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.

Christmas carols on the radio. Christmas carols in TV commercials.

So, Christmas is in the air. And it is time to think of the gardeners on your Christmas list.
If you are a non gardener, have no fear. I am here to help guide you through the quagmire of gardeners’ gifts.
If you think of yourself as a gardener, I can give you some suggestions that will help you help the gift givers that are after you for your list.

First of all, let me help you do some thinking for yourself: when it comes to gardening gizmos: tools, equipment, supplies etc. you want to think about stuff that is not only useful but that:

A. lasts i.e. quality (because you want the receiver to be thinking good things about you while using the gift)

B. is useful (vs. say, a popular gardening tool like the Gold Digger, which often hangs in the tool shed until it ends up in a garage sale somewhere)

C. is of a certain nature that the gardener receiving it would not have purchased it themselves (e.g. a digital camera).

The digital camera is not such a bad idea, even for the person who already has one. I am thinking of the less expensive kind: a camera that is dedicated to garden use more-or-less exclusively. You would store this camera in your garage or even your tool shed (assuming that the roof doesn’t leak). It would be there for the ‘impulse shots’, just a few steps away from the rose that is flowering at its peak, the rare looking bird that just arrived on the feeder and (most importantly!) the light that is perfect – but only for a moment.
A gardener will put these photos into a special place, if only in a special ‘garden’ file on their computer, where they will think of you every time that they visit it.

Nothing gets more practical than a pair of hand pruners. Here, high quality goes a long way. Any gardener can tell you that using a cheap pair of pruners is hard on the hands: often they do not spring back into position after a cut, the blades will separate under moderate pressure and they will not hold an edge for long as the blade metal is cheap, just like the rest of it.

True, I have my own pair under the Mark’s Choice brand which is made by Corona: they have a reputation for excellent quality and a cutting edge that holds for a long time. But they, frankly, are second best. The very best hand pruners on the market are still made in Switzerland by Felco. When I had a nursery farm and 30 field workers, we outfitted every one of them with Felcos because they never (almost never) let us down.

Felco hand pruners are twice the price of Corona pruners. About $30 vs. $60 to $80. You are comparing the cost of a good quality garden tool that is designed and manufactured for the passionate gardener (Corona/Mark’s Choice) vs. the professional grade (Felco). Now you can make an intelligent choice. Visit to view the Mark’s Choice/Corona pruners.
If you are looking for the $10 stocking stuffer for a gardener, I have a little secret: every gardener is human and as such, forgets what she planted where. Answer: aluminum plant markers.
I have about 300 of these on the go in my garden at any one time. Use a permanent nursery marker or a Sharpie to permanently mark perennials, roses and shrubs. You can stand on these things and the worst that will happen is you will bend them. If that happens, pull them out of the soil and bend them back with your gloved hands. I find that the names of my plants need to be re-written every two years or they do fade. This is a good thing as I have forgotten the plant name by then anyway and writing it down yet again reinforces the name in my forgetful mind. When I am through with the marker (i.e. the plant dies or I pull it out) I simply put the marker on my wire wheel in the shop and rub the printing out. Or you can use a solvent to do the same thing.

For anyone that loves gardens and trees: The Toronto Tree Portraits desktop Calendar.

Many of my blog readers are not from the Toronto region: I appreciate that. However, this calendar is unique and it celebrates the green spaces and heritage trees in one of the greatest cities in the world (arguably). You will love it.

You can order on line at

Book: A Sandbox of a Different Kind.
Personal reflections on the Canadian garden experience.
My 17th book, but my first ‘story book’. 52 short gardening stories based on the many Canadian gardeners that I have met, my own gardening experiences and some reflections on the stories told to me by my Dad. This book is light, refreshing and fun. And my kids say that if you read it you will sleep like a baby. Nice kids.

Available at Chapters/Indigo, independent book sellers and Home Hardware.

