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.

Help Plants Deal with the Heat

~ July 4, 2012

As we roll into summer, Mother Nature sure isn't easing her way in. With two heat waves under our belts, I think it's safe to say that this summer is going to be a hot one. And just as you feel the heat, so too do your plants.

Watering is an important part of gardening and when the skies don't provide enough; it is up to you to fill the gaps. Here are some tips to help you (and your plants) get through the dry times.

1. When watering, don't just wet the top. In order to promote the growth of deep roots, your plants will need a substantial amount of watering. As the water soaks deeper into the soil, the roots will grow to seek it out.

2. Let the soil dry out before watering. In combination with the first tip, this will encourage the growth of deep roots and help the plant tolerate drier periods for longer.

3. Don't water in the heat of the day. If you're out there at 2pm trying to water those tomatoes, chances are, you're losing a significant amount to evaporation before the water even has a chance to reach the roots. Go for an early morning watering trip around your house and avoid the blazing sun.

4. Finally, don't waste water. It's a precious resource and the last thing we want to do is waste it. There are several Mark's Choice products available to ensure your water is being delivered where it is needed most. Try the Flat Weeper Hose or the Soaker Hose to deliver the water at the root zone. If you're watering by hand, try the Jet Shower Watering Wand for water that is gentle on your plants. And most importantly, get yourself a rain barrel so that when it does finally rain (and it will), you can collect this valuable resource and have it when you need it most.

So while you're cooling off in the pool, remember that your plants will enjoy the same benefits from the water as you will.

Succession Planting

~ June 27, 2012

As we move towards the end of June, there are still some planting tasks that can be undertaken in the vegetable garden. In order to keep the delicious fresh fruits and vegetables coming throughout the summer, you can employ 'succession planting.' There are two main ways to do this depending on the crop.

First, if you have planted something with a short harvest time (like radishes - about 45 days), you can plant something completely different in its place once you have harvested. I've harvested my first radish crop and a few heads of lettuce. In their place, I've planted a crop of green and yellow beans.

Second, you can plant a few of the same thing every week for three or four weeks. Onions and carrots are great for this. I started my onions at one end of the row way back in April and every week I planted a few more. Last week I pulled my first few green onions and I will continue to get a few every week until the end of summer.

There are many benefits to succession planting beyond the obvious benefit to you when you can harvest fresh veggies all summer long. Think, for example, about the soil. Vegetables take a lot of nutrients from it in order to grow - but not every vegetable needs these nutrients in the same ratios. Since radishes require minimal nutrients, the beans sown in their place will have adequate amounts left. As well, the soil will be turned when the second crop is planted allowing oxygen and nutrients to mix through the soil. Finally, if you have a smaller vegetable garden, succession planting allows you to enjoy a variety of fresh vegetables (if you're replanting with a new type of veggie).

So next time you're out in the vegetable garden, think about succession planting. Simply keep in mind harvest times so the cold winter months don't swoop in before you can pick your crop.

Summer Lawn Care Tips

~ June 20, 2012

As the heat of summer hits home it is time to review Summer Lawn Care Tips:

- Water the lawn early in the morning. Watering in the heat of the day will result in moisture loss through evaporation.

- It is best to water your lawn infrequently and deeply. Rather than watering a little each day it is more beneficial to the root structure of your lawn to water deeply (1") once a week.

- Practice 'grass-cycling' and leave grass clippings on the lawn. Clippings will return nutrients to the soil and help retain moisture in the lawn. Better yet - use a mulching attachment on your lawn mower.

- Reduce the amount of foot traffic on the lawn during periods of drought.

- Raise the cutting height of your lawn mower to 2 1/2 or 3 inches to avoid stressing the grass. Longer grass will provide shade to the roots and reduce water loss from the soil.

- Sharpen lawn mower blades so the grass will be cut cleanly, not torn.

Decide whether you will allow your lawn to go dormant during periods of drought. Unless you experience a prolonged drought, your lawn will come back and green-up once the weather cools off.

Invest in a Mark's Choice rain barrel [I have 4 working for me right now!], available at Home Hardware, to collect valuable rain water. I use it to water all of my container plants and newly planted plants in the garden. Water collected in a rain barrel will not be as cold as tap water and will not shock plants when applied during hot conditions. Heat seeking plants like impatiens and tomatoes love it!

Father's Day is June 17

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Do you find it a challenge to choose the right gift for your father each year? Let me suggest that you consider the Mark's Choice line of cutting tools. I am really excited about this line of ‘best quality’, Canadian made loppers, shears and pruning saws.

I have chosen Canadian -made tools for their outstanding quality and durability. The Mark's Choice Bow Saw is balanced to reduce fatigue (especially in your forearms!). It melts green wood without binding, twisting and cuts effectively on both the back stroke and fore stroke. It’s a lot quieter and safer to use than a chain saw too!

My hedge shears keep an edge for a long time due to the high carbon steel and Teflon coating on the blades. They have extendable handles that hold sure and firm under pressure. Years of pruning experience have taught me that a good pair of tree loppers must feel good and confident in your hands. They must hold an edge - and be made of the very best steel. The ratcheting mechanism should stand the pressures of cutting through substantial limbs without jamming or twisting. And finally, extendable handles provide access to branches that otherwise may be out of reach.

These tools have set industry standards for quality and performance. Visit your local Home Hardware store to try these tools and pick one up for Father's Day while you're there.

