There are lots of family businesses on the North Fork, but Verderber Nursery and landscape design company is a literal family tree. Run by husband-and-wife team John and Maria Verderber and their three children, aged 26 to 28, it’s safe to say that a love of horticulture and landscape design runs in the family.
Headquartered in Aquebogue but with plant-growing operations in Jamesport, Mattituck, Southold and Southampton, the 300-acre Ver Der Ber casts a broad stroke, growing conifers, shade trees, shrubs and perennials for both wholesale and retail usage. Verderber’s diverse Garden Center features a 110-acre nursery space, offering everything from a small $8.99 flowering perennial to a 30-year-old tree selling for $25,000.
Verderber is famous for the dramatic tree branch/spire wooden gazebos that dot the space, all built by John himself from Eastern Red Cedar or Black Locust trees. “Each spindle is constructed from a single tree, so the larger ones might involve 150 trees,” he notes, explaining why creating each one is so difficult, time-consuming and special.
“We have had some inquiries on these structures,” says Maria, “but it’s not the kind of thing that’s sold in a kit; they would have to be installed. We’ve done a few in the Hamptons and they can go for $40,000.” The Verderbers created them primarily for people to enjoy when they visit the nursery — whether to shop or just relax. Visitors strolling the grounds can step under them for some shade, a theatrical Instagram photo op or just a moment to relax in peace in the unique chairs carved from huge pieces of stone. Verderber does not host weddings, but brides and grooms have been known to pop over in their wedding attire for a quick snapshot under a gazebo.
“With our parks, gardens and streams, our motto has always been to be a destination center,” says Maria. “We want customers to come, walk around, spend time on a nice day and get ideas for their own gardens.”
Indeed, plants in the retail area are arranged with the full garden in mind. Have a deer problem? Just saunter over to the deer-resistant plant section. Live on a bluff facing the Sound? You’ll want to peruse the seaside section, filled with hardy plants that can stand up to salt and wind. There’s also a extensive shade section, as well as Perennials by the Sun.
“The key is diversity within sections, so if you opt for all deer-resistant boxwoods, for example, we offer a broad variety of boxwoods so you can put them together to create a nice-looking landscape,” says Maria.
As the North Fork caters to both year-rounders and second-home owners (many who mainly use their homes in the summer), the nursery realizes that seasonal needs are different for everyone.
“We do lots of pool gardens with an emphasis on summer flowering plants,” Maria said. “But we know the year-rounders want something that looks good all year, so we make sure to have evergreens in the mix.”
True to their motto of offering a place for people to come, relax and enjoy, the Verderbers used to have a farm stand to sell their pumpkins when the kids were smaller. Today, visitors can also check out the peacocks, guinea fowl, chickens and pigeons that are housed on the property. The birds are not for sale, however, and belong to one of the sons, but add a nice element to the nursery.
With such a love and knack for plants and trees, it might be surprising to learn John Verderber grew up in Queens.
“I got into horticulture because I maintained the estate of a lawyer who was really into rhododendrons,” he recalled. “He gave me the idea to go into this field, saying: ‘You buy some land, grow some plants, buy more land … it’s a nice job!’ ”
That lawyer might have made it all sound easy, but Verderber knew there would be no short cuts. To learn the ropes, he attended Cornell University’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where he studied plant pathology and integrated pest management, later teaching plant pathology and entomology at Farmingdale University. He co-founded Verderber Nursery over 45 years ago with Maria, an Adelphi graduate with a degree in business, who runs the business side of things.
Since neither John nor Maria Verderber grew up in the business, they’re thrilled that their children inherited their green thumbs. All three kids also sought out formal studies to further cultivate their family knowledge, jumping in full time after their respective graduations with a next-generation vision.
Son John Edward Verderber, 28, graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and now does lots of landscaping jobs in the Hamptons. His twin, Joseph, who earned a degree in horticulture and landscape design from Farmingdale State College, handles much of the wholesale operation. Daughter Mary, 26, attended Pennsylvania State University and got her degree in landscape contracting with an emphasis on design. Lately, she’s been running the garden center and learning the business side of things.
“My husband and I took it as far as we could take it,” Maria said. “And now the children are making big improvements, managing the website, social media and more.”
Mary explained that while the generation before does design sketches by hand, she and her brother design mostly in auto CAD (Computer Aided Design) after their site visits.
“It’s easier to work with and revise with the client that way,” she said.
So what’s it like working with your kids all day?
“You got kids?” John laughs. “No, I’m just kidding! It’s great having them around all the time. And I love seeing what they add to the business.”
Verderber Nursery is located at 459 Main Road, Riverhead