Detroit Free Press

Michigan landscaper's spiritual Irish gardens thrill viewers

Quietly yet confidently, John Cullen of Dexter says his goal is to be the nation's best gardener.

"I want to leave a mark on the garden world," he says.

It's an ambitious goal, but events of the last seven months provide encouragement:

  • He won a best of show and the daily people's choice awards at the 2007 Philadelphia Flower Show.
  • He exhibited at Garden Show Ireland's festival in June.
  • He's been invited to represent the United States at the Singapore Garden Festival in 2008.
  • And he'll return as a major invited exhibitor at Philadelphia in March.

When talking about his accomplishments and future, Cullen is unusually open in discussing his religion.

"My Catholic faith is probably the source of pretty much everything I do," he says.

For instance, the Philadelphia show had the theme "Legends of Ireland." Rather than go heavy on kitsch like leprechauns, Cullen constructed a replica of the 13th Century St. Kevin's stone chapel. The ruin was surrounded by roses, being reclaimed by nature.

Patricia Mullan, an Ann Arbor client of Cullen's who took a side trip from a business appointment to see the show, watched as people talked with Cullen about the display.

Depending on their interest, she says, he discussed the display on different levels -- the personal, since he and his wife, Moira, became engaged at St. Kevin's in 1997, as well as its historical and religious significance.

"He kind of works it into the story," Mullan says. "He'll find a way of connecting on people's level and then offer this one additional step. It might be historical or it might be spiritual."

Cullen says he won the daily most-popular votes -- the first time in the show's history that has happened -- because the exhibit "looked very sacred and I think people appreciated that." Several people who admired the exhibit have asked him to duplicate the display at their own homes, he says.

"All of a sudden, things started to go unusually well," recalls Cullen, 42.

For next year's Philadelphia show, March 2-9, Cullen is working on an interpretation of the theme "Jazz It Up," involving life emerging from destruction as a tribute to New Orleans.

Guided by faith
Cullen has two businesses: Celtic Gardens, which is a design-construction firm, and Celtic Garden Imports (, which brings in antique garden ornaments and stone, mostly from Europe. His business motto is, "God makes. Man shapes."

Celtic Gardens has five employees, all Catholic. Cullen's nephew Michael Cullen is principal garden designer and builder.

"We're clearly a company that's mindful of our faith," John Cullen says. Earlier this year, he and Michael bartered a grotto design for a religious community so they could attend a weekend retreat.

Last week, Cullen walked through two gardens he has designed. One has a reflecting pool and a roofless stone chapel that could have been part of a woodland garden in the British Isles. One stone in the chapel well is removable; behind it is a bottle of Bushmill's whiskey, a playful reference to Ireland.

At a garden owned by Randy Tisch of Scio Township, Cullen again uses aged stonework and massive plantings with straight lines to complement the home's prairie-style architecture.

"He was here about a year," Tisch says. "He is as good as you'll get."

Self-taught gardener
Cullen grew up in Detroit and on Grosse Ile, the youngest of eight children and son of a Ford Motor Co. plumber. To help pay tuition while he studied literature at the University of Michigan, Cullen began working as a gardener.

He says he is self-taught, although he studied stonework in Ireland and learned about design while working with well-known garden designers: the late Rosemary Verey in England and Ryan Gainey of Atlanta.

Many of Celtic Gardens' clients are in Michigan and the Chicago area; Cullen says they spend from $1,000 to more than $1 million on his landscape projects.

He and his wife live on three acres in Dexter with their home-schooled children, ages 6, 4 and 2.

"We have enormous blessings," Cullen says. In the future, he sees doing less "competitive gardening" and learning more about plant science, perhaps during a stint at a National Trust garden in Ireland.