CELEBRATING THE OUTDOORS

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

Mark Mariani has always been impressed with the European garden center tradition of blending trees and shrubs with a dining and shopping experience. So when Winkler’s Nursery in Armonk was looking to sell seven years ago, Mariani knew just what to do.

The result is Mariani Gardens, which has for the last four years been named one of the top 25 garden centers in the United States by Garden Center Magazine.

It’s easy to understand why. The center offers a sleek mix of plants, shrubs, trees, fashion and home decor in a 17,000-square-foot gray wood, stone and glass building minutes from Interstate 684. The roughly 4 and one-half acre complex includes a storage building and a handsome gray clapboard office building whose gray-green granite interior, complete with a watch-your-step-or-you’ll-be-in-the-drink pool, is haute moderne.

The garden center itself contains two 3,500-square-foot climate-controlled greenhouses. Outdoors, you’ll find an array of herbs, hanging plants, topiaries, fruit trees and glazed planters to put them in. Nature is the song that runs through Mariani Gardens and vice president Sam Walsh is one of its maestros.

“It’s no different than being an art or car collector,” he says.

Walsh spends his winters traveling from Oregon to Florida to find the best, most unusual trees and shrubs, based on tips from private owners, collectors and nurseries. There is a small “digging window” in early spring to uproot and transport the finds. Then it’s time to sell them at Mariani.

Walsh points to two gorgeous 37-foot fastigiated (tapered) copper beeches – each worth $32,500 – that are on their way to a home in Greenwich. A 50-year-old spreading copper beech from Virginia retails for $47,000. It is the most expensive offering at the center, though Walsh says there are plantings that go for as little as $3.

Mariani is a full-service installation and landscaping operation, although it does not do maintenance. Deer-proof boxwoods are the most popular purchases for the garden. But the big trend this year is flowering fruit trees – apple, peach, plum, nectarine and yes, even citrus, though the last should be brought indoors for the winter.

“Ten years ago, it was swimming pools,” Walsh says. “Five years ago, tennis courts. And now it’s orchards. The satisfaction clients get being able to pick fruit off trees right by their pools is amazing.”

The trend also mirrors the personal taste of Mariani himself, whose Greenwich home has strawberries, blueberries, figs and even olives, Walsh says.

Inside-outside, the trend is modern seating that marries the house proper to the landscape.

“It’s all about the comfort,” says sales associate Erika Petrilak, pointing to the resin-infused wicker Brown Jordan Tangier Collection in beige with splashes of yellow, which retails for around $6,000. On a sparkling spring day, some visitors admire such furnishings while others take a break in the Mariani Café, which serves zesty soups, salads, sandwiches and breakfast all day. (The turkey and brie Panini is a Walsh favorite and we concur.)

Not that he and the staff of 40 have any time for leisurely lunch or lounging. In spring, the workday begins at 6:30 a.m. and goes on “as long as it possibly can,” Walsh says with a laugh. Is it any wonder that the entire complex was built in 72 days in the winter of 2007? The place opened April 27 of that year.

“That’s how Mark does things,” Walsh says of his boss, who started in landscaping and excavation 30 years ago when he was just 17.

Recently, Mariani Gardens formed a partnership with Spruce Home and Garden to run the retail portion of the garden center. (Spruce also has locations in Westport, New Milford and West Hartford.) The more unusual items in Spruce at Mariani Gardens include a life-size teak root horse sculpture ($4,950); a pale blue stone garden table with four stools ($980); antique green iron mermaid garden ornaments ($63 each); a butterfly ball hanging ($48); faux moth orchid stems ($35 each) and an elegant black-and-white owl print tote ($18).

Among the available sumptuous coffee table books published by Assouline, one title is particularly telling. It’s “The Well-Lived Life” by former House & Garden editor-in-chief Dominique Browning.

The title crystallizes the Mariani experience.

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