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Garden Expert: Gardening Does A 180

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Garden Expert: Gardening Does A 180

Current trends embrace nature for a more eco-conscious world

Not long ago, the typical image of a Canadian garden consisted of a broad sweep of impatiens across the front of the house, a solid mass of unbroken colour that knocked your eyes out. This, framing a manicured, weed-free lawn, trimmed neat and clean.

Back in the day, as recently as 20 years ago, there was a lot of ‘snipping’ going on. And control. Mother Nature was to be tamed, not partnered with. My father was a leader of this pack. Why else, at the age of 14, did he send me out to prune a juniper into the shape of a chicken?

Dad was having fun, of course, and I do not mean to make fun of him.

Things have changed significantly in the Canadian garden in recent years and it is worth noting some of these changes.

Here’s how:

1 BRING ON THE INSECTS. Take tent caterpillars for instance. My Dad would cut a larvae-laden limb out of a crab-apple tree and burn the colony to get rid of it. I am sure this gave him much satisfaction.

A few years ago, I decided to just leave the tent caterpillars alone in my row of 25 crabapples. I observed that many of the trees in the native forest along Hwy 400, between Toronto and North Bay, provide habitat to caterpillars and no one takes them out or burns them. And now I realize that they serve a useful purpose in the natural scheme of things. They are food for many foraging birds including insectivores, many of which are in decline. They need all of the help we can give them, so why not ignore the tent caterpillars and let nature take its course? I decided to do this and it took two years for the birds to discover that I was no longer removing them from tree limbs before they did the job for me. Voilà! Less work for me, better for the birds.

We do not kill insects to the same extent that we once did. Native insects (vs. imported, invasive ones like the Emerald Ash Borer) are part of the natural web. Apart from our general distaste for wasps in our soft drinks and ants in our patio, we are gradually learning to live and let live.

2 KILLING WEEDS. Just a few years ago we pulled milkweed from our gardens. It is a ‘weed,’ after all it is in the name, right? Now we pay good money for milkweed seeds to provide habitat and food for migratory monarch butterflies.

3 ROT AND DECAY ARE OUR FRIENDS. Remember when we blew our fallen leaves into piles and stuffed them into brown paper bags, dragged them to the curb for the municipality to haul them away? In the spring, we drove to a depot to pick up ‘free’ compost or worse, some municipalities offered the compost for sale back to the taxpayers who gave them the raw material in the first place. Back in the day we really weren’t too smart. Now we rake (not blow) the leaves off the lawn and on to the garden.

Over the spring months, those leaves disappear as foraging worms pull them into the soil to convert them into nitrogen-rich earthworm castings. Better for your garden, less work, saves the municipality money. Oh, some of us still do it the old-fashioned way. Okay, this one is a work in progress.

4 WILDLIFE HABITAT. With over 800 species of native Canadian bees, we are indeed blessed with a host of natural pollinators, many of which are in decline. Many are more effective at pollination than honeybees, which are a European import.

Now we provide habitat for our dear wildlife: mason bee houses, insect hotels, toad homes, water features that breed frogs, toads, salamanders, dragon flies and newts.

We are getting much better at this but have a way to go. I predict that we will have as many insect-enhancing devices in our backyards in 20 years as we have bird feeders now. Stay tuned.

I recently asked a friend, who is a father to a 15-year-old boy, what he thought the world will look like a generation from now. He looked at me with a worried frown, “I hate to think.”

And yet, all of the aforementioned changes in our thinking with respect to the Canadian garden are a result of young people speaking up in defence of a new, greener, cleaner world.

And sometimes they don’t speak up.

They just do it.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com


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In The Garden: Head For Cover

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In The Garden: Head For Cover

While we were worshiping to the sun gods back in February, some of us may now be getting fed up with the heat. With high temperatures come increased UV rays, so it makes sense to seek out shady spots that provide some reprieve.

It’s under the shade of a leafy tree where we’ll experience temperatures that are five to 12 degrees cooler. The moisture it evaporates provides a cooling effect, so it’s no wonder we naturally migrate to these prime locations to have a picnic, read a book or take a nap.

