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 Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden

Four years ago I moved into my ‘dream’ garden.

My wife Mary and I decided that we wanted to move to the country and it seemed obvious where that should be as a portion of her family farm was available to us at the time. One warm summer night, very early on in the negotiation, I made the remark that I would like to move there providing that I could have my ‘dream garden’.
She said, “It’s a field of soybeans, so go nuts.”
And off I went.
I walked in to the property from the road until it just felt ‘right’ and there I drove a broken hockey stick into the ground. This was the demarcation of my new Canadian garden.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had carved off 10 acres of ‘soybeans’ with the intention of converting it into a hummingbird and butterfly haven.

Here is what I have learned about attracting butterflies and hummingbirds:

You can attract butterflies and hummingbirds (and song birds too!) largely by your choice of plant material.
Your choice of plants should include lots of native species, if you want to maximize the value of them as ‘magnets’ to butterflies and hummingbirds.
Look for bright coloured perennials and annuals with ‘trumpet’ shaped flowers for the hummers and flat, bold faced flowers for the butterflies that they easily perch on (specifics to come...)
Plant lots of trees for nesting and protection (for the birds, hummers included).
Place lots of still water around your yard for drinking (bird baths work as well as anything – just empty them weekly to avoid mosquito breeding).
This garden performs best in sun to partial sun (so don’t over plant the trees).
It is beneficial to have a hummingbird feeder set up near your kitchen window so that you can see them for yourself, without always having to take a tour of the garden to find the little rascals. Besides, the hummers may just announce their arrival to your place with a visit to your feeder first. You best be there to greet them!

Where do you go from here?

Some details:
1. Make a plan of your butterfly and hummingbird garden now, and be sure to include many of the plants that are known to attract them.
2. Native plants that work: Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Rudebeckia hirta (black eyed susan), yarrow (great for hot dry places), perennial salvia and liatrus (shooting star).
3. Bright, trumpet shaped flowers: trumpet vine, honeysuckle (both the hardy shrub and the vine), salvia, foxglove, lupines, jasmine (tropical, but you can bring it indoors for the winter), hibiscus (the tropical varieties, the hardy perennial and the ‘rose of sharon’ woody shrub) – they all work nicely, lavatera (annual), rose mallow (annual), hollyhock (biannual), delphinium, all hostas, daylilies, fuchsia (annual) and nicotine (annual – and one of the best!).
The ‘flat flowering’ plants that provide a nectar rich platform from which butterflies will feed and ‘spread their wings’ include Shasta daisy, Queen Anne’s Lace, rudebeckia, asters (perennial and annual) and many others.

For the complete list go to

4. Plant a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees as both provide protection, food sources and other varied benefits.
5. I have several bird baths in my front and back garden that get a lot of use – some are more ornamental than practical: all used by birds and butterflies more for drinking than bathing. Remember to dump still water weekly to prevent the mosquitoes from breeding...
6. Bright sunshine is favoured by most butterflies and hummingbirds in fine weather, but trees provide protection from wind and severe weather.
7. I received an e mail from the executive. Director of Hummingbird Canada to say that hummingbirds actually arrive in many parts of Central Canada in mid April, contrary to popular belief. Keep this in mind next spring and get your feeder out early. Go to

Be sure to clean out your feeder every week or so to prevent mold from building up inside of it.
And keep in mind that hummingbirds are migratory. They pass through our gardens in urban and suburban areas once in spring and again in late summer/early fall. I find that it is easier to get them to stick around during their southern migration late in the season.

So – be ready. The most desirable wildlife is about to arrive at the party. And with it, our reputation for being quiet, modest Canadian people that everyone seems to think that we are, is about to fly out the window.

Keep your knees dirty,


June = Roses Galore (without pesticides)

I had some meetings in the big city last week – the big city of Toronto, which is about as big as they get in this country. I chose to drive home using a meandering route that took me through some of my favourite old neighbourhoods, with gardens that have been established for some time. And right past my favourite public park at St. Clements and Yonge Street. Well, it is my favourite this time of year for only one reason – the roses!!!
When Toronto roses begin to bloom I am sure of one thing – the west coast roses of British Columbia have been blooming for some time and the roses of Quebec, Ottawa, the Maritimes and our Prairies are blooming to beat the band... just as sure as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the afternoon.

I dropped by the Sheridan Nurseries location on Yonge Street for a dozen rose plants and talked with Amin, the manager. He told me that many people are holding off on the purchase of roses this year because of the pesticide ban in Ontario. Perhaps the same can be said for Quebec and P.E.I. where similar bans are underway. In B.C. the sale of pesticides has been severely restricted for years.

