1968 Wausau Grad Mark Morrison Planting Hope

1968 Wausau Grad Mark Morrison Planting Hope
Posted on 04/01/2020
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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

PLANTING HOPE

Mark Morrison, a Wausau native and top New York landscape architect, believes plants can help us all

WASSIAC, N.Y. The little town of Wassiac, New York, is nestled in the hills of the Hudson River Valley about 75 miles north of Manhattan.

The countryside is gorgeous. The rugged hills are nearly mountains, but not quite, and in the summer, they are lush with green forests. It makes sense that Wausau native, landscape architect and plant lover Mark K. Morrison would settle here. He's a two-hour train ride to New York City, and it's a reasonable-for-East Coast drive to his office in the suburb of New Rochelle.

That makes it convenient for him to do his work as president and CEO of MKM, a landscape architecture firm he founded over 35 years ago. It allows him to indulge in his passion for plants and outdoor design on his own property, and gives him space to curate and add to his extensive collection of garden tools.

It's this collection that brought me in early March to Morrison's home in Wassiac. In 2014, I first wrote about how Morrison and his colleagues at MKM were making a splash in New York City, primarily because of their expertise in building rooftop and wall gardens. They built their reputation on bringing color and plants and the natural world into the urban environment. Morrison, 70, was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He spoke then about his love of plants, the efficiency of rooftop gardens and his passion for design.

But he really got animated when he started to talk about his collection of garden tools, thousands of implements that include watering cans, dibbers (planting tools that bore holes in the ground for seeds and bulbs), pruning shears, hoes, plows, asparagus cutters and sprinklers. The oldest tool he has dates back to the 1600s.

"It's a collection that rivals any museum in the world," Morrison said to me previously. "You should come see it some time."

See PLANTS, Page 3A

PHOTOS BY KEITH UHLIG/USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN

Keith Uhlig, Columnist
Wausau Daily Herald
USA TODAY NETWORK WIS.

Plants

Continued from Page 1A

I tucked the invitation away in my memory's filing cabinet. My wife grew up about 65 miles away from Wassiac, in New City, New York, and we travel there each year to visit relatives and friends. Usually the vacation gets packed with activities; this year, we took two weeks as my 95-year-old father-in-law was recovering in a rehab facility, and that gave me some extra time to finally take advantage of the invitation.

It was nearly 60 degrees and sunny when I drove to Wassiac, and even though the grass hadn't quite greened up, you could feel everything getting ready to pop out the color.

After I arrived at Morrison's home, it didn't take long to realize that he wasn't exaggerating about his tool collection. There are tools everywhere. They are part of the decor in his home; there is a staging area where he brings in new tools; and then there is the barn area that he uses to display the bulk of the collection.

It's fantastic, and he's constantly on the search for more.

"It's definitely about the thrill of the hunt," he said.

Morrison has appeared on "The Martha Stewart Show" with a small percentage of his tools. Some of his water cans and other tools were on display at The Met during a 2018 exhibition entitled "Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence."

It all stems from his primal love of plants. Plants not only helped him build a profession and earn an income that allowed him to build MKM and another construction company. His job has taken him all over the planet, and helped him educate and raise three children.

But plants are more than just business for Morrison. They are art, they are food and they are life. They consume carbon dioxide, which can be toxic to humans, and produce oxygen, a fundamental need for people.

"This is about passion," Morrison said. "I'm trying to tell a story here, and each one of these tools has its own story."

There are the overall stories, about how tools and gardening changed through time. But then there are the little stories that each tool represents. When Morrison picks up a dibber, for example, the questions run through his mind: Who were the other people to hold the tool? How much food did it help produce? What impact did that food have on families and communities?

We met just as COVID-19 was beginning take its deadly toll in the United States. This was before most travel was limited and states began to require people to stay "safe at home." Before the city of New Rochelle, 34 miles and across the Hudson River from where my father-in-law lives, went into a lockdown mode.

I called Morrison after I returned to Wisconsin, and it's no surprise that Morrison believes gardening and plants can help Americans deal with the most devastating health emergency in generations.

"Gardening throughout history has been therapeutic," he said. "This shows how important it is to grow plants and grow food."

He talked about how he and his firm do a lot of work with the New York public school system, converting paved areas into green areas. Creating little parks with trees and plants has been shown through studies to help increase test scores and student performance, Morrison said, and helps quash behavioral problems.

There is still snow on the ground in central Wisconsin, and southern areas of the state are just beginning to green up. But even though it might be a little early, perhaps it's time now to be thinking about planting things, planning for fresh vegetables and designing our colorful flower gardens.

"It just psychologically makes people feel better," Morrison said.

Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or kuhlig@gannett.com.