From humble beginnings to becoming one of the country’s top designers, John Cullen of Celtic Gardens has mixed intense passion with a no-compromise approach.
A brisk fall wind rattles the gold and red leaves clinging to the trees outside the home of John Cullen in Dexter, Michigan, as he pulls into his driveway at the end of a hectic workday. The wind swirls the leaves across his path as he walks to the front door. Cullen’s home is notable for an ample stone masonry porch his crew built, which surrounds two sides of the structure. He leans over and releases a stone covering a secret space just under the top step “where I can hide an extra set of keys,” he says, “or better yet, a small bottle of Scotch” for any guest who might have to await his arrival.
This kind of whimsical detail, he admits during dinner, is a source of pride for his company, Celtic Gardens, which is noted for its Old World stonework. Seated with us are his four young children and wife, Moira. Over fresh pasta and salad, Cullen peppers the conversation with descriptions of design/build projects past and present that span the globe, from Chicago to Singapore. His children aren’t impressed, though, and interrupt him with details of their day, and periodically spring from their chairs to take up toys and more important matters in the den.
Later, with the children in bed and the house quiet except for the sound of the wind, Cullen retreats to his study and mulls over design concepts he’s begun for a Gardening World Cup proposed this year in New York City. Cullen is trying to line up sponsors, designers and a venue for the event, which will be themed “Gardens for Peace” to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Celtic Gardens, the winner of the Total Landscape Care 2011 Landscaper of the Year competition, not only designs and builds landscape projects primarily for residential clients, but also is the winner of numerous awards from garden shows in the United States and abroad.
The balancing act between helping manage his growing family and his involvement in atypical design/build projects far afield from home is a role in which Cullen seems to thrive. “Family defines who I am, and so does my work,” he says. With both, he seems at times a force of nature much like the wind outside his door – intense and passionately involved, undeterred by obstacles.
In some ways, Cullen is unlike previous TLC Landscaper of the Year winners. His business is relatively small in revenue and employees. But the end results of Celtic Gardens’ award–winning design work serve as a wonderful example of how a successful niche can be achieved despite the challenges faced by the landscape industry.
Celtic Gardens’ garden show accolades encompass awards of excellence, People’s Choice, gold medals and best in show from noted events such as the Chicago and Philadelphia flower shows, the Singapore Garden Festival and the Gardening World Cup in Nagasaki, Japan.
“Building exhibit gardens at flower and garden shows has proven to be brilliant advertising; they give us an edge in the market,” Cullen says, because they expose his company’s work to an enthusiastic audience of thousands, “and the high level competition challenges you to grow.”
Accompanying Cullen to most of these events is his nephew Mike Cullen, his principal field manager for 20 years. Mike’s expertise is masonry and mosaics, which is evident when I shake his substantial, toughened hand upon greeting him at a tour of a longtime client’s residence in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mike and Cullen appear a perfect match of talents and personalities. Cullen is intense and cerebral, while Mike is laid back and grounded. They alternately describe key features of the landscape they’ve established here during a period of 10 years – intricately built stone retaining walls, which in one section holds an 18th Century grist stone from Scotland; blue stone paths that sometimes employ joinery akin to that of dovetail woodworking; plantings that incorporate an impressive stand of Japanese maples, a bed of carpet juniper woven with creeping red thyme; and unusual choices such as bear’s britches, a form of acanthus, and globe thistle.
“I like to create a story for each garden I design.”
Celtic Gardens specializes in period gardens, which take on themes, from East and West. “I like to create a story for each garden I design,” he says. “We find ourselves replicating and borrowing from classic gardens around the world, be they from a bygone era in Persia or Victorian England. We don’t have to go out and do our own thing. The inspiration is already there.”
The rear of the client’s modernistic home overlooks dramatically sloping hillside anchored by a sweeping bend in the Huron River. Celtic Gardens spent nine months here adding an irrigation system, improving drainage, building stone walls and paths, extensive plantings and a timber stairway from the home to the river. The riverbank was restored with native vegetation, and a fire pit resides discretely to one side. The crew went so far as to rearrange boulders and rocks across the stream and opposing riverbank to create a cascade effect and stronger buffer for the banks.
“I am obsessive about details,” Cullen says, “and insist on authenticity in our work.” This propensity necessitates small, lean crews of trusted workers, often including the Cullen extended family. “One of my cousins has nine sons, and all of them are in the construction or masonry industries,” he says. “We call on them when we need structural or engineering help or advice.”
The lion’s share of Celtic Gardens’ clients are in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago areas, but also range as far as Wisconsin, Maryland, Tennessee and Ireland. Most work comes from word-of-mouth referrals and exposure at garden shows. And while the logistics of managing such disparate projects keep Cullen challenged, the company also is involved in community give-back projects, such as design services for a local botanical garden and maintenance for a non-profit medical clinic.