A Shady Deal | It’s a good time to consider options for a shade garden, especially for under those trees on the north side of your house. I have a short list of favourites that are ideal for dappled shade – plants that prefer a sun/shade mix, but don’t like the hot/dry sun of mid afternoon.


Astilbe | Also known as False Spirea and Feather Flower, this plant injects a burst of colour for a prolonged stretch of time – from late spring and throughout the summer. The brightly coloured blossoms are electrifying in intensity, and grow from 30 to 80 centimetres high. They prefer an open, peaty soil, but once they dry out, it’s difficult to rehydrate them. To prevent them from doing so, be sure to mulch with five centimetres of shredded cedar bark.


Rhododendrons | ‘Rhodies’, as they are affectionately known in the business, hold a special place in the shade garden – but there are some secrets. For one, they love an acid soil, which is opposite to the alkaline stuff most of us put up with in the GTA. Always plant your rhododendrons in an open, sandy soil, mixed with finely ground pine bark – about 30 per cent by volume. Add about four tablespoons of garden sulphur (to help to acidify the soil) about every six weeks throughout the summer and into the early fall. Keep in mind that you’re not fertilizing them, per se, you’re changing the pH of the soil. For a foolproof garden performance, I recommend the winter tough ‘PJM’ varieties – purple flowers, with early spring blooms that are hardy to zone 4 (Ottawa).

Boxwood | Buxus is a broad-leafed evergreen that performs very well in all areas, up to zone 4. Boxwood is an evergreen, so treat it with a humusbased soil of peat or compost, and fertilize every few weeks with an evergreen food, like 30-10-10, until the middle of the summer. There have been many amazing boxwood hybrids that have been introduced over the years, which provide a deeper colour and a more finely textured foliage, versus the original version of Korean Boxwood.

Oregon Grape Mahonia Aquifolium

Oregon Grape | Native to British Columbia, the Mahonia Aquifolium grows quite well in zone 5 and 6 gardens (including Barrie). This plant features holly-like leaves that remain on the plant throughout the winter, and are then replaced as new growth occurs each spring. They have a delightful yellow flower in the spring, and a dense, shrubby growth habit. Oregon Grape matures to about one metre high, and equally as wide. I like it best when planted on the fringe of a hardwood bush, or under the shade of shrubs or a tall deciduous tree.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Check out his new book The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @MarkCullen4. MarkCullen.com


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Garden Expert: Bye-Bye Butterfly

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Garden Expert: Bye-Bye Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is in decline. It has been for some time and Canadian Wildlife magazine reports that it still is. So what? Let’s just say that the monarch is to the world of nature, what an economic indicator is to our economy. When inflation goes through the roof, or interest rates take off, or the Canadian dollar drops like a stone, people take notice.

We notice things that impact our pocketbook.

So, we should also take notice when a plant pollinator like the monarch butterfly population is in steep decline. About one-third of our food is pollinated by insects, including the monarch. If one-third of our food stream were to disappear, all of us would notice.

What you can do to nurture nature’s miracle


There is another reason why we should pay attention to the monarch. Without a healthy population of monarchs, the story of their annual migration would be relegated to children’s books and history. It is a story about a miracle.

The Canadian Wildlife organization tells it this way, “For any given year, these butterflies represent the final cohort in a four- or five-generation annual cycle of monarch reproduction and migration.” Say what? Four or five generations of butterflies are produced in one trip from Mexico to Canada each spring?

Late in the winter, the overwintering population in Mexico flies to Texas, and other southern climes, where they lay eggs on milkweed plants before the adult monarch dies. Then they begin their migration north. “The caterpillar offspring, which feed exclusively on milkweed, spend several weeks growing before they pupate, become adult monarchs and continue the migration farther north before reproducing in kind.”

The process repeats until late summer and early fall, often here in Canada, when the monarchs that are alive at that time fly back to the Mexican pine and oyamel forests. The journey to Canada is like a relay of eggs, pupae, caterpillar and butterfly, times four or five.

