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.

Extra Bounty? I have the answer.... and gardening advice to live by.

As we enter the mid life of this years’ garden you are anxious to pick your first tomato. Right? And why not: I know that I was! Pleased to say that I picked my first ripe tomato yesterday. I brought it in to the kitchen with pride: big smile on my face, and presented it to Mary.

She poached 3 lovely eggs that she had plucked from their mothers’ warm bosom that morning and presented me with the tomato, cut nicely into 6 wedges, ready for the fresh ground pepper.

mmmmmmmmmmm. Heaven.

And so the journey begins. Harvest season is upon us.

Soon I will be bringing tomatoes in from our garden by the quart, then the bucket and finally the bushel. At which point Mary will throw her hands up in the air, take a deep breath and scream: “enough! Enough – I can’t use anymore…….. tomatoes!”

Another deep breath.

Our infatuation with some vegetables is longer than others. The zucchini, for example, are not as lucky as the tomatoes. In fact from the first zucchini delivery to the kitchen I get this look that says, “Is it THAT time of year again?”

What to do with extras….

So the perennial question of course is, “what do I do with all of the vegetables (and fruit) that we produce each summer that we cannot eat or prepare in jars or freeze for ourselves?” I would not be the first to suggest that you can leave the zuch’s in a basket at the front door of a neighbour, or someone that you don’t like very much. Or in the front seat of a convertible car, with the top down. Great for a laugh.

To be serious, lots of Canadians have the same problem each summer. And I have the answer: give it away to people who want it, can use it and will benefit measurably from its’ consumption.

A Great Canadian Success!

In 1988 a couple in Winnipeg by the name of O’Donnagh found themselves long on pears from their backyard pear tree. They looked at each other and said, “why not” and took the extra lot to the local food bank on the off chance that they would pass them on to people in need of pears.

The plan worked – the O’Donnaghs were greeted with open bushel baskets, which were soon loaded with the pears. Many thank you’s later and they were on their way back home. Days later the two of them got the same idea: if giving fresh produce to the local food bank provides a worthwhile service in the community, then why not spread the word and get our neighbours to donate their excess produce too?

And so it began.

More than 2 decades later the whole continent is jumping on the bandwagon. The ‘program’ is now called Plant a Row Grow a Row for the hungry. The Garden Writers Association, of which there are over 600 members (I am one) receive regular e-bulletins from the organization asking us to remind our readers/listeners/viewers to please remember that the food banks ALL love to receive fresh garden produce. Go to for all of the details.

Last year alone Canadians donated several hundred tones of fresh garden food to food banks.

There is no form to fill out.

No organization to join.

No fees to pay.

Just pick the food and deliver it to your local food bank. They will take care of the rest. Clients of food banks generally have a diet that lacks in fresh produce. Processed foods, often high in salt and fat, are easier to store and often cheap and, therefore, accessible. Fresh produce not so much.

I urge you to do this. And take a moment to reflect on the fact that it was a Canadian couple who started the whole thing…. Understated and modest.

Another great Canadian success story that most of us are not aware of.

Now, while I am on the topic of tomatoes, a very important message: prevent the #1 scourge of tomatoes by applying Green Earth Bordo mixture now. Do not leave this too long. Truth is early blight (which is related to the blight that attacked potatoes that began the Irish Potato famine in the mid 1800’s) can spread so fast that you will barely see the signs of it one day and your tomato plant will collapse the next. Unless you have sprayed with organic based Bordo.

What is in Bordo that is so effective? Copper.

Is Bordo banned for use in provinces with pesticide bans? No. It has been recommended and used by organic gardeners for years. Truth is, there never was a chemical spray that proved to be as effective in preventing early blight, to my knowledge.

For the BEST tomatoes:

Remember: pick your tomatoes as they ripen. If you allow them to become over ripe on the vine the plant will not produce as much ripe fruit as it otherwise would.

Stake tomatoes off of the ground: you will double your crop.

If you allow tomatoes to rot on the vine you are inviting diseases that can wreak havoc.

