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.

Container Gardening with Specialty Plants

~ May 25, 2011

Weather conditions, or more accurately, the growing zone dictates what gardeners can and cannot grow. Canada covers a wide range of growing zones. Gardening in a colder zone does not mean you cannot enjoy the pleasure of tropical plants. This is where container gardening really becomes unique.

Consider the mature size of the plant. Most exotic plants can be kept to a manageable size (8 feet high, approximately 30 inches wide) with vigorous pruning and some tying with string. However, there are some tropicals that cannot be maintained at a manageable size. Do your research and verify the mature size listed on the plant tag.

Select a container that is large enough to support the plant you want to grow. Keep in mind that you will need to carry the plant indoors come fall. As the plant grows you will transplant into a larger pot in early spring.

Choose a container that is lightweight and durable. The plant will be moved around a lot and will get heavier. A ceramic pot would not be wise because it is simply too heavy and fragile. Plastic pots are perfect for this type of application and are relatively inexpensive. In addition, a pot with handles or wheels is very helpful when moving. Make sure the pot has adequate drainage holes to drain excess water.

Select or create a soil that drains quickly but retains enough moisture to keep the roots moist. Use a slow release fertilizer, like Smartcote, when planting and water according to the plant specifications.

The list of what you can grow in containers is virtually endless. Some examples are: figs, citrus, cactus and palm. I grow a Banaana tree which is 8 feet high and produces a small crop each year. Select a quick maturing variety if you want any chance of a harvest.

Winter Storage.

When the plant goes dormant in the fall, move it into a cold cellar. Storage temperatures should not dip below 0C or above 7C in the winter.

When spring arrives move the plant out of storage and gradually harden it off to the outdoor conditions, keeping it protected from spring frosts.

Spring Showers will bring May Flowers

~ May 18, 2011

This spring has been one of the coldest and rainiest in memory. I encourage you to take advantage of this unusual weather and visit your local garden centre.

"A rainy day is a great time to visit a garden centre -- not only does it give you a head start on your neighbours, it can also be a rewarding shopping experience. Shorter line-ups at the cash register, parking spaces close to the entrance and a full inventory of plants will make life less hectic. Easier access to knowledgeable staff, just waiting to offer local gardening advice will ensure your garden gets off to a fantastic start this year," says my buddy Denis Flanagan, public relations manager, Landscape Ontario.

The late spring has another bonus for shoppers -- garden centre staff are spending more time caring for plants which are bigger and healthier than ever. And a rainy day is automatically a great day for planting!

Get out in the garden now to ensure you won’t be playing catch-up when the weather finally does warm up. Here are a few activities to get you through this cold and wet spring:

· Plant woody plants and hardy perennials now! Ontario garden centre inventories have never been as healthy or looked as good. The late spring has provided great growing conditions and extra time for plants to mature.
· Think ahead. Landscape projects that you would like to tackle this summer take planning, conceptualization and design. Avoid disappointment by calling contractors now. If waiting until late May they may already be booked.

Your best source to find local garden centres, contractors and other specialties is at “Find a Company” by searching a city, postal code, or specialty, etc.

Get the Most from Your Soil

~ May 11, 2011

Perhaps you have heard me say this before but these are words to live by: 90% of the success that you achieve in your garden is the direct result of proper soil preparation.

So what does that mean to you? ….. glad you asked!

First, figure out what type of soil you have.

The simplest and most accurate way is to figure out your ‘soil type’ is the jar test. Simply take a shovel full of your soil, mix it together and then take one cup of soil from that and half fill a 1L mason jar with the soil. Top up the jar with tap water and shake it for 5 minutes or so. Then let it sit for 24-48hrs while everything settles.

What you should see is three layers or ‘strata’ of soil on the bottom half and somewhat murky water on the top half with floating organic matter. The bottom layer will likely be separated into 3 layers: sand on the botttom, the middle silt and the top clay.

Looking at the jar carefully you can estimate the proportion of each layer according to the soil triangle.Ideal soil is a sandy/medium loam which is approximately 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt and 20 percent clay. This is a great all purpose soil for any garden bed no matter what you want to plant. It allows plants to root easily, holds onto water but also drains excess water easily.

In reality most garden soils do not have this composition and need some amendments.