His Father’s Advice
On the wall of Cullen’s home office are several photos of his father, Francis Xavier. He proudly points them out and stresses the great influence of his father on his life. “My father was a plumber for Ford Motor Company,” Cullen says. “His father died when he was 17, and he became his family’s principal breadwinner. He loved music, in particular classical music, and one time brought home a violin with the intention of learning to play. Grandmother immediately vetoed the purchase. Yet, he always aspired to and appreciated a creative life.
“When I was young, he used to stay up late at night,” Cullen continues, “and give me long passionate lectures or write letters to me with advice about many things — virtue, love, but most important, about living with integrity and imagination. He told me time and time again, ‘Don’t compromise.’
“I didn’t understand it at the time, but now those simple words are woven into the fabric of Celtic Gardens. We will not compromise when it comes to our standards and exceeding our clients’ expectations. We’ve torn down plenty of nearly completed stone walls because of that philosophy.”
Cullen’s passion for landscaping was nurtured as a teenager while caring for a prominent opera singer’s gardens in Gross lle, Michigan. “She encouraged me to take on projects and ideas that seemed so risky at the time, and it helped build my confidence and interest along the way,” Cullen says. It probably didn’t hurt that Ernie Stanton, described by Cullen as a “world-class plantsman,” owned the neighboring property. “He pioneered the importation of many broadleaf evergreens used today by landscapers and was a huge influence on me.”
Cullen went on to alternate between his studies in liberal arts at the University of Michigan and summer work as a gardener. “I wasn’t thinking of landscaping as a career,” he says. “It was always a means to earn an income for my studies. After graduation, I spent time overseas traveling on and off to more than 30 countries, trying to figure out what to make of my life. I always returned home to gardening; it became a refuge for me.” With this realization, Cullen eventually made the transition to his full-time design/build business.
His love of Old World garden design has been a blessing and sometimes a curse. In 1997, while studying stonework in Ireland, Cullen learned a cobblestone street in Dublin City Center was to be torn up. He bought all of the stones, 150 tons, and had them shipped home with a scheme to resell or incorporate them into his projects. The debt incurred was almost his undoing. Luckily, his then-future wife Moira stepped onto the scene and became a voice of practicality that he has called on ever since.
“Moira is not a ‘yes’ person,” Cullen says. “She has a much more conservative perspective than me and a pay-as-you-go philosophy that she helped me learn to embrace.”
When the economy hit bottom three years ago with a devastating effect in the Detroit area, Moira and Cullen committed themselves to reducing operational costs by 30 percent. “It was rather optimistic,” he says, “but we approached all of our service and material providers and asked for better rates. In almost every case, we were able to save money.”
One of the pivotal business decisions Cullen faced came in 1996 when a successful lawn and maintenance operation was offered to him for sale. “It would have meant taking on an operation with revenue of more than $1.5 million annually,” he says. With his accountant’s advice, he turned it down because it wasn’t a good fit. “My love is designing and creating great gardens, and I realized that managing this other business would pull me in another direction. For us, growth does not mean getting bigger, but better.
“I am obsessive about details and insist on authenticity in our work.”
“We strive to be the best gardeners we can possibly be,” Cullen says. “We want to leave a legacy of building beautiful gardens around the world.”
Making Dreams a Reality
As the deadline approaches for making the Gardening World Cup a reality in New York this year, Cullen works intently into the deep cold Michigan nights within the comfort of his home office. He will need to raise some $4 million in sponsorships and surmount numerous political and logistical hurdles in just a few weeks. “I’m way out of my comfort zone with this project,” he admits. “But I like the adren-alin accompanying the challenge. The possibilities are endless.
“Sometimes I get involved in this type of international effort, and I feel like an imposter, really. I don’t have formal education as a landscape designer. I’ve learned it all in the field.
“Like just about everybody else in landscaping,” he says, “I had a humble beginning, doing garden maintenance. But I can’t think of any other industry that allows you to work your way up as we can. We are unique and in a profession that lets us dream and aim high.”
Like bringing peace to the world with gardens. If anyone can do it, it just may be John Cullen and Celtic Gardens.
Cullen’s 4 Keys to Success
1. Don’t compromise. In honesty, quality and integrity, be all that you have said you would be and hope to be.
2. Be leaders in the industry. One of the best ways to differentiate oneself in any industry is to become the best at what you do.
3. Pay as you go. You gain great freedom to operate a business when you are not preoccupied by paying all the bills of financed equipment, materials and property.
4. Don’t remain static. Take on projects that require having to learn something new. Seek out the wisdom of others. Collaborating with those who are better than you on particular projects also provides great opportunities to learn. Enjoy being a gardener. We work in the most beautiful field in the world. It’s creative, physical and mentally challenging, and what we do leaves a legacy of beauty.