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.

Goodbye September, Hello Fall!

Any semblance of ‘summer’ is about to slip between the tines of my manure fork. September is on its way out the garden gate and I still have lots that I want to do in the garden. For one, I have not started to plant any fall ‘Holland’ bulbs. And I am not worried.

There is about 6 weeks in my zone 5 garden to wrap things up before the winter wind blows and I batten down the hatches for 4 months of bad hockey (you guessed it, I am a Leafs fan!). For the next month and a half I have to move quickly to get all the stuff done that I want to do out there in the yard and garden: time to make a list.

For this week:
- Get a start on bulb planting. Daffodils and narcissus like to be planted ‘early’ in the fall season vs. hyacinths and tulips which are simply not very fussy about when you plant them. When my Dad was a garden retailer he would bring home all of the left over tulips the week before Christmas and they reliably put on a great show come spring.

- If you have been feeding the hummingbirds, be sure to bring in and wash out your feeders after the first frost as you do not want to encourage the little hummers to stick around.
- Pick the remaining tomatoes and put them in a cool, well ventilated place. Notice that I did not say put them on the kitchen window sill: though, that would be fine if you want a convenient place to inspect them daily. They will ripen faster up there, to be sure. But be sure to save some for eating later – the later you can enjoy them the more you will enjoy them.
- Peppers, basil, corn and beans need to be harvested before the first frost.
- Brussels sprouts (you can actually eat these?) ‘improve’ with frost as does savory cabbage, leeks and most ‘brassicas’ – i.e. ‘gassy’ vegetables.
- Plant trees, shrubs and evergreens now. Such a great time of year to do it! They put down roots this time of year to support new growth come spring and often you will find good quality stock on sale as retailers like to move their plants now.

- Build a deck, stain the tool shed, etc. Before it gets too cold and wet.
- Mulch perennials and shrubs with bark mulch to protect them over the winter. A 5 or 6 cm layer over the roots will do the trick.
- If you have finished compost in your composter now is a great time of year to clean it out and spread the compost on the surface of the soil of your veggie or flower garden. No need to dig it in as the earth worms will do that for you before you plant next spring.
- Prepare to fill the composter with 4/5 fallen/shredded leaves and 1/5 ‘green’ stuff like the finished tomato plants and petunias and the like. This will get the microbial activity going.

That should do it for the week. Next week we can begin thinking about what to do with the fallen leaves, the cut down perennials (if you are cutting them down at all), the finished annuals, etc. I will explain.

In the mean time enjoy the temperature and the wonderful ‘harvest’ time of year. Visit a local farmers market and buy up lots of produce while it is cheap to store at home.

Until then, keep your knees dirty.


Home for the Harvest

“Seeds men reckon that their stock in trade is not seeds at all – it’s optimism”
~ Geoff Hamilton

Autumn breezes. Autumn frost.

A few ‘blogs’ ago I talked about all of the wonderful, redeeming features of the ‘harvest’ month in the Canadian garden.

You must think I am nuts.

Soon it will be Thanksgiving weekend and the kids are home from University and we are going to enjoy the finest turkey since, well, since last Thanksgiving.

Giving thanks for the bounty of our great land is reason enough to talk about the harvest. Let’s start with the frost tender stuff:

Eggplant and the like.

If you are lucky enough to have some ripened ‘fruit’ in your veggie garden, you would be well advised to go pick it. Now. Don’t even finish this blog. If you don’t pick it and use it right away the birds will. Or it will rot.

Pick the unripe fruits too.
Immature peppers? They are just as good as the big ones, only smaller. Better still, ‘can’ them or ‘put them up’ in mason jars

Small cucumbers? Pickle them.
Egg plants? Mix with your ripe tomatoes for fabulous pesto sauce. BBQ them.

As for the frost ‘hardy’ stuff, no panic.

But truth is your winter squash, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots etc. have reached their peek. There is little advantage to putting off the harvest now.

What to do with:

Carrots: as winter draws close dig all of the keepers and ‘replant’ in bushel baskets 2/3 full of clean, sharp sand (not beach sand) put in your garage until hard freezeup, using them as you please. Before they freeze hard in the damp sand, place them in the coolest part of your basement.

Potatoes: Cool storage (14 – 18 degrees C) dark and dry. The cold cellar seldom works as it is too damp.

Cabbage and Kale: cool as you can get it: without freezing. Your garage or shed works until hard frost occurs, when you will move them into the cellar. Keep your eye on them for signs of rot… roll them over every week to keep the bottom side from rotting.

Onions. Braid them if you can. Place in a cool, dark and dry place. Hanging them works best of all.

Leeks. Actually improve in flavour with late frost. Dig soon though, to avoid rotting. Either make potato/leek soup for the freezer or just puree the leeks for later use with potatoes. Store in the freezer.

There is a theme here – ‘cellar’ or ‘basement’. This is your autumn work out. As you go up and down those steps be sure to give thanks. We live in the greatest country on earth. If there is any doubt, imagine life without a harvest.