The fear is that roses without the chemicals to control the bugs and diseases that bug them aren’t much good. Or, are at the very least very risky.

I am here to report that there is an answer... I know: I have been growing roses in my garden for 20 years without the use of pesticides.
The secret?

How to grow roses without pesticides.

Three answers:

1. Buy roses that are naturally “disease and insect resistant”. These words, when written on the tag of a Canadian grown rose, are golden. A rose variety that carries on with it’s business of flowering and attracting butterflies and songbirds to your garden without surrendering to black spot, powdery mildew and aphids (to name a few of the potential enemies of the rose grower) is a winner in anyone’s books.

2. Change your habits. Sometimes the ‘problems’ with roses are the result of things that we do in an effort to grow them. Black spot and powdery mildew? Water only at the bottom of the plant, avoid wetting the foliage, water in the morning so that the sun burns off surface moisture and by all means allow the soil to get dry between waterings about 5 cm down. This is most important of all!

3. If you have a persistent problem with insects or disease on your roses use an all natural solution – diseases? Use garden sulphur or Bordo mixture for control.

Insect problems? You will be surprised at how many of them can be dealt with nicely using Green Earth Insecticidal Soap.

There is one other solution to insect and disease damaged roses... change your standards. In other words the perfect, blemish free rose may not be the only rose worthy of our attention. I have seen some very fine flowers born on thorny stems with some black spot on the leaves. Truth is: the black spot will not spread into your vegetable crisper or onto your cheese over night.

A few aphids on the new growth of your roses? Give them a stiff blast of water from the end of the hose – there now. You are the police in riot gear, moving the maddening crowds of aphids out of their wrongful place with a fire hose. Only it is just a garden hose and you are only wearing jeans and tee shirt. And I know that you are a nice person, because all gardeners are.

We have been hearing from the organic producers of apples, tomatoes and all manner of edibles that we need to look at the fresh food that we consume a bit differently: we need to accept that not everything fit to eat looks like a perfect picture. I am arguing that the same is true for your roses.

So when your roses bloom over the next few weeks, please cut a few and take them inside to display on the kitchen table... or wherever you can enjoy the colour and fragrance of one of the greatest gifts in God’s creation.
And if you don’t have roses growing in your garden right now, remember that there is no better time to plant them than right now. And who knows, maybe you will get a fabulous deal at your retailer!

Keep your knees dirty,


Low maintenance gardening = mulch, mulch, mulch

Golfers and sailors, listen up! June and July are ‘Mulch Months’.

I know that this may come as a surprise to some of you, especially as I announced that June was mulch month in my newsletter ( however, June mulching was such a success that I decided to hold it over for one more month.

What is mulch and why is it important to virtually every Canadian gardener?

Glad you asked, as there is really no other activity in the garden that will both benefit your plants and free up your time for other things like golfing and sailing quite like it.

By definition, mulch is “A protective covering placed on the earth around growing plants esp. to prevent moisture evaporation, protect roots from freezing and to retard the growth of weeds.” (Websters II)

You spread mulch to reduce weeding by about 90% the first year, reduce watering by up to 70% and provide an insulated area in the root zone of your trees, shrubs, evergreens, roses, perennials and veggies that encourages the very best in garden performance.

Other than that, there is little need for it.

I love to mulch. I love it so much that I would classify spreading my favourite mulch as one of my top 3 garden activities. Why, its’ right up there with planting and composting!!

Now – anytime in the early summer – is the perfect time to add mulch because the hot, dry weather is just ahead of us. And the weeding season is upon us.

My favourite mulch is finely ground up cedar or pine bark... emphasis on the ‘finely ground up’ part. You buy this stuff by the bag, cubic yard, truck load or, if you are lucky enough to live near a lumber mill, you don’t buy it at all. You cart it away and the mill operators thank you for taking care of a waste headache. This is your compensation for living near a lumber mill.

I spread bark mulch over most of my garden 5 cm thick. This seems to be the magic amount as less than this will allow weeds to push through quickly and more can smother otherwise healthy growth on your favourite plants.

I use other forms of mulch, especially in the veggie garden. I use 2 or 3 ‘wafers’ of clean straw (about 1/10 of a standard bale). At $4 bale, this works out to less than $.50 per tomato and man... does it save me a lot of time! And happy tomatoes? You have not seen such happiness since the ducks discovered your swimming pool in April.

Just spread the straw under the plants and over the soil loosely. Rain will settle it down onto the soil, providing the same kind of insulation value that the bark mulch provides to your ornament plants.