Planting Basics

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The first step in choosing new plants is to choose the proper location based on the amount of sunlight your garden bed receives. Once you have determined which plants are appropriate for the sun/shade of your garden you can move on to preparing the soil. I recommend that you mix triple mix into the garden soil. Triple mix contains equal portions of composted manure, peat and loam. Spread the triple mix 2 inches (5 cm) deep over your entire garden bed and either dig it in by turning it over or leave it there for the earth worms to do the job (Which will take 6 to 8 weeks but is really quite effective).

The organic ingredients in triple mix enrich the soil with nutrients and boost microbial activity. If your garden soil is heavy clay you can amend the soil with organic matter and sharp sand. A yearly application will help break up the clay soil and improve drainage and aeration.

Now it is time to set your plants in the ground. This should be done as soon as possible when you bring the plants home. Place your plants in the ground at the same soil level as was in the container. Fill in around the root ball with your freshly amended soil and press the soil firmly around the root mass. Water in each plant well to settle the soil and make sure there are no air pockets around the roots. New plantings are dependent on you for moisture until they are established and can seek out their own moisture. For perennials and hardy shrubs water at least once per week for the first growing season. If you experience long periods of dry weather water more often.

Reduce maintenance by fertilizing with SMARTCOTE® Feed & Forget. This is an excellent controlled release fertilizer which provides nutrients to the plant over the entire growing season. Nutrient release is dependent on the available moisture in the soil and the temperature. Every time you water your plants, or it rains, SMARTCOTE® will release nutrients to the root zone of your plants. As the soil temperature rises the nutrients are released more quickly for optimal plant growth.

How to Shop at the Garden Center

~ May 30, 2012

When you visit the garden center it can often be overwhelming. I am often approached by gardeners asking me ‘where to start’. I offer this information to help point you in the right direction.

1. Good value does not always equal the lowest price. While there is a lot to be said for sale prices on most anything that you buy retail keep in mind that buying plants is unlike most other items that you put in your grocery cart. Plants are living things. A great looking plant is not pot bound, leggy, has yellowing leaves or is necessarily in full bloom. It IS young, roots only fill ½ of the container, stocky and always green. And not necessarily in full bloom.

2. Labelling pays for itself. During this, one of the busiest times of the year at garden retailers, it is not always easy to get answers from a sales person to your gardening questions. For this reason accurate picture labels are worth their weight. A good label is printed in Canada and is appropriate for our growing zone, includes a picture and detailed cultural information. It is also a handy reference placed next to your new plant in the garden.

3. Roots do not encircle the inside of the container. Young, white fibrous roots are ready to take off in your garden. These roots must make a home in your soil before the top part of the plant can thrive. It is o.k. to turn a plant upside down while at the garden centre, gently remove it from the pot and inspect it. If the roots circle the inside wall of the pot or cell pack put it back and look for a younger, perhaps less impressive looking specimen.

4. Full bloom is not always a good thing. It takes energy for a plant to produce a bloom. It is, after all, an effort on the part of the plant to attract pollinators (not buyers) and to reproduce. A great garden performer will have much more green growth on it than blooms. The power reserved in the roots will be there when you most want it to push the blooms to max while planted in your garden over the next month or two, rather than on the retailers shelf.

5. Wet. The hallmark of a good plant retailer is one that pays close attention to the maintenance of the plants that they sell. Many mass merchant retailers fall down in this department, allowing plants to become dry after they are received at the store. A plant that dries out excessively 'hardens off', reducing the vigor that it had when it left the green house. Avoid buying plants that are 'light weight' [dry] as they may just collapse on you before you get home. Buy wet plants.

Growing in Containers

~ May 23, 2012

I have a way to cut your watering down by up to one half this summer. Water Wicks are a great product in the Mark’s Choice line up that I am very excited about. Each ‘Water Wick’ tea bag absorbs up to 400 times its’ weight in water.

When you prepare a hole for planting, drop a pre-moistened Water Wick tea bag into the bottom of the hole and place the plant directly on top of it. Firm the soil around the plant as per usual. Now, as the soil dries out the plant will draw moisture from the Water Wick. When you water your plants the Water Wick is automatically recharged with water.

The results are that you will water much less and your plants will become deeply rooted in their search for water at the bottom of the planting hole.

How do we know these work? We tested them ourselves. But not until the Ontario Flower Growers applied them to over one million potted plants that were shipped to retailers across the country. The Water Wick concept was such a hit that reforestation projects are now using them when planting tree seedlings. We (Home Hardware and I) have the exclusive use of the product in the retail market.

Give them a try and let me know what you think. I have used them in the veggie garden, under newly planted perennials and in containers with great success.

Water Wicks are made in Canada and are a 100% Canadian concept!

More information visit

What's New with Mark's Choice - Part 2

~ May 16, 2012

Last week I introduced you to some of the new items in the Mark’s Choice product line. This week we will look at some great new Canadian-made, solid cedar items for your yard.

Woodpecker Feeder – This feeder with double reinforced mesh sides and cedar ends with feeding holes is sure to be a woodpecker favourite. Fill with nuts and enjoy the show!

Butterfly Habitat – If you plant flowers to attract butterflies then you need to provide them with a home. Place a small branch in the house to provide a perch and place this house in your flower bed.

Mason Bee House – Mason bees are solitary, non-aggressive insects that can be observed at close proximity. Supplying them nesting sites in the holes of this untreated cedar house can be an educational and fun activity for the entire family.

Bird Suet Plug Feeder – Enjoy this attractive, high-quality cedar suet feeder that is durable and weather resistant. Fill with easy to handle, no mess suet plugs.

This year I am excited to introduce the Mark’s Choice line of Premium Vegetable Seeds. These 12 varieties have been selected for: garden fresh flavour, ease of growing in Canadian conditions, and overall garden performance.

