Meet Mark Cullen

Canada's best known gardening personality, Mark Cullen believes that Canadians of all ages need to play more - preferably in the dirt. A best-selling author with over 400,000 books in print, Mark reaches over one million Canadians every week through various media outlets. He is Home Hardware's horticultural spokesperson and regularly contributes to various magazines, gardening shows and newsletters. With a familiar style that people can relate to, he delivers a message that is compelling, fun, informative and inspirational - all based on his organic approach to gardening. In his spare time Mark enjoys driving his Ford Model A - and of course he loves to garden.

Investing advice for 2011.

I just received an interesting memo from my financial portfolio manager. It is a ‘top ten list’ of important things to remember when investing in the stock market this year. The most dominant message is that things have changed and by the way in case you forgot, things have changed and they are going to change some more.

Well, I have some advice for all of the stressed out financial advisors out there (and if they are not stressed out, they should be): bet on the gardening experience to produce dividends that you have only dreamed of.

You see, gardening is a blue chip investment from any point of view. Take a packet of seeds, for example. I don’t know who said that the best bet that you can make is with some good soil and a packet of seeds, but he or she had a point. The risks are few and the potential rewards many.

It is in the garden that we connect with the natural world around us and learn, providing that we are listening and asking the right questions in the first place. We learn, for example, that whatever goes up must come down. Try growing a vine in your garden and you will learn that it won’t go up in the first place without some support. And in time, the vine outgrows the support and the vine grows downwards again. You have to keep shoring up the support or cut down the vine.

Everything has a life cycle. By planting in one season and removing the finished plants in another we learn that every living thing has a life cycle. Even the mighty oak will fall, someday. Hopefully not on your house. The productive tomato finishes its work in one season. Garden leeks and garlic need to experience some frost in order to maximize their flavour. Raspberries are best in their 3rd and 4th years, strawberries in their 2nd year and asparagus never seems to quit after it’s 5th year, but man are they slow to come around until then! The same for rhubarb. But even they will peter out in a generation or two. Everything that grows eventually regresses.

Even plants that seem never to quit are actually just fooling you. Take the peony for example. If you visit the location of a long-ago homestead, where a farm house once stood but has long since disappeared, you will often find a lonely peony or two just hanging out on their own with no seeming interest in civilization – occupied house or not. Maybe it was planted there over a hundred years ago.

Truth is, the root structure of the original peony plant has died and been replaced by other, newer roots. The vigour of the peony plant is constantly refurbished in this way. This is why peonies will often appear to change colour over time: it isn’t the original root that is changing. The new one is just taking a different genetic direction. This is Mother Nature’s way of renewing the original plant. And as far as you and I are concerned the peony looks like it has been there forever.

Renewal is our reward. For being patient, we experience the natural division of plants as they multiply before our eyes. Take the Lily of the Valley for example. They seem to go and grow without stopping. The root is a rhizome that moves beneath the soil making new plants as it moves. A lawn thickens much the same way.

We are not alone. In gardening, we engage in a partnership with Mother Nature and grow relationships with neighbours and friends, creating a sense of community that is without price. I believe that people who spend time writing for the financial pages and the financial planners themselves would actually benefit by spending more time in the garden.

The support system is invisible. The burgeoning popularity of organic gardening offers one very basic tenant that is worth keeping in mind: the health of your garden plants is determined by the health of your soil. A colony of thriving bacteria, beneficial insects and protozoa = good quality soil. Add lots of raw organic matter in the form of compost for these critters to feed on and your plants will grow almost despite themselves because a buffet of goodies is at their feet.

Now, how is this helpful to financial planning professionals?

Let me sum up:

Everything has a life cycle. The markets had been growing for a record period of time then took a plunge and then recovered. Funny – just like Nature to behave that way.

Renewal is our reward. As sure as the markets are up they will go down. How fast and how far is anybody’s guess. But they will bounce and new, better stocks will replace some of the tired old ones. Be smart and be patient.

We are not alone. They say that 47% of Canadians were invested in the stock market last year. Remember that when you open your investment update this month. As Red Green said many times, ‘We are all in this together.’

The support system is invisible. The news is full of union disputes, large companies that are standing in line for government bail outs, other companies that are in decline and some that are closing their doors.
The media will not tell you about the people who are making their best effort to create a product or service of value: many are hanging in there. The majority of us are reporting for work on time, getting the job done and making a small but significant contribution that helps to make Canada great.
Those companies that are hanging in there are making something or selling something that people want and can afford. I had to wait in line today behind 4 people at McDonalds for a fillet-o-fish. Somebody other than me seems to want their product.

But I digress: it is a new year and time to reflect on what is important.

From William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato.

“Things that I remember: witnessing childbirth, finding myself standing absolutely alone before DaVinci’s Last Supper. And planting potatoes on a perfect spring morning.”

If you like this message I hope that you forward it to your financial advisor.

Keep your knees dirty,


Gift Ideas for Gardeners

I have said for some time that it is easy to buy for gardeners: generally you do not have to worry about the colour or size (except for gloves). In most cases the gift will get used because so many things that a gardener needs cannot be “over acquired”.

Take good gloves as an example. I have lost track of the numbers of pairs that I have around the property….tool shed, barn, garage, truck, car trunk and at the front door cupboard. Look for goat skin or reasonable substitute, reinforced finger tips, an open weave back to allow your hands to breathe and a Velcro closure at the wrist to stop dirt from travelling down into the working portion of the glove. I have just described the Mark’s Choice garden glove at Home Hardware. $15.

Garden Magazine. A copy of the latest Canadian gardening magazine does the trick, if you are looking for a ‘stocking stuffer’. For the more generous there are some great deals on subscriptions. We are blessed in Canada to have several great publications that address the peculiar needs of the Canadian gardener. Look for Canadian Gardening, the tried and true ( For information guaranteed to meet the regional needs of gardeners pick up Gardens West/Central/East, for which I write ( and the newest publication on the block is Garden Making, for lots of colour and columns by some names that you may be familiar with (

The Truly Canadian Almanac, by Harrowsmith. Finally there is a great, 100% Canadian almanac that provides you with weather forecasts, small town stories, trivia and all manor of washroom reading. Sure to keep the receiver of this gift busy for hours. $5.95 at Home Hardware and books stores.

How bout yourself?

Consider donating TIME to the receiver of your Yuletide largess. This may be the most appreciated gift of all!

Weeding. Offer to donate several hours of weeding at a mutually convenient time. Every gardener gets weary of pulling weeds, after the romance of the thing wears off about mid June. Bring your own equipment, including a long handled Mark’s Choice Speedy Weeder from Home Hardware. At about $28 it is the best investment that you can make in effective, chemical free weed control - without the back pain associated with stooping and bending.

Pruning. Most of us do not like to cut our own kid’s hair. Ditto the plants in our garden. Offer to come over with your loppers/shears and a green wood saw and do some trimming. Take away the trimmings for a bonus. Btw, the best loppers and hedge shears in the business are made right here in Canada. They are the Mark’s Choice limb loppers ($50 and $70) and hedge shears ($50) at Home Hardware.

Consultation. If you love to garden offer your services to people on your list who have a moderate interest in gardening. Your experience is worth something. Likely more than you know. Can you give advice on plant placement? Soil prep? Accompany your friend(s) to a garden retailer next spring and offer advice on the best deals on the lot, noting that the lowest price is not as important as the quality of a live plant.

I hope that these ideas are helpful.

With many thanks for reading each week, I wish you a very Merry Christmas this week. Regardless of your religious beliefs I encourage you to take the time to reflect on a world of peace and goodwill towards our fellow humans.

Hold the people close to you closer.
Hold the door for a stranger.
Hold out the hand of friendship to someone in need.

And God bless.


Gearing up for a great Christmas

Garden Gear for the gardeners on your Christmas list.

We are not exactly ‘on the home stretch’ of the Christmas buying season, but we are at the 7th inning stretch. That means that the ‘last minute’ people are beginning to think seriously about their gifts for this Christmas and the long-term-planners are about to sit down with a good book and light a fire.

