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.

Perennials: Some you cut down, some you leave standing.

The questions about what to cut down in your perennial garden and what to leave standing just keep coming.
I think that we need a ‘rule of thumb’ or something – a guide – so that when you are out there in your garden you can make an intelligent decision, “THIS is getting its head cut off, and this one will stand for the winter.”

Here is the best ‘guide’ that I can come up with:
IF it has a seed head on it that is mature or has not yet matured (one that birds might enjoy chowing down on) – leave it standing.
IF it has a rigid stem and will not blow over in winter winds – leave it standing.
IF it is an ornamental grass (Calamagrostis, Miscanthus, etc.) leave it standing.

IF it has floppy foliage that has already turned yellow or brown and looks poorly in your garden – cut it back and throw the leaves into your compost (e.g. daylilies and peonies).
IF it is ugly and you don’t like the look of it – cut it back.
IF the birds have had their time with the seed heads and there are no seeds left (like with many of my Echinacea) cut it back.
I am including this picture of my front yard as an illustration of what I decided to cut back and not….. Notice that ALL of the Shasta Daisies were cut back to about 5 cm. Some of the blue Veronica was cut back because it was full of an aggressive clematis – gone wild! – And I wanted to comb it out before winter. Other Veronica was left standing because it has seed heads on it that the birds will like.
Truth is there is no harm to cutting herbaceous perennials back to the ground or leaving them standing. I like some left upright for the winter for winter interest. Yes, the snow will fall on them instead of all of it falling on the ground and that can be interesting. Right now you may be thinking that that does not sound too attractive. But you have forgotten how desperate we Canadians become when winter really hits home.

Believe me – we are the people who escape from the indoors at the first sign of spring to hose down the driveway (the garden still has snow on it) and this feels like a trip to Florida.

The only danger of leaving them flat to the ground come spring is that they can rot there and can encourage the same thing to move through the crown or root structure of the plant.

For the most part Mother Nature takes care of the thing.

We are not all that far away from trick-or-treat time and you will likely be acquiring a pumpkin.

This is good. For one, the pumpkin is now our 7th most popular agricultural table crop and farmers need the money. Not that long ago pumpkins were hardly on the radar.

The odd thing is that many Canadians (dare I say, urban ones?) don’t view the pumpkin as a ‘food’ crop at all. I think that many actually believe that it is just another disposable commodity, like disposable diapers and Dixie cups. Truth is a pumpkin is 99% water.

So tell me, why is it that so many of us leave the pumpkin out for the trash pick up, like so much ‘garbage’?

Here is a much better idea: put it in your compost pile or your bin. Cut it up to make it ‘break down’ faster and it will take up much less room there.

Don’t have a compost? O.k. – just leave it on the surface of the soil – anywhere! – But not where the kids will be tempted to pick it up and throw it on the road.

Frost will come and it will go. We will get some thaws and then more frost. Your pumpkin will melt – before your eyes! - And you will be left with a thin – VERY thin – layer of orange pumpkin skin on the soil. You can dig this in come spring or break it up with a hoe.

That is it! You have saved some water from being dumped in the land fill (think of the trucking costs that you will save!) and your soil will be marginally better off for it.

Short list of things to do in the garden:
- Fertilize your lawn – this is the most important application of the year. Use a slow release nitrogen product for best results.
- Cut your lawn (maybe for the last time!) about 2 ½ inches or 6 cm high.
- Dig your carrots, leeks, left over potatoes etc. and store in bushel baskets ½ full of pure, dry sand. Put in your basement or fruit cellar.
- Yank out your annuals and finished veggie plants like tomatoes. Put them in your composter or compost pile.
- Plant Holland tulips and crocus.
- Prune cedar hedges.
- Begin thinking about winterizing your roses that are not of the ‘shrub’ type. Hybrid Teas, Grandifloras, Floribundas etc. will need about 50 cm (1 ½ feet) of fresh triple mix piled up from the bottom. If you live on the Prairies, now is a good time to do this. In central Canada and the Maritimes the best time is just before the Grey Cup game – the game is your reward for doing the job!
- Clean and sharpen your lawn mower before you put it away.

More next week folks!
Enjoy the harvest season ….. We can see the end of it on the horizon so get out and breathe deep!

Keep your knees dirty,