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.

Investing advice for 2011.

I just received an interesting memo from my financial portfolio manager. It is a ‘top ten list’ of important things to remember when investing in the stock market this year. The most dominant message is that things have changed and by the way in case you forgot, things have changed and they are going to change some more.

Well, I have some advice for all of the stressed out financial advisors out there (and if they are not stressed out, they should be): bet on the gardening experience to produce dividends that you have only dreamed of.

You see, gardening is a blue chip investment from any point of view. Take a packet of seeds, for example. I don’t know who said that the best bet that you can make is with some good soil and a packet of seeds, but he or she had a point. The risks are few and the potential rewards many.

It is in the garden that we connect with the natural world around us and learn, providing that we are listening and asking the right questions in the first place. We learn, for example, that whatever goes up must come down. Try growing a vine in your garden and you will learn that it won’t go up in the first place without some support. And in time, the vine outgrows the support and the vine grows downwards again. You have to keep shoring up the support or cut down the vine.

Everything has a life cycle. By planting in one season and removing the finished plants in another we learn that every living thing has a life cycle. Even the mighty oak will fall, someday. Hopefully not on your house. The productive tomato finishes its work in one season. Garden leeks and garlic need to experience some frost in order to maximize their flavour. Raspberries are best in their 3rd and 4th years, strawberries in their 2nd year and asparagus never seems to quit after it’s 5th year, but man are they slow to come around until then! The same for rhubarb. But even they will peter out in a generation or two. Everything that grows eventually regresses.

Even plants that seem never to quit are actually just fooling you. Take the peony for example. If you visit the location of a long-ago homestead, where a farm house once stood but has long since disappeared, you will often find a lonely peony or two just hanging out on their own with no seeming interest in civilization – occupied house or not. Maybe it was planted there over a hundred years ago.

Truth is, the root structure of the original peony plant has died and been replaced by other, newer roots. The vigour of the peony plant is constantly refurbished in this way. This is why peonies will often appear to change colour over time: it isn’t the original root that is changing. The new one is just taking a different genetic direction. This is Mother Nature’s way of renewing the original plant. And as far as you and I are concerned the peony looks like it has been there forever.

Renewal is our reward. For being patient, we experience the natural division of plants as they multiply before our eyes. Take the Lily of the Valley for example. They seem to go and grow without stopping. The root is a rhizome that moves beneath the soil making new plants as it moves. A lawn thickens much the same way.

We are not alone. In gardening, we engage in a partnership with Mother Nature and grow relationships with neighbours and friends, creating a sense of community that is without price. I believe that people who spend time writing for the financial pages and the financial planners themselves would actually benefit by spending more time in the garden.

The support system is invisible. The burgeoning popularity of organic gardening offers one very basic tenant that is worth keeping in mind: the health of your garden plants is determined by the health of your soil. A colony of thriving bacteria, beneficial insects and protozoa = good quality soil. Add lots of raw organic matter in the form of compost for these critters to feed on and your plants will grow almost despite themselves because a buffet of goodies is at their feet.

Now, how is this helpful to financial planning professionals?

Let me sum up:

Everything has a life cycle. The markets had been growing for a record period of time then took a plunge and then recovered. Funny – just like Nature to behave that way.

Renewal is our reward. As sure as the markets are up they will go down. How fast and how far is anybody’s guess. But they will bounce and new, better stocks will replace some of the tired old ones. Be smart and be patient.

We are not alone. They say that 47% of Canadians were invested in the stock market last year. Remember that when you open your investment update this month. As Red Green said many times, ‘We are all in this together.’

The support system is invisible. The news is full of union disputes, large companies that are standing in line for government bail outs, other companies that are in decline and some that are closing their doors.
The media will not tell you about the people who are making their best effort to create a product or service of value: many are hanging in there. The majority of us are reporting for work on time, getting the job done and making a small but significant contribution that helps to make Canada great.
Those companies that are hanging in there are making something or selling something that people want and can afford. I had to wait in line today behind 4 people at McDonalds for a fillet-o-fish. Somebody other than me seems to want their product.

