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.

Best Lawn on the Block #2

~April 27, 2011

We had such a great response to my blog last week about ‘Lawn Care’ that I thought I would expand on ‘Lawn Care #101’ here. There are many unanswered questions that I hope to clarify for you this week.

Why fertilize my lawn?

Under normal circumstances you would enrich and enhance the soil around the roots of the permanent, perennial plants in your garden. I recommend that you spread 2 cm of finished compost or organically-enriched soil over your entire garden each spring or fall. You may dig this in with a garden fork or wait for the earthworms to pull all of that good stuff down into the top soil.
‘Feeding the soil’ works well for your garden, but this is generally not practical for your lawn.
I recommend a fertilizer that has high nitrogen content (the element that your lawn craves the most come spring) and has a slow release nitrogen ingredient in it. I recommend Golfgreen (20-0-5) because it has the highest and most sophisticated content of slow release nitrogen of all national brands.

Fertilize once in early spring, again in early summer and (most importantly!) a final application before the snow flies in late summer.

Why don’t you recommend other national brands?

Other national brands like Vigoro, So Green, and Nutrite are excellent products, just not as good as Golfgreen. The most important thing is that you apply a quality product this time of year to take full advantage of the early season growth activity of your lawn.

What do the 3 numbers on the bag mean?

All 3 numbers refer to the percentage of an element found inside of the bag, measured by weight.

The first # is Nitrogen.
The second # is Phosphorous.
The third # is Potash.

Each of these ‘elements’ represents one of the primary ‘food groups’ for plants. Different plants require different amounts of each of these elements. In spring and early summer your lawn responds best to nitrogen. Potash encourages strong roots and enables your grass plants to use the nitrogen.

How do I get rid of earth worms that are making mounds of earth in my lawn?

This is always an awkward question for me to answer as I am a great fan of earth worms – ‘the foot soldiers of the garden’ as I refer to them. But I acknowledge that they can make for a bumpy lawn, when their castings erupt on the surface of the soil at the root zone.
I suggest that you ‘even out the mounds’ and ‘fill in the valleys’ with triple mix. Buy as much as you need (a few cubic yards or a truck load?) from a reliable supplier – keeping in mind that not all suppliers will send you the best quality stuff.
Triple mix is an equal combination of screened top soil, composted manure and peat. Spread it with a shovel and rake with a straight, hard rake smooth, being mindful of creating as smooth a surface as possible.

Over Seed Your Lawn.

As mentioned in my previous blog (2 weeks ago) this is a great time of year to thicken your lawn with fresh grass seed. You will compete many weeds out of existence and produce an even, thick lawn by Fathers Day if you do it now. Don’t worry about pending frosts or even snow … no harm.
If you are spreading triple mix over your lawn as described above, now is the perfect time to sow grass seed at the rate of one pound for every 400 sq. ft (1/2 kilo per 10 sq. metres). Apply the seed by hand, letting it roll off of your index finger as you move your wrist or arm from side to side slowly.
Rake smooth.
Roll with a lawn roller filled only 1/3 full with water or step on it with flat soled shoes (if it is not a big area).
Water and fertilize.

You can sow grass seed and fertilize on the same day, unless you are using a fertilizer with a weed control product in it. A ‘weed and feed’ will need about 6 weeks before you sow grass seed and a crabgrass preventer will vary depending on the brand. Follow directions on the bag.

Just laid fresh sod last fall or this spring?

If you are laying sod or starting a new lawn from seed use a ‘lawn starter’ fertilizer with a formula like 10-20-5. The high proportion of phosphorous will encourage strong young roots. Apply same day if you like.

If you laid fresh sod last spring or earlier, use Golfgreen Lawn Fertilizer or another national brand.

Keep your knees dirty!


The Best Lawn on the Block - without Chemicals!

~April 20, 2011

As Canada emerges from the deep freeze we tend to get pretty antsy to get out of doors. Before you can walk on your lawn and get into the garden you may satisfy your urge to enjoy the first sunny day by washing your car. At this point hosing down the driveway can feel like a trip to Florida.

After the driveway/car experience we turn our attention to the lawn.

Everyone, it seems, wants to have a nice green lawn. Even if you spend the rest of the gardening season on the golf course or at the cottage, I find that even the most negligent of lawn owners take some time in early spring to spruce up the lawn, one way or the other.

My job is to make sure that the time and money that you invest in your lawn – however little that may be – is well spent.