I have grown these seeds and presented the harvest at our table. I believe that you will equally enjoy the experience of growing AND eating these vegetables.

Varieties: Bush Green Bean, Bush Yellow Bean, Kestrel Hybrid Beet, Juno Hybrid Carrot, Fanfare Hybrid Cucumber, Red Lettuce, Leaf Lettuce, Mesclun Mix, Early Frost Pea, Samich Hybrid Spinach, Yellow Zucchini squash, Blue Spice Basil

What's New with Mark's Choice

~ May 9, 2012

The Mark’s Choice product research team thoroughly reviews and tests new products, one at a time. Before a product is approved to carry the Mark’s Choice name, it must meet very stringent criteria.

• Does it succeed in fulfilling a specific need for the Canadian home gardener?

• Is it tough enough to stand up to commercial grade use?

• Is it manufactured with the highest standard of materials?

• Will it perform a unique function and assist Canadian gardeners in creating a great looking lawn and garden?

The answers must always be ‘YES’. I believe that every Mark’s Choice product will help you to succeed in your garden. I would not put my name on them if I did not believe this.

New for 2012

Firefighter’s Nozzle – The new Mark’s Choice Firefighter’s Nozzle is fun to use. The adjustment is finely tuned to mist new seedling AND it can blast water up to 23 feet (7 metres), plus everything in between. The quality is superior to anything I have ever used, and I believe it will help you grow a better garden.  Home Hardware item# 5042-512.

Floa Constrictor – Provides the convenience of controlling water pressure virtually anywhere on your hose, eliminating trips back and forth to the tap. Adjustable to any hose size, you can easily irrigate exactly where you want, when you want, without wasting water. Simply place sprinkler in position, then snap the Floa Constrictor onto the hose in view of the sprinkler head. Close the valve tightly. Turn on the tap, and slowly open the valve on the Floa Constrictor until the correct water flow is achieved.  Home Hardware item# 5042-960.

Mark Cullen Edition Golfgreen Lawn Fertilizer – Exclusive to Home Hardware, this new formula of Golfgreen lawn fertilizer will produce a thicker, greener lawn for a longer greening period. The slow-release ingredient feeds your lawn when the rain falls, temperatures rise, and microbial activity in the soil takes place. It works when your lawn needs it the most, and gives your lawn what it craves the most. I only use Golfgreen fertilizer on my lawn. Special note: When you purchase a 12kg bag (or two 6kg bags) of Mark Culleh Edition Golfgreen at Home Hardware you will receive a complimentary copy of my new book Canadian Lawn & Garden Secrets.  Home Hardware item# 5024-503 (12kg) and 5024-502 (6kg).

Next week: more new products in the Mark's Choice line up.

Attracting Wildlife to Your Garden

~ May 2, 2012

Attracting wildlife to your yard is one of the great benefits of gardening – you just want to ensure that you are attracting the right kinds!

While we all garden for our own personal reasons, everyone loves hummingbirds, songbirds, and butterflies.

My new butterfly house provides the perfect environment for butterflies to nest, pupate, and morph, out of the reach of predators.

Attracting mason bees to your garden is ideal because they are very effective pollinators. They nest in 3/8” (1cm) tubes like those found in the new Mark’s Choice mason bee house. All you do is mount if out of the wind and clean it out with a drill once a year.

When planning your garden be sure to incorporate as many plants that attract desirable wildlife to your yard as possible. Many native plants like Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower) and Rudebeckia (Black eyed Susan) attract butterflies and songbirds. A hummingbird magnet is Monarda (Bee Balm).
Keep in mind that all of our flying friends enjoy still water for drinking and bathing, a protected place to perch, and many enjoy the addition of feeding station in your yard.

Gardening and Your Health

~ April 25, 2012

Incorporating regular physical exercise into a routine helps boost energy, cope with stress, counter depression and improve sleep. Gardening for just 30 to 40 minutes will significantly contribute to overall health.

Gardening's weight bearing tasks (ie. digging holes, pulling weeds, pushing a mower) have been linked to osteoporosis prevention. Women aged 50 and older who gardened at least once a week showed higher bone density readings than those who performed other types of exercise, including jogging, swimming, walking and aerobics. And, exposure to sunlight boosts vitamin D production, aiding the body's calcium absorption.

Recommendations: Use the right equipment. Whenever possible, look for equipment that is designed to be ergonomically correct. Keep in mind, a garden hose is easier to manage than a watering can, and a sturdy cart or wheelbarrow makes transferring easier. Pace yourself. Taking a few brief breaks each hour is recommended. Change your body position every 10 to 15 minutes, changing the focus from legs to arms, to hands to back. Relax and spread the work over a few days. Take it slow. Using different muscles than you're accustomed to can make even the most in-shape person slightly sore. So, take it slow, and alternate between heavy chores (ie. digging) and less physically demanding tasks (ie. planting).

[Source: Obus Forme report]

What To Do (and What NOT To Do) in the Garden

~ April 11, 2012

Is there another time of year when we feel such a surge of anticipation? The spring planting season will be here in earnest soon enough and with it a limitless supply of ‘to-do’s for even the most ambitious gardener.

In the meantime, some ‘NOT to do’s:

- Do not remove winterizing protection from evergreens, roses, and rhododendrons until you are certain that hard frost or heavy snow will not occur. Generally this is around the third week of April for southern Ont./Quebec and later as you go north.
- Do not stop feeding the birds. It is a myth that they only need to be fed in the winter.
- Do not turn your soil until it has dried to the point where it crumbles as you fork/spade it over. Otherwise, you will end up with large clumps of dried mud in your garden. And a sore back.
- Do not plant tender plants until the threat of frost has disappeared.

