If you’re a Quaker and a naturalist like David Culp, the land’s stewardship, celebration and preservation come first. “I’m embracing Mother Nature, taking cues from her and catching her spirit,” he says. “She wins in the end, so I might as well.”
Culp’s Brandywine Cottage is a four-season blooming habitat and sanctuary on two-acres of hillside in Downingtown—so named because it’s nestled between forks of the Brandywine River. The place reminds him of boyhood summers exploring the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The circa-1790s house, which he rescued from an encroaching subdivision, speaks to his Pennsylvania German roots in Reading. Culp’s paternal family can be traced to five farming brothers who arrived with William Penn for his religious experiment 300 years ago. “I have a proclivity for plain,” says Culp.
Hence Brandywine Cottage’s symmetrically shaped colonial vegetable garden, with its straight geometric lines. A New York Times feature notes that Culp’s property boasts 3,000 different plants—but whose counting? “That’s for someone else to do—my job is to create,” he says.
Culp has charted 250 varieties of snowdrops, one self-named. He also plants 2,000 tulip bulbs every year, and there are collections of galanthus, roses, hepaticas, cyclamen, euphorbias, arums, peonies, iris and the house specialty, hellebores.
Culp’s new book, tentatively titled Living with Plants, is due out sometime next year from Timber Press. His first, The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty From Brandywine Cottage, is now in its fifth printing. “A garden in June is easy,” says Culp. “But, with layering, what can you do in February and March? What can you do in October?”
His latest book focuses on “blurring the line” between planting outside and inside. It will feature photography from inside the cottage, along with garden recipes. “My place is to be a horticultural cheerleader—to make people think they can do this, too,” he says.
Culp is also vice president of sales and marketing at Sunny Border Nurseries in Connecticut, while still managing design clients, writing, lecturing nationally and instructing at Longwood Gardens. “I’m lucky to do what I love—and with a partner of 22 years,” he says of Michael Alderfer, whom he met when they both worked at Waterloo Gardens in Devon.
At Brandywine Cottage, Culp’s first project was a roof garden, then wall-ruin and vegetable gardens. Now, there are the hillside, winter, and shade gardens—and more. His private woodland garden is largely full of trilliums, for “the boy who once ran in the mountains.” His meadow along the roadside is a year-old project.
“How do you do this? Time,” he says. “It takes about 20 years—though I’ve gone to great trouble to make it look like it’s just happened. The act of gardening makes you look forward—and that’s really healthy. Gardeners, by nature, are optimists. This place changed my life.
I changed it, and it changed me.”