Which brings us nicely to the juncture where I can talk about MY favourite gifts – the ones that I would most like to receive at Christmas – as a gardener.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Books. Gardeners love to read, especially now that HGTV doesn’t run ‘gardening shows’ per se any more. We become starved for ideas and reflections on the growing season as the winter wears on.
* Middle Aged Spread. By Sonia Day. What my good friend Sonia has done here is to lay out the reality check everyone needs who has EVER even just thought of moving to the country. Her ‘dream garden’ becomes an adventure in living that even someone with the diverse background and travel experience of dear Sonia cannot anticipate. Funny. Engaging. Informative. Available at Book City and on line from Indigo/Amazon. Retails for $24.95.

* Gardeners Journal (especially for gardeners in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe). Provides excellent weekly tips, what to do, contact info for all horticultural clubs, associations, government agencies, gardening media (i.e. TV, radio shows, magazines etc.), space for your own garden photos, and an extensive list of garden retailers including the bricks and mortar and e-retailers.

* Canadian Garden Primer, by Mark Cullen. This is my most exhaustively complete work, with an organic bend. Most everything that you need to know to grow a great veggie garden or a fabulous looking landscape (including an environmentally responsible lawn!). Lots of colour. Clear, concise text. For experienced and novice gardeners alike. Available at Chapters/Indigo and Home Hardware.

2. Tools. Experienced gardeners love to use quality tools. They are a pleasure to work with and, just like your favourite pair of jeans, we ‘break our tools in’ and become attached to them over time. Buy the best that you can afford and the receiver will think of you favourably forever.
* Pruning saw. Not just any saw: look for a comfortable fit in the hand, light weight, Canadian Made with a Swedish blade (they still make the best). You cannot go wrong with name brands like Felco, Corona or (frankly) Mark’s Choice.

* Hand pruners. Why is it that many gardeners will not part with enough cash to buy themselves a good quality pair of hand pruners? And yet, there is not one gardener alive who does not value the experience of working with a quality pair. Look for a comfortable feel in your hand: weight, balance, rubber grip, aluminum handle and a high carbon steel cutting blade. To be a real hero, include a small tube of honing oil, a small blade sharpener and a belt holster. THAT is a gift!! Name brands like Felco, Corona and (there it is again!) Mark’s Choice are recommended. or

* Stainless steel digging tools. Why stainless steel? They are smooth and cold - dirt does not stick to them as readily as with cheaper steel. They hold an edge – you will not have to sharpen them as often. They do not rust and they look great.

3. Gardeners also love wildlife and colour. Consider a magazine subscription. (Gardens West or Canadian Gardening, National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Outdoors Canada etc.)

4. Nature/garden calendars.

And if your gardening friends have everything that they could ever want for their garden, why not plant one for someone else, in their name! There are great Canadian charities that are providing the resources for less fortunate people all over the world to access tools, soil, water and seeds in an effort to feed themselves. Every gardener that I have ever met would relate to and appreciate such a gift. Go to or

Keep your knees dirty!


Choose the right Christmas Tree

Just when you thought that life is not at all predictable, I come along with a morsel of information that shatters your illusion.

With Christmas little more than a couple of weeks away we are coming up to THE big weekend for Christmas tree sales. In fact, most Christmas tree sales will occur exactly 2 weekends prior to December 25th.

I know this based on more than a few years in the retail ‘Christmas tree’ business.

Which brings me to the most asked ‘gardening’ question this time of year, which is, “What is the best Christmas tree?”

It is a great question because not all Christmas trees are created (grown) equal and there are new varieties/species offered almost every year. I will get to that in a moment, but first a short speech in defense of the ‘plantation grown’ Christmas tree.

There are sincere but misguided people out there who will tell you that buying a Christmas tree is bad for the environment. The thinking goes like this: why would you cut a perfectly good tree down in the forest when it could continue to serve a purpose left standing there? Wildlife benefits from trees as does the environment (all of our oxygen, after all, is produced by the green living world around us).

IF we cut trees down in the forest for Christmas – trees that otherwise would stand for a long time naturally – I would agree with the above stated argument. But the truth is that no respectable retailers in Canada would sell cut Christmas trees that were cut from a natural stand of evergreen trees. Virtually all of the trees that are available for sale from nurseries, garden centres, retailers, Boy Scouts and church groups are ‘plantation grown’.

The truth about the Christmas tree that you buy:

It takes between 8 and 10 years to grow a good quality Christmas tree.

They are generally grown on marginally productive land to begin with. While growing they provide valuable protection and a home for a wide variety of wildlife including birds, deer, rodents and butterflies. Christmas trees sequester carbon and exhale pure, clean oxygen (like all other trees). They reduce soil erosion and filter air borne pollutants. They are not (generally) fertilized while in the field, and the use of pesticides seldom occurs and when it does, they are used judiciously (Christmas tree growers are not necessarily environmentalists, but the cost of pesticides alone discourages the practice of using them).

Now that we have established the benefits of supporting the Christmas tree growers of Canada (they are a net-export crop by the way), let’s look at the various qualities of the trees that are available:

Canadian Christmas trees: in order of my personal favourites:
Five *’s = very favourite
One * = poor choice.

Fraser Fir *****. Tall, straight, wonderful evergreen scent and above average needle retention. A traditional look. Soft needles: easy on the hands. I will put one of these in my home partly because they are easy to set up. Have you ever put up a Christmas tree that had a crooked trunk? It is a test of anyone’s good will and ‘Christmas spirit’. If I am ever visited by the ghost of Christmas past, I am sure that he will take me to that day in the garage when I tried putting a Scots pine into a 3 legged tree stand. Not a pretty picture.
Cost for a 7 foot: between $45 and $65.

Noble fir *****. Much like the Fraser Fir but with a wonderful silver tone to the underside of the needles.
Cost for a 7 foot: $50 to $90

Balsam ****. Great needle retention, straight trunk, nice scent. A maritime native. Only downside is the distance between branches is rather generous, giving the tree a thinner look than its’ Fir cousins. You will get fewer ornaments on a Balsam, but if the tree has been aggressively pruned on the farm it can thicken up quite nicely. The lower cost may encourage you to look for this one at your local supplier.
Cost for a 7 foot: $35 to $50.

Scots Pine ***. This was the #1 cut Christmas tree a generation ago. It was the tree that my Dad hauled home from the garden centre for our personal use for as many years as I can remember. The greatest advantage of the Scots Pine is that it has long needles that are stiff enough to hold up most any tree ornament. Also, it is densely branched, providing an excellent opportunity to load it up with lights and decorations. However, the trunk of the Scots Pine is seldom straight and never as straight as that of the Fraser Fir. It has reasonable needle retention, a gentle scent that is most intense when you first bring it into the house and the price is lower than any of the more popular trees.
Cost for a 7 foot: $30 to $45.

White spruce **. The very first Christmas tree, which, legend has it, was cut somewhere in Bavaria, Germany about 350 years ago, likely was a spruce of some kind. This gives us the ‘traditional’ shape that most of us associate with the Christmas tree. That is about the limit of features that the White Spruce has to recommend it.
It has poor needle retention, usually has wide gaps between branches (minimizing the opportunity for decorations and lights) and the scent is moderate.
Above all, I steer away from the White Spruce for the fire hazard that results from the dramatic needle drop.
If you live in the country and are cutting a spruce down on your own property, be sure not to bring it indoors until about 5 days before Christmas. And take it back outdoors a couple of days after Christmas. That way the ‘needle drop’ will not cause too much of a problem: like clogging up your vacuum cleaner.
Cost for a 7 foot: Cheap, if you can find them.

A couple of tips when choosing and preparing your tree for indoors:

1. Look for a tree with a straight trunk – anyone that has tried to put a crooked tree in a stand will tell you the same thing.
2. Look for bushiness that suits your space. Look for a tree that is the right height for the room you plan to put it in. You pay for height when you buy a tree – no use cutting off a foot or two!
3. Cut about 2 inches off of the bottom of the trunk the same day that you plan on putting the tree up. This opens up the capillaries in the tree, increasing its ability to take up water.
4. ALWAYS use a stand that holds water and make sure that you keep it topped up. This, more than anything else that you do will help the tree to hold its needles for the longest time possible.
5. When you dispose of your tree, leave it for the municipality to recycle OR place it in the garden, stand and all, until spring. In the mean time it will provide protection for visiting birds. I put mine within 20 ft of bird feeding stations.

Above all, take family and friends out for the tree selection experience and get the Christmas spirit stirred up well ahead of the big day!

Keep your knees dirty,

Mark Cullen

Christmas carols on the radio. Christmas carols in TV commercials.

