Press and Media

Ann Arbor News, 2008

Small Gardening Company Takes on Big Projects

Garden designer and builder John Cullen is happy to work with you if you have, say, $800 for a little project at your Ann Arbor home.

But you're as apt to find him tending a 5-acre garden in an affluent Chicago neighborhood or preparing for an international show as moving earth in town.
Indeed, the Dexter resident spent part of this past summer installing a garden at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, Northern Ireland.

And his upset win at the Philadelphia Flower Show earlier this year earned him an invitation to exhibit in the Singapore Garden Festival, where he'll represent the United States.

That's right: represent the United States. John Cullen and Celtic Gardens, a five-man company based in Dexter.

It's heady stuff for a literature major whose summer jobs had to cover tuition at the University of Michigan. Of course, those jobs were gardening.

The youngest of eight, Cullen grew up in Grosse Ille.

His dad was a plumber at Ford. His mom was the gardener. And if you ask him about his early influences, he'll recount a vivid memory of his mother telling him he looked like a natural holding a shovel.

"I was edging or something," he says, raising two gripped-but-empty hands as he sits in his small home office.

"I worked near Westcroft Gardens (the historic farm in Macomb County)," he continues. "Ernie Stanton (a descendant of original owner William Macomb and a nurseyman who turned acres of hayfield into a botanical garden) was an inspiration to me."

A man fond of metaphor and inclined to inject at a well-considered quote into conversation (you can't go wrong with Thomas Aquinas on nature), Cullen has a keen sense of history and heritage.

It's also central to his work.

Cullen is a period gardener.

After U-M he traveled, working mostly in programs for the Catholic church - and gardening in Europe. Then came the eureka moment when he added cobblestones picked up in Florence and in Assisi to gardens back home.

"You realize that there's an immediate pedigree by adding old things - heirloom plants or materials," the self-taught gardener says.

Before long, he was studying stonework in Ireland. And buying. Old architectural materials, cobblestones.

"A friend came and told he they were tearing up an old street in Dublin," he says. He took a city block's worth.

Today, Celtic Garden Import - a sister business to the design/build company Celtic Gardens - acquires and sells rustic objects to individuals and other garden companies across the country, and of course, for Cullen's projects.

They're materials that provide a focal point and, importantly, that have a story.

The exhibit that wowed them in Philadelphia had a story.
A replica of St. Kevin's 13th century chapel ruin in Glendalough, Ireland, the display included fieldstone walls and a round tower, 18th century stone farm troughs, straddle stones, and fence posts from County Kildare, Irish peat and hybrid and David Austin roses.

Built in five days, and after some peril involving stone arriving a day late, the "Rose of Glendalough" won the best in show awarded by judges and the "people's choice" best in show every day of the event.

The materials oozed history and, for Cullen, the classically ecclesiastical effort was an expression of his deep religious commitment and a tribute to his wife.
"Moira and I were engaged at St. Kevin's," he says.

At home in Dexter Township, there are bits of history and tradition, too.

A Celtic-cross walkwayphoto is edged with cobblestones salvaged from Detroit. The roses that surround it are the David Austins that 300,000 people passed by at the Philadelphia Flower show. Cullen's nephew, Mike, a key member of the Celtic Gardens team, has sandblasted the family name in a cobblestone photothat's set in one of the stone walls under construction on the property.

Family is one reason Cullen and the Pittsburgh-born, Chicago-raised Moira are in Michigan.

From a business point of view, Chicago or California would make more sense, he says. But "we're at home here," Cullen says. "There's a beauty I'm familiar with, and the kids will have a sense of who they are ... we're Cullens."