Words to live by: ‘If it ripens, pick it”

This is true for any fruit bearing plant. Beans, peppers, eggplant, apples, pears, cherries: you get the idea.

What to do with the extra produce that your garden is spewing this time of year?


- preserve it in mason jars

- dry it for future use (either buy a dehydrator or hang upside down like you would herbs or like pioneers did with apple rings)

- ‘salt it away’ like they did for long voyages across the ocean

- Have a ‘preserving party’

What ideas can you share that would help the rest of us put our excess garden produce to good use?

I would love to hear from you: just send your ideas to us at and click on ‘contact us’ – we would love to hear from you!

While you are at it, remember that we are always looking for recipes for green tomatoes. What do you do with yours?

Looking forward to hearing from you...

Keep your knees dirty!


Pruning and Loafing

In a recent article in the Toronto Star I suggested that this is the time of year to take it easy – sit back and drink in the benefits of all your spring time activity in the garden.
Hammock time is what I called it.

Evidently not all of you took the advice.

I am getting a lot of questions about moving plants from one place to another. ‘Bleeding heart, Japanese maples, peonies, day lilies’ – that was just today! Some people want to move these established plants to other, more appropriate parts of the garden and some want to split/divide and give away parts of established perennials.

My answer: don’t.

Not now, anyway.

In most parts of Canada we have enjoyed ideal growing conditions for most everything that grows in the garden. As a result there is an incredible volume of new foliage that is just hanging out there drinking in the benefits of the sunshine and rain (or water that you have applied).

Let that foliage do its thing. Our opportunity to move plants will come soon enough. Foliage that has grown on perennials, shrubs, trees and roses this spring and early summer needs time to ‘harden off’: to do it’s primary job of strengthening the plant through the miracle of photosynthesis. Come September and October our chance to dig them up, divide them and move them around will come.

Grunt work has it’s time and place.

Same goes for starting grass seed. If you have just noticed that your lawn needs some thickening or you want to compete your lawn weeds out of existence as I have suggested that you can in earlier blogs: don’t do it. Not for a few more weeks.

The ideal time of the year to start fresh grass seed is just around the corner – the ‘window of opportunity’ is generally mid August through late September. When the correct time comes, I will tell you how to produce a fabulous looking lawn, right here. So stay tuned.


If you are still not satisfied with loafing around the yard, enjoying some bird song, watching the ‘flying hogs’ (as my friend Joel Marks likes to call them) drop free fertilizer indiscriminately all over your garden, then do some pruning.

Pruning Fruit Trees.

I am getting a lot of enquiries about fruit that is rotting on the tree. Apples, pears, cherries: it doesn’t really matter the species, this is a common problem. It is related to the lack of air circulation through the branches of the tree and a lack of sun being able to filter into the centre of it.

The breeze that moves through your fruiting trees discourages the growth of mold and disease, the likes of which causes fruit to rot and mildew to grow.

Likewise, the sun that filters into the crown of a tree helps to dry up the moisture that hangs on fruit and foliage far too long for the trees’ own good.

Using a sharp ‘green wood’ pruning saw (Mark’s Choice at Home Hardware product #1062-860 retail $12.99), get into the ‘heart’ of the tree and remove up to 1/3 of the old wood. Best to stand back and look at the over all shape of the tree before you start hacking away. Remember that the goal is to open the tree up, creating a series of arching branches that appear to be reaching for the sun – or, in the case of many apple trees, the branches will grow more or less horizontally.

Raspberries that have finished bearing fruit need to be pruned back to 10 cm high within the next 6 weeks.

Strawberries that have finished fruiting, and have been planted for more than 3 years, should be dug up and re planted into a separate part of the garden. The soil that you are moving the plants into should be tilled or dug up, weed free and the plants mulched with 10 cm of clean straw to help hold moisture and reduce weeding.
Your existing strawberry bed should be tilled under.

Blueberries should be given another dose of powdered sulfur and a shot of Green Earth blood and bone meal to encourage one more flush of growth before they begin to harden off for the season.