So, Christmas is in the air. And it is time to think of the gardeners on your Christmas list.
If you are a non gardener, have no fear. I am here to help guide you through the quagmire of gardeners’ gifts.
If you think of yourself as a gardener, I can give you some suggestions that will help you help the gift givers that are after you for your list.

First of all, let me help you do some thinking for yourself: when it comes to gardening gizmos: tools, equipment, supplies etc. you want to think about stuff that is not only useful but that:

A. lasts i.e. quality (because you want the receiver to be thinking good things about you while using the gift)

B. is useful (vs. say, a popular gardening tool like the Gold Digger, which often hangs in the tool shed until it ends up in a garage sale somewhere)

C. is of a certain nature that the gardener receiving it would not have purchased it themselves (e.g. a digital camera).

The digital camera is not such a bad idea, even for the person who already has one. I am thinking of the less expensive kind: a camera that is dedicated to garden use more-or-less exclusively. You would store this camera in your garage or even your tool shed (assuming that the roof doesn’t leak). It would be there for the ‘impulse shots’, just a few steps away from the rose that is flowering at its peak, the rare looking bird that just arrived on the feeder and (most importantly!) the light that is perfect – but only for a moment.
A gardener will put these photos into a special place, if only in a special ‘garden’ file on their computer, where they will think of you every time that they visit it.

Nothing gets more practical than a pair of hand pruners. Here, high quality goes a long way. Any gardener can tell you that using a cheap pair of pruners is hard on the hands: often they do not spring back into position after a cut, the blades will separate under moderate pressure and they will not hold an edge for long as the blade metal is cheap, just like the rest of it.

True, I have my own pair under the Mark’s Choice brand which is made by Corona: they have a reputation for excellent quality and a cutting edge that holds for a long time. But they, frankly, are second best. The very best hand pruners on the market are still made in Switzerland by Felco. When I had a nursery farm and 30 field workers, we outfitted every one of them with Felcos because they never (almost never) let us down.

Felco hand pruners are twice the price of Corona pruners. About $30 vs. $60 to $80. You are comparing the cost of a good quality garden tool that is designed and manufactured for the passionate gardener (Corona/Mark’s Choice) vs. the professional grade (Felco). Now you can make an intelligent choice. Visit to view the Mark’s Choice/Corona pruners.
If you are looking for the $10 stocking stuffer for a gardener, I have a little secret: every gardener is human and as such, forgets what she planted where. Answer: aluminum plant markers.
I have about 300 of these on the go in my garden at any one time. Use a permanent nursery marker or a Sharpie to permanently mark perennials, roses and shrubs. You can stand on these things and the worst that will happen is you will bend them. If that happens, pull them out of the soil and bend them back with your gloved hands. I find that the names of my plants need to be re-written every two years or they do fade. This is a good thing as I have forgotten the plant name by then anyway and writing it down yet again reinforces the name in my forgetful mind. When I am through with the marker (i.e. the plant dies or I pull it out) I simply put the marker on my wire wheel in the shop and rub the printing out. Or you can use a solvent to do the same thing.

For anyone that loves gardens and trees: The Toronto Tree Portraits desktop Calendar.

Many of my blog readers are not from the Toronto region: I appreciate that. However, this calendar is unique and it celebrates the green spaces and heritage trees in one of the greatest cities in the world (arguably). You will love it.

You can order on line at

Book: A Sandbox of a Different Kind.
Personal reflections on the Canadian garden experience.
My 17th book, but my first ‘story book’. 52 short gardening stories based on the many Canadian gardeners that I have met, my own gardening experiences and some reflections on the stories told to me by my Dad. This book is light, refreshing and fun. And my kids say that if you read it you will sleep like a baby. Nice kids.

Available at Chapters/Indigo, independent book sellers and Home Hardware.

I’ll bring you some more Christmas gift suggestions in the coming weeks, but in the mean time, some reminders about your garden:

- It is not too late to protect valuable young fruit trees with a plastic spiral. This will prevent potential mice, rat and rabbit damage.

- Be sure to secure upright junipers and cedars with burlap. I find the ‘tensor’ type of burlap easiest to apply. In other words, you don’t have to invite a few friends over to help you wrap up your evergreen when you do this job.

- Water the plants under your house eve. All plants enjoy going into winter with moisture at their root zone.

Indoors: this is a great time to start an amaryllis bulb. Get it potted up now and in a sunny window and it will be in bud for Christmas. Maybe, with some luck, it will be in full flower for early in the New Year.

Keep your knees dirty!


The Best Time to Start Gift Buying

"Seedsmen recon that their stock in trade is not seeds at all – it’s optimism.”
~ Geoff Hamilton

This week I would like to suggest a gift for the non-gardeners on your list – the kids.

There are little people all across the country who have not yet been introduced to the miracle of growing plants. Or the miracle of compost, but that is for another time.

Where kids are concerned, there can be no argument that an introduction to soil, water, sun and their collective effects on the plant world is in order. The younger the kid the better. If you have any doubt about the importance and – indeed – the relevance to the future of civilization and the earth generally, read the book ‘The Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louve.

In his landmark book he explains how a whole generation of youngsters now suffer from a malady that he calls ‘nature deficit disorder’. This disconnection of the human species from the natural world around us is creating an attitude that we are somehow not a part of it – nature, that is. And with that attitude comes a whole wheelbarrow load of problems that I won’t get into right here – remember, this blog is about engaging kids in the gardening experience.

So, to the list:

1. Make it easy – start an amaryllis or a handful of paperwhites. These easy to grow bulbs are so easy that you don’t even need soil to get results. Amaryllis will produce two or three stems about 40 cm high and 4 or 5 flowers per stem. ‘Spectacular’ might describe them when in bloom.
2. Paper whites are almost as much fun. Members of the narcissus/daffodil family, these miniatures grow almost as aggressively as the amaryllis – the main difference is that the flowers are smaller and they smell funny. Some would say that they smell sweet – which is an understatement and the reason why I think that they smell funny.
3. Flower seeds. Soil. Starting tray/cell packs. When you buy flower seeds for the first time gardener, make them ‘easy to grow’ and as fool proof as you can. Sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and calendula are about as foolproof as they come. Be sure to offer a chart of ‘seed sowing times’ so that they are started early enough that they are ready for the garden come planting time.
4. A small shovel, rake, or trowel. Nothing like a shiny new tool to claim the gardening experience for yourself. Home Hardware has the line up of small, wooden handled stainless steel digging tools that are suitable for medium sized kids, say, 6 years or older.
5. A tree. The best way to give a tree at Christmas is to give a gift card to your local gardening retailer with a picture of the tree that you have in mind. Or give them a gardening catalogue with a post-it note in the tree page.
6. If the kids on your list do not have access to the real estate to plant a tree, I suggest that you plant one in Africa ( or in public space in an urban area ( A message to this effect in a Christmas card works nicely.
7. Membership in a local botanical garden (Montreal, Toronto, Burlington – ‘Royal Botanical Gardens’) – or a local ‘kids gardening program’ – go to the website of your local horticultural society for details.
8. A few hours of your time, in the garden, with seeds and soil. Come spring there is ample opportunity to get down on your hands and knees with your kid – or someone else’s kid – and sow seeds or plant transplants. What could be more rewarding for you?

As I think about it, this would be a great gift FROM a kid to his/her parents/grandparents/aunt or uncle… a couple of hours in the garden ‘helping’.

You can take it from there…….

More to come.

Keep your knees dirty.


A Last Minute Chance to Invest in a Fabulous Spring.

For over 50 years our family owned and ran a small chain of retail garden centres in Toronto. ‘Weall and Cullen’ was what my Dad ‘did’ when I was a kid. It was, like so many family businesses in this land, what we ate, drank and breathed as an entire family for so much of the year.

So it came as no surprise when Dad showed up sometime just before Christmas with a bunch of unsold tulips in the trunk of his Chevy. He called them ‘excess inventory’ otherwise known as waste, had he not put them to good use.

Which brings me to this: today there is ‘excess inventory at your local garden retailer in the form of spring flowering bulbs. I am here to save you money, help you to create a fabulous garden and encourage you to use what remaining time there is left before the winter sets in for earnest….. That is, as long as you can dig the soil, there is potential for a great spring. Cheap.

Do all spring flowering bulbs produce when planted this late?

