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Len Cullen passed away on Tuesday August 15, 2006 at the age of 81. He was a man I had known and admired for well over 40 years. 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. I mentioned that Len was seriously ill with (pancreatic) cancer on my Toronto radio programme of July 22 and extended my sympathies to his large extended family.
In checking back on what I had written in the past on the topic of Weall & Cullen, the company he built from noth-ing, I found two references, one on April 12, 2003 when on my AM740 broadcast, I speculated that there would soon be a takeover in the retail nursery business. As it happened, I had it 50% correct--only two weeks later the take-over of Weall & Cullen by Sheridan Nurseries was announced. Then, on the same programme as well as on the ICanGarden.com site on April 26/27, I detailed the happening from my point of view. That treatise included the following two paragraphs.
“As for the balance of the Weall & Cullen empire I am saddened by the fact that the name Weall & Cullen will be lost. I feel particularly for Len Cullen, Mark’s father, who while paperboy to the late John Weall (a professor of horticulture at the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph) began working for a little landscape business the profes-sor had set up on Toronto’s Avenue Road. Eventually, professor Weall sold the little business to Len Cullen for under $3,000! Only a short time later Len sold the Avenue Road property for a modest profit and bought five acres on Sheppard Avenue near Leslie Street in North York. That site remains a W&C garden centre today.
“It is indeed unfortunate that Mark was not able to have that name continued in some way. Mark does still retain a small wholesale nursery firm, and of course, there is the famous Cullen Gardens in Whitby, which was the fulfilled dream of his father Len, and is now owned and operated by his sister. My feelings go out to you Len!”
The sale of Weall & Cullen to Sheridan was bad news for Len Cullen and close informants tell me that he was extremely disappointed at what had happened. Then, to make it worse for Len, Sue Green, Mark’s sister who had been ‘running’ Cullen Gardens in Whitby for some years decided to close it in about November last year “because it was failing, having never recovered after the Toronto SARS outbreak.” It was interesting that a Toronto Globe & Mail interview with Len, back in late 2005, quoted Len as saying “if I had been in charge it wouldn’t be closing!”
Though I intended this obituary to be a little different from those that will appear in the various media, I think I should briefly put some dates to some of Len’s accomplishments prior to my knowing him. For example, Len Cullen, while paperboy to the late John Weall (who, a few years later became a professor of horticulture at the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph) began working for a little landscape business Mr. Weall had set up on Toronto’s Avenue Road. Eventually, John Weall sold the little business to Len Cullen for $3,000! Only a short time later Len sold the Avenue Road property for a modest 100% profit and bought five acres on Sheppard Avenue near Leslie Street in North York. That site remained a W&C garden centre until the sell-out to Sheridan in 2003.
Once established on Sheppard Avenue, landscape construction was Len’s main work, including the gardens for R. E. Edwards which became a Toronto park much later. For the first few years too, the business retained the name John A. Weall Co., only changing to Weall & Cullen in 1951. Also for the first few years the landscaping paid all of the bills with the nursery/garden centre aspect not getting into the black until 1955.
With the problem for landscaping companies being what to do with skilled workers over the winter, Len, decided to travel “out west” and look for a job in Vancouver for the winter of ’44-‘45, where he figured landscaping carried on right through the winter. He set out on a used motorcycle but only got as far Ironwood when it conked out. He got himself, and a few days later the bike, to Winnipeg and took the train from there. As he promised John Weall he would, he returned home precisely on March 15, with a few extra dollars (from selling the bike) in his pocket.
The little 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, Québec for the winters of 1948 and ’49 after he had bought the business from John and John had gone to begin his illustrious career at what became the University of Guelph.
My own first recollections of Len go back to about 1962 when I first joined Sheridan Nurseries as horticulturist/advertising manager and catalogue editor. It was a new position so it was more or less up to me to turn it into whatever I wanted! About that time Len was moving up in what was then called the Canadian Association of Nurserymen (CAN). That got him involved in 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 (he started it all, by the way) who promoted the rose ‘Canadian Centennial’ sold by service clubs to the benefit of children’s charities. In 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 fulfill 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 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, hard-bound in heavy stock covered with actual burlap--a concept that came from Chairman 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, (I proudly possess a signed copy in which he says “Thank You”) “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.”