DO, however:

- Plant your little heart out – but plant only winter hardy evergreens, flowering shrubs and trees – while there is still the threat of frost. Perennials that have been ‘hardened off’ out of doors also transplant well in early spring –including the ones that you want to move around your own garden.
- Fertilize your lawn with a lawn food containing a slow release nitrogen ingredient. Better for your lawn –better for the environment. Rake out winter debris and seed thin spots in existing lawn.
- Turn your compost when frost has made it’s exit. This will introduce needed oxygen to get it heated up for late spring application to your garden.

Still restless? Then hose off the road salt from the evergreens nearest the road and the grass along the boulevard with a blast from the end of your garden hose.
Start your tomato and annual flowering plants indoors.
Start your dahlia tubers and canna lillies in one gallon sized pots. Place in a sunny window.
Take a deep breath: the great Canadian Gardening Season is here. You have a 7 to 8 month window to immerse yourself in the joy and to wear yourself out.

Things To Do in the Garden

~ April 4, 2012

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.

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.

Make a Date to Plant a Tree

~ March 28, 2012

For a long time it has made eminent sense to me that we need more trees in our urban spaces. If we spent more time and money on the planting of trees and the maintenance of the ones that we have, can you imagine the difference that it would make?

Here are some points to ponder from a variety of studies including one conducted in Chicago by the University of Illinois called the ‘Vegetation and Crime study’.

Consider that:

- Less crime. Compared with buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high levels of greenery had 48% fewer property crimes and 56% fewer violent crimes.

- Trees encourage physical activity – comfortable outdoor environments are more conducive to encouraging exercise – research in the Netherlands and Japan indicated that people were more likely to walk or cycle to work if the streets were lined with trees. Residents feel better and live longer as a result.

- Walking. The proximity of green space (and trees) to people’s homes increases the likelihood of the residents choosing walking over other forms of transport.

- Green play settings reduce ADHD symptoms.

- Less stress and fatigue. Trees and green space helps reduce mental fatigue and stress and has important benefits for child development.

- Higher property values. A survey of 1350 real estate agents showed that 85% believe that a home with trees would be as much as 20% more saleable than a home without trees.

- CP Morgan, a developer in Indiana, found that his wooded lots sell for an average of 20% more than similar non-wooded lots.

Add the well documented facts that trees cool the atmosphere, produce oxygen, sequester carbon, filter and slow storm water runoff and transpire moisture on hot days and you get the picture. The Toronto Urban Forestry Study “Every Tree Counts” estimates the value of Toronto’s Urban Forest ecologically as providing “at least $60 million in ecological services each year”.

In Toronto there are about 4 million ‘mature’ trees in public spaces and 6 million more on private land. At one time the tree canopy in Toronto covered almost 40% of our land area; today it covers approximately 20%. The tree canopy in Toronto has been in decline since the 1960’s.

As you contemplate all of these facts think about the impact that planting more trees and nurturing the ones that we currently have would have in urban spaces in our lifetime and that of future generations…

Fine Tune Your Tools

If you visited Canada Blooms this week I’m sure you are itching to get out there and do some digging in the earth. If you haven’t been to ‘Blooms yet there is still time. The festival runs until March 25. Visit for the details.

As much as we would like to get out in the garden, even the most ambitious gardeners will need to wait for the ground to thaw and then dry out. This will ensure that damage is not done to the soil by walking on it. Until your garden is at that point, there is no point in ‘turning it over’.

However, there is a lot that you can do to prepare for the digging/gardening/grass cutting season ahead!

Let’s begin with the really easy stuff: digging and weeding.

I talk frequently about the joys of digging and hoeing. The rhythm of a spade, thrust deep into the soil, the smell of fresh earth, the feeling of a quality tool in your hands… all of this adds up to a satisfying digging experience. But what spoils it all too often is ‘dull tools’.

This is such an easy problem to solve: all you need is a good bastard file. I sharpen my hoe and my spade every time I go out into the garden to either cut down weeds or dig a hole. I just draw the file across the top of the spade or the inside edge of the hoe 3 or 4 times and again across the opposite side once or twice – just to remove the burr of metal that occurs there.

Take a good look at your digging tools – spades, shovels and the like: have they EVER been sharpened? If not, time to put them on the grinding wheel in the shop or (if you don’t have a grinding wheel) be sure to stop the guy with the bell and the grinding wheel that comes around your street each spring looking for ‘sharpening’ business. Truth is, he may look at you kind of funny as not many of us take our digging tools out to him for sharpening… we may think of the pruning shears and the lawn mower blade at the time but not the shovel. Be the first on your block to demonstrate what an amazing difference this makes to the ‘digging experience.’
Ditto your hoe(s).
Then use the bastard file to keep the edge on all of these valuable tools all season long.

A shot of WD 40 or equivalent works wonders too. It will keep the blade clean and discourage the buildup of soil on it.

Lawn Mower

As mentioned above, time to sharpen the lawn mower blade. You can try this yourself if you know what you are doing or leave it up to the neighbourhood professionals. Up to you. But it is important to do this, otherwise you are cutting your grass with dull blades and that means bruised grass blades (recognized by brown hue over the surface of the grass) and you will use more gas as your lawn mower works harder to do the job.
Also: change or clean the spark plug, clean up the cutting deck by removing any of last years’ grass clippings that are stuck up there and replace the oil. If it is a 2 stroke engine, replace the machine with a 4 stroke – a cleaner burning ‘gas only’ engine that does not require you to add oil to it.

Cutting tools

Your grass/hedge/pruning shears need sharpening and lubricating. Use a hone for sharpening and WD40 or equivalent for lubing.

Clean off any rust with the lubricant or, if it is stubborn, use a soapy brillo pad to do the job. For that matter most metal cleaners will do the job nicely.


Grease or oil the wheel and axle, paint the metal box if it is beginning to rust and paint or stain the wooden parts to prevent them from rotting.

Rain barrels

Turn them upside-down to get out any debris and position them for a new season of rain collecting.

There now… I bet you feel better knowing that you are ready for almost anything that the gardening season throws at you.

And you will enjoy the experience of it all that much more.

Count Down to St. Patrick's Day

~March 14, 2012

I can enjoy a beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day along with the rest of the gang – but green beer! I prefer the green touch to materialize from my plant collection, the lucky Shamrock for example.

Look for Shamrocks at your garden centre, they are not just available for St. Paddy’s Day, they are an attractive and ‘lucky’ plant to have in your home at any time. They make a great windowsill plant in a sunny location where they will display their cup-shaped white, pink, red, or lavender flowers for many weeks, even months.

Truth is, Shamrocks sold this time of year are not exactly Shamrocks – they are Oxalis.

Oxalis (Wood Sorrel)
There are many plants that make up the Oxalis family, a genus of at least 850 species of annuals, perennials and shrubs, most of which are native to South Africa and tropical and South America. This plant has three types of root systems - bulbs, rhizomes or tuberous. The name, Oxalis, derived from the Greek for acid, alludes to the sharp acid taste of the leaves of many of the species. Some of these plants are hardy perennials, some tender houseplants and some are what we refer to as ‘weeds’, such as the yellow-blooming, extremely prolific variety that seems to appear from nowhere in our flowerbeds and lawns, spreading and multiplying faster than we can pull it out.

The leaves frequently comprise three leaflets, sometimes more, which fold up at night. The slender five-petaled flowers open in direct sunlight and close umbrella-like when out of the sun or in darkness. When the ripened capsules open, the seeds are ejected with great force, spreading far afield.

Most Oxalis bulbs can be forced to bloom at any time of the year. After a flowering period when the bulb stops blooming, allow it to go into dormancy for a few weeks, the leaves will yellow and die. The plant might appear to be dead, but don’t be deceived, it’s simply taking a rest. During this dormancy period, don’t water. The plant will re-awake itself and start sending out new shoots. At this time you can start watering and fertilizing again.

As with most plants there are good and bad in each family and you and I are really only interested in the attractive worthwhile plants that make us feel we have found something beautiful that no one else has yet discovered. Here are three members of the oxalis family that simply cannot be ignored.

Oxalis deppei (Wood Sorrel, Lucky Shamrock)
This is a dainty plant (bulb) originating from Mexico and grows to a height of around 20cm (8in.). This is often referred to as the ‘good luck’ plant or ‘iron cross’ and produces four green leaves, resembling a lucky four-leaf clover, and displays a burgundy splash-type marking in its centre. The upstanding flowers, which tower above the foliage, are reddish pink to rich purple.

The edible leaves have a sharp lemony taste, somewhat similar to sorrel.

Although these taste rather good in salads, it is best to err on the side of caution and not consume huge quantities at one sitting as the leaves contain oxalic acid and this could interfere with the absorption of certain nutrients into the body, such as calcium. This substance is also found in other nutritious foods such as rhubarb and spinach. The quantity of oxalic acid will be considerably reduced if the leaves are cooked. However, I imagine like me you have selected this plant for its attractive plant properties and not especially for its nutritional value.

Oxalis triangularis (Wood Sorrel)
This is another variety that is excellent for container growing. The very small rhizomes resemble small pine cones, leaves are deep purple and the flowers are delicate lavender pink. This plant makes a wonderful contrast in a container

Oxalis regnelli (Wood Sorrel)
Oxalis regnelli, also known as Oxalis rubra alba, is one of the more familiar varieties and is very similar to Oxalis triangularis. However, the three-lobed, large green leaves are deep purple on the reverse and the pretty clusters of flowers are pure white.

Why not experiment with a selection of Oxalis in a decorative container where they can blossom and complement each other with their varied leaf and flower colours? Enjoy, but beware this is a plant that might seduce you into becoming hooked on collecting Oxalis and, because they bloom so profusely, you might be tempted into seeking further varieties!

Canada Blooms. March 16 - 25, 2012

~ March 7, 2012

Each year at Canada Blooms my botanical buddy Denis Flanagan joins me for an overview of the festival. Over the years we have learned that there are a few ‘tricks’ to covering the event while making the very best use of your time. The co-location with the National Home makes it even more important for you to plan your day (or ‘days’) at ‘Blooms!

- Wear flat soled shoes. There is lots of walking. If you need a wheel chair, you can book one through the Canada Blooms office.

- Bring a small digital camera. Your visual record of your visit will inspire you for months!

- Plan your day ahead of time. We have invested heavily in our website so that you can get an overview of the events on each day, the feature gardens, the ‘floral hall’, marketplace and of course places to eat. Think about where you want to go first, last and in between.

- To avoid crowds and line ups, plan to visit the feature gardens either first thing in the morning or mid to late afternoon. Typically the evening hours are quieter and easier to navigate your way around.

- Bring your gardening questions. Master gardeners are on hand to answer them as are many Landscape Ontario professionals from the trade.

- Sign up for the monthly Canada Blooms newsletter to stay current on events at the festival.