Think about this for a moment. Four or five generations of monarch butterflies are produced while the whole flock (do butterflies flock?) moves north between 3,000 and 5,000 kilometres, over the span of several months from early spring until early fall.

How does each new generation know which direction to fly? And how does the last annual generation know when to stop, turn around and head south again? Not to mention the knowledge they must possess that tells them to stop making babies for a spell.

This is the miracle.


While there are a myriad of organizations like Canadian Wildlife, government agencies and concerned individuals giving this issue attention, there is a lot that you can do. Even if your only outdoor access is a condo or apartment balcony, you can nurture flowering plants that attract and feed monarchs.

It is not too late in the season to pick up milkweed seeds and sow them directly in your garden. This is a perennial plant that will grow this summer and flower next. Native milkweed is the exclusive food and habitat of monarch butterfly larvae.

Other nectar-rich plants include Butterfly Weed [asclepias], Catmint [nepeta], Bugleweed [ajuga], Coneflower [Echinacea], Cranesbill [geranium], some Coreopsis, False Sunflower [heliopsis], False Indigo [baptista], Yarrow, Sedum, Hollyhock, Lavender and my favourite Joe Pye Weed [eupatorium, which is related to milkweed]. These plants are available at garden retailers this time of year and are ready to plant.


All wildlife needs water to survive and butterflies are no different. But they are not like birds that dip into the bird bath for a drink. Butterflies have very short legs and are top-heavy with wings. They prefer lily pads and mud to access water. That is why you often find butterflies hanging out at the beach (go to Sandbanks Provincial park for a good show).


The monarch is not the only primary pollinator that is at risk. The Rusty Patched Bumblebee was Ontario’s fourth most common species as recently as the 1980s. Today, it is only found in abundance in Pinery Provincial Park. There is much speculation of why this species has all but disappeared: loss of habitat, neonic-based pesticides and genetically engineered farm crops are highly suspect.

But, once again, you can help by providing habitat, food and shelter for all native bees by growing many of the same plants that I have listed for butterflies. There are over 700 native bee species in Canada, and all of them deserve our attention and thanks for their hard work.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com


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In The Garden: Ground-Hugging Plants

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In The Garden: Ground-Hugging Plants

If I could come back to earth as a plant, I would be a ground cover – a useful one, of course. I love rich, organic soil, so by being a ground-hugging plant I could feel the rhythms of the earth, as well as the movement of the life giving earthworms beneath my roots.

Ever since I had my first garden, I’ve been experimenting with ground covers, and have learned a great deal about their benefits, as well as their limitations.


One of the most often-asked questions is how to grow grass under the shade of a mature maple. Without trying to be sarcastic, I usually respond by asking why they would want to. It’s a sincere question by an interested gardener, because there are few things that are more challenging than trying to produce a great looking lawn under a well developed tree. Grass loves the sun, so it’s not just the shade that limits it’s growing potential, but the grass is also in competition for moisture and soil-borne nutrients. The best answer; don’t try. Instead, grow a great looking substitute for a lawn. At the top of my list for zone 5 (GTA) is pachysandra. I’d recommend this fabulous perennial without hesitation, and have enjoyed personal successes with this ground cover. At our last home, we enjoyed the shade of 17 mature hardwood trees, but our growing choices were very limited. Pachysandra not only thrives under dense shade, but it also manages to grow nicely despite the dry soil. It’s an evergreen, so it also looks great in the middle of the winter when everything else is brown. Plant one rooted transplant every 15 centimetres square, and within two years they will have filled in quite nicely.


Don’t think of ground covers just as a substitute for a lawn. There are many areas that lend themselves to a little cooling down. Paths and walkways, as well as the frost crack in the pavement around your pool, are all viable options. It doesn’t take much soil to sustain the life of some types of moss or creeping thyme.

Wooly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)

Wooly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) provides the added benefit of producing a pleasant scent when you walk on it. When you step on the Wooly Thyme, the essential oils in its leaves are released, filling the air around you.