I’ll bring you some more Christmas gift suggestions in the coming weeks, but in the mean time, some reminders about your garden:

- It is not too late to protect valuable young fruit trees with a plastic spiral. This will prevent potential mice, rat and rabbit damage.

- Be sure to secure upright junipers and cedars with burlap. I find the ‘tensor’ type of burlap easiest to apply. In other words, you don’t have to invite a few friends over to help you wrap up your evergreen when you do this job.

- Water the plants under your house eve. All plants enjoy going into winter with moisture at their root zone.

Indoors: this is a great time to start an amaryllis bulb. Get it potted up now and in a sunny window and it will be in bud for Christmas. Maybe, with some luck, it will be in full flower for early in the New Year.

Keep your knees dirty!


The Best Time to Start Gift Buying

"Seedsmen recon that their stock in trade is not seeds at all – it’s optimism.”
~ Geoff Hamilton

This week I would like to suggest a gift for the non-gardeners on your list – the kids.

There are little people all across the country who have not yet been introduced to the miracle of growing plants. Or the miracle of compost, but that is for another time.

Where kids are concerned, there can be no argument that an introduction to soil, water, sun and their collective effects on the plant world is in order. The younger the kid the better. If you have any doubt about the importance and – indeed – the relevance to the future of civilization and the earth generally, read the book ‘The Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louve.

In his landmark book he explains how a whole generation of youngsters now suffer from a malady that he calls ‘nature deficit disorder’. This disconnection of the human species from the natural world around us is creating an attitude that we are somehow not a part of it – nature, that is. And with that attitude comes a whole wheelbarrow load of problems that I won’t get into right here – remember, this blog is about engaging kids in the gardening experience.

So, to the list:

1. Make it easy – start an amaryllis or a handful of paperwhites. These easy to grow bulbs are so easy that you don’t even need soil to get results. Amaryllis will produce two or three stems about 40 cm high and 4 or 5 flowers per stem. ‘Spectacular’ might describe them when in bloom.
2. Paper whites are almost as much fun. Members of the narcissus/daffodil family, these miniatures grow almost as aggressively as the amaryllis – the main difference is that the flowers are smaller and they smell funny. Some would say that they smell sweet – which is an understatement and the reason why I think that they smell funny.
3. Flower seeds. Soil. Starting tray/cell packs. When you buy flower seeds for the first time gardener, make them ‘easy to grow’ and as fool proof as you can. Sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and calendula are about as foolproof as they come. Be sure to offer a chart of ‘seed sowing times’ so that they are started early enough that they are ready for the garden come planting time.
4. A small shovel, rake, or trowel. Nothing like a shiny new tool to claim the gardening experience for yourself. Home Hardware has the line up of small, wooden handled stainless steel digging tools that are suitable for medium sized kids, say, 6 years or older.
5. A tree. The best way to give a tree at Christmas is to give a gift card to your local gardening retailer with a picture of the tree that you have in mind. Or give them a gardening catalogue with a post-it note in the tree page.
6. If the kids on your list do not have access to the real estate to plant a tree, I suggest that you plant one in Africa ( or in public space in an urban area ( A message to this effect in a Christmas card works nicely.
7. Membership in a local botanical garden (Montreal, Toronto, Burlington – ‘Royal Botanical Gardens’) – or a local ‘kids gardening program’ – go to the website of your local horticultural society for details.
8. A few hours of your time, in the garden, with seeds and soil. Come spring there is ample opportunity to get down on your hands and knees with your kid – or someone else’s kid – and sow seeds or plant transplants. What could be more rewarding for you?

As I think about it, this would be a great gift FROM a kid to his/her parents/grandparents/aunt or uncle… a couple of hours in the garden ‘helping’.

You can take it from there…….

More to come.

Keep your knees dirty.


A Last Minute Chance to Invest in a Fabulous Spring.

For over 50 years our family owned and ran a small chain of retail garden centres in Toronto. ‘Weall and Cullen’ was what my Dad ‘did’ when I was a kid. It was, like so many family businesses in this land, what we ate, drank and breathed as an entire family for so much of the year.