No. I discourage the planting of daffodils and narcissus beyond Thanksgiving. You will notice that the remaining bulbs of this ilk are often not very firm when squeezed. If they are dry and soft, they are blanks. Nothing good will come of them.
Even if they do have what I call ‘viability’ they will likely rot in the ground because there just isn’t enough time for them to put down the roots that they need before the hard freeze up.

You dummy – where I live the frost is in the ground and the snow is on it!!

If you live in the great white north or the great Canadian prairie, I understand that you may well be under some of our famous snow.
That does not mean that the tulips for sale at a remarkable price at your local retailer are no good. Bring them home and put them in pots filled with quality potting mix and put them in a cold area…. About 8 to 10 degrees C works great. Water them from time to time, keeping the soil only moist and not ‘wet’ and wait for the growth to begin to poke through the soil surface.

Bring these upstairs into the living area of your home where it is warm – one or two pots at a time so that they do not bloom all at once.
Give them away at Christmas. Your family will think that YOU were the one born with the green thumb. Your friends will spread very complimentary rumours about your generosity and about how clever you are.

How 'bout crocus, Scylla, grape hyacinths and the like? Will they grow and bloom if I plant this late?

Yes, likely. But tulips – ALL tulips – are foolproof in this regard.
Seems that they don’t need the time in the fall to put down roots: they will do this come spring as the ground eventually thaws (remember that it does not thaw in one day……).

What kinds of tulips are best?

Chances are that the pickings at your retailer will be so slim about now, that it you won’t have much choice. However, I like the early flowering Darwin Hybrids best of all. They give the best early show. Early flowering bulbs provide colour for an extended period of time as they are blooming during the cool part of the season. The cooler the weather (to a point) the longer the blooms last.
This works in reverse, of course, for late blooming bulbs.

Do I need special soil?

Not really: just well drained soil. If your soil is heavy with clay, add lots (50% by volume) of sharp sand to improve the drainage and do not plant as deeply as you would normally.

Do I need to feed bulbs this time of year?

Fact is, all of the goodness that a bulb needs to bloom and please come spring is right in the bulb itself. However, there are two special products that do provide nutrition to the bulb when it is needed most: when the bulb has finished blooming and the foliage is building up the roots for the upcoming season of blooms.
These two products are:
- bone meal
- Holland Bulb Booster (

Drive over to your favourite bulb supplier this weekend and see for yourself… and check out the selection of Amaryllis bulbs which just arrived. Once again, the newest and the best selection is available early in the selling season.

Keep your knees dirty!


Nature tells us everything.

Last week I remarked that I had not taken many ‘walks in the woods’ this autumn as I had hoped.
This weekend I began to right the situation.
Mary and I walked to the back of the farm, about a kilometer, to have a look at the small hardwood bush that we have standing back there. I had been cutting up a fallen green ash tree that was 97 years old, as per the number of rings that I counted. Wow. That is a lot of struggling to push through the undergrowth and reaching past its’ fellow hardwood trees for sunlight.
Not to mention that it survived the rigors of wind, thunder and rain, ice and squirrels (just thought that I would throw that in). I believe that the old ash has earned a special place in my woodpile, where it will fuel the fires of our air-tight stove this winter on many a cold evening.

So, we think we know something about competition.
Well, if the trees in the forest could only talk, eh?

We had the large trees on our 10 acre garden fertilized this past week. Jim Mastin of Noble Tree Service remarked that the mulch that my guy Rudy had mounded around the base of the trees was a few inches too deep. You can actually smother a tree to death by covering up the bottom couple of inches of bark on the main trunk.

“Look at what Mother Nature does in the forest, if you want to know how to mulch trees. Note that the leaves on the ground never extend past the flare of the root at the base of the tree” he said.

Standing in our small bush we could see that he is dead on.

This reminds me of something that I have heard and repeated many times, while talking about the principles of great gardening: When in doubt, look to Mother Nature for the answers.

On another topic, I was in Shediac, New Brunswick 2 years ago, about this time, with CTV and Home Hardware. We were celebrating the new backyard improvements of Wilt and Andree: the winners of the $50,000 Ultimate Backyard Makeover contest that we ran last spring.
It is amazing what $50,000 can buy you in outdoor improvements. The winners chose to include an extended deck made of a new composite cedar/plastic material that will never need painting, does not require nails or surface screws and is guaranteed for 25 years. Cool.

The backyard makeover also included a new gazebo, otherwise known as the ‘west nile room’ as it is completely mosquito free. It has electrical service, insulation and double glazed windows too. It is really a ‘3 season’ room. And a great ‘doghouse’ for Wilf for those days when his beloved needs a wide berth. Don’t get me wrong, Wilf seems like a very nice guy and Andree a delightful person who, I am sure is very easy to get along with. But I have learned in 28 years of marriage that we all need our space, from time to time.

I was reminded while in Shediac, where old man winter is inching closer, faster than he is at my home in Stouffville, Ont. Now is the ideal time of year to protect your young fruit trees from rodent damage with one meter long plastic spirals. The enemy in this case consists of mice, rabbits and rats that will find a meal of tree bark on an apple, pear, peach or you name it, including many ornamental trees like crabapples are quite tasty come mid winter.
These critters will get so desperate for sustenance come January that the bark of a tree that is 5 years or younger is mighty tempting indeed. Put your spirals on before the snow seriously gets going in your area.

Upright evergreens need protection from wind and sun. Wrap up in two layers of burlap. Or the newly redesigned Mark’s Choice Mummy Wrap at Home Hardware. (item# 5094-519)

A reminder that rhododendrons and yews (taxus) need to be protected from wind and sun too. The burlap treatment is useful, plus I recommend that you spray them with an anti-desiccant called ‘Wiltpruf’. (item# 5097-806)

Also, this is a good time to feed the birds, if you are not already doing it. Who, after all, does not have an unused bird feeder in the garage or basement? Get to it now, while you still have a chance to influence the choice of feeding stations that your neighbourhood song birds will frequent come mid winter.
Yes, our fine feathered friends are creatures of habit, much like ourselves.
You won’t regret your decision when the snow is lying hip-deep.

Have you winterized your roses yet? A reminder (yes, I mentioned this last week) to get to it before the Grey Cup game, if only to reward yourself by settling down into the couch with a beverage of choice while watching whoever smash up someone else whose name you do not know, unless of course you were watching the CFL before the final game of the season. The point is that wasting some time in front of the tube is your reward for doing something useful in the garden when it is generally not very tempting to be out there doing physical work.

Note that the snow has not really fallen in earnest (i.e. it hasn’t stuck to the ground much) in most parts of the country. You have the opportunity to look out of the window of your favourite room in the house and observe the space in your imagination. Take some snap shots of it in your mind as you imagine how it will look come spring. And summer. And for years to come. Imagine a sequence of colour from one end of the gardening season to the other. Imagine bird song and butterflies. Imagine entertaining guests, “Oh yes, it was nothing really. Just years of planning, digging, weeding, deadheading, extravagant expense and the divorce over it all was just a bump in the road.”
o.k. – don’t get carried away with this.

Just remember the rule, “Look to Mother Nature for cues.”
It works every time.

Keep your knees dirty,


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas is only a few weeks away and they will be playing this song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ on the radio until we are very glad that December 26th has rolled around.

I argue that THIS is the most wonderful time of the year because of another miracle: compost.

You may think that I am nuts and you would not be alone. Join the line up right over here behind my kids. Truth is, I am not alone either.

Talk to my friend Lorraine Johnson, with whom I co-wrote a book called The Real Dirt, The Complete Guide to Composting in Canada. It is out of print, but is still used in some post secondary schools as text for the subject. Lorraine is a passionate composter.

So is my friend Susan Antler. She is the executive director of the Composting Council of Canada and while she is very enthusiastic by nature, she reserves her greatest output of exuberance for the subject of composting.

Yes, we are out there. The crazy composting community stretches far and wide across this great land.
So, it is fitting that you do two things this time of year to celebrate the great composting season:
#1. Empty your composter if you have not done it since last fall.
#2. Fill it again.

Empty it.

When you remove the composted material from your composting unit (or pile…) be sure NOT to spread it like salt and pepper all over your yard. Compost is not a condiment. It is the meat in the sandwich. It provides the lifeblood for all plant life in your garden by feeding the micro organisms that support the perennials, annuals, vegetables etc. that you plant out there.

