Garden Heaven Magazine

July/August 2007

God makes; man shapes.
The island of Grosse Isle sits nestled between the United States and Canada at the mouth of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes that surround the state of Michigan. It is here that you will find Westcroft, the gardens that were the life's work of the late Ernie Stanton, a gardener and plantsman who traveled the world in search of unusual specimens. As a youth, I spent many hours weeding these gardens and taking in all that I saw. Though I have on occasion suggested I apprenticed under Mr. Stanton (a slight exaggeration perhaps), my greatest teacher at Westcroft was actually a stone.

More than a decade had passed since my laboring at Westcroft, when my father suggested we visit those gardens again. There, lying next to a small reflecting pool we found a memorial stone honoring the late Ernie Stanton with four words on it—the four words that would become my company motto: "God makes; man shapes." It struck me then that at the heart of gardening there is always a collaborative effort. I take what God has created—be it soil, stone, plant or water—and from them I try to weave both nature and inspiration until I feel the desired effect has been achieved.

My father, Francis Xavier Cullen, was a plumber at Ford Motor Company and a man who loved beautiful things and always noticed them. He taught me that freedom comes not in doing what you want to do, but what you ought to do. One should have a sense of responsibility in all that we do.

Truly, now as a gardener, I am fully aware of this responsibility. As a designer, however, I struggle at times to be faithful to this truth. There are moments when I desire to do things that are not in the best interest of the plant or landscape. I have to remind myself that we are stewards of this planet and as gardeners we are but temporary partners in this collaboration. What a wondrous trade to be a hands-on worker with creation!

But my part is only the beginning. Once the garden is built, I believe that nature then takes on the principle responsibility of perpetuation. Nature, ever erring towards beauty, can often correct the mistakes of man. And where nature has been left free to play with and embellish the lofty efforts of men, the outcome is magical.

Origin of Design
I have recently come to the conclusion that I am a design-orientated gardener, and not a plantsman. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our bleak winters in Michigan force gardeners to shut down for a couple months every year. Years ago, I started traveling during my downtime to gardens throughout Europe. The trees were bare and the perennials were resting beneath the soil, so I missed the full grandeur of these gardens at their peak season. But what I did experience was the architectural bones of these masterpieces. The stone walls, the sculpted trees, the defined beds formed a lasting image in my mind that has influenced my designs ever since. Our trademark has become these very things, the "hardscape" of the garden building. Shades of the gardens of Wursburg Castle, the Vatican Gardens, or Hidcote, still creep into my designs from time to time.

Of all the influential places I have visited, the one that has had the most profound influence on my design has been the Irish countryside. There exists in Ireland a frugal splendor there that is unparalleled around the world. The countryside looks complete, lacking nothing. The meandering rivers, the undulating hillside, the masses of wild plant life, all play their part in creating this wild garden.

What seems to complete this beauty are the beehives, stone chapel ruins, and Irish walls that are strewn throughout the countryside; these man-made structures have been wonderful sources of inspiration in my own stonework and design philosophy. The ancient monastic communities of Ireland, with their ecclesiastical remnants, have been my greatest source of inspiration. I am ever thoughtful of the natural beauty of these rugged stone edifices as well as the amazing reality that these tiny communities preserved art, history, literature, and faith during some of the darkest days in Europe.

When one is driving throughout the countryside, these ruins appear to be so integral to the landscape that one would think that they were placed there by the very hand of God. These ruins are so seemingly natural that they blend into the terrain as do the mountains and rivers. That is the very essence of the collaboration that I hope to imitate in my gardens. There is a sense of permanence in the Irish countryside. It is not merely that the countryside looks old and natural, but it is that it looks right, complete as it is. It is truly a lofty task to strive to accomplish this in a newly-built garden.

The Period Gardener
It is with these experiences that I strive to marry both the formal man-made gardens to the natural surroundings in which they are found. Upon completing a "new garden," I hope that it appears to have passed the test of time. I am a period gardener and strive to present our gardens as authentic to a period or a style. In the period garden, every detail must be poured over to determine its appropriateness to the design. When done right, the finished product is seamless and timeless.

There is a great Irish American saying, if you can't find good help, you raise it. My wife, Moira and I have three little gardeners, Deirdre (6), Aidan (4) and Katherine (almost 2). Our garden has proved to be a wonderful place to teach our children. When I think of them and my work as a gardener I hope to create places that stand the test of time, places that they can return to with their own children. Most importantly, I hope that the world of gardening opens their eyes to Ultimate Beauty, ever ancient and ever new.