So it came as no surprise when Dad showed up sometime just before Christmas with a bunch of unsold tulips in the trunk of his Chevy. He called them ‘excess inventory’ otherwise known as waste, had he not put them to good use.

Which brings me to this: today there is ‘excess inventory at your local garden retailer in the form of spring flowering bulbs. I am here to save you money, help you to create a fabulous garden and encourage you to use what remaining time there is left before the winter sets in for earnest….. That is, as long as you can dig the soil, there is potential for a great spring. Cheap.

Do all spring flowering bulbs produce when planted this late?

No. I discourage the planting of daffodils and narcissus beyond Thanksgiving. You will notice that the remaining bulbs of this ilk are often not very firm when squeezed. If they are dry and soft, they are blanks. Nothing good will come of them.
Even if they do have what I call ‘viability’ they will likely rot in the ground because there just isn’t enough time for them to put down the roots that they need before the hard freeze up.

You dummy – where I live the frost is in the ground and the snow is on it!!

If you live in the great white north or the great Canadian prairie, I understand that you may well be under some of our famous snow.
That does not mean that the tulips for sale at a remarkable price at your local retailer are no good. Bring them home and put them in pots filled with quality potting mix and put them in a cold area…. About 8 to 10 degrees C works great. Water them from time to time, keeping the soil only moist and not ‘wet’ and wait for the growth to begin to poke through the soil surface.

Bring these upstairs into the living area of your home where it is warm – one or two pots at a time so that they do not bloom all at once.
Give them away at Christmas. Your family will think that YOU were the one born with the green thumb. Your friends will spread very complimentary rumours about your generosity and about how clever you are.

How 'bout crocus, Scylla, grape hyacinths and the like? Will they grow and bloom if I plant this late?

Yes, likely. But tulips – ALL tulips – are foolproof in this regard.
Seems that they don’t need the time in the fall to put down roots: they will do this come spring as the ground eventually thaws (remember that it does not thaw in one day……).

What kinds of tulips are best?

Chances are that the pickings at your retailer will be so slim about now, that it you won’t have much choice. However, I like the early flowering Darwin Hybrids best of all. They give the best early show. Early flowering bulbs provide colour for an extended period of time as they are blooming during the cool part of the season. The cooler the weather (to a point) the longer the blooms last.
This works in reverse, of course, for late blooming bulbs.

Do I need special soil?

Not really: just well drained soil. If your soil is heavy with clay, add lots (50% by volume) of sharp sand to improve the drainage and do not plant as deeply as you would normally.

Do I need to feed bulbs this time of year?

Fact is, all of the goodness that a bulb needs to bloom and please come spring is right in the bulb itself. However, there are two special products that do provide nutrition to the bulb when it is needed most: when the bulb has finished blooming and the foliage is building up the roots for the upcoming season of blooms.
These two products are:
- bone meal
- Holland Bulb Booster (

Drive over to your favourite bulb supplier this weekend and see for yourself… and check out the selection of Amaryllis bulbs which just arrived. Once again, the newest and the best selection is available early in the selling season.

Keep your knees dirty!


Nature tells us everything.

Last week I remarked that I had not taken many ‘walks in the woods’ this autumn as I had hoped.
This weekend I began to right the situation.
Mary and I walked to the back of the farm, about a kilometer, to have a look at the small hardwood bush that we have standing back there. I had been cutting up a fallen green ash tree that was 97 years old, as per the number of rings that I counted. Wow. That is a lot of struggling to push through the undergrowth and reaching past its’ fellow hardwood trees for sunlight.
Not to mention that it survived the rigors of wind, thunder and rain, ice and squirrels (just thought that I would throw that in). I believe that the old ash has earned a special place in my woodpile, where it will fuel the fires of our air-tight stove this winter on many a cold evening.

So, we think we know something about competition.
Well, if the trees in the forest could only talk, eh?

