Nick McCullough's Philadelphia Flower Show Extravaganza

Teresa Woodward
A steel reflecting pond centers an exhibit that local landscape designer Nick McCullough created in March for the Philadelphia Garden Show, which is the oldest and largest garden show in the country. A social media phenom, McCullough has 3 million followers on Pinterest and nearly 10,000 fans on Instagram who were treated to on-the-spot imaging during the show, with its Flower Power theme that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

Nick McCullough doesn’t shy away from a landscape design challenge. For the past 15 years, he’s created award-winning designs from a pint-sized prairie garden in German Village to large estate gardens in New Albany. So, when asked to build his national reputation by becoming a featured garden designer at the 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show, he welcomed the challenge. In Philadelphia earlier this spring he was tasked with designing a 2,000-square-foot garden inside a convention center. Even more daunting is the fact that he debuted the project before an audience of 250,000 people.

“It’s the oldest and largest indoor flower show put on since 1829, and to be a part of that legacy is such an honor and something always in my heart,” says McCullough. “I’m a firm believer in making your own luck and if you put yourself out there it will pay off in dividends.” McCullough, 39, a local landscaper with 3 million followers on Pinterest, invited thousands of his Instagram followers behind-the-scenes as he designed and installed the exhibit for the flower show.

His nine-month journey to the Philadelphia show began last summer as he started playing with ideas around the show’s “Flower Power” theme, which celebrates flowers’ impact on everyday lives in concert with the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival. McCullough’s concept for the show clicked after an October road trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art to see Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. In Cleveland, McCullough and his family of four stepped into the Japanese artist’s intimate dark, mirrored room with tiny suspended lights to, as the artist says, “lose themselves in the grandeur of the universe.” The experience moved McCullough to build a “Flower Power” sensation of infinite blooms.

“My inspiration was to overwhelm viewers with an explosion of flowers and emotions,” says McCullough. He expanded the concept with a keyhole design giving viewers the perspective of a Woodstock stage overlooking an infinite crowd of perennial flowers multiplied by mirrors set in the corners of the exhibit. He named his design “All Along the Watch Tower,” after Jimmy Hendrix’s song, and added six 10-foot towers to mimic Woodstock’s lighting and sound scaffolding.

The design’s execution presented several challenges. First, he says pulling off an accurate bloom sequence was “really, really tough.” It required forcing 3,000 June-flowering perennials to bloom in early March. Adjustments were made. For example, the birch trees in the exhibit were left bare because it was too costly to force their leaves and some of McCullough’s favorite perennials, such as alliums and penstemon, were swapped for others more easily forced into bloom.

“You just don’t go buy these plants off a nursery cart,” says McCullough who explains how his experienced partner, Stoney Bank Nurseries, has been forcing plants into bloom for shows for 40 years. The Pennsylvania-based nursery staff places the perennials in coolers from October to December to simulate winter conditions then moves them to a heated, lighted greenhouse to simulate spring. Carbon dioxide injections further stimulate slower blooms, while others are moved back and forth between the cooler and greenhouse to precisely peak in time for the show.

In the five days leading up to the show opening, McCullough started sharing live feeds of the plant and structural installations by his crew.

“It’s crazy,” says McCullough. “There are 30 acres under roof, and 4,000 people building stuff leading up to the show. Just to get stuff to your garden is so tough; it’s like an ant’s nest.”

He shared how his team waited for two days for the firewood to be delivered for his exhibit’s stacked, wooden walls. A neighboring exhibitor then blocked the entrance to McCullough’s exhibit with two large crates. When the crates were finally moved, McCullough’s wife and business partner, Allison MCullough, built the walls as the rest of the team finished the garden.

McCullough says the most satisfying moment was seeing the completed garden. “It’s something that you’ve been thinking about for nine months, and it’s finally come to fruition,” he says. “For a kid that grew up on a strawberry farm in Ohio to being viewed on such a large stage for garden design is a massive thing for me.”

The final design shined true to his “contained chaos” style with Belgian influences, proven perennials in shades of purple, rich textures, a backdrop of six 25-foot birch trees and Midwest modern details including a circular reflecting pool in Corten steel, metal reflecting balls, six-and-a-half cords of stacked firewood walls and stylish pollinator nesting boxes.

