Remembering a good friend

March 06, 2008
Written by Art Drysdale
Len Cullen, a man I had known and admired for well over 40 years passed away on Aug. 15 at the age of 81. He was not a horticulturist, and always readily admitted that to anyone who would listen. He was an entrepreneur par excellence, a man of his word, a dreamer, a doer and a friend.
and Canadian gardening entrepreneur – Len Cullen passes!

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 Len Cullen’s longtime dream came true when Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village opened in 1980.
Len Cullen, a man I had known and admired for well over 40 years passed away on Aug. 15 at the age of 81. He was not a horticulturist, and always readily admitted that to anyone who would listen. He was an entrepreneur par excellence, a man of his word, a dreamer, a doer and a friend.

Though I intended this obituary to be a little different from those that appeared in the various media, I think I should briefly put some dates to some of Len’s accomplishments. For example, Len Cullen, while paperboy to John Weall began working for a little landscape business Mr. Weall had set up on Toronto’s Avenue Road. Eventually, John sold the little business to Len Cullen and only a short time later Len sold the Avenue Road property and bought five acres on Sheppard Avenue near Leslie Street in North York.

Once established on Sheppard Avenue, landscape construction was Len’s main work, including the gardens for R. E. Edwards. For the first few years, the business retained the name John A. Weall Co., which then changed to Weall & Cullen in 1951.

The business grew in 1945 with the country celebrating the end of the War, but the same problem of what to do in the winter was present. Through John Weall, Len managed to land a job as a lecturer in gardening at Macdonald College of McGill University in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., for the winters of 1948 and ‘49 after he had bought the business from John.

My own first recollections of Len go back to about 1962 when I first joined Sheridan Nurseries. About that time Len was moving up in what was then called the Canadian Association of Nurserymen (CAN). That got him working on numerous activities, including the magazine where I too was involved. In July 1963 Len was elected president of CAN. He became very involved and interested in the issue of a special rose for Canada’s Centennial in 1967. Len and I kind of found ourselves on opposite sides of that issue; he supporting a Canadian rose hybridized by Fred Blakeney that had already been introduced under another name in British Columbia and which the Canadian industry agreed to re-name ‘Miss Canada’; and I supporting the concept of Jack Macintyre of Montréal who promoted the rose ‘Canadian Centennial’ sold by service clubs to the benefit of children’s charities. Years later, we often chuckled about that whole episode!
Yet another Centennial project that the Canadian nurserymen got involved in was production of a Canadian Nurserymen Centennial Yearbook. The original choices to act as editors for the production were not able to fulfil their commitments, and as a member of the committee (chaired by Len Cullen) that had put together the idea, I did not want to see it die, so I volunteered to take it on if we could find someone to chair a special committee. My boss, J.V. Stensson, general manager of Sheridan Nurseries, said he would try to persuade Len Cullen into taking it on too. He did!

Len provided me with great support and was always available through a torrid few months. The production looked quite nice, with special copies for each member, hardbound in heavy stock covered with actual burlap – a concept that came from Len Cullen himself! When the first copies came from the printer, I well remember opening the first one and checking over my own message on the very first page. Lo and behold, there was the first typo, I had spelled Len’s name “Leornad!” I’ll never forget calling him right away and apologizing! We would talk about that over the years as well.

Len drew away from CAN when regionalism began to take over. Len wrote in 1983, in his 100-page self-published book, Dig About it...And Dung It, “Local nurserymen who could see no further than their own nursery patch, were out to destroy and weaken an organization that was there to educate, to broaden national concerns and to express wide-ranging viewpoints. A few little men, with selfish pride and short vision, went to work to destroy an organization that was meant to unite and help small business men who ran nurseries.”

There are many other stories; for example about the Weall & Cullen displays at the famous Garden Club of Toronto flower shows, then held at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. In 1966 their display’s waterfall pool sprang a leak! To quote Len: “and all that lovely water mixed with peat moss and soil began to ooze out under the rocks on to the carpet, down the path, through the ceiling and into the men’s washroom. That was a convenient place for it to drip through, square over top of you-know-what. No matter – the show must go on – and it did.”

Then the next year, Len continues, “after having decided not to have any waterfalls or garden streams, but a traditional garden, lots of colour and a Fiberglas screen with lights at the back of it for an exotic effect. All went well. By the end of the first day, I could see we would easily be finished on time, and I went home weary, but happy.  I arrived the next morning to put the finishing touches on the display – US AGAIN! We’re jinxed! You guessed it – the reflecting sheet behind the Fiberglass had fallen on the floodlights, the sheet had caught fire and one-third of the display went up in smoke before the sprinkler system switched on. Now that’s a revolting situation!”

“But the show must go on. Clean up the mess, scrub the wall, wash the ceiling, replace the screen, scrounge new plant material, finish the fountain, clean, grade, label, water, and ready for inspection at 5 PM that afternoon. Not bad. We won second prize out of eight competitors. I kept telling myself, ‘Think what we could do without a flood or a fire.’”

If we flash ahead to the late ‘70s, I was aware that Len and his family were hard at work on a new project – Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village – Len’s longtime dream! It opened on May 30, 1980. It really started when his new company won the contract to help build what is now Edwards Gardens for its owner, R.E. Edwards. Through 1950-52 all of their work there, and his admiration for Mr. Edwards’ passion for his new garden really sparked Len’s interest in building such a garden.

Now Len is gone. As I mentioned on my radio broadcast of July 22, he leaves a large extended family: Wife Connie and children Susan, Peter, Mark, Nora and Tom.

Ave Atque Vale! Farewell gallant spirit!

Art Drysdale, who broadcasts on gardening daily to one of the largest radio gardening audiences in Canada on Ontario’s AM740, as well as on Easy 101 covering most of southwestern Ontario, also hosts a fresh, new TV gardening vignette weekly on Shaw Cable’s Vancouver Island network and may be reached by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or check his website at www.artdrysdale.com.

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