BOOTHBAY — When six-year-old Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay was named TripAdvisor’s No. 1 public garden earlier this year, it beat out venerable public gardens like the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis and Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia.
It wasn’t long before William Cullina, executive director of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, got a call from someone in St. Louis, inviting him to speak there.
“She said, ‘We want to find out what’s so special about that place, and how you beat Missouri,’ ” Cullina said with a laugh Friday. “That’s a good feeling, to be able to make Maine proud like that.”
Cullina himself is a big part of the reason the 250-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is getting national attention and drawing close to 100,000 visitors each year. The 49-year-old horticulturalist has been given the prestigious Award of Excellence by National Garden Clubs Inc., the largest volunteer gardening organization in the world, the organization said in a news release Friday.
It’s the highest honor a nonmember can receive, according to the organization’s website, gardenclub.org.
Cullina is one of three recipients of the award nationally, said Nancy Hargroves, second vice president of the group, who led the selection process. The awards were presented in May.
Hargroves said Cullina was chosen because the scope of his work matches the goals of the garden club group, particularly in educational outreach. Cullina has written many books and articles on plants, and is in demand on the horticultural lecture circuit.
Hargroves also cited “his commitment to using plantings that are suited to this unique site, his advocacy for organic practices and integrated pest-management techniques, and his goal for the garden to be a good example to visitors of environmental sustainability.”
Cullina said the award is special to him because it comes from grass-roots gardeners. (He was nominated by the Garden Club Federation of Maine.) The people who make up local garden clubs, he said, are the same ones who so believed in building Maine’s first botanical garden that they risked their own homes to see their vision come true.
“They didn’t have enough money to buy the property,” he said, “so they put their homes up as collateral to back the loan. You co-sign for your kid; well, they were co-signing for the botanical garden, so to speak.”
Cullina and the rest of the staff at the botanical gardens are focusing on the future and making plans to expand the attraction’s programs and plantings. They are hiring a master planning firm to guide them into the gardens’ next phase.
On the drawing board are plans for a pier and a dock next year so visitors can get to the gardens by boat. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens will work with charter boat tours to make the attraction a part of their business.
“That’s pretty unusual, to come to a botanical garden and be able to access the ocean like that,” Cullina said.
The gardens will also work with the nearby Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences on educational interpretations of ocean life, giving people another reason to visit.
There also are plans for an indoor conservatory, a “winter garden,” to broaden attendance to other parts of the year. And Cullina would like to bring back a 19th-century saltwater farm that’s on the grounds and link it to 21st-century ideas about small-scale food production.
The popular botanical attraction has come a long way since Cullina, a Connecticut native, came to work as curator and director of horticulture a few years ago.
When Cullina, his wife and three children arrived in Maine, the gardens had a visitors center, roses, a rhododendron garden and not much else. The Haney Hillside Garden had been built, but then decimated by the big Patriots Day storm in 2007.
Since then, a children’s garden has been added, along with a “five senses” garden, an event lawn and an education building. Haney Hillside has been repaired, and the rhododendron garden has tripled in size and gained a waterfall.
“It’s really grown,” Cullina said. “I like to say I got in on the mezzanine and not the ground floor. … Most botanical gardens are kind of done, you know, and to be able to be involved in a new one like this is kind of a rare thing.”
Rebecca Hutcheson, chair of the board of overseers for the botanical gardens, said Cullina has a way of looking at things from a different point of view that makes others look at things differently.
She said the wide variety of educational opportunities he has developed attracts people to the gardens, and that his national reputation as an author and lecturer helps draw high-quality speakers.
“He’s a very imaginative person, and he’s done a lot toward plant research and has a national reputation in that,” Hutcheson said. “From the point of view of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, having that national reputation just raises people’s view of our garden so much. Because of his reputation, people will take a look at it and be drawn to come here.”
Cullina said the garden had 90,000 visitors last year, and is expected to draw 100,000 soon. He thinks that by adding some of the programs being considered, it could reach 200,000 visitors in the future.
“That’s the challenge going forward, is to keep this place true to Maine and true to its roots but keep it fresh and to keep it growing,” Cullina said. “I feel like we’re starting to really have a true economic impact in the midcoast, and hopefully for the state, in a smaller way.”
The quality of the visit, not just the number of visitors, is just as important to Cullina. That’s why the TripAdvisor award made him so proud.
“To be this out-of-the-way place in Maine, and not to have the resources and population that other places have, and to build something that gives so many people so much joy, it’s just something that I’m proud of,” he said, “and I know that everybody that’s been involved with it is proud of it too.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: