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.

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!