Green Irish moss (Chondrus crispus)

Green Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) and lime-green Scotch moss (Sagina subulata) look amazing in areas where they receive some morning sun. Direct afternoon, and mid-day, sun will burn them. When planting, keep in mind that moss likes consistent moisture and an acidic soil. To help acidify the soil, dust with a garden sulphur every couple of months.


A steep slope in a sunny location can prove to be a challenge. Named for its bright, deep burgundy flowers that bloom in the late spring, a mass planting of Dragon’s Blood Stonecrop (Sedum spurium) is the perfect solution. As it matures, this beauty knits so closely together that weeds have a tough time pushing through. Because the leaves are tough and fleshy, they don’t require much water once they are established – another bonus for the slope-grower.

Check out other potential earthhugger options in the perennial department of your local garden retailer. Depending upon your application, there are those that are suitable for green roofs, containers, perennial borders and rock gardens.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Check out his new book The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @MarkCullen4. MarkCullen.com


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Garden Expert: Get Planting

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Garden Expert: Get Planting

The importance of planting the right tree in the right place

A new gardening season is ahead of us: a fresh chapter in the book of life with nature. I recommend that we make the best of it and plant some trees. It is important to plant the right tree in the right place. Here are some considerations when planting trees and my top recommendations:


Small lots and densely populated urban areas are no longer suitable places for large-growing shade trees. Here are my favourite trees that will grow no higher than seven metres and will flower and/or fruit:

DWARF APPLE TREES There are dozens of varieties of dwarf apple trees available. My favourite apple for vigour and strength is Cortland. The tree grows relatively quickly and produces lots of great mid-season eating apples.

PEARS The lowest-maintenance fruit tree out there. No need to look for ‘dwarf’ pears as a standard pear generally grows to about six or seven metres, given enough time.

CHERRIES Sour or sweet, cherries grow reliably in Toronto (zone 6). ‘Stella’ is a great choice for a sweet cherry as no partner is required to cross-pollinate, otherwise you will need two. Sour cherries are self-fruitful.

CRAB APPLE An unfortunate name for a versatile and winterhardy tree. ‘Dolgo’ produces red fruit in the fall that is suitable for canning. Otherwise, plant crab apples for their spring colour and small- to medium-stature.


For filtered shade, which will provide the cooling effect of a deciduous tree (one that drops its leaves each fall) without cutting out all of the sunshine, look for these winners:

LOCUST ‘Shademaster’ is hardy to zone 4 (Ottawa). This variety features horizontal branching, while ‘Skyline’ Honey locust produces a more upright, vase-shaped structure. Both are disease- and insectresistant and grow to a medium height of about 12 to 15 metres.

BIRCH A long-time favourite. They produce filtered shade and the lovely white bark stands out in the winter garden. Look for native birch, like Paper Birch [Betula papyrifera], as they are resistant to the dreaded bronze birch borer, which has wreaked havoc with the European birch species in recent years.


Not all deciduous trees leaf out at the same time. Birch, willow and maples are among the earliest (early May), and Catalpa and Rose of Sharon are among the latest (mid-June). For early leaf cover that lasts late into the season, consider:

MAPLE [ACER] Native sugar maples leaf out in early May and drop leaves in mid-to late October. Norway Maple, while deemed an invasive species, does leaf out marginally earlier and drops in early November. Both produce bright yellow colour come fall.

CHESTNUT [AESCULUS] A member of the orchid family. Have a close look at the flowers come early June and note that the upright panicle or ‘candelabra’ features dozens of gorgeous orchid-like flowerets. I love Chestnut trees but they are susceptible to blight, which may not kill them but creates brown-hued leaves that are not very attractive come late summer.


There are some trees that do not fit neatly into a single classification but are amazing for their own reasons. Here are my favourites:

LINDEN [TILIA CORDATA] related to native Basswood. Provide lovely, cool, dense shade. Produce fragrant (green) flowers that attract pollinators (and make great tea). Lindens are winter hardy and disease-resistant. They feature a formal ace-shaped structure that fits neatly into relatively tight spaces. There is a promenade of Lindens on the east side of the Royal Conservatory, and west side of the Art Gallery of Ontario, that will sell you on this species, if nothing else will.

