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.

A Stake that Dad can Really Dig for Father's Day

With Father's Day just ahead of us I am offering some useful gift suggestions for (what I am told) the ‘toughest guy to buy for’ in your family.

Also, as promised, I am recommending some excellent annuals and perennials for use in containers this summer.

On the first note, it is helpful to think ‘Tool Time’ when it comes to Dad. All dads love tools – gardening dads as much as the next guy. So what kind of tools will delight even the most casual of Gardening Dads?

Dad’s Make the Cut.

Let’s start with cutting tools – like loppers. When it comes to trimming trees and shrubs, there are a lot of options. The new ‘tree loppers’ on the market have been improved over recent years, dramatically! Here is how:

A good quality pair of lopping shears will have:
- High carbon steel cutting blade that will hold an edge even under heavy use.
- A Teflon coated blade, for smooth cutting
- A ‘geared’ hinge provides for less effort to ‘make the cut’
- Some loppers will have aluminum shafts for handles, which are extendable.
Good quality short handled loppers are $35 to $70 depending on the size and cutting capacity.
Long handled ‘pole pruners’ for trimming tall trees etc. are $100 and up.

Dad’s Dig It.

Digging in the garden can be viewed as drudgery or fun – depends on your point of view and whether you are using a quality, sharp tool.

First of all – buy Dad a metal ‘bastard’ file. He can use it to keep an edge on the shovels, spades and hoes that he has hanging in the garage or tool shed. Advise him that he should put a new digging tool on the grinder to give it an edge and then keep that edge using the file.

Secondly, buy Dad a good quality spade or shovel. The new ones are made of superior quality steel, hold an edge (once he makes one….), provide maximum leverage for effort expended and last for a very long time.

Dad Loves a Good Stake.
Here is one of the greatest inventions in modern gardening history, costs only $7 or so and he will never (likely) buy himself one.
It is an aluminum ‘spiral tomato stake’ for his tomatoes. Here are the benefits:
- Staking his tomatoes will double his crop vs. growing them on the ground.
- No tying is required. With one hand he can twist the main stem of the tomato onto the spiral stake while with the other he can hold a coffee (if he is doing this in the morning) or a beer (afternoon or evening activity).
- They are 6 ½ ft. tall – tall enough to support even the most successful tomato.
- They will last his life time – and then some. At the appropriate time you could suggest that he leave them to you when he is done with them.
- They look good lined up in the garden! (who said that a veggie garden was not attractive?)

There are many retailers that carry upscale, quality gardening tools. My own line of Mark’s Choice is available from Home Hardware and can be viewed at

There is more – so stay tuned next week to this blog.

This is a good time to be thinking of planting in containers. And with it, the opportunity to put in mountains of colour in the form of annuals and perennials.

Yes, you can plant perennials and annuals together. Not only will you create a unique look, but it will be one that will sustain itself very nicely over the entire summer.

Great combos:

For sun: I love to put perennial Gaura/Indian Feather together with annual Sweet potato vine. The Gaura will spike up nicely, giving you the height that you are looking for, while the sweet potato will grow down to the bottom of most any pot. Chose from Sweet potato ‘Blacky’ or the many lime green and yellow varieties that are out there.

Another great perennial/annual combination for a sunny position is perennial Scabiosa ‘Butterfly Blue’, perennail Creeping Jenny with annual geraniums and/or Cape Daisy. The Scabiosa will grow to 30 cm. tall and bloom the entire season, as will the geraniums and Cape Daisies

Other great perennials for the sun that lend themselves well to container gardening are:
Columbine, Coral Bells, Cranesbill (geranium), lungwort, salvia, thyme, viola and yarrow. For dry, intense sun look for Hens and Chickens, Sempervivums, yarrow, euphorbia, ice plant and stonecrop.

For shady positions in the garden look for these perennials for containers:
Hosta, fern, Deadnettle (lamium), Bugle Flower (Ajuga), Sweet Woodruff, and Irish or Scottish Moss.

Next week, more Fathers Day Gift suggestions, including some tools that will help him to maintain a great looking lawn.

Meantime, keep your knees dirty!


The Annual Time for Annuals

Those of us that have been gardening for some time use the term ‘annuals’ like a verb – as if everyone should know what we are talking about. If you are new to gardening let me remind you that there is no such thing as a stupid question in this business – I know, I have asked many of them myself over the years.

For the record an ‘annual’ is a plant that completes its’ life span within one season. For the most part they die with the killing frosts of late autumn before they actually have ‘completed their life cycle’.

The advantages of planting annuals in your garden each year (and indeed, there is no option but to replant each spring) are mostly related to ‘garden performance’. Most annual flowering plants bloom shortly after planting (if not before!) and continue to bloom right up to frost or when the finished flowers set seed.