I spread finished compost 3 to 5 cm thick (1 to 2 inches) all over my garden this time of year. In most cases this means that the contents of your composting unit will not go very far. That is o.k. as you can buy more or spread next years’ compost supply over another part of your yard next fall.

Fill it.

Put a shovel full of finished compost in the bottom of the composter. This will help to ‘get the party started’ - in other words, the beneficial bacteria in the compost will initiate the decomposition process.
‘Layer’ your compost beginning with a thick layer (10 to 15 cm, scrunched down) of ‘brown stuff’ – fallen leaves is the #1 brown stuff of choice. You can use shredded newspaper if leaves are scarce in your area.
Next layer is ½ as thick of ‘green stuff’. Finished tomato plants, annuals, grass clippings or kitchen scraps will do the trick.
Continue to alternate a thick layer of ‘brown’ with a ½ layer of ‘green’, pushing the contents into the composting unit as you go to maximize the volume in it.
Add water as you go….. It is only in the presence of moisture that decomposition takes place. Pity the poor people in the desert that try this….
Add Green Earth Compost Accelerator ( every 2 to 3 layers to speed up the decomposition process.
If your composter has a lid, put it on the unit but only if you have pre-moistened the contents! Remember, dry stuff just sits there! If your composter does not have a lid, no worries. I don’t really get the point of the lid anyway, except that it ‘neatens’ up the look of the unit.

Siting your compost.

Position your compost in as much sun as possible and close to the kitchen door, for convenience. You can add compost all winter long, regardless of where you live in Canada. While it will freeze solid in most regions, it will also thaw in time and when it does, the greatest decomposition occurs. The frost ‘rips and tears’ the cell structure of the organics that you place there: the warmth of spring will activate the ‘good guys’ that do the breaking down of the works.

What to put in: Anything organic, providing that it is NOT any of the following:
- meat or meat byproducts
- cat and dog droppings (or any meat eater, for that matter)
- dairy products
- wood, bark, metal or plastic
- weeds that have gone to seed (though, I break this rule all of the time)

The Foot Soldiers arrive!!

Back to the beginning: when you spread finished compost over the surface of your garden you encourage earthworms to come up and pull the compost down into the soil. They eat this stuff; convert it into organic, nitrogen rich earthworm castings that feed the soil. Earthworms also open up the soil, allowing oxygen to flow to the root zone of your plants. (Note: all plants need oxygen at their roots.)

And finally, there is the wonder and awe of watching what WAS something recognizable, like leaves, banana peels and grass clippings, convert into the most useful soil additive ever created. Your plants thrive: they grow faster, resist insects and disease and they produce flowers and fruit like never before. They are happy.

And all you did was organize ‘waste material’ into a pile or composting unit and wait.

THAT is the miracle of compost.

Keep your knees dirty!


Frost is on the Pumpkins

Well the frost is on the pumpkins now…. The girl at the gas station said that they are calling for snow in Ottawa.
Note to self: contact brother Peter in Kanata and give him a hard time.

Our home in Stouffville Ontario (about one hour north of Toronto) is not immune from the ravages of an early winter.

Snow may be cold and it may remind us of Christmas, but for gardeners it is a great motivator to get those things done that we have been putting off.

The good news is that the first few snow falls generally don’t last. Thank goodness for temperatures above freezing. This is the redemption that nature sends our way after reminding us that winter is coming.

I had been putting off planting the rest of my spring flowering bulbs….. Tulips and crocus are finally put to bed. I would recommend that you do the same, even though technically you can wait with the tulip planting until Christmas. This is only true if you can dig a hole. If the ground is frozen, my experience tells me that you will have trouble.

This is a great week to wrap your upright evergreens. Junipers will benefit from a double layer –one to prevent sun burn (which usually occurs at the end of winter) another to break the wind. No, not that wind. The north and west wind that dries out the foliage and turns it brown. Check out the new Mark’s Choice ‘Mummie Wrap’ for this purpose at Home Hardware (item #5094-519). We improved on the original product by making the width broader.

Broad Leafed Plants.

Same advice for yews and (if you are lucky enough to have any) rhododendrons.
Apply a coat of ‘Wilt-Pruf’ (sorry for the spelling but it is an American product so we don’t need to take credit for some marketing person attempting to be clever here in Canada). This stuff really does work by insulating the moisture inside of the foliage of evergreens while still allowing the foliage to breathe. Wilt-Pruf is effective on boxwood too. And it makes a great Christmas tree preservative. Available at independent garden centres and Home Hardware (item #5097-806).

Fruit trees are very susceptible to rodent damage over winter. Think rats, mice and rabbits primarily. The best deterrent (and easiest to deal with) is to wrap a spiral plastic trunk protector from the bottom up. When you buy these get the biggest ones as the snow can mound deep and rabbits can stand on their hind legs if they really want to make a meal of your fruit tree bark.

Fruit trees only need rodent protection for the first 5 to 7 years or until the circumference of the trunk is about 8 to 10 cm thick. They are not interested in mature bark, just the young stuff.

I know that I have reminded you recently that this is the most important time of year for applying a good quality lawn fertilizer but it IS important. So, this is another reminder.

Indoors I wish to note that the new amaryllis crop is in. Yes, you can find all kinds of great looking amaryllis at garden centres and of course some hardware stores.
The best way to tell if you are buying a good quality amaryllis bulb is to look at the measure of its circumference. If the package indicates that it is smaller than a 26 cm bulb you are buying a small one and you will get small results. Fewer blooms, smaller blooms.

A ‘top sized’ amaryllis bulb is 27cm or bigger. More blooms: bigger blooms. Look for the new top sized Mark’s Choice Amaryllis at Home Hardware (item# 5029-303 red, 5029-304 striped). And yes, you can buy cheaper amaryllis elsewhere: that is not the point. Our competition who sell the undersized bulbs do not have customers sending them pictures of 3 stem plants loaded with up to 12 blooms…. I do.
Keep in mind that there some excellent varieties of amaryllis that are worthy of growing that are small by nature. Look them over and note that many of them are quite expensive (a really large amaryllis or one that is rare can run you $15 to $25).

If you are looking for a broad selection of truly exotic amaryllis go to and look over Dugald Cameron’s offerings. His bulbs always inspire me.

Christmas Presents!

I buy about 20 amaryllis this time of year and pot them up in new clay pots. I then put them in the basement and water them. It is cool down there and they are slow to grow. Which is what I want as most of them will end up as Christmas gifts. Great for a house warming and much longer lasting than a bottle of wine (though less intoxicating). Your hosts will think of you all winter; mostly in a good way as the show lasts for up to 6 weeks. Late in the winter a lazy gardener may wish that you would just show up and take it away as the leaves are not the most attractive thing. But that is a minor point.

For the ambitious reader I will tell you how to re-bloom your amaryllis in a later blog. Stay tuned.

Much ,much more to come. Gardening is the song that never ends… the tune just keeps changing.

Keep your knees dirty and remember that it ain’t over yet out of doors…even for Prairie gardeners.


Perennials: Some you cut down, some you leave standing.

The questions about what to cut down in your perennial garden and what to leave standing just keep coming.
I think that we need a ‘rule of thumb’ or something – a guide – so that when you are out there in your garden you can make an intelligent decision, “THIS is getting its head cut off, and this one will stand for the winter.”

Here is the best ‘guide’ that I can come up with:
IF it has a seed head on it that is mature or has not yet matured (one that birds might enjoy chowing down on) – leave it standing.
IF it has a rigid stem and will not blow over in winter winds – leave it standing.
IF it is an ornamental grass (Calamagrostis, Miscanthus, etc.) leave it standing.

IF it has floppy foliage that has already turned yellow or brown and looks poorly in your garden – cut it back and throw the leaves into your compost (e.g. daylilies and peonies).
IF it is ugly and you don’t like the look of it – cut it back.
IF the birds have had their time with the seed heads and there are no seeds left (like with many of my Echinacea) cut it back.
I am including this picture of my front yard as an illustration of what I decided to cut back and not….. Notice that ALL of the Shasta Daisies were cut back to about 5 cm. Some of the blue Veronica was cut back because it was full of an aggressive clematis – gone wild! – And I wanted to comb it out before winter. Other Veronica was left standing because it has seed heads on it that the birds will like.
Truth is there is no harm to cutting herbaceous perennials back to the ground or leaving them standing. I like some left upright for the winter for winter interest. Yes, the snow will fall on them instead of all of it falling on the ground and that can be interesting. Right now you may be thinking that that does not sound too attractive. But you have forgotten how desperate we Canadians become when winter really hits home.