Eat well. Stay well.

And keep your knees dirty.


Save money, save the planet: save seeds!

You planted them. You watered and nurtured them to maturity. Now, why not harvest them?

This is the best time of year to collect seeds from your favourite plants: clean them, sort them and save them for planting next year. For many of the plants in your garden, this is easy and great fun.

Annuals that will reproduce nicely from seed gathered from your garden include zinnias, many marigolds, portulaca (which self-sows at my place!), cosmos, 4 o’clock, euphorbia, some nicotiana, sunflowers and virtually all of the large seeded varieties that are not hybrids. The hybridized annuals that you planted this spring will not reproduce true in colour or growth habit to their parent plant. However, sometimes the results are interesting!

Vegetables that produce well from garden seed include beans, tomatoes, peas: most all ‘large seeded’ plants. The ‘hybrid rule’ mentioned above still applies.

My favourite perennials from garden seed include the native Echinacea, some rudbeckia, Russian Sage, Bee Balm (Monarda) and, once again, most of the large seeded plants that are not hybridized.

What to do:

1. Let them mature. The whole reason – the ONLY reason from the plants’ point of view – that a plant produces a bloom is to produce seed. And the only reason that it produces seed is to reproduce. It is a basic law of nature: plants, like animals, have an inherent need to multiply or, at least, to perpetuate the species.

2. Remove when dry. After the seed has dried (and before the birds eat it), remove the seed head (the finished blossom) from the plant and bring it indoors. Remove the seeds from the seed head or pod and place them on a screen or in a ceramic saucer. Do not use a paper towel as they will stick to it.

3. Place is a sunny window for 7 to 10 days.

4. Put the seed in an envelope, label it carefully (don’t skip this step or you will regret it next season…) and place in a tightly sealed jar.

5. Store in a cold cellar or in the veggie crisper in your fridge.

6. Most perennial seeds can be stored for a long time in the freezer. I do not recommend this for annual or vegetable seeds, though you can experiment with some and you may be surprised at the germination rate of the ‘frozen’ ones come spring.

How do you know when seed is ‘viable’ (will germinate)?

Place a few seeds in a glass of water and let stand over night. The seeds that are floating in the morning are the duds, the ones on the bottom of the glass are the viable ones. You can also do this experiment with pre-moistened paper towel by rolling the seeds up in the towel, keeping it wet for 7 to 10 days and unrolling it to see how many have germinated.

The ‘germination test’ is a good way of determining the % of seeds that will grow and therefore how densely you should sow them come late winter/early spring.

You can learn more at, and

Keep your knees dirty!


Grasses, Cosmos and the BEST time of year in the Garden!

Breathtaking. This morning in the garden was just unbelievable.

As I poured fresh rain water (we had lots over the weekend) into a bucket for my morning ritual... watering our 25 chickens, picking up the Toronto Star at the end of the lane... I was dumbfounded by the appearance of light fog over the property. The sun was not quite up over the trees on the east side of our property, the sunflowers not quite conscious of a dawning day.
No wind.
I saw one of our hummingbirds, yes the one of the many that my wife Mary is fed up of me pointing out: I saw one of them hovering over a hosta, ready to pounce on some nectar.

A snapshot of a gardening season in progress... on the high side of middle age, I would say (the garden, not me!). I feel that way because the ornamental grasses are tasseling (or, flowering). This is a sign that summer is nearing its end and autumn is pulling up from behind with its own surprises.

I don’t know why we don’t see more ornamental grasses in Canadian gardens. Just when you return from your summer vacation or cottage, the kids go back to school, the evening air turns cool and morning dew gets so heavy that you really need rubber boots to go for an early walk: this is the time of year that gardeners should reward themselves with some real action in the garden. Ornamental grasses deliver.

My two berms feature 150 Maiden Grass, Miscanthus Sinensis ‘Rotsilber’. I planted them 5 years ago this fall from one gallon pots. They have grown 20 fold, as near as I can determine. And they are so thick that I hardly have to weed them any more.

There are so many gorgeous ornamental grasses to choose from.

The ones that come back each year are available in generous numbers. Look for Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium for a unique look that matures at about one meter high. Or Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis acutififlora ‘Karl Forester’ which was the 2001 Perennial Plant of the Year. I have a bunch of these down by the pond. They grow to 1 ½ meters high and behave themselves.

These are just a few of my favourites… there are many more. Take a look at your local retailer and keep two things in mind - you are looking for a variety that is winter hardy in your area AND (this is most important!) ones that Do NOT travel…. Some of these rascals are very aggressive.
Like Ribbon Grass, Phalaris arundinacea. My sister Sue fell in love with this colourful, easy to care for grass and gave it away to unsuspecting friends and neighbours. She was an ornamental-grass-goodwill-machine for about 4 years. Then it dawned on her and others that she had been giving away a weed.
In time she did the only respectable thing, and moved out of town.