It must be said, too, that recent experience tells me that Canadians have a high regard for the environment. This is because we care. Not that people of other nations don’t care, it is just that we happen to care a lot. We are a country of caring people: it is part of our character.

I only say this based on my travels across the country talking about gardening everywhere that I go.

I have noticed that there is a conspiracy against the lawn, in some quarters. There are people out there who would like lawn-loving people like me to feel guilty about our nice green lawn.

Your Lawn is like a Potato.

To all of the lawn naysayers and doubters I have this to say: think of your lawn like a potato. We know that a baked potato contains all kinds of good stuff: vitamin C and D, fiber, minerals – the kind of stuff that makes you strong.

It is the stuff that you PUT on your potato that is not so good for you. “Will you have that loaded?” was the question when I was last at the Keg for a New York strip loin and baked potato side. That would be a generous helping of butter, sour cream, chives and bacon bits. I, of course, said that I was not interested in having MY potato ‘loaded’. Jeez, no. I asked her to hold the chives. Who wants chive breath?

The point of course is this: we have the option to put all kinds of stuff on our lawns that is not good for the environment.

Make no mistake: your lawn is good for the environment.

A lawn sequesters carbon, filters toxins out of rain water, eats CO2 and returns fresh oxygen to the air. It is soft to walk on bare foot, is 5 to 10 degrees cooler than asphalt and supports a host of wildlife, most of which is too small for the naked eye to see but believe you me, it is there in abundance. A handful of rich root-level subsoil is teaming with over 4 billion micro organisms: michoriza, beneficial bacteria, sow bugs, millipedes, earth worms and the like. These are the good guys.

In short – a lawn is the most sophisticated living ground cover known to mankind.

All of that said, here is how you can enjoy a nice lawn, without the use of weed or pest controls (to be performed in this order):

1. Rake your lawn lightly with a fan rake – the goal is to get the grass blades to stand upright and to remove the winter debris.

2. Aerate if necessary. I only aerate my lawn where foot traffic occurs as this is where the soil is compacted and most in need of the fresh air that you introduce when aerating. Use a power aerator if you are doing your whole lawn or buy an inexpensive manual ‘foot’ aerator at the hardware store for small areas.

3. Overseed where your lawn is thin and where weeds are a problem. Use a good quality grass seed (I recommend Golfgreen) and remember that the ultimate pedigree of your lawn is in the bag! Lay down 2 to 3 cm of triple mix (equal parts top soil, peat moss and compost). Rake smooth. Spread the grass seed thinly at one pound for 400 sq. ft (1/2 kg per 40 sq. metres). Rake THAT smooth. Water. You will thicken your lawn nicely and compete most weeds out of existence –before they even get a start!

4. Fertilize. Use a good quality fertilizer that is relatively high in nitrogen (about 20 to 28%) which is represented by the first # in the 3 number analysis. And make sure that it contains a ‘slow release’ nitrogen ingredient. This produces a greener lawn over a long period (8 to 10 weeks) AND feeds the lawn with the one element that it craves the most – nitrogen.

5. Cut 2 ½ to 3 inches high. Often we cut our lawns much too short. Remember this: the taller the grass blades the longer the roots. The longer the roots the greater the resistance to drought, disease and insect problems. AND most lawn weeds are ‘shaded out’ by long grass.

6. Mulch. Use a mulching mower and return the nitrogen-rich grass clippings to the root zone of your lawn.

7. Use a reel-type push mower. Eliminate emissions and enjoy the sound of the cutting action of an old fashioned reel-type mower. Note: the new models are much lighter than those of 30 or 40 years ago. And they hold their cutting edge much longer.

Replace your old mower. You have heard that gas driven lawn mowers are big emissions spewers… right? Well, the new lawn mowers on the market are much ‘cleaner’ burning than the old ones. Look for MTD or Honda for two of the cleanest burning brands. And avoid the 2 cycle mowers that require you to mix oil with the gas.

Just following a few of the guidelines above will improve on the environmental impact that your lawn has on your neighbourhood.