Believe me – we are the people who escape from the indoors at the first sign of spring to hose down the driveway (the garden still has snow on it) and this feels like a trip to Florida.

The only danger of leaving them flat to the ground come spring is that they can rot there and can encourage the same thing to move through the crown or root structure of the plant.

For the most part Mother Nature takes care of the thing.

We are not all that far away from trick-or-treat time and you will likely be acquiring a pumpkin.

This is good. For one, the pumpkin is now our 7th most popular agricultural table crop and farmers need the money. Not that long ago pumpkins were hardly on the radar.

The odd thing is that many Canadians (dare I say, urban ones?) don’t view the pumpkin as a ‘food’ crop at all. I think that many actually believe that it is just another disposable commodity, like disposable diapers and Dixie cups. Truth is a pumpkin is 99% water.

So tell me, why is it that so many of us leave the pumpkin out for the trash pick up, like so much ‘garbage’?

Here is a much better idea: put it in your compost pile or your bin. Cut it up to make it ‘break down’ faster and it will take up much less room there.

Don’t have a compost? O.k. – just leave it on the surface of the soil – anywhere! – But not where the kids will be tempted to pick it up and throw it on the road.

Frost will come and it will go. We will get some thaws and then more frost. Your pumpkin will melt – before your eyes! - And you will be left with a thin – VERY thin – layer of orange pumpkin skin on the soil. You can dig this in come spring or break it up with a hoe.

That is it! You have saved some water from being dumped in the land fill (think of the trucking costs that you will save!) and your soil will be marginally better off for it.

Short list of things to do in the garden:
- Fertilize your lawn – this is the most important application of the year. Use a slow release nitrogen product for best results.
- Cut your lawn (maybe for the last time!) about 2 ½ inches or 6 cm high.
- Dig your carrots, leeks, left over potatoes etc. and store in bushel baskets ½ full of pure, dry sand. Put in your basement or fruit cellar.
- Yank out your annuals and finished veggie plants like tomatoes. Put them in your composter or compost pile.
- Plant Holland tulips and crocus.
- Prune cedar hedges.
- Begin thinking about winterizing your roses that are not of the ‘shrub’ type. Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, Floribundas etc. will need about 50 cm (1 ½ feet) of fresh triple mix piled up from the bottom. If you live on the Prairies, now is a good time to do this. In central Canada and the Maritimes the best time is just before the Grey Cup game – the game is your reward for doing the job!
- Clean and sharpen your lawn mower before you put it away.

More next week folks!
Enjoy the harvest season ….. We can see the end of it on the horizon so get out and breathe deep!

Keep your knees dirty,


A Final Fall Checklist as Winter Approaches

Here in my zone 5 garden we have turned a significant page in the gardening year. Last night we experienced our first killing frost. Luckily I put bed sheets over my tropicals: the hibiscus will bloom another day. The bananas are not so lucky as they are too big to drape sheets over them. The frost has done some damage but nothing permanent, according to Rudy, my right hand man. He is a native of the island of Grenada and knows his bananas. By next spring they will be good as new, he tells me. All of this activity draws to our attention the fact that we are well into the autumn season, regardless of what growing zone you happen to live in. That means that we need to be thinking of the jobs that are ahead of us that must be done before the really cold winter arrives. Winter (oh how I hate to use the ‘w’ word already!) is a wall for gardeners: miss the deadline that it conveniently provides and bingo, your garden is susceptible to goodness knows what. Rabbits, mice, frost, freeze/thaw cycles. They play their role in challenging the gardener to sharpen our focus on the issues that really matter.
- Putting the spiral plastic collars on young fruit trees to protect them from rodent damage.
- Spraying the broad-leafed evergreens with Wiltpruf (an anti-desiccant) to prevent the drying effects of winter wind.
- Fertilizing your lawn for the last time with CIL Winterizer (the most important application of the year).
- Sharpening the lawn mower, cleaning out the cutting deck and changing the oil: draining it of gas, after the last cut.
- Wiping down all of your digging and cutting tools with an oily cloth.
- Finally (I leave this to the end) hilling up the roses for winter to prevent damage from freeze/thaw cycles.

All of this provides a gentle reminder that now is a great time to plant spring colour in the form of spring flowering bulbs. Don’t do it now and you could be in for a dull early spring. Do it now and the colour that results will put a spring in your step, a smile on your face; it will lighten your burden and remind you that winter was just a necessary stop in our annual journey around the calendar. Without it we would not appreciate the beauty of spring nearly so much.
Keep your knees dirty.

No one could have predicted 5 years ago where the ‘local food’ movement would go. Or that there would even be a ‘local food movement’! For Canadian gardeners the idea of eating food that is grown within 100 miles/kilometers or meters from home is very exciting. Perhaps the very message of eating locally grown fruits and veggies is preaching to the choir – but in any case – gardeners are fully on board, you can be sure.

The benefits of eating locally produced food cannot be overstated: generally fewer chemicals (or none at all!) are needed to produce great food that does not have to endure long distances to get to market, it tastes better, is better for you and it supports the local economy.

I might add that growing your own food is a great way to bring people together too. It is a poorly kept secret that gardeners are generous with information. Ask an experienced gardener how to grow most anything and you will gain the benefit of his or her knowledge without prodding. Conversation flows between gardeners with a shared interest in food gardening. In short you could say that the activity of gardening cures shyness!

As you gather round the Thanksgiving table next week, give the abundance of Canadian gardens some thought.

And be thankful that we live in a country where our soil and climate generally lends itself to feeding the nation. Right from our own backyards.

As we focus on the harvest and the success of our crop

s, let us not forget the beauty of these edible plants. Growing food plants in the garden provides us with sustenance – to be sure. But have you thought about feeding the soul with food plants? Put another way, the ‘look’ of food plants can provide an appearance that draws people into your garden just as a flowering shrub or flowering perennial can. Truth is, there is a lot of colour in the new Swiss Chard varieties that anyone will find attractive. Not to mention the textured blue leaves of a Savoy Cabbage (how are they any different from a large leafed Hosta, from this point of view?), the fine leaves of a carrot could be mistaken for a fern (in the sun, no less!), the flowers of your runner beans are as ornamental as a clematis, when you get down to it.

You get the point.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who prefers to travel the back roads of the country vs. highways so that I can get a look at many of the fine vegetable gardens on Canadian farms and rural properties. To me, the straight rows of edibles equal the vision of a flowering perennial garden. The look is different, to be sure. But given that much of the food that we eat comes from the garden, our appreciation for the sight of it should be deeper.

Mark Cullen

Goodbye September, Hello Fall!

Any semblance of ‘summer’ is about to slip between the tines of my manure fork. September is on its way out the garden gate and I still have lots that I want to do in the garden. For one, I have not started to plant any fall ‘Holland’ bulbs. And I am not worried.

There is about 6 weeks in my zone 5 garden to wrap things up before the winter wind blows and I batten down the hatches for 4 months of bad hockey (you guessed it, I am a Leafs fan!). For the next month and a half I have to move quickly to get all the stuff done that I want to do out there in the yard and garden: time to make a list.

For this week:
- Get a start on bulb planting. Daffodils and narcissus like to be planted ‘early’ in the fall season vs. hyacinths and tulips which are simply not very fussy about when you plant them. When my Dad was a garden retailer he would bring home all of the left over tulips the week before Christmas and they reliably put on a great show come spring.

- If you have been feeding the hummingbirds, be sure to bring in and wash out your feeders after the first frost as you do not want to encourage the little hummers to stick around.
- Pick the remaining tomatoes and put them in a cool, well ventilated place. Notice that I did not say put them on the kitchen window sill: though, that would be fine if you want a convenient place to inspect them daily. They will ripen faster up there, to be sure. But be sure to save some for eating later – the later you can enjoy them the more you will enjoy them.
- Peppers, basil, corn and beans need to be harvested before the first frost.
- Brussels sprouts (you can actually eat these?) ‘improve’ with frost as does savory cabbage, leeks and most ‘brassicas’ – i.e. ‘gassy’ vegetables.
- Plant trees, shrubs and evergreens now. Such a great time of year to do it! They put down roots this time of year to support new growth come spring and often you will find good quality stock on sale as retailers like to move their plants now.

