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.

Of Flower Bulbs, Nursery Stock and a Quiet Garden

Why is it that when the kids go back to school the atmosphere changes?
We have just finished the finest summer of recent times: lots of sunshine, tolerable heat throughout most of the days and an adequate amount of rain.

To the garden and some things to do of importance if you want yours to look good and feel good as it matures into the autumn:

- Lawn. A great time to apply lawn fertilizer. Not the ‘fall’ fertilizer yet: you will apply it in late October or November and it IS the most important application of the year. In case you didn’t hear that before.
o This is still the best time of year to start grass seed or lay sod (the ‘season’ for this one is mid August up to the end of September for most parts of Canada).
o Use Mark’s Choice Lawn Soil and spread Golfgreen Grass seed (weedfree/Canadian) at the rate of one pound per 400 sq. ft. or ½ kilo. Per 50 sq. meters.

- Perennials: Dig and divide. You can successfully dig and divide many perennials now. I dug up a bunch of ‘Monarda’ (Bee Balm) in spite of the fact that they were still in bloom (sort of). Now, I would generally discourage this sort of thing… digging up and dividing perennials in bloom. But this is one tough plant species and the truth is, you will have a hard time killing it. Just make sure that you water the root zone thoroughly before you dig up the plant and after you have planted it. AND make sure that you plant in good quality soil.

- Apples and pears are ripening now. I picked my first truly ripe apple (vs. the sour ones that I kept handing to the kids saying, “try this and tell me what you think.”) It was a ‘Liberty’. Quite good. The point of course is that you should pick fruit while it ripens on the tree – as close to its peak of ripeness as possible. However, it is better to pick fruit before it reaches its peak vs. after. Unless you like a mouthful of rotten apple/pear.

- Tomatoes are now ripening to beat the band. Be sure to pick them as they ripen too, whether you plan on using them right away or not: otherwise the over-ripe ones that rot on the ground and fill with earwigs will just harbor more of the same for the more desirable tomatoes. No point in letting them rot/get eaten by bugs before they ripen to your kitchen plate!

- To market, to market! If you can’t pick your own, go to one of the many local farmers markets that have sprouted up (weekends) across the country. This whole idea of the ‘100 kilometer’ diet and ‘locavors’ is an idea that is catching on. My brother in law Guy is a ‘pick your own’ farmer ( and he tells me that the number of people coming that he has never seen before is quite noticeable. He puts this down to the new trends. Especially among young consumers (would you care to qualify that please? I assume that you mean anyone under 60).

- PLANT! the first week of September marks the beginning of the autumn planting season… the best time of the year to plant trees, shrubs, evergreens and (if you can get them) roses. These winter hardy plants will put down roots before our winter hits home which will support substantial growth come spring. Fall planting provides much more satisfying results than spring planting. AND many retailers are selling at discounted prices to move stock before winter. They would literally rather have you plant now than have to overwinter excess stock.

- The Bulbs are in!! Yes, the Holland bulbs arrived at garden retailers across the country this week and believe me that this is the best time to shop for them. The selection will not get any better as (the truth is) they all arrived on a boat from the Netherlands and they do not send more over later. One boat: one chance at the best selection. Go to for more information (likely more info than you want!). More to follow in upcoming blogs.

Last weekend I had a very pleasant day with two of my kids – we took our bikes over to Toronto’s Centre Island. Our favourite part of this trip is to slowly ride around the quiet pedestrian streets of Wards’ and Algonquin Islands. The cottages are remarkable for their architecture, and in some cases they are in such poor repair that it is remarkable that they are still standing! In any case, the gardens alone are worth the day trip.

With the kids back in school – take time to enjoy some quiet and to enjoy the beginning of the most restful season in your garden – fall.

Keep your knees dirty!


A '101' Tutorial on Lawn Care

Judging by the number of lawn questions that I am getting at it seems to me that the season of seeding, sodding and lawn fertilizing is here in earnest.

For several years now I have been saying that late August and early September is the best time of the year to thicken an established lawn or start a new one. Many of my associates in the business have been saying the same thing.

The heavy dew in the evening, the cooler temperatures at night (generally) and the regular rainfall of late summer/early autumn combine to create the perfect conditions for grass seed germination and the ‘putting down of roots’ of freshly laid sod.

Here is a short tutorial on late summer lawn care. I offer the information in the form of answers to the many excellent questions that I am getting on my web site:

How do I control Creeping Charlie, plantain, dandelions etc in my lawn without the use of chemicals?