We had the large trees on our 10 acre garden fertilized this past week. Jim Mastin of Noble Tree Service remarked that the mulch that my guy Rudy had mounded around the base of the trees was a few inches too deep. You can actually smother a tree to death by covering up the bottom couple of inches of bark on the main trunk.

“Look at what Mother Nature does in the forest, if you want to know how to mulch trees. Note that the leaves on the ground never extend past the flare of the root at the base of the tree” he said.

Standing in our small bush we could see that he is dead on.

This reminds me of something that I have heard and repeated many times, while talking about the principles of great gardening: When in doubt, look to Mother Nature for the answers.

On another topic, I was in Shediac, New Brunswick 2 years ago, about this time, with CTV and Home Hardware. We were celebrating the new backyard improvements of Wilt and Andree: the winners of the $50,000 Ultimate Backyard Makeover contest that we ran last spring.
It is amazing what $50,000 can buy you in outdoor improvements. The winners chose to include an extended deck made of a new composite cedar/plastic material that will never need painting, does not require nails or surface screws and is guaranteed for 25 years. Cool.

The backyard makeover also included a new gazebo, otherwise known as the ‘west nile room’ as it is completely mosquito free. It has electrical service, insulation and double glazed windows too. It is really a ‘3 season’ room. And a great ‘doghouse’ for Wilf for those days when his beloved needs a wide berth. Don’t get me wrong, Wilf seems like a very nice guy and Andree a delightful person who, I am sure is very easy to get along with. But I have learned in 28 years of marriage that we all need our space, from time to time.

I was reminded while in Shediac, where old man winter is inching closer, faster than he is at my home in Stouffville, Ont. Now is the ideal time of year to protect your young fruit trees from rodent damage with one meter long plastic spirals. The enemy in this case consists of mice, rabbits and rats that will find a meal of tree bark on an apple, pear, peach or you name it, including many ornamental trees like crabapples are quite tasty come mid winter.
These critters will get so desperate for sustenance come January that the bark of a tree that is 5 years or younger is mighty tempting indeed. Put your spirals on before the snow seriously gets going in your area.

Upright evergreens need protection from wind and sun. Wrap up in two layers of burlap. Or the newly redesigned Mark’s Choice Mummy Wrap at Home Hardware. (item# 5094-519)

A reminder that rhododendrons and yews (taxus) need to be protected from wind and sun too. The burlap treatment is useful, plus I recommend that you spray them with an anti-desiccant called ‘Wiltpruf’. (item# 5097-806)

Also, this is a good time to feed the birds, if you are not already doing it. Who, after all, does not have an unused bird feeder in the garage or basement? Get to it now, while you still have a chance to influence the choice of feeding stations that your neighbourhood song birds will frequent come mid winter.
Yes, our fine feathered friends are creatures of habit, much like ourselves.
You won’t regret your decision when the snow is lying hip-deep.

Have you winterized your roses yet? A reminder (yes, I mentioned this last week) to get to it before the Grey Cup game, if only to reward yourself by settling down into the couch with a beverage of choice while watching whoever smash up someone else whose name you do not know, unless of course you were watching the CFL before the final game of the season. The point is that wasting some time in front of the tube is your reward for doing something useful in the garden when it is generally not very tempting to be out there doing physical work.

Note that the snow has not really fallen in earnest (i.e. it hasn’t stuck to the ground much) in most parts of the country. You have the opportunity to look out of the window of your favourite room in the house and observe the space in your imagination. Take some snap shots of it in your mind as you imagine how it will look come spring. And summer. And for years to come. Imagine a sequence of colour from one end of the gardening season to the other. Imagine bird song and butterflies. Imagine entertaining guests, “Oh yes, it was nothing really. Just years of planning, digging, weeding, deadheading, extravagant expense and the divorce over it all was just a bump in the road.”
o.k. – don’t get carried away with this.

Just remember the rule, “Look to Mother Nature for cues.”
It works every time.

Keep your knees dirty,


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas is only a few weeks away and they will be playing this song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ on the radio until we are very glad that December 26th has rolled around.

