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.