Don’t make the Sue mistake.

Keep in mind that all ornamental grasses need sun. The more the better. (Just one reason why they love the prairies!)

People that planted cosmos earlier in the season are getting their just rewards. Wow! And you can do this from seed….!

Echinacea is attracting countless finches as they chow down on the maturing seedheads. Watching them hang up-side-down is kind of fun. They almost seem drunk…..

To the lawn for a moment: the grass seed that Rudy and I sowed over 3 weeks ago is germinating and growing very well. How is yours? Don’t forget that this is a great time to lay sod too.

And it is a great time to build a composter. Why not, you are handy enough – come on! Besides, before you know it the leaves will be falling and you will need a place to put them. And don’t even think of putting them out to the curb side. That is paramount to pouring money down the storm sewer…. Your leaves are God’s gift to the gardener. Compost them or put them on the surface of the garden soil.

More on that later, as we get closer to the composting season.

Meantime, lots to do and even lots not to do – like doing nothing but enjoying the sights and sounds of your garden. The clock is ticking. We will be indoors enduring bad Leafs hockey soon enough.

Keep your knees dirty!


Cedar hedges: an investment that grows.

One of the ‘most asked’ gardening questions that I get is, “Is it o.k. to trim my cedar hedge now?”

Cedars (Thuja) are one of the most versatile evergreens in Canada. There are very few areas of the country where you cannot grow at least one variety of cedar and they always lend themselves to ‘trimming’ and make a great looking hedge.

When can I trim?
The truth is that you can trim a cedar hedge most any time of the year – you just cannot hurt it by pruning it at the ‘wrong time’ even in mid winter. However, there are better times of the season than others for pruning/trimming and this would be the best time of year, if you ask me.

Most cedar trees grow relatively consistently throughout the growing season. From late in the summer until early fall they push new growth, as long as there is moisture in the ground and the temperatures are not too high (say, over 30 degrees C). By pruning cedars this time of year you are giving them the ultimate shape that you desire and will still benefit from a slight ‘filling in’ of the foliage before winter sets in. This is akin to getting a hair cut and waiting a couple of weeks before you get your picture taken.

You know how your hair looks just after a trip to the barber? Kind of severe. A couple of weeks later, it has filled in a bit and looks pretty ‘natural’. Not a bad time for picture taking! Your hedges behave much the same way.

What Kind of Cedar makes a good hedge?

In Central Canada the native White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is the most popular of all for use as a hedge. It is inexpensive and often is dug from ‘native plantations’ almost bare root. They sit for a year or two in your garden before growing but when they do you can expect up to a meter of new growth each year. This usually occurs in the 3rd year.

Other Cedar tips:

- Autumn is a great time for planting all cedars!
- Prairie gardeners can choose from the ‘almost winter hardy’ Emerald Cedar (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) (which will need to be planted on the east side of your home or wrapped with burlap in late fall for protection) and the much more hardy ‘Brandon Cedar’ (Thuja occidentalis ‘Brandon’).

- B.C. coastal gardeners can choose from many cedars including the native B.C. Cedar otherwise know as (Thuja plicata).

Pruning tips:
- When pruning, always shape the bottom of the hedge wider than the top. This allows even exposure to sunlight and helps to keep the entire cedar hedge looking thick and healthy.
- Use sharp, quality shears. I recommend ‘Mark’s Choice’ pruning shears. Guaranteed 5 years and made in Canada.
- If your hedge has been ignored for several years you can still bring it under control by removing up to 1/3 of the foliage each year until it looks the way that you want it to.
- A cedar hedge will live for 30 to 60 years depending on the variety and its’ location.

It is not true that cedars attract mosquitoes: they get this reputation from growing in low/wet land where mosquitoes tend to breed. It is their environment that can cause mosquitoes to grow in numbers, not the cedars themselves.

It is true that cedars are your best bet for a fast growing, evergreen hedge in most parts of the country.

Planting cedars:

- Mark your line with a string or garden hose, to get the hedge straight.
- Dig a trench ½ meter wide and 1/3 meter deep.
- Back fill the bottom of the trench with triple mix (1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat and 1/3 compost) or Mark’s Choice planting mix (the best that money can buy!).
- Stand your cedars upright in the trench before piling the remainder of the triple mix on their roots.
- Once the cedars are lined up straight, plant them using triple mix and step firmly on the soil as you plant, making firm contact between the soil and the roots of the new trees.
- Water thoroughly and stake every 2 meters with a ‘T’ bar or 2” X 2” stake, using heavy gage wire to secure them in place.
- Most important! Don’t be too ambitious when choosing your new cedars! New trees about 1 meter high will establish much more quickly than large, 2 meter high specimens, unless the large trees have been nursery grown.

Be patient! Your cedar hedge will grow and mature into a thing of beauty as time passes – and you attend to the annual trimming (yes, only once a year will do the trick!) AND you will have an investment that grows in value each year – unlike installing a fence!

Keep your knees dirty!