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Horticulture’s young guns: Meet Brent Markus

by Timber Press on October 29, 2012

in Design, Gardening

Markus Collection and Garden

At Timber Press we take pride in publishing the knowledge of experts but we also like to keep an eye on those at the beginning of a career in the horticulture industry. Brent Markus is one such person.

Brent Markus

Brent won Best Collector’s Garden by the Chicago Tribune for the redesign of his family’s half-acre property—at age fifteen! His unique ambition led to the redesign of his high school’s landscape in 1999, a Bachelors of Science degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell University, and the start of his own design business Markus Specimen Trees in 2004. Three years later Brent founded Markus Farms LLC in Silverton, Oregon, and launched Rare Tree Nursery, a wholesale Japanese maple and conifer nursery, while pursuing a Masters in Ornamental Horticulture in 2009. Most recently Brent founded ConiferKingdom.com, the retail mail order extension of Markus Farms, and is working on finishing his PhD.

Timber Press designer Bree Goodrow corresponded with Brent recently about the importance of education, influences and inspirations, and the future of the horticulture industry.

Before and after shots of the Rockland Japanese Garden, design by Brent Markus.


How did your horticulture education begin?

For all budding horticulturalists, it is important to find mentors in the field and establish friendships with them. I was fortunate growing up a mile from the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which has fantastic curators. Learning in the informal environment of a botanical garden—an apprenticeship of sorts, rather than a classroom—was the greatest experience at a young age. Hands on horticulture, then academic.

How did you become introduced to the curators at the Chicago Botanic Gardens?

Most of this happened between 1996 and 1998, while I was in high school. I signed up as a volunteer, then it was the curators and other volunteers who assigned tasks. After a few weeks in the gardens, my relationship with the curators in the Dwarf Conifer and Japanese Gardens had solidified. If you show a gardener or horticulturalist that you want to learn and are ready to get your hands dirty, making friends and building a relationship should come pretty naturally.

Henri Bort, former curator of the Japanese Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden called you “the future of horticulture.” He was a mentor of yours, and I’ve found that no matter what industry, a mentor is a powerful key to learning and success. Do you envision yourself mentoring aspiring designers someday?

Other designers and horticulturalists, definitely. When I have enough landscape projects to warrant a design staff other than myself, I’d love to find the right budding landscape designer to mentor—or better yet, if an interested potential mentee finds me! A mentor-mentee dynamic brings excitement and fresh ideas to the process, rather than trying to please yourself and the client, you’re cultivating another individual to do the same.


What is the most valuable take-away from your experience at Cornell?

I believe one of the most valuable aspects of higher education is the exposure to the brilliant minds who have dedicated their lives to greater knowledge and understanding of a specific field. I’ve found academia, particularly in a scientific field like horticulture, instills a regimented thought pattern and approach to problem solving. Much of this is innate to the field and practitioner, yet it is also cultivated through study, experience, and criticism by more seasoned or educated individuals. My Masters and PhD research constantly challenged me through developing experiments and completing original research.

Would you agree that great teachers really push you to be thoughtful, to think for yourself, rather than just learn how to execute a job or a craft?

Yes, great teachers and great parents teach you to think for yourself. Many of my professors—specifically Dr. Nina Bassuk—my graduate research adviser has always given me space to grow ideas and projects, while also providing constructive criticism and thought-provoking questions.


As a creative person, what inspires you outside of your field?

There are certainly particular aesthetics I am drawn to—for example, Fibonnaci sequences in nature, Art Deco architecture and prairie architecture, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s numerous works, all inspire me. Those geometric styles play into the fact that I’m a very mathematical person. My mother is quick to tell people that if I wasn’t a landscape designer/horticulturist I would be a mathematician. Mathematics and geometry play a role in my designs as well as in the nursery industry.

