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.

Advice for traditional Guys this Valentines.

~ Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I know that Valentines is 2 weeks off: consider this a public service from your buddy Mark.

I am a guy, which means that I qualify as one of those people who does not take a lot of risks around the special occasion that we call Valentines Day.

I am a member of the majority of guys who buys red roses for his sweetie on Valentines Day. In spite of what you hear and read about buying candles and fragrances and underwear, the average guy – and I claim not to speak for anyone else here – is into dinner out and long stem red roses.

If we have a sweetie that really likes chocolate and is not likely to hit us over the head with a box of them, we might buy them too. But be careful with this one: chocolates can send a message that you have not been listening lately to the ‘does my butt look big in these’ questions. Read between the lines.

No Risk Giving.

So guys: if you are like me and not about to risk your most special relationship on a Valentines purchase that may not go over really big, stick to the roses. And if you are sticking to the long stem red roses, at least buy them with some measure of knowledge – which is where I come in.

First of all, some reasons to buy roses as an expression of your love for someone:
a. They do not last forever. That is precisely the point. Plastic does not say the same thing –in fact plastic flowers are a language that most women do not understand.
b. In the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ roses were a sign of loyalty and strength - that is why they are associated with royalty.
c. The same Victorians believed that Red roses were a sign of passion. Not a bad message on Valentines day, to the right person, right?

How do you know that your roses are fresh?

1. Give them the squeeze test.
Every self-respecting florist will get on the rose-delivery truck and squeeze the rose buds before taking delivery.
If the rose bud is firm – like an onion – you have fresh roses. If the rose bud is soft and mushy, best take a pass.
2. Look at the stems. Yes, the stems may be knobby and scrawny. If that describes your cut roses, you are paying no more than $15 a dozen and you are paying too much. Better to get 3 really good quality roses with some girth – about the thickness of a pencil, measured about 24 inches or 60 cm down the stem.
3. Long stems. That is why they call them ‘long stem roses’. They should be at least 30 inches long, if they are the real thing. And don’t let the florist cut off too much of the ends before plunging them into water or applying the water picks (see below).

Get them home looking good.

How do you get your investment in quality roses home is good shape?

The florist will put a ‘water pick’ on the end of each rose stem. Some people call these water condoms. Not me.
‘FloraLife’ is the brand name for the little envelope of preservative that is packaged with the cut flowers. Use the entire contents in the first vase of water.
Use a deep vase. The more water that makes contact with the stems of the roses, the longer that they will last.
Change the water daily. O.k. – you really want to score points with your sweetie? Change the rose water every day and use only room temperature, tepid water straight from the tap.
Put the cut roses in a cool room or refrigerator every night before bed. Think of the roses as your new pet –one with a short life, granted. But you can extend the life of your (her) roses by several days by exposing them to cool evening temps.

If your roses should collapse, which is not uncommon: the rose bud will just droop at the stem. This is a bubble of air that has become caught at the top of the green stem. Pre-moisten newspaper, wrap the entire rose, stem and all, in an upright position in the wet newspaper and put it in the refrigerator over night. By morning the rose bud should stand up on its own.

Viagra can help.

Finally, to maximize the life of your long stem red roses, drop a half a Viagra tablet into the water – the same water that you are going to change every day. According to a study at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, this works wonders at helping your long stem roses keep their heads up.

This is a good excuse to buy some Viagra. If anyone meets you at the drug store cash out, just tell them that I told you that the stuff really helps to keep your long stem roses up.


And what you do with the left over Viagra is your business.

Valentines is a fun time, for those of us in love.

If you don’t have a significant other, than buy yourself some fresh cut flowers. The selection this time of year is at its all time best. The industry is geared to it, so go with the flow and indulge yourself.

And remember to keep your knees dirty.


Let the Therapy Begin!

~ January 19, 2011

In recent weeks I have waxed on here in my blog about dreaming, planning and scheming your new 2011 edition of your garden.
Enough already.
Time to actually get to work.

You see the garden that you dream about is only going to become reality with the aforementioned plan and some – ahhhhemmmm (throat clearing) – work. There. I said it.
Those of us in the gardening business do not think of the slugging, bending, pulling, pushing and grunting associated with the garden as ‘work’ – it is more a kind of therapy.

So I say – “let the therapy begin!!” by starting some seeds indoors.

Seed buying.

