Mike Marek

Story by Jan Christensen , Photo by Vince Bushell

Even though it was a rainy day, Mike Marek was working on his landscaping business. April is the start of a busy season. He was on his way back from Jackson with eight yards of soil for a small native plant nursery that he’s working on, and had a couple of hours sitting in the truck when he could talk on the phone.

Mike Marek has been a Riverwest resident for about three years. He moved here from the Brady Street area, where he lived since 1997. He officially started his business, Marek Landscaping, in 1996.

Since then he’s left his mark on Milwaukee. One of his most spectacular projects is the two-year Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum garden renovation that he completed in 2002. That project included such challenges as restoring the water stairway and planting the terraced slope and lower garden. If you’re driving along the lakefront, you can’t miss this breathtaking project.

On a smaller scale and closer to home, Mike also created the red paver sidewalk and fountain centerpiece at Trocadero Café on Water Street. And a hidden gem: the roof garden at the Garden Room on Capitol Drive.

Last spring his firm was instrumental in building and landscaping the crushed stone hiking trail along the east bank of the Milwaukee River, just across from Riverwest. He has also worked with the Urban Ecology Center, serving on the design team for the Riverside Park master plan, including the ADA accessible fishing pier and boat launch.

Despite his busy schedule, Mike makes time for volunteer community work. His latest neighborhood project is Linear Park, the old railway corridor that cuts diagonally from the intersection of Bremen and Burleigh north to Keefe and Richards. Marek Landscaping presented a public information forum on that project at the April 17 Riverwest Neighborhood Association meeting. They are working with the city on trail alignment and storm water design. They are also working with Peg Karpfinger on designs for signage and a public pavilion.

Mike’s current projects tend to be on the huge side. His company of seven people just finished installing all the trees and bushes in a 100-acre eco-industrial park in the Menomonee Valley area east of Miller Park. They planted more than 1,000 trees and shrubs and 12 acres of native plants in the storm water basin. They also signed a three-year contract to do maintenance on the project.

His other big job this summer is Reservoir Park. His company will be planting trees and shrubs and seeding native species.

What kind of education and experience shapes a person to leave such a mark on the landscape of a city? It helps to start early.

“I was doing yard work in grade school,” Mike says. “My first job was pulling weeds around the neighborhood. Some of those thistles were taller than I was.”

He attended UW-Stevens Point for two and a half years in an urban forestry program, but he left before graduating. “The program has changed a lot since I went to school for it,” he explained. “Back then, it was resource-based, having a lot to do with industrial value…evaluating forests in terms of board feet or tons of paper.” Fieldwork offered a more meaningful education.

There was lots of fieldwork. He worked in a DNR Youth Conservation Camp when he was a high school senior in Elm Grove. He also served two years as assistant forester and three years as head forester in the Village of Elm Grove Forestry Department.

“Judy Mead was really my first mentor,” Mike recalls. “She was the head forester in Elm Grove and my neighbor. She took me under her wing and taught me about trees.”

Among his other influences Mike lists Mike Yanny, plant propagator at Johnson Nursery; Frederick Law Olmstead; and “my dad. We had a huge garden and did all our own landscaping.”

As you might expect, Mike’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, but we prevailed on him to indulge in a little philosophy. What would he like people to say about his projects in the future? “That’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

What would he like his influence on the landscape of the city to be? “We try to design sustainable landscapes that grow and evolve with the dynamic nature of the plants in mind.”

How long does he think his influence on the city will be felt? “If we plan everything right…forever.”

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2007