Keep your knees dirty,


More Things To Do in the Garden

~April 13, 2011 I know that it has been said before, but remember to amend your soil with generous quantities of compost early in spring, before you plant. The organic gardener’s mantra says, ‘Feed the soil and the plants will take care of themselves’. True, to a large extent. If you provide lots of goodness at the root zone of all of your plants you will be amazed at how few insects, disease and other garden-nasties you will experience. There is no better time of year than spring to take care of this ever important task. Veggie Garden. In the vegetable garden, be sure to sow your onions, peas, snow peas, carrots and your first crop of radishes before the last frost. For most of us that is in mid to late April: in northern Ontario/Quebec during the first two weeks of May. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and all members of the so-called ‘gassy’ family of vegetables perform their best when planted as transplants at the same time as you sow the aforementioned seeds. Make sure that your transplants have been hardened off before planting out. Rock Gardens – cut back and weed. Remove weeds and cut back straggly growth of rock garden plants. Lightly loosen the soil in pockets adding a teaspoon of ‘Once and Done’ slow release fertilizer or bone meal. After each variety has flowered, take up each plant, divide and replant to maintain proper control, plant vigor and proportion in the rockery. Prune evergreens. Maintain the healthy appearance of your cedars, junipers, yews and other foundation planted evergreens with a light sheering (or a major cutting back, if the plants have been ignored for years). The fresh flush of new growth that occurs later in spring will fill your evergreens in very nicely. Plant Bleeding Heart amongst your daffodils and narcissus. For a great show every spring, plant perennial Bleeding Heart among your spring flowering daffodils and narcissus. All are reliable performers from year to year and they will bloom together almost forever. Look for Bleeding Heart ‘Luxuriant’ for a longer blooming variety to mix with the old fashioned Bleeding Heart. Take pictures! Use that digital camera that you received for Christmas to record the daily progression of change in your garden this spring. Reviewing these pictures later will give you ideas and inspiration for your garden in future years. Keep your Knees Dirty! Mark

Ready, Set, Go!

~ Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Time to give your garden the once over before you get planting.

I am frequently asked; “what is the one word of advice that I can give Canadian gardeners that will ensure success”. The answer is always the same: proper soil preparation.

This is why I devoted 1/3 of my latest book, The Canadian Garden Primer An Organic Approach, to the subject.

If you have ever tried to produce a gorgeous garden in heavy clay soil, you know what I am talking about. The same is true for pure sand.

Adding generous quantities of organic matter in the form of compost makes a world of difference to most any garden.

My recipe for a great looking garden:

(Assuming that you have poor to average quality soil.)

1. Spread finished compost one to two inches thick over the planting area and around established perennials and shrubs. If your garden soil is made up mostly of heavy clay add 1/3 sharp sand (not beach sand!) to the compost.

2. Turn the compost under using a garden fork (a fork disturbs the roots of established plants much less than that of a shovel or spade and is easier to push into your existing soil).

3. ‘Slap’ the mixed soil/compost to get rid of large clods of earth: small ones will not matter.

4. If the consistency of the newly turned soil is not ‘open’ enough to easily push a garden trowel you have three choices: add more 2/3 compost and 1/3 sand, dig it over again a couple of times or get a better trowel.

This is less work than it may seem, if you take it a step at a time (read: stop digging when your back begins to hurt) and if you don’t tear into it, but rather take a slow easy pace. In the long run you will get more done and enjoy the experience.

The goal here is to create a ‘friable’, open, rich organic based soil that is ready for planting.

In April you can plant trees, shrubs, evergreens, roses and some hardy perennials that have not been forced early in a greenhouse somewhere (these will be ‘soft’ and frost tender). Never mind if you get some frost or snow between now and the ‘traditional planting time on the long weekend of May’.

There is a myth out there that you can only plant on the May 24th weekend, but it is very misleading. For one, this rule only applies to ‘frost tender’ plants like annuals and tender vegetable plants.

Secondly, there are some tender plants that perform better in warm soil, like squash, pumpkins, corn and beans. In the flower garden I plant my impatiens last as there is nothing they like less than to have ‘cold feet’.

Finally – there are parts of the country where a late May planting of tender plants is too early – Newfoundland and the northern prairies as an example. Check with your local gardening authorities to be sure (they may be the operators of a local greenhouse, garden centre or your Home Hardware).

While we are talking about getting ready for the planting season now would be a good time to fertilize your lawn (see last weeks’ blog), sharpen your lawn mower blade and change the oil.

Oil and sharpen all of your digging tools. A bastard file does the job in most cases and a squirt of WD 40 or equivalent.

Get out your garden hose, lawn furniture, the garden ornaments that you put away for the winter and if any of these need a coat of paint, now is a great time to give them a new coat.

Keep your knees dirty!