But I digress: it is a new year and time to reflect on what is important.

From William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato.

“Things that I remember: witnessing childbirth, finding myself standing absolutely alone before DaVinci’s Last Supper. And planting potatoes on a perfect spring morning.”

If you like this message I hope that you forward it to your financial advisor.

Keep your knees dirty,


Gift Ideas for Gardeners

I have said for some time that it is easy to buy for gardeners: generally you do not have to worry about the colour or size (except for gloves). In most cases the gift will get used because so many things that a gardener needs cannot be “over acquired”.

Take good gloves as an example. I have lost track of the numbers of pairs that I have around the property….tool shed, barn, garage, truck, car trunk and at the front door cupboard. Look for goat skin or reasonable substitute, reinforced finger tips, an open weave back to allow your hands to breathe and a Velcro closure at the wrist to stop dirt from travelling down into the working portion of the glove. I have just described the Mark’s Choice garden glove at Home Hardware. $15.

Garden Magazine. A copy of the latest Canadian gardening magazine does the trick, if you are looking for a ‘stocking stuffer’. For the more generous there are some great deals on subscriptions. We are blessed in Canada to have several great publications that address the peculiar needs of the Canadian gardener. Look for Canadian Gardening, the tried and true ( For information guaranteed to meet the regional needs of gardeners pick up Gardens West/Central/East, for which I write ( and the newest publication on the block is Garden Making, for lots of colour and columns by some names that you may be familiar with (

The Truly Canadian Almanac, by Harrowsmith. Finally there is a great, 100% Canadian almanac that provides you with weather forecasts, small town stories, trivia and all manor of washroom reading. Sure to keep the receiver of this gift busy for hours. $5.95 at Home Hardware and books stores.

How bout yourself?

Consider donating TIME to the receiver of your Yuletide largess. This may be the most appreciated gift of all!

Weeding. Offer to donate several hours of weeding at a mutually convenient time. Every gardener gets weary of pulling weeds, after the romance of the thing wears off about mid June. Bring your own equipment, including a long handled Mark’s Choice Speedy Weeder from Home Hardware. At about $28 it is the best investment that you can make in effective, chemical free weed control - without the back pain associated with stooping and bending.

Pruning. Most of us do not like to cut our own kid’s hair. Ditto the plants in our garden. Offer to come over with your loppers/shears and a green wood saw and do some trimming. Take away the trimmings for a bonus. Btw, the best loppers and hedge shears in the business are made right here in Canada. They are the Mark’s Choice limb loppers ($50 and $70) and hedge shears ($50) at Home Hardware.

Consultation. If you love to garden offer your services to people on your list who have a moderate interest in gardening. Your experience is worth something. Likely more than you know. Can you give advice on plant placement? Soil prep? Accompany your friend(s) to a garden retailer next spring and offer advice on the best deals on the lot, noting that the lowest price is not as important as the quality of a live plant.

I hope that these ideas are helpful.

With many thanks for reading each week, I wish you a very Merry Christmas this week. Regardless of your religious beliefs I encourage you to take the time to reflect on a world of peace and goodwill towards our fellow humans.

Hold the people close to you closer.
Hold the door for a stranger.
Hold out the hand of friendship to someone in need.

And God bless.


Gearing up for a great Christmas

Garden Gear for the gardeners on your Christmas list.

We are not exactly ‘on the home stretch’ of the Christmas buying season, but we are at the 7th inning stretch. That means that the ‘last minute’ people are beginning to think seriously about their gifts for this Christmas and the long-term-planners are about to sit down with a good book and light a fire.

Which brings us nicely to the juncture where I can talk about MY favourite gifts – the ones that I would most like to receive at Christmas – as a gardener.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Books. Gardeners love to read, especially now that HGTV doesn’t run ‘gardening shows’ per se any more. We become starved for ideas and reflections on the growing season as the winter wears on.
* Middle Aged Spread. By Sonia Day. What my good friend Sonia has done here is to lay out the reality check everyone needs who has EVER even just thought of moving to the country. Her ‘dream garden’ becomes an adventure in living that even someone with the diverse background and travel experience of dear Sonia cannot anticipate. Funny. Engaging. Informative. Available at Book City and on line from Indigo/Amazon. Retails for $24.95.