I argue that THIS is the most wonderful time of the year because of another miracle: compost.

You may think that I am nuts and you would not be alone. Join the line up right over here behind my kids. Truth is, I am not alone either.

Talk to my friend Lorraine Johnson, with whom I co-wrote a book called The Real Dirt, The Complete Guide to Composting in Canada. It is out of print, but is still used in some post secondary schools as text for the subject. Lorraine is a passionate composter.

So is my friend Susan Antler. She is the executive director of the Composting Council of Canada and while she is very enthusiastic by nature, she reserves her greatest output of exuberance for the subject of composting.

Yes, we are out there. The crazy composting community stretches far and wide across this great land.
So, it is fitting that you do two things this time of year to celebrate the great composting season:
#1. Empty your composter if you have not done it since last fall.
#2. Fill it again.

Empty it.

When you remove the composted material from your composting unit (or pile…) be sure NOT to spread it like salt and pepper all over your yard. Compost is not a condiment. It is the meat in the sandwich. It provides the lifeblood for all plant life in your garden by feeding the micro organisms that support the perennials, annuals, vegetables etc. that you plant out there.

I spread finished compost 3 to 5 cm thick (1 to 2 inches) all over my garden this time of year. In most cases this means that the contents of your composting unit will not go very far. That is o.k. as you can buy more or spread next years’ compost supply over another part of your yard next fall.

Fill it.

Put a shovel full of finished compost in the bottom of the composter. This will help to ‘get the party started’ - in other words, the beneficial bacteria in the compost will initiate the decomposition process.
‘Layer’ your compost beginning with a thick layer (10 to 15 cm, scrunched down) of ‘brown stuff’ – fallen leaves is the #1 brown stuff of choice. You can use shredded newspaper if leaves are scarce in your area.
Next layer is ½ as thick of ‘green stuff’. Finished tomato plants, annuals, grass clippings or kitchen scraps will do the trick.
Continue to alternate a thick layer of ‘brown’ with a ½ layer of ‘green’, pushing the contents into the composting unit as you go to maximize the volume in it.
Add water as you go….. It is only in the presence of moisture that decomposition takes place. Pity the poor people in the desert that try this….
Add Green Earth Compost Accelerator ( every 2 to 3 layers to speed up the decomposition process.
If your composter has a lid, put it on the unit but only if you have pre-moistened the contents! Remember, dry stuff just sits there! If your composter does not have a lid, no worries. I don’t really get the point of the lid anyway, except that it ‘neatens’ up the look of the unit.

Siting your compost.

Position your compost in as much sun as possible and close to the kitchen door, for convenience. You can add compost all winter long, regardless of where you live in Canada. While it will freeze solid in most regions, it will also thaw in time and when it does, the greatest decomposition occurs. The frost ‘rips and tears’ the cell structure of the organics that you place there: the warmth of spring will activate the ‘good guys’ that do the breaking down of the works.

What to put in: Anything organic, providing that it is NOT any of the following:
- meat or meat byproducts
- cat and dog droppings (or any meat eater, for that matter)
- dairy products
- wood, bark, metal or plastic
- weeds that have gone to seed (though, I break this rule all of the time)

The Foot Soldiers arrive!!

Back to the beginning: when you spread finished compost over the surface of your garden you encourage earthworms to come up and pull the compost down into the soil. They eat this stuff; convert it into organic, nitrogen rich earthworm castings that feed the soil. Earthworms also open up the soil, allowing oxygen to flow to the root zone of your plants. (Note: all plants need oxygen at their roots.)

And finally, there is the wonder and awe of watching what WAS something recognizable, like leaves, banana peels and grass clippings, convert into the most useful soil additive ever created. Your plants thrive: they grow faster, resist insects and disease and they produce flowers and fruit like never before. They are happy.

And all you did was organize ‘waste material’ into a pile or composting unit and wait.

THAT is the miracle of compost.

Keep your knees dirty!