When I was 11 years old I pulled a young Norway maple seedling out of the ground, dug a small hole and planted it in the corner of our backyard. I imagined, even before I finished planting this tiny tree, what a mature Maple tree would look like in that particular place-I could see it with a clarity of vision that had never before been given to me. I envisioned its scale and form shading the yard as well as blocking the view of the neighboring houses. I could imagine so clearly everything including the very light changing in this given space. In an instant the concept of WHERE I was had changed irrevocably. The space around me suddenly became full of previously unimagined possibilities and in the successive days that I came to water this tree, watch it actually survive and live, my soul was awakened to the noble purpose of designing and making gardens.
I learned how to grow and propagate plants, shrubs and trees at this young age and to care for plants long before any formal training in this field. But to be schooled in horticulture was eventually to be my fate as well as an extraordinarily fascinating and deeply educational apprenticeship in New York, working on penthouse gardens, townhouse gardens and large properties in Westchester and Connecticut.
When my apprenticeship ended I was grateful to already have requests for gardens to be designed and built in the Hudson Valley and I eagerly began my practice, at first commuting from New York and then ultimately settling in this beautiful area. I was able to work on large-scale projects and have the unimaginably exciting privilege to be involved in designing and building gardens, structures, ponds and anything associated with the parameters of the outdoors for wonderful clients as well as designing and building my own house, transforming the property around it into a series of garden rooms and pasture, designing and building my barn for my horses. And all of the furnishings for gardens came into play in each project so I began designing trellis, furniture, pergolas, doors, gates, anything that was necessary to insure a completely unique vocabulary, customized to the particular site.
Traveling in Europe, seeing many gardens and landscapes in that part of the world added a huge dimension to my vision and has always recharged me in a way nothing else can. Seeing legendary gardens and every kind of technique that one can imagine, from the limitless-feeling landscapes at Stourhead to the intimacy of the garden rooms at Sissinghurst to the unpublished, private gardens that I would hungrily seek out by talking to owners of homes there and begging to have a look, has logarithmically expanded my design vocabulary.
Early on, I made the decision to keep my practice small, my hands touching each and every plant, shrub, tree, stone-- being involved in every aspect from the design to the final execution and future maintenance of gardens in order that my vision would be realized without compromise and that projects would be technically as well as aesthetically successful. One crew, rather than several large, poorly managed crews made sense to me, though that is simply not the what most people's idea of "successful" in this day and age, is. All of our projects are done entirely by us except for large earth-moving projects where we employ trusted and talented construction professionals to insure the realization of our goals.
Today, everyone wants to be a garden designer without knowing or actually understanding how plants grow, the mysteries that lie underground in the soil or a myriad of technical elements. The point here is, also, not to randomly add this or that element but to get the best out of the site and never to attempt to dominate it. Your faith or lack thereof is going to be apparent in the garden you make and it must begin with a deep respect for the forces of nature. Without this reverence there can be no garden design.
I found generally that listening to what each site has to say is what inspires me to create. I found that for a garden or a house there is a certain vernacular to be uncovered and in terms of a garden nothing should be introduced or modified without really having this inner dialog with whatever forces shape a given space-everything from the general topography of the land to the lifestyles of my clients. You are doomed to mediocrity if you neglect this step.
Now, in my 25th year of practice, with apprentices of my own I am more motivated than ever, deeply grateful for the opportunity to create beauty, to solve the problems that may be inherent in a site and to bring a wealth of design and horticultural experience into a really focused whole. Residential site planning and development has turned out to be so far beyond my expectations in terms of opportunities-the potential to enhance the given space around us is enormous. I have the fortunate opportunity to be able to under the limitless sky, envision what could be, absorb the vibrations I can see and feel in a given space, interpret those conditions, formulate a concept, understand the surrounding forces, gather my elements, create what I have imagined, watch it grow, photograph it and, many times, take that photograph and frame it to see whenever I wish. This, to me, is staggering. Not unlike a painter, though, I have always felt far more challenged and motivated by this, the ultimate of mediums for creativity for me.
---Mark Ripepi, Bleu Farm, NY