* Gardeners Journal (especially for gardeners in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe). Provides excellent weekly tips, what to do, contact info for all horticultural clubs, associations, government agencies, gardening media (i.e. TV, radio shows, magazines etc.), space for your own garden photos, and an extensive list of garden retailers including the bricks and mortar and e-retailers.

* Canadian Garden Primer, by Mark Cullen. This is my most exhaustively complete work, with an organic bend. Most everything that you need to know to grow a great veggie garden or a fabulous looking landscape (including an environmentally responsible lawn!). Lots of colour. Clear, concise text. For experienced and novice gardeners alike. Available at Chapters/Indigo and Home Hardware.

2. Tools. Experienced gardeners love to use quality tools. They are a pleasure to work with and, just like your favourite pair of jeans, we ‘break our tools in’ and become attached to them over time. Buy the best that you can afford and the receiver will think of you favourably forever.
* Pruning saw. Not just any saw: look for a comfortable fit in the hand, light weight, Canadian Made with a Swedish blade (they still make the best). You cannot go wrong with name brands like Felco, Corona or (frankly) Mark’s Choice.

* Hand pruners. Why is it that many gardeners will not part with enough cash to buy themselves a good quality pair of hand pruners? And yet, there is not one gardener alive who does not value the experience of working with a quality pair. Look for a comfortable feel in your hand: weight, balance, rubber grip, aluminum handle and a high carbon steel cutting blade. To be a real hero, include a small tube of honing oil, a small blade sharpener and a belt holster. THAT is a gift!! Name brands like Felco, Corona and (there it is again!) Mark’s Choice are recommended. or

* Stainless steel digging tools. Why stainless steel? They are smooth and cold - dirt does not stick to them as readily as with cheaper steel. They hold an edge – you will not have to sharpen them as often. They do not rust and they look great.

3. Gardeners also love wildlife and colour. Consider a magazine subscription. (Gardens West or Canadian Gardening, National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Outdoors Canada etc.)

4. Nature/garden calendars.

And if your gardening friends have everything that they could ever want for their garden, why not plant one for someone else, in their name! There are great Canadian charities that are providing the resources for less fortunate people all over the world to access tools, soil, water and seeds in an effort to feed themselves. Every gardener that I have ever met would relate to and appreciate such a gift. Go to or

Keep your knees dirty!


Choose the right Christmas Tree

Just when you thought that life is not at all predictable, I come along with a morsel of information that shatters your illusion.

With Christmas little more than a couple of weeks away we are coming up to THE big weekend for Christmas tree sales. In fact, most Christmas tree sales will occur exactly 2 weekends prior to December 25th.

I know this based on more than a few years in the retail ‘Christmas tree’ business.

Which brings me to the most asked ‘gardening’ question this time of year, which is, “What is the best Christmas tree?”

It is a great question because not all Christmas trees are created (grown) equal and there are new varieties/species offered almost every year. I will get to that in a moment, but first a short speech in defense of the ‘plantation grown’ Christmas tree.

There are sincere but misguided people out there who will tell you that buying a Christmas tree is bad for the environment. The thinking goes like this: why would you cut a perfectly good tree down in the forest when it could continue to serve a purpose left standing there? Wildlife benefits from trees as does the environment (all of our oxygen, after all, is produced by the green living world around us).

IF we cut trees down in the forest for Christmas – trees that otherwise would stand for a long time naturally – I would agree with the above stated argument. But the truth is that no respectable retailers in Canada would sell cut Christmas trees that were cut from a natural stand of evergreen trees. Virtually all of the trees that are available for sale from nurseries, garden centres, retailers, Boy Scouts and church groups are ‘plantation grown’.

The truth about the Christmas tree that you buy:

It takes between 8 and 10 years to grow a good quality Christmas tree.