- Buy your tickets on line early to avoid the possible delay at the ticket counter

- Pick up the Toronto Star insert on March 15 with some of my special garden features. And read up on this years’ edition of Canada Blooms.

- Rest up the night before as this is the largest event of its kind in all of North America. With over 8 acres of total space devoted to both Canada Blooms and the National Home Show, you will want to be running on all cylinders!

Have fun and look for Denis and me there – we would love to meet you!


p.s. my daughter Heather and I present a power point on our trip to Cornwall England last summer on Friday, March 16th at 1 p.m. Please join us!

Bed Bugs

~ February 29, 2012

In last week’s blog I talked about ladybugs and Asian Lady Beetles. Bed bugs are another insect that will become more active as temperatures rise and days lengthen.

Adult bed bugs have received a lot of attention in recent months as reports of their appearance have spiked. The adult bed bug is about ¼ of an inch long (1/2 cm) and they are flat as paper. They have oval shaped bodies with no wings. They bite. In addition to feeding on human blood they will bite mammals and birds. They attack at night and survive for up to 6 months.
No wonder no one wants them inside their home.

Bed bugs get into your home through clothing, luggage (never put travel bags on your bed) and furniture. Once they are in your house they make themselves at home in mattress seams, creases, and folds. They will hide in cracks in the head board and bed frame. In short they are quite at home wherever it is dark during the day and where they can hide. When your body is as thin as a piece of paper, you can hide most any where!

Getting rid of bed bugs is a process.

Inspect your mattress and bed frame, particularly the folds and other places that they like to hide.
Wash all linens in the hottest water possible and place them in a hot dryer for 20 minutes.
Remove all unnecessary clutter (great excuse to purge your kid’s room!)
Seal cracks and crevices between baseboards, on wood bed frames, floors and walls with caulking.
Monitor daily by setting out glue boards or a trap/monitor. Place the monitor/trap on the bed frame near the mattress. Green Earth makes one called Crawling Insect Trap and Monitor.

Spray using an environmentally responsible insect killer that contains pyrethrins. Green Earth makes one called Biomist Insect Killer that can be diluted for application and that will do the job.

Naturally, if either bed bugs or lady beetles get out of hand I would encourage you to call a local pest control company.
If you have been bitten by bed bugs see your doctor. While most bed bug bites go away by themselves some people do get allergic reactions to them. Scratching the bites can lead to trouble in the form of infection, too.

There is more information on bed bugs at and

One last word on the new bug season that is ahead of us: the vast majority of bugs in your garden are beneficial. They play a vitally important role in the decomposition of raw, organic material and the general renewal of your garden each spring. For the most part, I welcome them into my garden each spring. The aforementioned bugs excepted.

First Sign of Bug Season

~February 22, 2012

Come early March I will be overwhelmed with questions on my website about ladybugs. It was not always so.

As a kid we were told not to harm ladybugs as they did a lot of good in the garden. All of that changed about 10 years ago with the arrival of the Asian Lady Beetle. Imported by well intentioned people, the Asian Lady Beetle was ‘brought in’ in an attempt to use integrated pest management on a rather persistent aphid problem in soy bean crops. These bugs have a voracious appetite for aphids, consuming up to 270 of them in one day.

I am sure that it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, no one thought to check these beetles out to see if they hibernate indoors over winter, multiply in biblical proportions or if they bite. All of which they do.

Warm House = awakening Bugs.

As the temperatures in your home rise and as days grow longer the lady beetles that have hibernated in your home since last fall will awaken. During the day they will move towards the sunshine, that is why you find many of them on window sills this time of year.

Controlling the Asian Lady Beetle is not difficult for the most part. When you see large congregations of them vacuum them up and be sure to clean out your vacuum the same day or they will just crawl out and go back to being a nuisance. Sometimes they smell odd when you vacuum them. This is their natural reaction to being disturbed and the smell will go away.

I do not recommend that you step on them or otherwise squish them as they ooze yellow stuff that smells even worse. Besides, you could end up with a yellow smear on the wall or floor that is not easy to clean up.

Control for lady beetles may be achieved with the use of white powdered silicon dioxide. Green Earth makes a product called Slug and Bug Killer Dust that can be used around pets and children to control many household pests. Apply it on the sills of windows, along the exit through sliding doors and anywhere that they tend to congregate.

One last thing on lady bugs. The Asian variety (Harmonia axyridis) should not be confused with the 3 ‘good guys’ that are native to our land. The 7 Spotted Lady Beetle, Oval Lady Beetles and the Pink Spotted Lady Bug (or C Mac for short) are great friends to the gardener and farmer.

They too will consume nasty bugs like aphids, scale and other sucking insects that otherwise can do a lot of damage.

Soil is a Living Thing

~ February 15, 2012

As a gardener I am acutely aware of the impact that my activity has on the soil in my garden. If I plant tomatoes in the same soil two seasons in a row I invite a host of unwanted disease and pests. If I don’t add compost and sharp sand to the perennial beds every second year the productive cycle of flowering and seed production drops noticeably. I have learned that if I do not ‘feed the soil’ the plants that grow in it will draw nutrients from it to the detriment of the soil itself.

Soil – or ‘dirt’ – is a colony of living things that are interwoven in their dependence on one another for survival. Leaves and trees fall to the forest floor to provide rich fodder of raw organic material that, as it rots, feeds the bacteria and insect life that converts it into something that plant life can use. Mycorhizae and a host of insects finish the job.

And so the cycle continues.
Our gardens do not generally benefit from rotting tree limbs or the fallen leaves unless we leave them there intentionally. All too often we blow our leaves into a pile with a power assisted leaf blaster and bag them up for the municipality to haul away. Does that make sense? No, I didn’t think so.