“I certainly could have gone there and just created a show garden that tied nothing back to my realistic world of design,” says McCullough. “But, the biggest thing for me was to create a garden that’s true to who I am as a designer, so people could get my design aesthetic. And, we really achieved that in spades.”

While the judges awarded the Flower Show Cup, the show’s top award, to a seasoned exhibitor with a highly themed landscape of a restored old mill, McCullough’s real-world design won the hearts of many visitors.

“It’s my favorite,” says Katie Dubow, creative director of the Garden Media Group, a Philadelphia-based marketing firm for the green industry. “What I love is that the garden is both literal and abstract. I watched along on Instagram as he designed it and immediately got that the tower structures were mimicking the scaffolding from Woodstock. I love how densely planted the astilbes, yarrows, salvias and coneflowers were. He says he wanted onlookers to be overwhelmed—as if we were standing on the stage at Woodstock, looking out into a sea of faces—and you feel it.

“Many of his ideas were able to be translated to a home garden, and that’s what I go to the show looking for,” she added.

McCullough, now back home and working for his Central Ohio clients, relishes the creative experience he had in Philadelphia, and the career milestone.

“Our next step is to keep designing beautiful gardens around Central Ohio and definitely beyond,” says McCullough. “Our goal is to pick up national garden design projects while managing our core business here.”

But will he return to the big Philadelphia show in the future? “Now that one’s under our belt, we’re ready for the next one,” says McCullough, explaining that he’d like to not only return to the Philadelphia Flower Show, but that he’s also hoping to get invitations to three other prestigious shows—those are in Singapore, Moscow and Chelsea.

“I have big aspirations to change how American garden designers are viewed around the world,” says McCullough. “I want to help put America’s name on the map for garden design, and this is a first step in achieving that big goal.”

Check out a behind-the-scenes video of the exhibit design at thinkingoutsidetheboxwood.com.

Landscape designer Nick McCullough, who grew up on a strawberry farm in Upper Sandusky, pictured himself as a golf course designer at a fourth grade career fair, started a mowing business as a high schooler and finally pursued a horticulture degree from Ohio State University. Just out of college, he was content growing his family’s landscape and nursery business until his wife Allison challenged him. “What do you want to do?” she asked.

To McCullough, his career plans seemed pretty simple—continue to build the family’s successful business supporting the growing New Albany community. Then, along came an existing client who invited McCullough to look at a home and its two-acre property they wanted to purchase. McCullough gave them his blessing and returned to design and install his first large-scale landscape project at age 24.

“You have to make your own luck and take advantage of the opportunities you are given,” says McCullough in a blog post on the project. “In this case, I swung for the fences, and it paid off.”

That early, award-winning project helped McCullough answer his wife’s career-defining question and fueled his vision for a future in landscape design. Referral after referral came as he designed landscapes for the growing number of estates along Kitzmiller Road in New Albany.

His style evolved with influences from the English country gardens he toured during his college semester in northwest England. The self-professed plant geek also developed a palette of proven plants, including many he grew at the family’s nursery, since they couldn’t be found elsewhere. His style further developed through experience and tours of top gardens across the country with the Perennial Plant Association and the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. In 2012, the PPA named McCullough the “Young Professional of the Year” at its symposium in Vancouver.

Eventually, McCullough began sharing his designs and ideas on social media. It all started one winter when he was spending lots of time comforting their fussy baby. While cradling his daughter, Charlotte, in his arms, he tagged thousands of inspiration photos and became one of Pinterest’s most followed gardeners as “Nickgardenguy,” accumulating millions of followers. He also started a blog, “Thinking Outside The Boxwood,” and opened an account on Houzz which gained eight “Best of Houzz” awards. The visibility led to sponsorships and high-profile speaking invitations including the 2015 Walt Disney World Flower and Garden Show and the 2015 Garden Bloggers Conference in Atlanta where he shared a panel with TV gardening stars Charlotte Moss and Nate Berkus.

Most recently, he became a fellow with APLD where he has served on the national board for four years. His debut at the Philadelphia Flower Show marks his latest career high.

From an Ohio Strawberry Farm to the Legendary Philadelphia Flower Show