They are generally grown on marginally productive land to begin with. While growing they provide valuable protection and a home for a wide variety of wildlife including birds, deer, rodents and butterflies. Christmas trees sequester carbon and exhale pure, clean oxygen (like all other trees). They reduce soil erosion and filter air borne pollutants. They are not (generally) fertilized while in the field, and the use of pesticides seldom occurs and when it does, they are used judiciously (Christmas tree growers are not necessarily environmentalists, but the cost of pesticides alone discourages the practice of using them).

Now that we have established the benefits of supporting the Christmas tree growers of Canada (they are a net-export crop by the way), let’s look at the various qualities of the trees that are available:

Canadian Christmas trees: in order of my personal favourites:
Five *’s = very favourite
One * = poor choice.

Fraser Fir *****. Tall, straight, wonderful evergreen scent and above average needle retention. A traditional look. Soft needles: easy on the hands. I will put one of these in my home partly because they are easy to set up. Have you ever put up a Christmas tree that had a crooked trunk? It is a test of anyone’s good will and ‘Christmas spirit’. If I am ever visited by the ghost of Christmas past, I am sure that he will take me to that day in the garage when I tried putting a Scots pine into a 3 legged tree stand. Not a pretty picture.
Cost for a 7 foot: between $45 and $65.

Noble fir *****. Much like the Fraser Fir but with a wonderful silver tone to the underside of the needles.
Cost for a 7 foot: $50 to $90

Balsam ****. Great needle retention, straight trunk, nice scent. A maritime native. Only downside is the distance between branches is rather generous, giving the tree a thinner look than its’ Fir cousins. You will get fewer ornaments on a Balsam, but if the tree has been aggressively pruned on the farm it can thicken up quite nicely. The lower cost may encourage you to look for this one at your local supplier.
Cost for a 7 foot: $35 to $50.

Scots Pine ***. This was the #1 cut Christmas tree a generation ago. It was the tree that my Dad hauled home from the garden centre for our personal use for as many years as I can remember. The greatest advantage of the Scots Pine is that it has long needles that are stiff enough to hold up most any tree ornament. Also, it is densely branched, providing an excellent opportunity to load it up with lights and decorations. However, the trunk of the Scots Pine is seldom straight and never as straight as that of the Fraser Fir. It has reasonable needle retention, a gentle scent that is most intense when you first bring it into the house and the price is lower than any of the more popular trees.
Cost for a 7 foot: $30 to $45.

White spruce **. The very first Christmas tree, which, legend has it, was cut somewhere in Bavaria, Germany about 350 years ago, likely was a spruce of some kind. This gives us the ‘traditional’ shape that most of us associate with the Christmas tree. That is about the limit of features that the White Spruce has to recommend it.
It has poor needle retention, usually has wide gaps between branches (minimizing the opportunity for decorations and lights) and the scent is moderate.
Above all, I steer away from the White Spruce for the fire hazard that results from the dramatic needle drop.
If you live in the country and are cutting a spruce down on your own property, be sure not to bring it indoors until about 5 days before Christmas. And take it back outdoors a couple of days after Christmas. That way the ‘needle drop’ will not cause too much of a problem: like clogging up your vacuum cleaner.
Cost for a 7 foot: Cheap, if you can find them.

A couple of tips when choosing and preparing your tree for indoors:

1. Look for a tree with a straight trunk – anyone that has tried to put a crooked tree in a stand will tell you the same thing.
2. Look for bushiness that suits your space. Look for a tree that is the right height for the room you plan to put it in. You pay for height when you buy a tree – no use cutting off a foot or two!
3. Cut about 2 inches off of the bottom of the trunk the same day that you plan on putting the tree up. This opens up the capillaries in the tree, increasing its ability to take up water.
4. ALWAYS use a stand that holds water and make sure that you keep it topped up. This, more than anything else that you do will help the tree to hold its needles for the longest time possible.
5. When you dispose of your tree, leave it for the municipality to recycle OR place it in the garden, stand and all, until spring. In the mean time it will provide protection for visiting birds. I put mine within 20 ft of bird feeding stations.

Above all, take family and friends out for the tree selection experience and get the Christmas spirit stirred up well ahead of the big day!

Keep your knees dirty,

Mark Cullen