The easiest way to deal with a primarily clay soil is either to dig it out and remove it to a depth of 40 cm and then fill in the void with good quality triple-mix and as weed free as possible. Triple-mix is an equal mix of peat, compost and sand. Add about 10 cm more triple mix than soil that you removed. The new soil should be well above grade for it to provide a good home for your new garden. It will settle over time and you will add more each year to keep it topped up.

If you do not want to dig, remove and backfill with the ‘good stuff’ (and if you have a lot of patience!) add sharp (coarse) sand and well rotted compost which will help loosen up the soil, improve drainage, air circulation and organic nutrients. Turn it into the existing soil the best that you can using a shovel, spade or rototiller.


Dealing with a primarily sandy soil is much easier; to do this till in peat moss and well rotted compost or manure which will improve the soils ability to hold water but will also add missing nutrients.

Next week: knowing the acidity (or pH) of your soil – why it is important, how to do it and what to do with the information.

The Dirt on Spring Planting

~ Blog May 5th 2011

A question: would you build a house without a foundation?
Of course not.

It is, indeed, planting time: with many Canadians finally getting the good spring weather that we have been waiting for – and with Mother’s Day here (a cue to many Canadians to get planting in their gardens).

This is your very best opportunity to build a foundation for your garden this year that will support plant life and grow –in reality – the garden that you have imagined all winter long. My advice is that you begin your spring planting by not planting at all, but rather, get into your garden with a sharp shovel or spade in hand and dig some holes.

You are not digging just for the fun of it – you are going to examine your soil to determine what needs to be added to it in order to grow a great garden this year.

Some helpful tips:
* Take a handful of soil and squeeze it in the palm of your hand, then bounce it around a few times.
- If the soil breaks up in your hand, you have a pretty good start. Add lots of organic material in the form of finished compost from your composter or purchased from a reliable local source. If you are buying your compost by the bag, look for a good quality national brand like C.I.L., Green Earth or Hillview.
- If you are purchasing compost by the cubic yard (i.e. truckload) make sure that you are buying from a supplier that has a solid reputation for quality. There is no sense going to all of the expense and effort to have it delivered (the easy part) and spread over your garden (the hard part) if it is second rate material.
- If your soil samples do not break up in your hand, but stay in the shape of the soil that you squeezed, it is time to assess more closely: is it clay? If so, add generous quantities of sharp sand, otherwise known as play sand (but NOT beach sand!). This will open up the clay particles, which are so small that they bind together to form an impenetrable mass. Also add the compost – as described above.
- If you are unsure of the quality of your soil (after all, you likely have a day job and chances are good that soil analysis is not a big part of it) then I recommend that you take it to a local hardware store or garden centre and talk to a trained professional. Someone who deals with soil issues often can tell you a lot about the quality of your existing soil and how to improve it.
- If you have solid clay (e.g. you could make bricks or cereal bowls out of it) I recommend that you seriously consider removing it to 40 cm (15 inches) deep and backfilling it with 50 cm of triple mix (18 inches).

What is triple mix, you ask?
An equal portion of quality top soil, peat moss and finished compost (vs. ‘unfinished’ or ‘green’ compost).

I have pretty good quality soil in my garden, but you know what, I add 2 cm or one inch of mushroom compost (the ‘high octane’ stuff) over the entire garden every spring. I just let the earth worms pull it down and convert it into nitrogen rich earth worm castings. This takes about 6 to 8 weeks, depending on rainfall.

If you are in a hurry or just enjoy the experience of digging, turn it under with a garden fork or small rototiller.

How important is it to prepare your garden this way?
Well, about as important as building a foundation under a house or garage. Try building one without it and you will soon understand the wisdom of building one in the first place.

If I prepare the soil well, will I still need to use ‘fertilizer’ on my garden plants?

This depends on the plants. Roses, clematis, most annual flowers and tomatoes are heavy feeders, so yes, you would be wise to add some fertilizer – synthetic or organic – to the soil at the time of planting and every 4 to 6 weeks until the middle of the summer. Organic gardeners should look for Green Earth products: otherwise, there are many quality synthetic products like So Green, Vigoro, and C.I.L. that will do the job for you nicely.

If you are looking for a really easy way to feed your plants over the summer try the super slow release fertilizers that are sold under the ‘Once and Done’ or ‘Smart Cote’ labels.

After you have your soil prep done, it is time to go shopping – almost.

Have a great week and remember to keep your knees dirty!