“Every plant wants to live so if you’re listening, you have to work pretty hard to kill it.”
We spoke with Mark about his experiences and recommendations in gardening, especially during this trying time when discovering new passions is even more important. Mark follows a cottage garden style, which is more rambunctious, has more color, and is naturally wilder than other garden types. Read further to get inspired and see what Mark has to say.
How did you find your way to the NBOME?
Most of my corporate background has been in finance—I have an MBA in finance and I spent much of my career on Wall Street, both in New York and Chicago. I left Wall Street about 15 years ago, and then bought and built a small nonprofit company in education for underperforming school districts, which did a lot of tutoring to help kids, etc. Then I sold that business and wanted to move into healthcare with another nonprofit, so I found my way to NBOME and have been here for about 10 years now.
>How did you get into this as a hobby—what was the spark that made you so passionate about it?
I just like being outside a lot, and living in Chicago, you want to be outside as much as you can when the weather is good. My wife and I built a house and there was no landscaping on it at all, so we had a totally clean slate to start with. I’d had a couple gardens in the past and at other places I’ve lived so I decided I’d go for it this time and build something. The great thing about gardens is they are never complete, and you’re constantly changing it and redrafting it. It’s that concept of a never-finished product that really got me into it. Gardening also got me out during the summertime and gave me a creative outlook. There’s a lot of benefit to just puttering around in your garden—I spend like 10 hours a week in it most weeks in the year.
Why would you recommend gardening to your colleagues at the NBOME?
Gardening is very rewarding and relaxing—you can see the benefits of the time you put into it. It’s creative and it’s good exercise—with all the digging, weeding, pruning, and maintenance required to keep it up. In general, the centering and creativity that gardening provides are very helpful in your day-to-day—even in an intangible way. In my office, I have this array of pictures that I take of my garden. That inspiration is always there for me. Whenever things get a little tense, I can turn and see that beauty staring me in the face. We actually had someone over for dinner last night and they looked around at my garden—it was a beautiful evening—and they asked, “How many people come to take care of your garden every week?” And I replied, “It’s just me!”
Tell us about a time where gardening has helped you in your work at the NBOME.
During the pandemic, in particular, working from home was not easy, but the timing of it coincided with the emergence of the garden, seasonally. It was really nice to be able to be more attentive to it—at least visually. Because I was home, I could see more of what was happening, as opposed to leaving first thing in the morning and coming home late in the evening. I hadn’t been spending as much time actually seeing the results of the work I put in. That was really good for me to be able to absorb and have that centering available to me during the pandemic when I needed that kind of grounding.
Do you have any secret plant tips for us?
I’m a big believer in using native plants. There are some types of plants that want to grow naturally in the climate where you live, and if you try to plant species that didn’t grow up there to try and make them work in your space just because you saw it in a catalog or at the garden center—if it’s not meant to naturally be there, it’s not going to do as well and will require more work from you. I always think people should be aware of what kind of plants naturally want to be in your soil – it’s the native plants. In doing so, you’re giving yourself a much better chance of being successful.
What is your favorite or funniest moment at the NBOME?
Aside from my first day, and feeling like this was really going to be an interesting and rewarding place for me, my most memorable time was when Eric Przybylski, Mary Brown, and I had to produce hundreds of paper-and-pencil exams that had to go out for one of our clients the next day. We ended up going store-to-store in Chicago, bouncing all over trying to find places that were open and could handle the print job that we had. We finally got it done and it all worked out great. It was a long, crazy night, but we ended up having to laugh a lot because it didn’t end up going how we planned.