Right now is a good time to fertilize too. I know that I have said this in recent weeks, but this is about the last week that you would apply a ‘once a season’ fertilizer like ‘Feed and Forget’ ‘Once and Done’ will do the trick. After this week you would be best to use the more traditional once-a-month granular products... or, if you are an organic gardener, use compost tea.

Make compost tea by stealing an old pillow case from the bottom of the linen closet. She won’t miss it, besides; it likely has a picture of snoopy on it, which is why it was at the bottom of the pile. ½ fill it with finished compost or composted cattle/steer manure. Hang it on a string into your rain barrel or a big container of water for 48 hours to one week. No longer or it will begin to smell very bad.

Apply this compost tea to everything that you grow every time you water. You can’t go wrong.

Also, remember to stake tall growing plants. Delphiniums are coming into their best across much of the country. Think of this – you have waited all year for these perennials to finally bloom – don’t let a strong wind or a heavy rain fall mess them up after all of this!

Speaking of heavy rain, I have counted 5 thunder storms in the last week. Our 10 acre garden, located one hour north of Toronto, is well watered. And if there is any truth to the rumour that lightening super-charges the earth with nitrogen, then I can count on my tree collection providing us with record growth.

Only problem is that one of these electrical storms entailed a deluge of small hale…. Creating a blanket about 2 cm thick before it was through. Every one of my 100+ hostas has holes in the leaves about the size of a quarter.

The solution for hale damage on hostas?
A change of attitude is the only reasonable answer.

It is kind of like ‘how do I control deer in my garden?’ or ‘how do I get my husband to garden?’ – Questions to which there is no definitive answer. Except the ‘husband’ question. I find beer is a great enticer, especially early to mid afternoon.

The lightening does seem to have scared the ‘begeebers’ out of our 26 chickens. They have never laid so many eggs!

On that subject, I have the solution to ‘what to do with all of those broken clay pots’. I put them in a heavy plastic bag and bang them with a sledge hammer. Then I include the pieces in the chicken grit.

Time to get back to the mulch pile… ohhh, heaven, I am here!

Keep your knees dirty.

Give Dad the Best Lawn on the Block!

It is just about that time of year when your lawn begins to look a bit shop-worn. The tremendous bust of green growth that occurred early in spring is waning and soon ‘the bloom is off the rose’ to use a metaphor from another part of the garden.

Here is a suggestion: give your Dad a great looking lawn this Fathers Day June 20! Yea – a ‘kit’ of lawn stuff that will help him to produce the great looking lawn that he dreams of. And believe me, he DOES dream of these things. I know: I am one.

Your ‘lawn care package’ could include any of the following:

- A bag of the best lawn seed in the business. Weeds? Compete them out of existence by spreading good quality grass seed over the areas that are thin. I use Golfgreen grass seed because it is virtually weed free, contains excellent quality grass seed varieties and is produced here in Canada. Keep in mind that one kg spreads over about 100 sq. meters (one pound over 400 sq. feet). Cost: $12 to $15 bag.

- Several bags of triple mix. You cannot just spread grass seed over your lawn and expect it to grow new grass plants. It has to have somewhere to put down some new roots. That is where triple mix comes in – it is a combination of equal parts top soil, compost and peat moss. Together, these ingredients provide a quality base for your new lawn or the thickening of an old one. Cost: $3 to $5 per 20 kg bag.

- A good lawn sprinkler. There are lots of lawn sprinklers on the market. Not all are created equal. Look for a sprinkler that produces a fine spray: these water droplets will penetrate the soil quickly and get to the root zone of your grass plants more efficiently. Look for a great line up of Rainforest sprinklers that are inexpensive, designed and made in Canada. They work under 5 pounds of pressure and up to 45 pounds. Go to or for my own exclusive version of their product for more information. (Hint: they make the Mark’s Choice brand). Cost: $7 to $40 depending on model.

- Fertilizer. O.k., so Dad fertilized the lawn early in the spring. If he used a good quality brand like So Green, Golfgreen or Vigoro, he would be well advised to re-apply after 8 or 10 weeks. Why? #1 to thicken up his lawn and #2 to keep it healthy. A healthy lawn is more resistant to disease and insect problems. If concern about the environment is an issue, the new formula of Golfgreen is phosphate free. Slow release nitrogen, found in good quality lawn fertilizers, only releases as the temperature rises, rain falls and microbial activity takes place in the soil. In other words: only when the lawn needs it.
Cost: $18 to $25 for an average sized lawn.

Still looking for Dad gifts?

How bout a push lawn mower.