There are some people who argue that the most valuable natural resource in Canada is not oil or natural gas or even our fresh water. It is our soil. I agree with this group. Through reading and experience I have learned that our willingness to add to and enhance the quality of our soil, to ‘invest’ in it in every way possible, not only makes eminent sense but is a necessity if we plan on farming and gardening sustainably.

Perhaps you will think that there is very little that a gardener can do on a small residential lot or condo balcony to enhance and protect the soil that feeds us. Maybe so, maybe not. Truth is our attitude towards soil and the enduring qualities that it possesses when treated with due respect is an attitude that is rooted firmly at home. That should be good enough reason to soil-save if you ask me.

Plan a Trip

~February 8, 2012

Mid winter is a good time to plan a trip for this spring or summer: you will likely save some money and once you have committed the time in your schedule it is hard to back out. You get what you plan for.

Travel opens our minds to broader horizons. We gain a deeper understanding of how gardens are created and an appreciation for the value of time. A garden that is several generations or centuries old feels different than the one in your back yard. These gardens help us understand that a garden is created not for the gardener but people who are not born yet.

Here are my top 3 gardens in North America:

Minter Gardens, B. C.
In 1980 a young entrepreneur by the name of Brian Minter was hiking through a mountain path not far from his Chilliwack home when it occurred to him that the real estate would make a spectacular garden. He was right. He bought the mountain, so to speak, built the garden and earned an Order of Canada in the process.

Today Minter Gardens is one of the great Canadian secrets of public gardens. Truth is most people travelling the Trans Canada highway through Mission B.C. will drive right past the door of the place and not even know that they are missing a tremendous horticultural gem. Many will be on their way to Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, which is also worth the visit. But it is not Minter; quiet, contemplative, wildly innovative (check out the new children’s garden) and one of the hot spots for weddings in the Fraser Valley.
Go to

Montreal Botanical Gardens.
What the Montreal Canadiens are to hockey, the MBG is to North American gardens. You will find culture, a storied past: an icon of the city that for some reason is a big secret to many of us here in Ontario. This is hardly fair.

Recently a friend, who I would not judge to be a very passionate gardener, ‘discovered’ the Montreal Botanical Garden and came home raving about this ‘find’ where an authentic Japanese Garden, an extensive collection of trees and rare plants, wildlife and meandering paths provide an extraordinary experience within easy reach on public transit. You can discover it for the mere admission price of $16.50. Check it out on line and you will find that there is one botanical garden that rivals our own Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington: the MBG.
Go to

Longwood Gardens.
Pierre S. du Pont was an industrialist and a gardener. He also had a lot of money. Longwood is the only garden, to my knowledge, that is maintained by an endowment left by the founder. A recent six million dollar capital project was financed from the interest earned by this incredibly generous foundation. And that is in addition to financing the operating costs of the place. When you pay $18 to get in to Longwood you are merely topping up the income required to maintain this extraordinary treasure.

Longwood is a full day visit. It is impossible to do this expansive property justice in any less time. The vegetable gardens showcase traditional gardening methods and heritage varieties as well as the current hybrids. Fountains of water can be heard from hundreds of meters away due to the shear volume of them. The greenhouses always feature a seasonal display that will knock your gardening socks off and there is a great restaurant, snack bar, gift shop and …. Well, let’s just say that the entire experience is top drawer. It is worth the drive to Philadelphia (1/2 hour north). Get the details at

Bulbs Help Beat the Blues

~ February 1, 2012

Forced bulbs in the home are a wonderful sight and a great pick-me-up after a long Canadian winter. What better way to celebrate spring is finally on the way than with a fresh show of colour and fragrance, and the promise of a new gardening season just around the corner?

You may have experimented by forcing your own bulbs this year, but if you ran out of time, forgot to buy extra bulbs, or simply thought you’d delay the experience until next year, this is the answer. The only effort involved is a trip to browse around the garden centre, and what could be a better way to get a horticultural ‘fix’ at this time of the year!

The bulbs you will be seeking will be green, plump with buds, and almost ready to burst into bloom. They will most likely include the proverbial herald of spring; the daffodil, together with splendid Darwin tulips and fragrant hyacinths, all displaying the latest colour shades available for 2012. If you look carefully you will also find containers of mixed bulbs combining both fragrance and colour. What could be more exhilarating when snow still covers the ground, blotting out all signs of the earth and new growth, than cheery spring bulbs?

If you bring potted flowering bulbs into your home, I suggest that you will get the best and longest blooms from bulbs when you ensure they are not in a direct line with the warm, drying air from the heat vents. It is enormously beneficial to put them in a cool spot overnight, such as a cold room to prolong the blossoming period by several days or a week.

Once the blooms have finished don’t neglect these enthusiastic performers. They will perform an encore for you next year if you plant them in your garden. Keep them watered sufficiently to maintain healthy foliage to nurture the bulbs until you can plant them directly into the ground when the soil thaws. Next spring they will bring your garden to life when Mother Nature dictates.

January Wrap-Up

~ January 25, 2012

This winter I have decided to acquire more tropical plants for indoors than usual. Study after study has proven that the addition of green, living plants produce oxygen, clean the indoor atmosphere of airborne toxins and add significantly to the humidity of our incredibly dry Canadian homes during the winter months. Our average home has about 12 to 15% humidity mid winter. The Sahara desert averages about 25%.

The kitchen table will always have a flowering plant on it. The lowly indoor chrysanthemum is a favourite with NASA as a clean air plant.
Flowering plants also lift the spirits and brighten an otherwise dull room when our days are short.