I have a garden I’m currently working on in the Chicago suburbs—inspiration came largely from Dan Kiley‘s early work—in particular, the Miller House for the formal portions of the garden. That is an extremely mathematical garden, utilizing symmetry, spacing and axes, coming together in unison to create a spectacular rhythm within the landscape. Another key theme in virtually all of my gardens is the use of varying colors and textures. Although those are obviously essential tools in all landscape design, I particularly enjoy highlighting the range nature provides. I often combine colors, textures and plant shapes in trios.

A design-in-progress by Brent Markus (above) inspired by Dan Kiley’s landscape design at Miller House (below). Miller House photo courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Who do you feel is creating exciting garden design right now, and why?

I’m drawn to horticulturally interesting designs, as well as those that are geometric and playful. Adrian Bloom‘s gardens explore color and unusual plant material in a relaxed manner. He utilizes hot new floral and shrub introductions and seldom-seen varieties of dwarf conifers creating four-season interest. Peter Wirtz, with whom I interned back in 2003, creates playful landscapes with calculated designs within formal boundaries. The geometry within his gardens and plant material evolving within structures in his landscapes make movement through his gardens experiential—with carefully placed windows through hedges to reveal phenomenal views


I read in Chicagoland Gardening that you chose about 1000 plants for your family’s half acre landscape. Between that and your nursery, you seem to enjoy plant material in large numbers. What do you think drives your desire to collect trees?

I’m a born collector and have become very passionate about my many hobbies and collections, but trees aren’t just a collection, they’re a constant evolution.  One variety might be a favorite for a time, but a new variety, or an oldie-but-goody will be shining the next week.

Markus Collection and Garden

What are your top conifer picks and why?

Picea orientalis Silver Seedling—few trees are so unique, a silver-dusted evergreen with gorgeous foliage for the shade, WOW!

Pinus strobus ‘Louie’—soft gold needles and nice pyramidal form deserve a spot in most landscapes.

Pinus koraiensis—any cultivar—in my opinion the king of all pines, the luscious needles look vibrant even under stressful conditions.

Anything columnar, period. Columnar trees can fit in the narrow urban spaces and create impact without taking over. They can be used as fences, implied boundaries, a grove can showcase a forest without acres of land, or they can simply be used as an accent in a landscape. Some varieties I often use include:  Pinus strobus ‘Fastigiata’, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Glauca Pendula’ (species has changed several times over the past few years), Thuja plicata ‘Virescens’. In the future I will be using lots of Pinus strobus ‘Stowe Pillar’ and new narrow Ginkgo varieties.

How do you envision the future of the industry?

Oh boy, this question isn’t much different than asking how I envision the future of the economy—they’re 100% related in my mind. Innovation is key. As big box stores expand their product line, the independent garden centers and small growers have to constantly evolve to compete. We’re changing what we grow at Rare Tree Nursery every season toward predicting market trends. We want unusual, but worthy, plant material to be accessible through independent garden centers in addition to out-of-the-way collectors’ havens. Outside of specialty nurseries, production powerhouses will always supply big box stores.

I have taken note that in this industry the producers, the nurseries, have little visibility on the products, the plants, once in a store. This seems very different from the way other non-living products are branded. The only example of plant brand visibility that comes to mind is the plant line Stepables by Under A Foot Plant Company, which was originally called Hopkins Nursery. (Their history of this brand decision and the following success is on their website.) Do you think that small-scale grower branding and marketing has the potential to become a future game changer, something everyone will be doing in 10-15 years?

Small scale marketing takes a while to gain momentum, yes I do think it can become a future game changer, but if a big nursery takes the small nurseries success and copies it, bye-bye small nursery success. I’m a novice when it comes to marketing, our goal has been unique plants and photos sell. That’s what we’re aiming for. For summer 2013 our goal is for every plant that we sell to have at least a few good photos to represent it on our websites.

In the video below, Brent takes us on a tour of his Rare Tree Nursery in Silverton, Oregon:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jo Ann Simons November 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for bringing Brent’s work to us. Can’t wait to learn more about him

2 Brian Ridder November 6, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Brent is one to watch, that’s for sure. Thanks for the comment, Jo Ann!

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