Annuals that are well known for the colour that they provide over the long haul of a Canadian gardening season include geraniums, petunias, zinnias, snapdragons and lobelia (for sunny locations). Fibrous and tuberous begonias, impatience, coleus and browalia also provide non-stop colour, for shady locations.

Should I plant bedding plants or seeds?

A good question that more of us should ask. Truth is, most new gardeners reach for the ‘transplants’ or young, colourful annuals that are sold in individual pots or ‘cell packs’ at your garden retailers. However, there are some annuals that perform just as well when planted from seed, directly in your garden. This is a great way to earn the satisfaction of growing from ‘start to finish’ and to save money. Big time!

A packet of nasturtium seeds may contain 30 to 40 seeds for about $1.50. That works out to about 5 to 6 cents a piece. The ‘transplants’ of the same nasturtiums sell for 99 cents to $1.50 for 4 plants. That works out to 25 to 37 cents a piece.

In other words, the cost of bedding plants can be 5 to 7 times more expensive than seeds.

Now, to be clear, this only works with certain annuals. My list of ‘best from seed annuals’ include: zinnias, marigolds, morning glories, nasturtiums, cosmos, alyssum and sunflowers (for goodness sake – don’t buy a sunflower plant! The seed germinates in less than a week).

Annuals that require planting this time of year from ‘transplants’ include impatiens, begonias (fibrous and tuberous), petunias, pansies and geraniums. There simply is not enough time for you start these plants from seed and expect a decent season of bloom.

I might add that gladiolus (‘glads’ for short seeing as we are using the gardening vernacular here) are sold as corms (which look like bulbs) and are best planted directly in well drained soil. Tip: plant several each week for 6 weeks to get a succession of bloom over a long period of time.

What are the best annuals for specific places in my garden?

First of all, think in terms of ‘exposure’ to the sun.

- Northern exposure – is mostly shady, often windy and if you are planting under the eve or soffit of your house, it is dry as no rain can reach this area.
Best choice for annuals: impatience, tuberous and fibrous begonias, coleus, trailing lobelia (especially for hanging baskets) and browallia.

- Eastern exposure. This is what I call ‘cool sun’. It provides for about 6 or more hours of sun while sheltering your plants from the strong, dry afternoon sun.
This is the BEST PLACE for geraniums, petunias, dusty miller, impatiens (yes – they can take some sun!), double impatiens (look for the Fiesta series), lobelia, snapdragons tuberous begonias and salvia. Keep in mind that fibrous begonias can be planted most anywhere – which is why so many parks departments favour them.

- Southern exposure. Very bright and hot. Lots of water is required to keep your south facing garden going, that is why it is important to only plant tough, ‘heat seeking’ annuals here. I use lots of mulch (about 2 inches) on my southern garden to help to reduce the demands for water.
Best choices for sunny, hot southern exposure: portulaca (my #1 pick for the hottest spots!!), zinnias, cleome, marigolds, four o’clock, cosmos (if you have lots of space), geraniums, bacopa, bidens (yellow) and of course sunflowers (thus the name…).

- Western Exposure. Also very bright and even hotter than the southern exposure, especially when located near a wall or fence. The intensity of the sun is at its’ maximum in early afternoon, so only the toughest, sun-lovingest annuals will thrive here.

Best choices for sunny, windy western exposure: Portulaca (again!), zinnias (especially the short ones, if moisture is an issue), marigolds, cosmos, hanging or ‘Balcony’ type geraniums, dusty miller (just try to kill it…), salvia, snapdragons, cleome, petunias (but plan on watering a lot) and of course once again, sunflowers.

If you have planted some of your annuals already and have just learned that you have placed them in the ‘wrong’ spot in the garden, it is o.k. to dig them up gently and move them to a more appropriate place. Just lift them with a garden trowel and a small quantity of earth to the spot where you would like them to grow and be sure to water them right away.

Secret to success?
How can I guarantee that you are going to succeed with your annual planting this season – like no other in your experience? The answer is two fold (after you have planned on planting the right plant in the right place):
Proper soil preparation. Add generous quantities of compost. Add about 30% sand to the volume of compost to open the soil up and allow water to move freely through it.
Use water from your rain barrel. I use oxygen rich rain barrel water whenever I can, but especially at planting time. It is warm and when I add a pillow case ½ filled with compost to the water – and allow it to steep for ½ a day or so – the solution works magic at the root zone of the newly planted annuals.

Go for it and have fun – and this is a good time to remember that there is no such thing as failure in the garden, just composting opportunities.

Keep your knees dirty!