- Build a deck, stain the tool shed, etc. Before it gets too cold and wet.
- Mulch perennials and shrubs with bark mulch to protect them over the winter. A 5 or 6 cm layer over the roots will do the trick.
- If you have finished compost in your composter now is a great time of year to clean it out and spread the compost on the surface of the soil of your veggie or flower garden. No need to dig it in as the earth worms will do that for you before you plant next spring.
- Prepare to fill the composter with 4/5 fallen/shredded leaves and 1/5 ‘green’ stuff like the finished tomato plants and petunias and the like. This will get the microbial activity going.

That should do it for the week. Next week we can begin thinking about what to do with the fallen leaves, the cut down perennials (if you are cutting them down at all), the finished annuals, etc. I will explain.

In the mean time enjoy the temperature and the wonderful ‘harvest’ time of year. Visit a local farmers market and buy up lots of produce while it is cheap to store at home.

Until then, keep your knees dirty.


Home for the Harvest

“Seeds men reckon that their stock in trade is not seeds at all – it’s optimism”
~ Geoff Hamilton

Autumn breezes. Autumn frost.

A few ‘blogs’ ago I talked about all of the wonderful, redeeming features of the ‘harvest’ month in the Canadian garden.

You must think I am nuts.

Soon it will be Thanksgiving weekend and the kids are home from University and we are going to enjoy the finest turkey since, well, since last Thanksgiving.

Giving thanks for the bounty of our great land is reason enough to talk about the harvest. Let’s start with the frost tender stuff:

Eggplant and the like.

If you are lucky enough to have some ripened ‘fruit’ in your veggie garden, you would be well advised to go pick it. Now. Don’t even finish this blog. If you don’t pick it and use it right away the birds will. Or it will rot.

Pick the unripe fruits too.
Immature peppers? They are just as good as the big ones, only smaller. Better still, ‘can’ them or ‘put them up’ in mason jars

Small cucumbers? Pickle them.
Egg plants? Mix with your ripe tomatoes for fabulous pesto sauce. BBQ them.

As for the frost ‘hardy’ stuff, no panic.

But truth is your winter squash, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots etc. have reached their peek. There is little advantage to putting off the harvest now.

What to do with:

Carrots: as winter draws close dig all of the keepers and ‘replant’ in bushel baskets 2/3 full of clean, sharp sand (not beach sand) put in your garage until hard freezeup, using them as you please. Before they freeze hard in the damp sand, place them in the coolest part of your basement.

Potatoes: Cool storage (14 – 18 degrees C) dark and dry. The cold cellar seldom works as it is too damp.

Cabbage and Kale: cool as you can get it: without freezing. Your garage or shed works until hard frost occurs, when you will move them into the cellar. Keep your eye on them for signs of rot… roll them over every week to keep the bottom side from rotting.

Onions. Braid them if you can. Place in a cool, dark and dry place. Hanging them works best of all.

Leeks. Actually improve in flavour with late frost. Dig soon though, to avoid rotting. Either make potato/leek soup for the freezer or just puree the leeks for later use with potatoes. Store in the freezer.

There is a theme here – ‘cellar’ or ‘basement’. This is your autumn work out. As you go up and down those steps be sure to give thanks. We live in the greatest country on earth. If there is any doubt, imagine life without a harvest.

Eat well. Stay well.

And keep your knees dirty.


Save money, save the planet: save seeds!

You planted them. You watered and nurtured them to maturity. Now, why not harvest them?

This is the best time of year to collect seeds from your favourite plants: clean them, sort them and save them for planting next year. For many of the plants in your garden, this is easy and great fun.

Annuals that will reproduce nicely from seed gathered from your garden include zinnias, many marigolds, portulaca (which self-sows at my place!), cosmos, 4 o’clock, euphorbia, some nicotiana, sunflowers and virtually all of the large seeded varieties that are not hybrids. The hybridized annuals that you planted this spring will not reproduce true in colour or growth habit to their parent plant. However, sometimes the results are interesting!

Vegetables that produce well from garden seed include beans, tomatoes, peas: most all ‘large seeded’ plants. The ‘hybrid rule’ mentioned above still applies.

My favourite perennials from garden seed include the native Echinacea, some rudbeckia, Russian Sage, Bee Balm (Monarda) and, once again, most of the large seeded plants that are not hybridized.

What to do:

1. Let them mature. The whole reason – the ONLY reason from the plants’ point of view – that a plant produces a bloom is to produce seed. And the only reason that it produces seed is to reproduce. It is a basic law of nature: plants, like animals, have an inherent need to multiply or, at least, to perpetuate the species.

2. Remove when dry. After the seed has dried (and before the birds eat it), remove the seed head (the finished blossom) from the plant and bring it indoors. Remove the seeds from the seed head or pod and place them on a screen or in a ceramic saucer. Do not use a paper towel as they will stick to it.

3. Place is a sunny window for 7 to 10 days.

4. Put the seed in an envelope, label it carefully (don’t skip this step or you will regret it next season…) and place in a tightly sealed jar.

5. Store in a cold cellar or in the veggie crisper in your fridge.

6. Most perennial seeds can be stored for a long time in the freezer. I do not recommend this for annual or vegetable seeds, though you can experiment with some and you may be surprised at the germination rate of the ‘frozen’ ones come spring.

How do you know when seed is ‘viable’ (will germinate)?

Place a few seeds in a glass of water and let stand over night. The seeds that are floating in the morning are the duds, the ones on the bottom of the glass are the viable ones. You can also do this experiment with pre-moistened paper towel by rolling the seeds up in the towel, keeping it wet for 7 to 10 days and unrolling it to see how many have germinated.

The ‘germination test’ is a good way of determining the % of seeds that will grow and therefore how densely you should sow them come late winter/early spring.

You can learn more at, and

Keep your knees dirty!


Grasses, Cosmos and the BEST time of year in the Garden!

Breathtaking. This morning in the garden was just unbelievable.

As I poured fresh rain water (we had lots over the weekend) into a bucket for my morning ritual... watering our 25 chickens, picking up the Toronto Star at the end of the lane... I was dumbfounded by the appearance of light fog over the property. The sun was not quite up over the trees on the east side of our property, the sunflowers not quite conscious of a dawning day.
No wind.
I saw one of our hummingbirds, yes the one of the many that my wife Mary is fed up of me pointing out: I saw one of them hovering over a hosta, ready to pounce on some nectar.

A snapshot of a gardening season in progress... on the high side of middle age, I would say (the garden, not me!). I feel that way because the ornamental grasses are tasseling (or, flowering). This is a sign that summer is nearing its end and autumn is pulling up from behind with its own surprises.

I don’t know why we don’t see more ornamental grasses in Canadian gardens. Just when you return from your summer vacation or cottage, the kids go back to school, the evening air turns cool and morning dew gets so heavy that you really need rubber boots to go for an early walk: this is the time of year that gardeners should reward themselves with some real action in the garden. Ornamental grasses deliver.

My two berms feature 150 Maiden Grass, Miscanthus Sinensis ‘Rotsilber’. I planted them 5 years ago this fall from one gallon pots. They have grown 20 fold, as near as I can determine. And they are so thick that I hardly have to weed them any more.

There are so many gorgeous ornamental grasses to choose from.

The ones that come back each year are available in generous numbers. Look for Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium for a unique look that matures at about one meter high. Or Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis acutififlora ‘Karl Forester’ which was the 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year. I have a bunch of these down by the pond. They grow to 1 ½ meters high and behave themselves.

These are just a few of my favourites… there are many more. Take a look at your local retailer and keep two things in mind - you are looking for a variety that is winter hardy in your area AND (this is most important!) ones that Do NOT travel…. Some of these rascals are very aggressive.
Like Ribbon Grass, Phalaris arundinacea. My sister Sue fell in love with this colourful, easy to care for grass and gave it away to unsuspecting friends and neighbours. She was an ornamental-grass-goodwill-machine for about 4 years. Then it dawned on her and others that she had been giving away a weed.
In time she did the only respectable thing, and moved out of town.

Don’t make the Sue mistake.

Keep in mind that all ornamental grasses need sun. The more the better. (Just one reason why they love the prairies!)

People that planted cosmos earlier in the season are getting their just rewards. Wow! And you can do this from seed….!