You may be thinking in terms of your veggie garden – which is good if you are buying your seeds at your local garden centre or hardware store this time of year. I encourage you to get in there and buy your heart out as the selection of garden seeds – garden variety seeds and the rare ones more so – is at its very best right now. Store seeds in a cool and dry place, out of the sun, humidity and away from mice. And make a note mental or otherwise where you put them or you will have to buy them all over again in a month or two.

Vegetable seeds do not require germination yet. The #1 home grown crop – tomatoes – are actually started 6 weeks before the last killing frost in your area… so find out what that is by going to and locate your town/city on the zone map. When you find out what the last frost date is, count back 6 weeks and voila. For zone 5, where I live, that is about the 3rd week of April. So there is lots of time for that.

Flowers are a different thing – violas, pansies, impatiens, petunias and geraniums should be started now.

Getting started.

Follow the directions on the back of the seed packet and keep in mind these general rules of ‘green thumb’:

- Use a ‘seed and cutting’ seed starting mix – not ‘soil’. Look for good quality brands like CIL, Green Earth, Premier and Schultz.
- Fill seed starting trays/cell packs with the mix and premoisten it. In other words, water the soil mix and let it soak in for a half hour or so before you sow your seeds.
- Impatiens require darkness to germinate. After you sow the seeds, place a piece of black plastic over them until germination takes place in about 10 days. Place the seeding tray on the top of your refrigerator where it is warm, to speed germination.
- Use a ‘misting’ atomizer to apply water to the surface of the soil until about 10 days or 2 weeks after germination. This is the most gentle method of applying water at a time when the seed/seedling does not like to be disturbed.
- Allow the soil to ‘dry to the touch’ between watering. This is a rule that you can live by – use it when starting most any seeds, otherwise you will have to deal with the next point:
- If a white powdery mildew appears on the surface of the soil, apply Green Earth Garden Sulfur to prevent damping off. This is the result of overwatering, water logged soil and poor air circulation. A small fan placed a half metre or so from the seedlings, will discourage further problems with damping off.

Above all, have fun. Involve the kids, grand kids, neighbourhood kids in the project if you can and remember that you are saving a ton of money in the process by avoiding the purchase of bedding plants come spring.

Remind yourself of this should some of your seeding efforts end in failure.

And keep your knees dirty!


Salt Alternatives

I hear from Jason, my Winnipeg connection, that things have warmed up considerably in the last few days on the Canadian prairies. So much so that his young kids can now go outdoors to play and not risk life and limb due to minus ice-age temperatures.

This reminds me of all of the salt that we use in this country, especially when the temperature ‘warms up’ to greater than minus 12°C. (Note: only someone from the Prairies would consider -12°C ‘warm’).

Truth is, salt does not effectively melt ice or snow at temperatures below minus 12°C. (+5°F) which explains why most cities on the prairies favour the dirty grit that they spread on their roads for traction as a salt alternative. This stuff makes your car such a dirty mess that you often can’t tell a Mercedes from a Chevy, but for the most part, it does the job.

In the rest of the country we reach for the salt when clearing the roads of ice and snow, which is a danger to the plants in your garden, our water, our soil and a threat to aquatic life. Other than that, it is fine.

Protect Your Plants.
I recommend that you wrap your upright evergreens, especially cedars, on the east side of a busy road with two layers of burlap to avoid the inevitable ‘salt drift’ that occurs when traffic kicks the salt solution or brine up off the road. The prevailing winds push it in the direction of your prized evergreens. The two layers of natural burlap will insulate them from the inevitable damage that will occur from the burning effects of the salt.

I could go on about the toxic mess that salt creates, but I am not here to bash the use of salt. Let’s face it: salt is cheap and it provides for much safer driving conditions when the temperature is right (see above).


However, for those of us who are not under contract to the highways department for snow and ice removal (i.e. if you are only concerned about your front walk/steps and driveway) there ARE alternatives to common ‘road salt’.
Some are synthetic and others are 100% ‘natural’. Both have their features, benefits and limitations. From a practical point of view these products provide a reasonably economical alternative to the much less damaging and slower working common salt.

I have been using Alaskan Ice Melter for a few years: it is Canadian made and contains a combination of calcium chloride, CaCl2 and urea. The granules are ‘colour marked’ so that you can tell when you have put down enough or used too much. It works even when temperature dip to as low as minus 31°C(-24°F), it lasts twice as long as rock salt, is gentle on concrete, grass, plants and pets when used as directed and it provides good traction the moment that you apply it.