Answer: Compete them out of existence by spreading fresh grass seed over the weed infested area.
Think of lawn weeds as competitors… nothing more. You give them the space in your lawn to put down a root and they will take the opportunity to thrive and multiply.

How useful is it to dig or pull weeds out of my lawn?

Answer: A good weed puller can be useful when bringing weeds under control but if you do not overseed with fresh grass seed at the same time you are often just postponing a bigger lawn weed problem. The ‘hole’ in your lawn that the weed leaves is an invitation for the remaining root to re-grow and other weeds to put down a new root.

How do I sow grass seed in an established lawn for best results?

Answer: Spread a 2 cm (one inch) layer of triple mix (1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat, 1/3 compost) over the area that weeds are thickest.
Broadcast quality grass seed over the area at the rate of ½ kilo per 40 sq meters (one pound per 400 sq. ft.). I spread the seed by hand but you may opt for one of those hand-held whirly gigs. In any case just make sure that you spread the seed as evenly as possible and incorporate the seed with the triple mix by raking it in lightly and then stepping on it with flat soled shoes to get firm contact.
Use only the best quality grass seed. I only use Golfgreen.

Is this a good time of year to fertilize my lawn?

Answer: if you have not fertilized since spring (within the last 8 to 10 weeks), now is an excellent time of year to do it. Fertilizer is not a substitute for good quality soil, but a quality brand like Golfgreen, So Green or Green Earth will provide the elements that your lawn craves the most.
Note: The most important application of lawn fertilizer all year is in the late fall – about 8 to 10 weeks from now!

Should I use an organic fertilizer?

Sure. There is no reason why you shouldn’t. However, keep in mind that you will not get the ‘lasting’ results of a sophisticated synthetic based fertilizer and as a result it will not last as long. I use Green Earth 9-3-4. It contains natural kelp for a broad range of nutrients.

How often should I water my lawn?

Answer: If we enter a period of more than a week without substantial rain (over a centimeter) and with no rain in the forecast, I advise that you apply water from a quality lawn sprinkler once a week only. Leave your sprinkler on for 2 to 3 hours to allow the water to sink deeply into the ground: the goal is to get to the root zone.
A daily sprinkling of water on your lawn accomplishes nothing and encourages shallow roots that are not drought tolerant.

How should I cut my lawn?

Answer: Cut it high (at least 6 to 7 centimeters) and use a mulching mower.
The taller the grass blades the deeper (and more drought tolerant) the roots.
The mulching attachment on your mower returns the natural ingredients in the raw grass clippings to the root zone of your lawn where they break down, providing nutrition and an insulating layer that protects against the drying effects of the sun.

How can I produce the ‘perfect’ lawn?

Take a page out from the British: cut your lawn with a ‘reel type’ lawn mower, like the one pictured. Or use a manual reel type mower. Keep the blades sharp and clean.
And for added effect, put down a line of string that is 90 degrees diagonal, follow the line for the entire area of your lawn and repeat the process going in the opposite direction.
This way, you will end up with a ‘look’ that is professional: like the ball parks on TV that use natural grass.

For me – I will stick with my Honda powered Yard Man. And I will cut it only once.

Thank you very much.

Keep your knees dirty!


Flower Arranging for Klutzes

“I dig: therefore I am”.

I can relate to this statement as a gardener. It is the joy of digging that draws me to the gardening experience more than anything. I wrote about this in my book A Sandbox of a Different Kind: Personal reflections on the Canadian gardening experience. (‘I Love to Dig’, chapter 43).

Cutting the bounty of all that digging and planting to bring indoors this time of year is not second nature to me. I am a flower arranging klutz.

But having said that, I sure enjoy seeing the fruits of my gardening labour displayed indoors in a deep vase full of water. Years of listening to the professionals has taught me more than a thing or two about what to cut, when and how to display it to best advantage indoors.

So, in a nutshell, here is everything that you need to know about cutting flowers and arranging them, just as long as you are not trying to win awards. Like they say in the Tim Horton’s ads for pee wee hockey: the primary idea, after all, is having fun:

Think Fresh. With apologies to another national advertiser for stealing a good line, when you are out there in the garden doing a tour in search of the best flowers for cutting, keep in mind that the plants that are currently coming into bloom will provide you with the longest show of colour. In other words, if the plant has been in bloom for some time, the flowers will not stand up in a vase for very long.

Use a limited range of colour. Say what you will, mixing up colours without regard for how they look together is hard to pull off without producing a mish-mash. Stick within a narrow range of colours when cutting flowers for a vase. If you have lots of different colours to choose from in your garden pallet, then create more than one arrangement. Think ‘monochromatic’ – tints and shades of the same colour.

