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.

The Dirt on Spring Planting

A question: would you build a house without a foundation?
Of course not.

It is, indeed, planting time: with many Canadians finally getting the good spring weather that we have been waiting for – and with Mothers Day here (a cue to many Canadians to get planting in their gardens).

This is your very best opportunity to build a foundation for your garden this year that will support plant life and grow –in reality – the garden that you have imagined all winter long. My advice is that you begin your spring planting by not planting at all, but rather, get into your garden with a sharp shovel or spade in hand and dig some holes.

You are not digging just for the fun of it – you are going to examine your soil to determine what needs to be added to it in order to grow a great garden this year.

Some helpful tips:
Take a handful of soil and squeeze it in the palm of your hand, then bounce it around a few times.
o If the soil breaks up in your hand, you have a pretty good start. Add lots of organic material in the form of finished compost from your composter or purchased from a reliable local source. If you are buying your compost by the bag, look for a good quality national brand like C.I.L., Green Earth or Hillview.
o If you are purchasing compost by the cubic yard (i.e. truckload) make sure that you are buying from a supplier that has a solid reputation for quality. There is no sense going to all of the expense and effort to have it delivered (the easy part) and spread over your garden (the hard part) if it is second rate material.
o If your soil samples do not break up in your hand, but stay in the shape of the soil that you squeezed, it is time to assess more closely: is it clay? If so, add generous quantities of sharp sand, otherwise known as play sand (but NOT beach sand!). This will open up the clay particles, which are so small that they bind together to form an impenetrable mass. Also add the compost – as described above.
o If you are unsure of the quality of your soil (after all, you likely have a day job and chances are good that soil analysis is not a big part of it) then I recommend that you take it to a local hardware store or garden centre and talk to a trained professional. Someone who deals with soil issues often can tell you a lot about the quality of your existing soil and how to improve it.
o If you have solid clay (e.g. you could make bricks or cereal bowls out of it) I recommend that you seriously consider removing it to 40 cm (15 inches) deep and backfilling it with 50 cm of triple mix (18 inches).

What is triple mix, you ask?
An equal portion of quality top soil, peat moss and finished compost (vs. ‘unfinished’ or ‘green’ compost).

I have pretty good quality soil in my garden, but you know what, I add 2 cm or one inch of mushroom compost (the ‘high octane’ stuff) over the entire garden every spring. I just let the earth worms pull it down and convert it into nitrogen rich earth worm castings. This takes about 6 to 8 weeks, depending on rainfall.

If you are in a hurry or just enjoy the experience of digging, turn it under with a garden fork or small rototiller.

How important is it to prepare your garden this way?
Well, about as important as building a foundation under a house or garage. Try building one without it and you will soon understand the wisdom of building one in the first place.

If I prepare the soil well, will I still need to use ‘fertilizer’ on my garden plants?

This depends on the plants. Roses, clematis, most annual flowers and tomatoes are heavy feeders, so yes, you would be wise to add some fertilizer – synthetic or organic – to the soil at the time of planting and every 4 to 6 weeks until the middle of the summer. Organic gardeners should look for Green Earth products: otherwise, there are many quality synthetic products like So Green, Vigoro, and C.I.L. that will do the job for you nicely.

If you are looking for a really easy way to feed your plants over the summer try the new super slow release fertilizers that are sold under the ‘Once and Done’ or ‘Smart Cote’ labels.

After you have your soil prep done, it is time to go shopping – almost.
Next week on my blog I will cover the essentials of choosing plants for your garden – ‘the right plant for the right place’. Stay tuned.

Have a great week and remember to keep your knees dirty!


This week on Canada AM with Jeff: Dividing your perennials.

Plants You Can Walk On

The tulips and daffodils have been blooming beneath golden forsythia, and crocus and hyacinth surrounding the magnolias. Hellebores have been pushing their way upwards displaying their proud colourful heads as they unfurled and all of our favourite perennials are gradually emerging from the soil seeking the warmth of the sun.