There are other ‘ice melters’ on the market that are worth a try, I am sure. In my opinion the less salt that we use, the better all round. Let me say that if you over-apply an ‘ice melter’ they often produce a white residue on your boots and your car floor mats, but this is much less stubborn than that of salt and washes out easily.

Also, if you use more than directed on the package you may cause damage to your lawn, plants or concrete, but you would be challenged to do this. Again, my experience tells me that salt is far more damaging to anything that is living and we have all seen the damage that it can do to concrete over time. Just visit a building in most any part of Canada with concrete steps over 20 years old…. Look carefully and you will see that the steps are pock marked, beat up and aged or they have been replaced or repaired over time. Unless they have used a salt alternative.

All Natural.

Home Hardware sells their own brand of salt-less ice melter under the Natura brand. I have not tried it, but I trust the brand. (
Another natural alternative is Get a Grip® Natural Ice Melter ( It will melt ice at temperatures down to – 18 C, contains a similar ‘colour marker’ as the Alaskan brand, provides instant traction and is reportedly ‘gentle on concrete, grass, plants and pets. No mention of kids in their press release but I assume that it is gentle on them too. I would not recommend that you keep them indoors just because you ‘salt-alternative’ the front walk.

Give the alternatives to salt a try and let me know how you do.
If your experience is anything like mine, you will be hooked and will never buy another bag of salt for anything. Except maybe the water softener.

Keep your knees dirty,


Next week: time to get off your butt in earnest and ‘Start Your Garden Indoors’ – I will tell you how, why and what to sow for a great looking (and cheap!) garden.


Well gardeners – are you enjoying your ‘time off’?
God gifted us with this season that we call ‘winter’ to relax, reflect on the season ahead, educate ourselves and drink lots of coffee.
We do this now because there is precious little time for any of it come spring.

I took a walk around my garden the other day after a particularly beautiful snow fall. Only a couple of centimeters had arrived overnight, but it landed so lightly and in such cold conditions that I would have turned down a free trip to Florida even without the usual hassle of customs and airport security just to be in that moment.

Here is a shot of my now famous hydrangea garden covered in a fresh shroud of snow.

Here also is a shot of the same hydrangea garden in mid summer, looking its best.
One has to marvel at the dramatic changes that occur over the year in the average Canadian garden, regardless of where you live. We observe the cycles of new growth, flowering, fruiting, colour change and the slow onset of dormancy knowing that we – the gardeners – exercise very little control over any of it.

Plant Managers.

I am not sure that gardeners even orchestrate change – waving a baton at the key players in a symphony of colour, fragrance and flight of wing. No: I think that we are, at best, plant managers.

Gardeners can design and plant a garden. We can add to the existing soil or dig the whole mess out and replace it with the good stuff. We can prune existing shrubs and trees and move perennials around the yard as they mature. But we don’t actually ‘grow’ anything. Evolution took care of that job for us many generations of Hosta and hoyas ago.

If you don’t believe me, take a look around you and you will notice that there is a whole big green world out there that is growing without any help from any of us. Thank you very much. Before the Europeans arrived in this land the woodlands were left for the most part on their own. Carbon dioxide was exchanged for oxygen and a few other goodies and voila – forests grew up all over the land.

The best time to plan and to dream.

Mid winter is the best time of year for us to think about the garden that we want this coming year, to plan for it, to make some calls to contractors and designers to enlist some assistance in this process. And to dream.

It would be easy for me to recommend that you subscribe to seed catalogues right now, to read gardening magazines, to visit my website to get your nagging gardening questions answered at and to go to a few horticultural meetings. These meetings are occurring all across the country in greater frequency than ever before. They are a great way to meet like minded people and engage in some conversation that will get you going in a direction that will help you produce the garden of your dreams.

But I am not going to suggest any of that.
Instead I merely want you to do one thing this week: to dream the dream of the greatest garden and yard that you ever had.
No great accomplishment in this world ever occurred without a dream.

It is your turn, Canadian gardeners.

Our ability to dream is a vital part of the gift.

Dream about keeping your knees dirty – and pour yourself another cup of coffee.


Join me on Thursday, January 20th for an event with the Applewood Garden Club. The event takes place at the Lakeview Golf Course in Mississauga. For more details, visit Hope to see you there!