cultivating a dream Garden: Mark Sullivan and Maripat Neff started out as sculptors, went into restoring historic properties and now run a nursery offering unusual and hard-to-find plants.

August 11, 1996|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN STAFF

When you or I see a fine specimen of Japanese maple, we say, "Nice tree."

When Mark Sullivan sees a Japanese maple, he sees what has become his life's passion at age 44.

It wasn't always that way. Sullivan, who, with his wife, Maripat Neff, now owns Fieldstone Nursery in Parkton, used to be in the construction business.

No, go back further in time. The two of them were sculptors, finishing their post-graduate work at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1979.

But in the next 10 years, their lives changed radically. In 1989 they opened a nursery, after Sullivan discovered he had a fascination for unusual plants and an unexpected talent for propagating them.

The decision to move to the country came first. When they finished school, Sullivan worked at restoring historic properties. The couple bought a house in the city and proceeded to have three children. There was not a blade of grass around their house, although it did have an extensive roof garden, courtesy of Maripat Neff.

"I was always into plants," says Neff, "I always had gardens. But Mark is a mystery."

The mystery isn't really a mystery, of course, if you consider that sculpting, restoration work and grafting Japanese maples are all crafts. "Like many of the things I've done," he says, "it's very hands-on."

When their twins arrived, Neff and Sullivan had to find a house with more room. It was a matter of economics that they bought a home so far from Baltimore. Anywhere closer would have been too expensive, given what they wanted: a house, a barn for a studio and a large pond where their three boys could swim.

Bought old farmhouse

They ended up buying an 1840s brick farmhouse with gingerbread trim and a driveway filled with poison ivy. That same driveway (without the poison ivy) is now lined with shade trees surrounded by shade-loving perennials -- perfect little vignettes to show customers what they can do with areas that don't get much sun.

Sullivan could have kept on restoring houses, but after so many years he was ready for a change. He decided to work the land, growing what he needed to grow to keep the 12-acre farm's agricultural status for tax purposes. He started visiting nurseries to learn as much as he could about the business. And he found it was the specialty plants that attracted him. After a year or so, the two were ready to open their own nursery.

In her book "The Garden Primer," Barbara Damrosch advises, "Ask the [nursery] proprietors if they grow their own. If you do find a place where the owner is a grower, the chances are good that she or he can give you more dependable, disease-free plants and will be more knowledgeable about them."

Selling other growers' materials wasn't really an option for such a small nursery as Fieldstone for very long. It would simply have been too costly. So soon after the business got started, Sullivan taught himself to clone his own cultivars -- and found he had a knack for it. (See sidebar.)

Amazing when you consider he had never grown so much as a tomato plant in his back yard.

"I call him a plant snob," says Maripat Neff with a laugh. "The stranger and weirder the plant, the more he has to have it. When someone comes here and asks for a juniper, he wants to walk away."

That fascination turned out to be good for business, because a small nursery can compete only if it offers unusual and hard-to-find plants. At the same time, Neff is happy to grow -- and sell -- junipers and other familiar shrubs and flowers. She's turned her artist's eye to landscape design and needs them for the gardens she creates.

Take wisteria. If you happen to need some wisteria, Fieldstone Nursery has a silo smothered in it. This is a silo 24 feet in diameter and 45 feet tall. Neff put in three plants, and the silo was enveloped in two years.

She looks up at this amazing vine, which has run rampant and could very well take over the whole farm -- as wisteria is wont to do.

"I always tell people," she says with a laugh, "you need a license to grow wisteria."

At first glance, Maripat Neff and Mark Sullivan seem to be the idyllic couple living the idyllic life, doing what many of us only dream about: They left the city to raise their children peacefully, growing flowers and brightening other people's gardens.

Of course, that doesn't take into account last summer, when there were 22 consecutive days over 95 degrees and practically no rain in July and August and every one of those plants had to be watered constantly.

It doesn't take into account the rabbits who love the tender leaves of their nursery stock.

Busy and not so busy

It doesn't take into account that business isn't exactly booming from November to March, except for the occasional sale of a live Christmas tree. As Neff says, "It's so seasonal. Spring is the worst, because everything happens at once."

Then she looks beyond to the rolling fields of the common and not-so-common trees, shrubs and flowering plants growing in neat rows behind their farmhouse. She nods with satisfaction.

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