Matter of fact, this is an excellent time to fertilize all of the flowering shrubs and roses in your garden with the same blood and bone meal granules. About a handful per plant.

These suggestions should provide you with enough activity to keep even the most restless gardener happy. Go nuts! If enjoying your garden means never sitting down to enjoy it. For others, mid July is the ideal time of the year to relax and drink it all in.
Hammock time.

I don’t plan on traveling too far from my garden just yet... I am still pinching myself that this wonderful time of year is finally here. The time of year that I spent all winter dreaming about.

Keep your knees dirty,


Looking Out for the Bad Guys

My 19 year old daughter calls men who make not-so-subtle sexual remarks ‘creepers’.
I use the same expression for the green worms on my roses.

The English language is interesting, no?

She could care less about the creepers on my roses and I care very much about the creepers that she calls creepers. We live with our priorities. Someday she may be a parent and understand.

Speaking of green worms on roses, there is a generous quantity of creepers on a lot of the plants in my garden right now. Judging by the questions that are left on my website, there are a lot of garden creepers out there.

Not just bugs but diseases too.

Good Bugs.

My response to this, first off, is to remind you that 99% of the bugs in your garden are ‘good’ bugs. They are performing a function that is essential to the long term health of all that is going on both in the soil and on your plants. Many bugs are eating the bad bugs (e.g. lady bugs eating aphids) and many others are assisting in the complicated business of breaking down organic matter in your soil into humus – the foundation of all good soil (e.g. earth worms, sow bugs, centipedes etc.)

Now, when you find ‘bad bugs’ that exist in numbers too great for the good bugs to control, then you may have to call in the infantry. This can take a number of forms. On my potatoes, I hand pick the Colorado potato beetles for a while (how did they ever get to my garden anyway, over 4,000 kilometers from their home?). But let’s face it, there is a limit to that. For one, you may not have the stomach for squishing the larvae in your fingers –even with gloves on. Also the potato bug can grow in numbers very quickly and literally get out of control.

Potato Beetles.

As an organic gardener my ‘infantry’ for the potato beetle is ‘Dio’ or diatomaceous earth. Harmless to the earth, kids, pets and you. It is sold everywhere as a powder. You just puff it on from the squeeze container and make sure that you get it under the leaves of the plants where the bugs ‘harbor’ (which means “mate” and “eat”) and do most damage. The goal is to make contact with the potato bugs. They walk on it and their under bellies dry up and they die of thirst. (Would you rather squish them with your fingers? O.k., so it pays not to think too much about the details.) Reapply when it rains, if the problem persists.

For the green worms on my roses I use Green Earth insecticidal soap. This is not to be confused with Palmolive or whatever – it is a scientifically selected fatty acid with insecticidal properties. It does most of the work for you where insects are concerned and is considered safe for use around pets and kids.

Spider Mites

One ‘hard to kill’ insect is the dreaded ‘spider mite’. Common to Dwarf Alberta Spruce and many garden variety flowering plants, this one hates water. To find spider mite on your plants, hold a piece of white paper under the plant while shaking it. If tiny coarse ‘grains of sand’ drop down onto the paper – especially grains of sand that move, you do not have sand but mites.

I discourage mites by using a strong blast of water from the end of the hose – the pistol grip hose attachment works well. Or just hold your thumb over the end of the hose for a coarse spray. I find that this works until my thumb goes numb from the cold and the pressure. Spray the infected foliage with water every day for a week, every second day for another week. Keep your eye on this one.

I continue to cut down young weeds with a sharp hoe. Use a ‘bastard’ file to sharpen your hoe every time that you use it. This makes the difference between hard work and a barrel of fun. O.k., not a barrel, but a bucket. A small bucket.

I am busy deadheading roses and peonies and staking my helianthus and delphiniums. Anything that has grown tall enough in your garden to risk being blown over by high winds should be staked. I like the new heavy wire ‘link stakes’ that you can purchase from Home Hardware.