Take a long stem. The most common mistake of all is cutting too short a stem for the flower for the vase/arrangement. The heavier the flower, the longer the stem. (I made this mistake years ago when cutting peonies in June... the whole bunch were wasted.) Also: the larger the flower the lower it should be placed in the arrangement.

Greenery? What greenery? When you buy cut flowers at a florist they always through in some asparagus fern or leather fern or what-have-you. No need for this stuff when you are cutting flowers from the garden. For the most part the flowers speak very well for themselves without the addition of greenery. Many flowers have leaves that add plenty of interest on their own.

Use a deep vase. You want your cut flowers to last as long as possible indoors, right? The best way to do that is to use a good, deep vase and fresh, cool (not cold) water. Change the water every couple of days to prolong the life of the flowers.

What would Mother Nature do? It is a simple question, but the answer is not always so obvious. Take your time to observe how nature arranges flowers in a meadow or how they mature in your own yard. Take your design cues from her. They are effective and free.

Have fun. You are arranging flowers for the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your gardening labour indoors. Even if you are making a special effort to do this for expected company, remember that you need to be satisfied with the look of it, above all.

Right now my garden is awash in colour from Echinacea (purple cone flower), several varieties of rudebeckia (Brown Eyed Susan), and Veronica, all of which make for great flower arranging.
Fyi – daylilies, while they look great in the garden, do not perform well as cut flowers.

Give it a shot. Maybe, like me, you will find that you CAN do it and get a lot of satisfaction from it, even if you are a klutz.

Keep your knees dirty,

I am in a good mood these days.
The fruits of my spring labour are finally coming to fruition. With emphasis on the ‘fruit’ part of the fruition.

The tomatoes are awesome. No, really. I don’t know what I am going to do with all of them, if they don’t keel over before I get them all picked I will have enough here for the entire Blue Jays baseball team. Plus a few baseball fans!

I have 200 or so tomato plants: 4 kids, 21 chickens and a wife.

You do the math and you can plainly see that we do not need all of these tomatoes.

Alas, we live in prime tomato growing country (that is why Heinz planted their tomato processing plant in south western Ontario – they grow great tomatoes).
While I don’t live near Leamington, the home to Heinz, I do live within a ½ days’ drive. So I think that Stouffville qualifies for ‘great tomato growing’ territory. Besides, the 20 yards of fallen leaves and 6 yards of finished compost that I churned into the soil this spring must count for something in the fertility department!

Now I must confess that I don’t pick ALL of my tomatoes.
Rudy – my Grenadian friend and right hand culprit gives me a lot of help.

Truth is, I would much rather grow them than pick them.
Can’t tell you why, I just experience more pleasure from the former rather than the latter.

We are picking from our 3rd crop of snap beans now. And pulling some mighty nice carrots too.

If you have not ‘grown your own’ this summer (maybe you just enjoy reading about growing your own?) then I encourage you to look for the locally grown produce in your neighbourhood. Truth is, it doesn’t matter where you live in this great land of ours, you are never too far from some great ‘home grown’ fruits and veggies.

If you look around you will find that a lot of farms will deliver their produce to a market near you: if you live in an urban centre.

In Toronto I am hearing great things about the Brick Works Saturday market. Go to for more info.
And if you live in Ontario you may find copies of ‘Harvest Ontario’ still available at your local Home Hardware. It is a 120 page book that directs you to pick-your-own farms, farmers markets and bed and breakfasts’ across the province. Go to for more info.

For the rest of the country go to for more info.

Remember ‘Plant A Row/Grow a Row’ for the hungry.

It is simple and works like this: you grow more veggies and fruit than you can eat and you take them to your local food bank. They LOVE the fresh, perishable stuff, in spite of what you have been told about ‘non-perishable’ etc. It is good for them- food bank clients, just like it is good for you.

In the ornamental garden, I continue to look for perennials that need cutting back. After they have finished blooming the plants seem to go into hiding. Without the eye attracting colour of the bloom you have to wade into your garden seeking them out.
But there they are – right now the Shasta Daisies are standing there waiting for autumn, bloomless.

If you cut off the finished blossoms and about 25 cm or so of the stem you will be amazed how they often re-bloom later in the season. This is true of gardens located in the north.
In fact, the further north that you go, the more likely that you will experience re-blooming of your perennials. You see, northern gardeners enjoy longer days, longer.
In other words, more daylight hours than their southern neighbours.
Of course this is made up for during the winter when they have shorter days, longer. But that is another story. Let’s just say that they have earned the long growing season!

Keep your knees dirty!