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.

Spring-Flowering Bulbs in Containers

~ November 30, 2011

It never fails. Every year at this time I receive an email from a gardener who has forgotten to plant their tulip bulbs. My advice to them: Why not create a containerized display to impress the neighbours next spring?

This recipe also works with the bulbs you buy at the ‘end of season’ clearance sales.
Choose a large decorative planter with good drainage. Start with a layer of gravel on the base of the pot. This will keep the drainage holes clear of debris. Use a container soil mix which has peat, vermiculite and compost (Mark’s Choice Container Mix is excellent).

In order to maintain a succession of flowers, several types of bulbs can be planted in the same pot, providing it is deep enough. Be sure to plant the largest flowering bulbs on the bottom, smallest on top.

To make this simple, I created a variety of spring bulb collections that work well when creating a great show of several bulb varieties in one container. Look for the Mark’s Choice bulb collections at Home Hardware.

Add a layer of container mix, and place the biggest bulbs on this, such as Narcissi. Then add a further layer of container mix to about 2.5 inches and place the next layer, in this case, Tulips. Add a further layer of container mix and plant your final bulbs, such as crocus, and top the container off, finishing the soil an inch below the top of the pot to allow for watering. The result will be a beautiful display of colour which flowers in successive stages.

Bulbs in containers do not usually survive harsh winter temperatures. Make sure the container is free-draining and bury the whole thing in the garden for the winter. Another option is to keep the container in an unheated garage against the wall shared with the home. A cold cellar is the ideal place to over winter the container.
Remove it from cold storage or from the garden in spring when frost is out of the ground and place in the desired location.

Colourful Poinsettias

~November 23, 2011

If there is one thing that gets me into the Christmas spirit, it is the arrival of poinsettias at Garden centres. Right now they are full of ‘painted’ Poinsettias in all colours of the rainbow. Along with the traditional varieties, these holiday favourites make wonderful gifts for your family and friends.

Taking Care of your Poinsettia
With proper care your poinsettia will last through the holiday season and well into the New Year.
Place in a room where there is sufficient light and warmth, not where the sun will shine directly on the plant.
Avoid hot or cold drafts or excess heat from appliances, baseboard heaters or heat ducts.
Place the plant high enough to be away from traffic and unmonitored children and animals.
Set the plant in or on a waterproof container to protect your furnishings.
Water the plant thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch. Remember to discard excess water for them saucer.
To prolong the bright colour of the bracts, temperatures should not exceed 72F during the day or 60F at night.

How to Re-flower a Poinsettia
It is not easy to maintain a healthy Poinsettia and have it flower again next year for the holidays. However, if you follow these directions carefully it is possible.
· December: Plant is in full bloom. Water as needed.
· February: Colour will fade. Keep Poinsettia near a sunny window and fertilize when new growth appears. Cut back to about 8”.
· June 1: Repot if necessary and fertilize. Continue to water when dry to the touch. Move outside it temperatures do not fall below 50F. Place in shade.
· Late August: Move plant inside. Cut stems back leaving 3 to 4 leaves per shoot. Place plant in a sunny window. Water and fertilize as needed.
· September 20 – December 1: Keep in light only from 8am to 5pm. Plant must be kept in complete darkness from 5pm to 8am.

While many Poinsettias will join the compost bin soon after the holiday season it is possible to keep these plants through the entire year.

For the Love of Trees

~November 16, 2011

Much has been said about the benefits of trees in our neighbourhoods – especially urban communities.

- Trees sequester carbon and produce prodigious amounts of oxygen.
- Trees filter pollutants from the air.
- Trees filter toxins from water and slow the ‘run off’ in extreme weather.
- Trees shade us and our living environment to the extent that they can save us hundreds of dollars a year on air conditioning costs and (placed properly) an evergreen tree can shelter a home from the cold blast of winter winds, thereby saving us heating costs.
- Trees are essentially noiseless (unless you count the sound of the wind passing through them), they don’t bark, require oil changes, diaper changes, fluid top ups, cleaning or feeding. Watering, yes.

Imagine a machine that could deliver so many benefits. What would you pay for it?
For some reason we seem stuck on the practical benefits of the trees that we live with. How much money they save us, how much comfort they give us. But has anyone actually sat down to quantify the unquantifiable? The ‘cheer’ that trees give us as urban dwellers?
In a recent issue of Canadian Business magazine, author David Owens’ new book Green Metropolis was reviewed. In his book Mr. Owen kicks holes in many of the traditional feel-good urban eco-projects, except for one: planting trees.

A quote from his book: “Planting trees along city streets, always a popular initiative, has high environmental utility, but not for the reasons that people usually assume: trees are ecologically important in dense urban areas not because they provide temporary repositories for atmospheric carbon — the usual argument for planting more of them — but because their presence along sidewalks makes city dwellers more cheerful about dwelling in cities. Unfortunately, much conventional environmental activism has the opposite effect, since it reinforces the view that urban life is artificial and depraved, and makes city residents feel guilty about living where and how they do.”

Now I don’t know David Owen and I have not read his book, but I think that it is great that he recognizes that trees are more than just natures clean air machines. They are just great to be in the company of.

Trees are fun.
We climb them, picnic under them, swing from them and cool our heels under them.

The Miracle of Compost

~ November 9, 2011

I believe this is the most wonderful time of the year. Not only are the Holidays fast approaching, it is also time to experience the miracle of composting season.

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.
1. 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.
2. ‘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 they are scarce in your area.
3. Next layer is ½ as thick of ‘green stuff’. Finished tomato plants, annuals, grass clippings or kitchen scraps will do the trick.
4. 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.
5. Add water as you go….. it only in the presence of moisture that decomposition takes place. Pity the poor people in the desert that try this….
6. 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 you 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 as 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)

Back to the beginning: when you spread finished compost over the surface of your garden you encourage earth worms to come up and pull the compost down into the soil. They eat this stuff; convert it into organic, nitrogen rich earth worm castings that feed the soil. Earth worms 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 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.

Gentle Reminders as Winter Approaches

~November 2, 2011

Now is the ideal time of year to protect your young fruit trees from rodent damage with one metre long plastic spirals and Bobbex deer repellent. 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 quite tasty come mid winter. These critters will get so desperate for sustenance that the bark of a tree that is 5 years or younger is mighty tempting indeed. Put your spirals on and spray with Bobbex 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 look for a Canadian-made product called ‘Better than Burlap’ (that is its’ name). It insulates very well and has a gloss to its finish on one side of the material that encourages snow and ice to slide off. Cool.

I offer another reminder that rhododendrons and yews 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 ‘Wilt-Pruf’ (Home Hardware item# 5097-815).

Also, this is a good time to feed the birds, if you are not already doing so. 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 2 weeks ago) 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.