take the garden to the next level.  We collaborate and bounce ideas around and make decisions together — I think they have made me a better gardener and have helped me focus more on the detail while keeping an eye on the big picture.  It makes me happy that when they come to help, they stay in the guest house for a couple of days and stay in the garden to experience its magic and energy.

You are now a proud father of twin daughters. Will you raise them in the city or upstate to expose them to the natural world?

Proud doesn’t even touch the tip of the emotional iceberg  that these girls have launched — EPIC is the word that keeps resonating…We will be mainly raising the girls upstate as we both want them to be informed and influenced and developed by the natural world just as I was raised.  But, they will have “city time” to become well rounded and experience all the excitement, diversity and energy the urban world has to offer

Tell me more about Echinacea ‘Green Envy’. How does it hold up to the flood of Echinacea cultivars in the market?

There’s a flood of Echinacea cultivars in the market?  ‘Green Envy’ is a real gem — it’s sturdy, deep rooted, very hardy, easy to grow and is the only true bicolor cultivar out there.  Plus, it blooms true bright green when it starts then eventuates to a bicolor with the magenta emerging from the cone out — the other (green varieties)  look more pale and washed out.  But ‘Green Envy’ is more than just another cultivar for collectors and garden enthusiasts — it is my future.  I have developed a luxury skincare line that is “powered by GreenEnvy ™” that will be launched at Sephora globally and on QVC 3rd quarter of 2015.  

Paeonia obovata is one of Mark's favorite plants for its delicate white flowers and electric blue and magenta seedheads.

Paeonia obovata is one of Mark’s favorite plants for its delicate white flowers and electric blue and magenta seedheads.

What are some of your favorite plants?

I love plants that give you more than just flowers — I’m drawn to leaf size, shape, structure and color and plants that have great seed heads or berries.  Paeonia obovata and its variety japonica are amazing plants — and while the flower is demure and fleeting, the seed head grows and changes throughout the season and then explodes in late September into this other-worldly wonder of orange and blue seeds in an organic star shape.  The other woodland plants I can’t live without are Deinanthe, Vancouveria hexandra (an amazing ground cover) and Cardiandra alternifolia.  My Magnolia sieboldii makes me very happy as does my Aralia elata ‘Variegata’…the list just goes on from there

What are some of the places and things that have inspired you?

Dan Hinkley has inspired me the most — first with Heronswood and then with Windcliff.  He has been a mentor, teacher and amazing friend.  The Bloedel Reserve blows me away — The high line has inspired my wild garden behind the conservatory — Great Dixter and Fergus teaches me about color and combinations and Chanticleer fills me with wonder (and envy because the beauty and genius is endless)

What is your desert island plant?

Acer saccharum because it is stunning and regal in all seasons and it reminds me of my childhood when my dad, brother and I would tap them and make our own Maple Syrup.  One plant that give shade in summer, color in fall, structure in winter and dessert in spring.

Peeking through the trees, the light is caught against the facade of the handsome stone house surrounded by mature shade plantings, none of which existed when Mark first bought the property.

Peeking through the trees, the light is caught against the facade of the handsome stone house surrounded by mature shade plantings, none of which existed when Mark first bought the property.

Any advice for those approaching gardening later in life?

Are you saying that I am a “later in life” gardener? I will let you know when I reach that point 🙂

A stone path disappears through the lush growth of woodland perennials and trees at Stone Arches.

A stone path disappears through the lush growth of woodland perennials and trees at Stone Arches.

What did you look forward to the most?

My twin girls and all the moments and stories and memories and fairy tales they will create and inspire in our magical garden.   It’s the never ending, Epic story.. 

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