If you have recently moved into the new home of your dreams, by now you have the furnishings in place and d├ęcor to your liking. Now, I urge you to focus on the continuation of your home into the “outside rooms”. With thoughts of summer ahead, and plans for neighbourly get-togethers around the pool, patio or garden many ideas will start to evolve in your own head; it’s difficult to know where to start.

Allow me to help get you on track and keep you there.

If you are considering a lawn area in your landscape, consider this alternative - wonderful little plants called ‘Stepables’. These are tough, easy to grow perennial plants that endure light to medium foot traffic. This means they take various degrees of walking on. Have you ever strolled through a friend’s garden where they had planted creeping thyme between the crazy paving stone pathway? A wonderful aromatic fragrance is released as soon as your foot brushes against the thyme.

Stepables are just the job for filling nooks and crannies around pathways, pools and borders and most of them bloom profusely in full sun or part shade. Once established, most plants can be mowed or cut with a weed-eater or edger. Here are just three from the large selection available, all of which have been selected for moderate foot traffic. This allows for foot traffic passing once or twice a day.

Chamaemelum nobile (Roman Chamomile)
This plant with dense bright green foliage, releasing a delightful aromatic fragrance when disturbed, grows to a height of 4-12in. (10-30cm), forming a tight mat. Small yellow or white flowers that rise above the plant in summer are usually removed to keep it short and manageable. This plant requires a shady to partly shady location and is hardy to Zones 5-9 (up to Barrie).

Euonymus fortunei ‘Kewensis’
This slow-growing plant, attaining a height of just 2in. (5cm) makes an excellent evergreen ground cover and is frequently used for controlling soil erosion on banks; coping with considerable wear and tear. The small green leaves turn a most attractive burgundy colour in winter. Grow in sun/part shade in Zones 5-9.

Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny)
Although this plant prefers moist areas it will also accept drier conditions covering the ground with bright yellow flowers dotted amongst the creeping small green leaves. Blooming in part sun to shady conditions, Jenny will grow to a height of 2in. (5cm) as she spreads her attractive yellow carpet readily accepting medium foot traffic. Hardy in Zones 4-10. An added bonus - Jenny also looks great trailing over walls or planted in hanging baskets!

For more information on Stepables visit

At this time of the year there are so many exciting perennials to introduce to you I could continue talking until fall. However, I must introduce you to some of the plants from my Garden Perennial Collection, which includes over fifty varieties, all grown for their outstanding features and proven garden performance, as well as being favourites of mine. These I have divided into six garden categories and over the course of the next few weeks we will quickly peek inside each one and select some exciting specimens to review.

This week I have selected the Shadow Garden where plants have been selected to thrive under filtered leaf canopies, lighting up dark corners of shadow.

Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’ (Japanese Painted Fern)
This is a very attractive, lacy-leafed fern, that forms a dense mound of olive green arching fronds, displaying a metallic sheen of grey and red. Growing to a height of 12-24in. (30-60cm), this is an extremely easy fern to grow and certainly adds a bright touch to the shade garden. The Painted Fern enjoys moist, humus soil and is hardy in Zones 4-9.

Lamium maculatum ‘Pink Pewter’ (False Salvia)
Clusters of clear pink flowers appear sporadically from spring until fall on this engaging silver and green-leafed groundcover. The metallic leaves continue to attract, even when the weather turns cold, as they turn bronze in colour. Select this vigorous plant for season-long performance. A hardy plant, good to Zone 2 and perfect for lighting up the shadows.

Hosta ‘Grand Tiara’ (Plaintain Lily)
Even if you already have more hostas than you can name you will not forget this one. ‘Grand Tiara’ is the most striking of the Tiara series, displaying a broad gold leaf with a small green centre. H. ‘Grand Tiara’ is particularly attractive early in the season and can be planted in light or full shade and still be the centre of attention. Hardy to Zone 2 (Edmonton).