He went on, “Sad to say, the men who took great pains to weaken and eventually destroy the CAN soon after left the nursery industry themselves.”
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 sprung 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.”
When Len reminded me of that, likely a decade or more later, I told him a similar story of the problem that we at Sheridan Nurseries had in 1964; that was the night when I became very good friends with Walter Godfrey, then Assistant House Manager of the O’Keefe Centre. “We had ours all cleaned up by about 2 AM,” I told Len. By the way, Walter Godfrey remains a good friend today.
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….Arrived the next morning to put the finishing touches on the display, when I noticed….US AGAIN!....We’re jinxed! You guessed it….the reflecting sheet behind the Fiberglass had fallen on the floodlights, the sheet 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….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.’”
Those are just some of the stories!
In 1969, when I decided to leave my position at Sheridan Nurseries, in favour of work for the parks movement in Canada, and Len heard of my decision (from my boss, Bill Stensson), he called me to ask if I would consider doing radio commercials for Weall & Cullen--he was about to start advertising on a major radio station in Toronto! I told him that while I was leaving, it was a ‘happy parting’ on both sides, and that I didn’t think I should immediately ‘cross the street, so to speak’ and start working for the competition.
Now at that time (since 1963), Len had a very successful Newsletter that eventually was sent to 35,000 customers. It contained gardening hints, Len’s poetry and other little tid-bits. It went on for at least 20 years. Mark took it over in 1975, but up until that time, and to an extent even longer, Len contributed his famous poetry!
“The ladies are my special friends, Their love for a garden never ends. I called on a gal the other day, And planned her garden, by the way. She planted the trees, the flowers, the lot…. I’ve never seen a lovelier plot. So play your golf boys, go play your game, While the ladies and I make gardens our fame!”
When he started advertising on radio, he used new poetry there as well, and his commercials became an institution on one radio station. Herewith, just one example which illustrates Len’s inclusion of current events and even sports!
“Well, you can tell it’s nearly spring When the Americans come up to play On Molson’s famous baseball team The thousand-to-one ‘Blue Jays’. And then the spring is surely here When the Leafs, they take their dive…. They played the lightning North Stars… They are lucky to be alive. Harold Ballard’s bought the Tiger Cats He paid a lot of loot. If the Tiger Cats are like the Argonauts, For Ottawa we can root. But I don’t mean to criticize… I’m a loyal Toronto fan. I get a little tired though, My town’s the ‘also ran’. But we have got a winning team There’s one right at your door. Weall & Cullen Garden Centres Have the highest score.”
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 although it had been Len’s dream for almost 30 years. It really started when his new company won the contract to help build what is now Ed-wards 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.
I was not able to attend the opening since for almost that entire year I was in Montréal working on Les floralies internationale de Montréal. But as soon as I was back in Toronto, I visited and Len proudly toured me around.
Over the years I spent much radio time talking about the gardens and village, and directed friends from as far away as Australia (Graham Ross added it in to his garden touring group’s itinerary on numerous occasions).
A year later, Len having realized the need for a much larger food concession (the first one sat just 72 people) was ready to open his new restaurant, and I was there. We did a live, remote broadcast from the restaurant and at about 10:30 AM during the broadcast, my technician, Don Costello, received word that his Honour the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Ontario, Lincoln Alexander, would be coming past on his way to do the official honours opening the restaurant. Don and I cooked up a scheme where I would ‘just happen’ to be out in the aisle in front of our broadcast booth, microphone in hand, and would try to grab a few words from the Queen’s representative. Now, we both knew that this would be strictly ‘taboo’ and the protocol people would be highly upset, but neverthe-less knowing the LG’s attitude of always wishing to be ‘with the people’ I decided to try.
Well, it worked, and worked well. Though we went slightly over time, His Honour told me on air that he had been listening to our broadcast on the way up to Whitby in his car. Not bad for a gardener/broadcaster. More importantly, it made Len Cullen extremely happy!
Just one last factoid! When I was unceremoniously removed from the Garden show on CFRB in 1988 (though I continued to do the Farm Show from almost another year), Len called me immediately and asked if, as a favour to him, would I please continue to read the Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village commercials on CFRB including on Mark’s Garden Show. I did for some additional time.
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.