I start my impatiens seeds the first week of February: this launches me nicely into the new ‘seed sowing season’.

Outdoors, wet snow needs to be brushed off of mature evergreens, especially the upright varieties like cedar and junipers, to avoid permanent damage.

Birds need feeding especially during times of heavy snow fall.

Ambitious gardeners will prune their apple trees in winter – just like the professionals do.

‘Garden with your head’. Take the time to read all that you can get your hands on about gardening as you develop your strategy for the best garden season ever this coming spring.

And finally, pray for a deep frost. This minimizes the insect problems that you will have to deal with this coming season. This is cold comfort when it is -25oC I know, but hey, I’ll trade it for the dreaded Japanese beetle.

Feeding Feathered Friends

~ January 18, 2012

As I peer out the window of our kitchen this time of year I am grateful for the birds that visit the seed heads of the ornamental grasses that I let stand over the winter. I am so glad that I resisted the temptation to cut them down in the autumn.

The ‘winter garden’ is more interesting than ever; I took more time to consider the appearance of my garden in the ‘off season’ when planting this past year. The evergreens and Blue Holly look so much more interesting than a flat yard of snow. And the bright red crabapples that remain on my Malus ‘Red Jade’ look fantastic. Soon the birds will find these appealing too.

This is the perfect time to attract song sparrows, chickadees and overwintering Blue Jays and Cardinals with a ‘song bird seed mix’. Or just use straight black oil sunflower seeds. To prevent the mess associated with sunflowers use the hulled variety – more expensive but all ‘meat’ and no waste or mess to clean up.

Winter feeding birds need the carbohydrates contained in suet. I always hang several out for the winter. That way, if I don’t replace one of them after it is finished the birds always have another to feed on.

As for the myth that feeding the birds creates a dependency on your feeding station that is not healthy for them – hogwash. If they are disappointed by the selection of seed in your yard they go hunting for available seed in the wild. In most cases, they have the option to go next door or down the street to the home of another generous gardener come bird feeder.

Orchids Made Easy

~ January 12, 2012

In spite of their new level of popularity, home grown orchids are still misunderstood. Chief among these ‘misunderstandings’ is that orchids are hard to grow. This is not necessarily true.

The orchid family is the largest in the plant world. Most people who are just starting out with orchids are looking for a long-flowering, easy to care for plant with exotic flowers and a general habit of reblooming without much fuss.

There are orchids that are so easy to care for that I put them in the same category as African violets: only orchids are easier.
If you enjoy ignoring your indoor plants, allowing them to go dry for long periods of time, I have the answer for you. And many of your friends are going to think that your brown thumb morphed over the New Year into the greenest of green!

I will classify the popular orchids according to the amount of care that they require and their desired location in your home:


This is the most popular of orchids for the home gardener. They are epiphytic, which means that they grow in trees and rocks in the tropics. When the bloom fades, cut the stems below the last flower, just above a node (where the leaf meets the stem). In most cases a new stem will develop and it will re-flower.
Location: warm home, low light conditions. If space is limited, look for a miniature Phalaenopsis.

Light: no direct sun. Enjoys a north facing (low light) window but prefers an east facing one.

Temperature: low of 18°C and high of 29°C.

Humidity: stand in a tray of pebbles among a group of like-minded plants. Mist leaves with tepid water often including the roots that are exposed.

ReBlooming: 3 weeks of cooler (18 °C) temperatures will ‘kick start’ this orchid into reblooming.


These are ‘ground dwellers’ (terrestrial) orchids that grow naturally in tropical and subtropical Asia. They are easily identifiable by their pouch-like lip, much like our native ‘Lady Slipper’ orchids. This is a spectacular species with gorgeous single blooms born on a stem ranging in colour from white, green, brown, claret, red, yellow and pink.

Location: defused light to direct sunshine. Versatile.

Temperature: low of 13°C this time of year to 24°C in summer. Generally they like it cool. Green-leaved hybrids are the toughest of them all vs. varieties with mottled leaves.

Special needs: humidity using a pebble tray increases humidity. Misting can cause mould.


Cambria orchids provide a spray of bloom on a single stem that is quite impressive.

Location: diffused light, north or west facing window is ideal most of the year. North is favoured during the intense summer time.

Temperature: low of 13°C and high in the summer of 24°C.

Humidity: group with other plants and use a pebble tray with water in the bottom of it to raise humidity, especially in late spring and summer. In winter reduce temperatures and watering frequency. Fertilize with half strength Schultz orchid fertilizer.

2012 Perennial Plant of the Year

~ January 4, 2012

Brunnera Macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ has been named the Perennial Plant Association's 2012 Perennial Plant of the Year. It carries the common name Siberian bugloss. And I love it.

I have grown Jack Frost in my own garden for several years and it is one of the greatest garden performers out there. This outstanding perennial plant is known best for its clear, distinctly variegated foliage. The silver/white inside margin of the heart-shaped leaves look their very best on an overcast or rainy day. How many plants can you say that about?

Insect and disease resistant in the extreme! I love what ‘Jack Frost’ does in my woodland garden and I think that you will enjoy it in a shady spot in your garden too. Note the ‘forget-me-not’ type sky-blue flowers in early spring.

Light – Perfect for a woodland garden. ‘Jack Frost’ prefers shade but can handle a sunny location. Requires afternoon shade to prevent leaf scorch.

Soil - This plant performs well in all but the driest conditions.

Hardiness - USDA Zones 2 to 9

Brunnera “Jack Frost” is not difficult to find at retailers and performs well in half sun to full shade locations.