I think that the garden is about 2 to 3 weeks away from its peek in colour production. If your garden is dominated with annual flowering geraniums, petunias, impatiens, etc. then yours will ‘peek’ later than mine, which is mostly flowering perennials and roses.
Keep all of this in mind with your camera not too far away. A visual record of your garden in progress will be an inspiration come winter and will spur you on with all kinds of ideas for change come next spring.

Which is one of the great beauties of gardening as a hobby. Every year provides additional opportunities to change and improve on the previous years’ garden. Winter is our time to dream. Spring our time to plant and sow. Summer is our time to wallow in the fruits of our labour – both the edible kind and the eye candy. And to keep an eye out for the bad guys.

Enjoy! And keep your knees dirty.


So You Think You Can't Garden

I was watching ‘So you think you Can Dance’ ( the other night and I thought to myself, “There is no way in the world that I could do any of that stuff on the dance floor.” To which my wife responds: No kidding!

When you are all feet and no rhythm, you know what I mean, middle aged white guy that I am.

The thought occurred to me that there are some people out there who think the same thing about gardening: why plant it when you know that you are going to kill it anyway.

I have heard it all: “I have black thumbs.” “I kill everything.” “My Mom was the gardener.” and my favourite, “My wife is the gardener” As much as to say: why start, I am only going to fail anyway.

To which I respond: there are no failures in the garden, only composting opportunities.

So, off to the golf course they go to churn up someone else’s’ lawn with their divots and donuts (circles in the turf made by turning hard on the wheel of the power cart while tromping on the gas peddle circling the ball).

For readers of this blog who are inclined to think that gardening is for everyone else, a message:

If you breathe, you will get a kick out of gardening.
If you can hear, you will get a lift from the songs of birds in your garden.
If you can feel, you will sleep better having nurtured and grown the clean air machines that we call plants in your own yard.
If you can see you will pause during your ‘work’ in the garden and become temporarily breathless as you observe a hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower.
If you still don’t get it, go back to the top and re read.

My friend Sarah Rurka at the Home Hardware location in Lloydminster, Alberta sent me this wonderful quote from the book ‘Second Nature’. I think that you will like it:
Sarah says that “This book of narratives is a book of tales of failure, overcome.”

And from the book, “All of the accomplished gardeners I know are comfortable with failure... and understand that, in the garden at least, failure speaks louder than success... his failures have more to say to him. The gardener learns nothing when his carrots thrive, unless that success is won against a background of prior disappointment. Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent, at least to the gardener that knows how to listen.”

The idea that a person cannot or will not pick up a spade or a trowel and plant something in the soil out of fear of failure is a foreign concept to the successful gardener. Failure, as Sarah and the author of Second Nature reminds us, is what we do.

Imagine if you met someone at your next cocktail party who introduced themselves as a failure. You might look for a quick exit from that conversation.

And yet I know the feeling of failure and the exhilaration of learning from it. Oh, the high of getting it right after learning from a good failure!

While in business it has occurred to me that we waste a lot of time talking about our successes. Look at the financial pages these days and you will read lots of stuff about people who have profited from the down turn in the economy. I would ask, “Who has a failure that they wish to talk about – and what did you learn from it?”

A ‘failure’ forum might just draw a big crowd and who knows, maybe we would learn more from a few of these shared experiences than all of the successes put together.

Gardeners who have been at it for a few years get it: we work to fail so that we can succeed the next time. It is a cycle that keeps us going.

Maybe that is why gardeners live longer.
Our bodies are more flexible and our minds more open than non-gardeners because we exercise muscles that seldom get a workout otherwise. Under normal circumstances we go out of our way to get things right (think child-rearing and careers).

As Sarah rightly points out, “Weathering the recession in this market has been an interesting experience for our family. The fear/intimidation that we feel in business is no different than that of new gardeners just setting out to plant their first garden.”

It is early summer everywhere in Canada and a great time to sink a spade into the soil and plant. Anything. Prepare the soil with some compost. Water the new plant. Nurture it. And if you fail, give it another shot (most retailers now guarantee plants against death anyway, regardless of the reason why).

Keep your knees dirty!