Perennial Plants for Golfers

My guide to a great low maintenance garden.

Before I get to the ‘meat’ of this blog – perennial plants that you should look for when shopping this weekend, I have to say something about our British gardening friends… who else, after all, would describe home vegetable growing as ‘thrilling’ and the flowering of perennial favourites as ‘great entertainment’. And yet, the current issue of The Garden magazine, which is the official publication of the Royal Horticultural Society, does precisely that.

To look at a beet, freshly pulled from the raw earth and ready for the pot, and describe it as ‘thrilling’ is a bit of a stretch for us Canadian gardeners (except on the Prairies where enthusiasm for vegetable growing is reaching an all time high: and it WAS pretty high to begin with).

To witness the slow development of a peony as it erupts out of the soil in early May only to develop ‘eye balls’ for buds that eventually swell into perfectly round candy floss flowers later in the month as ‘great entertainment’? One might think the British have lost their marbles. If that is the case I would say that they lost them a long time ago.

Truth is, Canadian gardeners have a long way to go before we can say that we enjoy our gardens with the same enthusiasm as our British brethren. Maybe that is true for all of ‘garden’ humanity – as no nation has such a finely developed passion for gardening that the British do.

On that note, I have some advice for you: whatever your gardening circumstances, be sure to look for the ‘winners’ that can make your garden the most satisfying ever, this spring.

Where people are concerned I look at the world as being made up of two primary groups: golfers and gardeners.
Golfers enjoy gardens. Well, at least they like looking at them. But they generally have little time for the tedious nature of gardening ‘work’. I like to think that they live with the seed of gardening-potential inside of them: they just need to mature a little before they can see the light.
Gardeners have learned that there are countless benefits to getting their knees dirty.
Golfers think that dirt is dirty.
Gardeners have the patience to wait for a plant to mature from seed or transplant into a flowering beauty, fulfilling it’s potential over time.
Golfers enjoy the thrill of the moment – a great shot on perfect grass – that someone else grew. (Note: you may insert your own interpretation of ‘golfer’: sailor, sports nut or whatever….)

You get the idea.

Here I list some of my favourite ‘plants for golfers’. These are easy to grow, require very little maintenance and are there for you when you are finished your game – like old friends. They will not let you down.

Shop for plants with the ‘exposure’ of your yard in mind:

Sun. If you have blazing hot sun to deal with for most of the season than I recommend that you look over many of the Echinacea perennial flowers. The original ‘Echinacea purpurea’ is not a bad place to start. A prairie native, here you have a very winter hardy purple flowering butterfly magnet that blooms for up to 5 weeks and when it is done blooming attracts a host of hungry song birds in search of the prodigious production of tasty seeds.

For something completely different – but still in the Echinacea family – look for some of the recently introduced varieties that ‘improve’ on the flowering performance of the original. E. Magnus was the perennial plant of the year just a few years ago. It provides a dense shade of purple that fades to almost pink later in the season. A July/August show of colour is guaranteed in almost any region of the country providing you position it in the sun.

Rudebeckia may best be known as ‘Black Eyed Susan’. Not sure that Susan approves, as who wants to be known best for a black eye: but there you have it. I think that Rudbeckia is a great plant no matter what you call it. Hardy to zone 5 (north Toronto/Halifax).

It thrives in well drained, compost rich soil, loves the sun and blooms longer than just about any flowering perennial than I can think of. Plant Rudebeckia now and you will surely enjoy a fabulous show of yellow colour in late summer and autumn. In fact, this could be the best investment that the cottager makes: an easy spring planting for an abundance of colour when you get home from the cottage. It is great as a cut flower too.

Look for another ‘perennial plant of the year’, r. Goldstrum.
It will grow and multiply for three years then needs to be dug up and replanted. Not unusual for a ‘perennial’ in our climate.

R. ‘Prairie Sun’ is another winner: with its’ intense gold centre and butter soft outer petals.

My short list of ‘sun loving perennials’ includes all of the sedum family – think ‘spectabilus’ and ‘hens and chicks’ - (sempervivum, another member of the extensive sedum family, if you are looking for groundcovers in the sun).


O.k., you expected me to say that Hosta is a great shade performer. With over 7,000 varieties in the family to choose from including the meter wide giants like h. ‘Frances Williams’ and h. ‘Drinking Gourd’ I would not want to disappoint you. Truth is, however, that hostas are best grown in partial shade. A few hours of dappled shade (i.e. sun!) improves their performance substantially.

In truly dense shade I recommend the much more aggressive ‘lamium’ family. This is a colourful groundcover that will grow in between evergreens and shrubs, providing a carpet of variegated foliage and (right now!) flower. Though, the flowers do not last very long, I have to admit. Hardy to zone 2 (Edmonton).

