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 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!