Lots of Canadians are embracing the idea of cutting the lawn the ‘old fashioned way’ with a manual, reel lawn mower. The new ones are much lighter weight and hold an edge much longer than the ones he will remember from his youth.

Also for Dad:
A new pair of hand pruners (get good ones as the cheap ones are, well, you can finish the sentence….. in fact using them over a long period of time is like a sentence!!)
Gardening gloves – look for reinforced finger tips: the gloves will last up to 4 times longer!
Tree loppers and shears (see last week’s blog).

Noticeable by their absence in this column are power tools….. leaf blowers, chain saws, power trimmers/weed whackers etc. There is a reason for this. I hate them all. Not the tools but the noise and the pollution that 2 cycle engines produce. However, if he is into this kind of thing, get a good quality brand and ask your retailer about the noise levels produced by each product as they do vary a lot from brand to brand. Your neighbours will thank you.

Power Lawn Mowers

As for lawn mowers – you would do your Dad a great favour if you replaced his old 2 cycle (the kind that you mix oil and gas together...) with a cleaner burning 4 cycle. The brands to look for are Honda and MTD if you are concerned about air pollution and noise levels. These two brands have proven to be the most efficient where emissions are concerned.

Here is a novel idea... Buy Dad some flowers!
There was a day when this was for sissies.
No longer.
Today men are much more confident in their masculinity than they were a generation ago. There is not a man on the face of the earth that would not put a smile on his own face with the gift of flowers. Fresh cut flowers from the florist, your own garden, potted gift flowers, flowering plants for his garden or a shrub that flowers each year on Fathers Day …. Test this one out and let me know if I am wrong here.

Dads love flowers.

By the way, some great flowering shrubs and perennials that will bloom reliably in mid June include: Japanese tree lilac, Preston lilac, German/Bearded Iris, water iris, Gaillardia, Veronica (Speedwell) and climbing clematis. Check the hardiness zone of each plant with the hardiness zone at your Dad’s place. Go to for the Canadian Zonal map.

Happy shopping!

Keep your knees dirty,


Stuff to Do in the Garden...

This month I have travel plans that will take me from BC to Newfoundland. As I travel across the Prairies I will see some wonderful American Elm trees on the streets of cities and towns that are most impressive. As a native Toronto boy, the great Elm is a remote memory as they all succumbed to the Dutch Elm disease in the late 60’s and 70’s.

My hat is off to the guardians of the last great Elms on Canadian streets in prairie towns and cities. There are thousands of fine, caring Canadians who are going out of their way to protect these spectacular trees from the Dutch Elm disease. From Winnipeg to Calgary, there is war being waged against this disease. Reliable sources tell me that we are winning. Go warriors go!!

Now, let’s talk practical gardening stuff for a moment:

a. This is a great time to plant, after all. And stake. I recommend that you acquire some stakes (not STEAKS) and bang them into the ground around your tall growing perennials. Better still, look for the new heavy gage ‘link stakes’ that make supporting peonies, delphiniums and other tall growers easy ….they are Canadian made and last a life time.

b. Your tomatoes need support too….. I am using the new, aluminum twisted ‘spiral’ stakes that do not require the plant to be tied. Get to this job before the tomatoes begin to bloom as you will double your crop as a result (less susceptible to disease and insects: more blossoms and fruit).
c. Be sure to fertilize roses and tomatoes this week: they are heavy feeders. There are some great organic fertilizers for all veggies and flowering plants in the Green Earth line up.

d. June is ‘mulch month’, just in case you didn’t know. Likely you didn’t as no one has been talking about it. That could be because I made it up. We will call this our little secret… the point of course is that by laying down a 5 cm layer of finely ground up cedar or pine bark you will eliminate 95% of your weeds in the first year. And reduce your watering by 50 to 70%. June is the perfect month to do this as most of your planting has been done and the ‘watering’ season is just ahead of us, when the heat and drying winds come.
e. While the ‘planting’ starting pistol was set off in late May we have been planting like fury. If you have not put your annuals, perennials or veggies into the ground yet the good news is that it is not too late for most anything. This week I will put another row of green and yellow snap beans in for late summer harvest. I will sow another patch of carrots and radishes. I will finally sow the thousands of sunflower seeds that I purchased from Veseys seeds in P.E.I.

f. Your flower gardens, including hanging baskets, window boxes and other containers will still produce lots of colour with mid June planting. And the really good news is that the roses, perennials, trees, flowering shrubs and evergreens that you have been meaning to plant still can be. All summer, for that matter. Just make sure that you prepare the soil well and water after planting.

Talk to you next week; meantime keep your knees dirty.

Mark Cullen