Another shade loving plant on my golfers list is pachysandra or Japanese Spurge. This is an evergreen ground cover –unusual eh? It flowers in late May/early June but I would not write home about that. Instead the redeeming feature of this plant is it’s ability to thrive in dry shade, multiply over 2 to 3 years and provide a carpet of green where most anything else would give up. Hardy to zone 5 (Southern Ontario/Nova Scotia/PEI).

Also on my list of dry-shade lovers are: lily of the valley (aggressive! But worth it in the right place). Hardy to zone 2 (long winters – Edmonton).

And finally – think of the ‘natives’ that do so well under similar circumstances: trilliums (zone 3), Canadian Ginger (zone 4) and Jack in the Pulpit (zone 4).

Enjoy your passion – whether you are British or not - and keep your knees dirty.


The Biggest Planting weekend of the year...

The biggest planting weekend of the year is finally upon us. This is THE time that all Canadian gardeners wait all year long for (with more apologies to my friends in Newfoundland who may choose to wait until the full moon of June, which occurs in the 3rd week this year).

If you are heading out to your favourite garden retailer this weekend, here are a few things that you should keep in mind:

What to do before you buy:

- Be sure to have prepped your soil before you plant. It is wise to do this before you buy your plants as the soil will be ready for you just as soon as you get home with your new plants.
- When buying bedding plants (e.g. geraniums, petunias, impatiens, etc.) look for strong, stocky plants with deep green leaves. Yellowing leaves are an indication that the plants are hungry and ‘malnourished’.
- Avoid plants that are lanky, overgrown and/or with roots growing out of the bottom of the cell pack/pot. Why? Because they will not put roots down into your soil as readily or as quickly as a plant that has young ‘white’ roots that are aggressively looking for a new home.
- Notice that I have not suggested that your new plants should be in bloom. Why? Glad you asked this one too… the only good reason to look for a plant in full bloom is to confirm that it is the colour that you are looking for. Even the best of growers/retailers get their plant markers mixed up. However, generally speaking the more the bloom, the slower the plant will take producing new roots. Be patient and the blooms will come.

When new plants are home.

When you get your new plants home store them on the shady side of the house or garage until you are ready to plant. It is cooler there and the sun is your enemy. If you allow young transplants to dry out they will ‘harden off’ and take much longer to set down new roots (notice a ‘new roots’ theme developing here?).

Be sure to water your newly acquired plants while still in their containers using either compost tea (which you make by steeping a pillow case ½ full of compost in your rain barrel or a large bucket overnight) or a mild dilution of 20-20-20 fertilizer. This will help to establish the plants quickly once you get them into their new soil.

Be sure to:
- Plant your new plants quickly. You can hold them for up to 7 days without harm.
- Prepare the planting soil before you get home with your new plants with generous quantities of compost
- Have your tools ready before planting: clean and sharpen your digging tools, re-connect your garden hose and get ready to plant!

What to do when planting:

- Dig the hole wider and deeper than the root mass of the new plant.
- Drop the plant into the hole and push the soil around it using some ‘umph’ – a grunt is appropriate here. And the main reason why I prefer to plant by myself. There is a lot of grunting.
- In most cases new roots will develop around the main stem of the plant below the surface of the soil. This is especially true for tomatoes which always perform better when planted deep.
- If you are planting on a sunny day and in dry soil it is important to get your new plants watered within a few minutes of planting. If you see your plants wilting in the sunshine – before or after you plant them in the ground – be sure to water immediately.

Now here is the tricky part: most newly planted transplants do poorly due to overwatering. An experienced gardener just simply knows when to water and when to back off. For the first time gardener my best advice is that you push your finger into the soil about 2 cm or an inch deep. When the soil is dry to 2 cm then you can water.

The Magic of the Rain Barrel.

While I am on the topic of water, here is a priceless tip: use water from your rain barrel whenever you can.
Sure it may be more convenient to apply water to your newly planted garden from the end of a hose, but keep this in mind:
- As rain falls from the sky it becomes ‘oxygen charged’ and ALL plants love oxygen.
- It is warm. The thermal nature of water (a great insulator) means that the water being stored in your rain barrel is much warmer than that which blasts from the end of your hose. Your new plants will not like a cold shower any more than you do.
- It is free, convenient and soft.

If you don’t have a rain barrel or two, I would strongly recommend that you get them.

The selection of plants at retail garden centres and specialty hardware/building centres is at its’ very peak this week. I urge you to take a drive over and see what is in stock: but be sure not to buy more than you can reasonably plant over the next week.

Keep your knees dirty, like that is going to be a problem!