Echinacea is attracting countless finches as they chow down on the maturing seedheads. Watching them hang up-side-down is kind of fun. They almost seem drunk…..

To the lawn for a moment: the grass seed that Rudy and I sowed over 3 weeks ago is germinating and growing very well. How is yours? Don’t forget that this is a great time to lay sod too.

And it is a great time to build a composter. Why not, you are handy enough – come on! Besides, before you know it the leaves will be falling and you will need a place to put them. And don’t even think of putting them out to the curb side. That is paramount to pouring money down the storm sewer…. Your leaves are God’s gift to the gardener. Compost them or put them on the surface of the garden soil.

More on that later, as we get closer to the composting season.

Meantime, lots to do and even lots not to do – like doing nothing but enjoying the sights and sounds of your garden. The clock is ticking. We will be indoors enduring bad Leafs hockey soon enough.

Keep your knees dirty!


Cedar hedges: an investment that grows.

One of the ‘most asked’ gardening questions that I get is, “Is it o.k. to trim my cedar hedge now?”

Cedars (Thuja) are one of the most versatile evergreens in Canada. There are very few areas of the country where you cannot grow at least one variety of cedar and they always lend themselves to ‘trimming’ and make a great looking hedge.

When can I trim?
The truth is that you can trim a cedar hedge most any time of the year – you just cannot hurt it by pruning it at the ‘wrong time’ even in mid winter. However, there are better times of the season than others for pruning/trimming and this would be the best time of year, if you ask me.

Most cedar trees grow relatively consistently throughout the growing season. From late in the summer until early fall they push new growth, as long as there is moisture in the ground and the temperatures are not too high (say, over 30 degrees C). By pruning cedars this time of year you are giving them the ultimate shape that you desire and will still benefit from a slight ‘filling in’ of the foliage before winter sets in. This is akin to getting a hair cut and waiting a couple of weeks before you get your picture taken.

You know how your hair looks just after a trip to the barber? Kind of severe. A couple of weeks later, it has filled in a bit and looks pretty ‘natural’. Not a bad time for picture taking! Your hedges behave much the same way.

What Kind of Cedar makes a good hedge?

In Central Canada the native White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is the most popular of all for use as a hedge. It is inexpensive and often is dug from ‘native plantations’ almost bare root. They sit for a year or two in your garden before growing but when they do you can expect up to a meter of new growth each year. This usually occurs in the 3rd year.

Other Cedar tips:

- Autumn is a great time for planting all cedars!
- Prairie gardeners can choose from the ‘almost winter hardy’ Emerald Cedar (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) (which will need to be planted on the east side of your home or wrapped with burlap in late fall for protection) and the much more hardy ‘Brandon Cedar’ (Thuja occidentalis ‘Brandon’).

- B.C. coastal gardeners can choose from many cedars including the native B.C. Cedar otherwise know as (Thuja plicata).

Pruning tips:
- When pruning, always shape the bottom of the hedge wider than the top. This allows even exposure to sunlight and helps to keep the entire cedar hedge looking thick and healthy.
- Use sharp, quality shears. I recommend ‘Mark’s Choice’ pruning shears. Guaranteed 5 years and made in Canada.
- If your hedge has been ignored for several years you can still bring it under control by removing up to 1/3 of the foliage each year until it looks the way that you want it to.
- A cedar hedge will live for 30 to 60 years depending on the variety and its’ location.

It is not true that cedars attract mosquitoes: they get this reputation from growing in low/wet land where mosquitoes tend to breed. It is their environment that can cause mosquitoes to grow in numbers, not the cedars themselves.

It is true that cedars are your best bet for a fast growing, evergreen hedge in most parts of the country.

Planting cedars:

- Mark your line with a string or garden hose, to get the hedge straight.
- Dig a trench ½ meter wide and 1/3 meter deep.
- Back fill the bottom of the trench with triple mix (1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat and 1/3 compost) or Mark’s Choice planting mix (the best that money can buy!).
- Stand your cedars upright in the trench before piling the remainder of the triple mix on their roots.
- Once the cedars are lined up straight, plant them using triple mix and step firmly on the soil as you plant, making firm contact between the soil and the roots of the new trees.
- Water thoroughly and stake every 2 meters with a ‘T’ bar or 2” X 2” stake, using heavy gage wire to secure them in place.
- Most important! Don’t be too ambitious when choosing your new cedars! New trees about 1 meter high will establish much more quickly than large, 2 meter high specimens, unless the large trees have been nursery grown.

Be patient! Your cedar hedge will grow and mature into a thing of beauty as time passes – and you attend to the annual trimming (yes, only once a year will do the trick!) AND you will have an investment that grows in value each year – unlike installing a fence!

Keep your knees dirty!


Of Flower Bulbs, Nursery Stock and a Quiet Garden

Why is it that when the kids go back to school the atmosphere changes?
We have just finished the finest summer of recent times: lots of sunshine, tolerable heat throughout most of the days and an adequate amount of rain.

To the garden and some things to do of importance if you want yours to look good and feel good as it matures into the autumn:

- Lawn. A great time to apply lawn fertilizer. Not the ‘fall’ fertilizer yet: you will apply it in late October or November and it IS the most important application of the year. In case you didn’t hear that before.
o This is still the best time of year to start grass seed or lay sod (the ‘season’ for this one is mid August up to the end of September for most parts of Canada).
o Use Mark’s Choice Lawn Soil and spread Golfgreen Grass seed (weedfree/Canadian) at the rate of one pound per 400 sq. ft. or ½ kilo. Per 50 sq. meters.

- Perennials: Dig and divide. You can successfully dig and divide many perennials now. I dug up a bunch of ‘Monarda’ (Bee Balm) in spite of the fact that they were still in bloom (sort of). Now, I would generally discourage this sort of thing… digging up and dividing perennials in bloom. But this is one tough plant species and the truth is, you will have a hard time killing it. Just make sure that you water the root zone thoroughly before you dig up the plant and after you have planted it. AND make sure that you plant in good quality soil.

- Apples and pears are ripening now. I picked my first truly ripe apple (vs. the sour ones that I kept handing to the kids saying, “try this and tell me what you think.”) It was a ‘Liberty’. Quite good. The point of course is that you should pick fruit while it ripens on the tree – as close to its peak of ripeness as possible. However, it is better to pick fruit before it reaches its peak vs. after. Unless you like a mouthful of rotten apple/pear.

- Tomatoes are now ripening to beat the band. Be sure to pick them as they ripen too, whether you plan on using them right away or not: otherwise the over-ripe ones that rot on the ground and fill with earwigs will just harbor more of the same for the more desirable tomatoes. No point in letting them rot/get eaten by bugs before they ripen to your kitchen plate!

- To market, to market! If you can’t pick your own, go to one of the many local farmers markets that have sprouted up (weekends) across the country. This whole idea of the ‘100 kilometer’ diet and ‘locavors’ is an idea that is catching on. My brother in law Guy is a ‘pick your own’ farmer ( and he tells me that the number of people coming that he has never seen before is quite noticeable. He puts this down to the new trends. Especially among young consumers (would you care to qualify that please? I assume that you mean anyone under 60).

- PLANT! the first week of September marks the beginning of the autumn planting season… the best time of the year to plant trees, shrubs, evergreens and (if you can get them) roses. These winter hardy plants will put down roots before our winter hits home which will support substantial growth come spring. Fall planting provides much more satisfying results than spring planting. AND many retailers are selling at discounted prices to move stock before winter. They would literally rather have you plant now than have to overwinter excess stock.

- The Bulbs are in!! Yes, the Holland bulbs arrived at garden retailers across the country this week and believe me that this is the best time to shop for them. The selection will not get any better as (the truth is) they all arrived on a boat from the Netherlands and they do not send more over later. One boat: one chance at the best selection. Go to for more information (likely more info than you want!). More to follow in upcoming blogs.

Last weekend I had a very pleasant day with two of my kids – we took our bikes over to Toronto’s Centre Island. Our favourite part of this trip is to slowly ride around the quiet pedestrian streets of Wards’ and Algonquin Islands. The cottages are remarkable for their architecture, and in some cases they are in such poor repair that it is remarkable that they are still standing! In any case, the gardens alone are worth the day trip.

With the kids back in school – take time to enjoy some quiet and to enjoy the beginning of the most restful season in your garden – fall.

Keep your knees dirty!