JAPANESE TREE LILAC ‘IVORY SILK’ [SYRINGA RETICULATA ‘IVORY SILK’] Ivory Silk is an oval- shaped, compact tree (great for smaller lots and spaces) that blooms reliably each Father’s Day in mid-June. ‘Ivory Silk’ is winter hardy and resistant to disease and insect problems.

OAK Any oak is a great oak, but I like native Red Oak [Quercus rubra] and Pin Oak [Quercus palustris] best. Red Oak (so named as the wood is red) grows into a large 18-metre giant. There are heritage Red Oaks in High Park that are amazing. Pin Oak is narrower and more suitable for the tight spaces of urban life.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com


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In The Garden: Garden Tourism

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In The Garden: Garden Tourism

It’s been said that there are two types of people in the world – those who love to garden and those who love to look at gardens. If this is the case, then introducing Garden Tourism into our lexicon, is long overdue.

Apparently, more than 27 million people who visited Canada last year, visited a public garden. We don’t have to travel far to see great gardens, as there are many in our own neighbourhoods – so get out and explore.

Close to home

A couple of years ago, Michael Gauthier came up with the Canadian Garden Route concept, and it was a big hit with train travellers. Along the Via Rail Garden Route, participants can choose to visit from a list of gardens, as they would choose their preferences from a menu in a restaurant.

In recent years, I’ve visited 11 of these gardens, and can vouch for all of them. These public attractions offer a broad appeal for casual gardeners who are only browsing, as well as those who like to get their knees dirty. I’ve listed a few of my favourites.

Butchart Gardens, B.C.

This garden is nothing short of magnificent. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why Walt Disney World used Butchart Garden as its model for the entrance into the Canada pavilion at Epcot Theme Park in Florida. When touring this treasure, keep in mind that it was once an open pit gravel mine, and that it was Mrs. Butchart who had the inspiration to convert it into a garden.

Halifax Public Garden

I haven’t visited every public garden in North America, but this destination is the best example of a Victorian-style public garden on the continent – so I’m told. This public space is located in the busy city centre of Halifax, and is, entirely, livable from all points of view.

Plan to visit in the spring, summer or early fall, as the gates are locked during the winter. The original gazebo has been replaced with a new one, in keeping with the style and period of the gardens. There’s no charge for entrance, but the quiet time that you’ll spend in this garden is, as they say, priceless.

Niagara Parks School of Horticulture

I’ve visited this garden almost every year since I joined my father in the nursery business in 1978. Not only is it a teaching facility, but it’s a public show garden. To experience something of the same calibre, you’d have to travel to Wisley or Kew gardens in England. This garden showcases the latest in garden design, the unveiling of new annuals, as well as the enthusiastic use of perennials and roses.

Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens

If you’re a Canadian history buff, add this to your must-see list. The British saw fit to settle in North America for close to a century, and the French settled here and made it their permanent home. The garden demonstrates how life was lived by the original settlers in the 1600s. Seasonal crafts and food are also featured on guided tours.


Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Check out his new book The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @MarkCullen4. MarkCullen.com


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Garden Expert: Birding 101

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Garden Expert: Birding 101

The do’s and don’ts to ensure the longevity of our fair-feathered friends

One in four Canadians buy bird food and/or consume ‘ birding’ products. The average amount spent is $1,000 per year. If that sounds crazy, count me as one of the crazy ones. With 14 feeding stations on my property, I spend a lot of time and money providing sustenance to my local bird population.

Most Canadian bird lovers live with the fantasy that we feed them to help the little darlings along the way. They need us. Not true. If all of us hung up our feeders in the garage, and stopped feeding the local bird population, they would be fine. We feed them to bring them to us: they are our entertainment.


However, the part about them ‘being just fine’ is not accurate. According to Bird Studies Canada (BSC), the country’s foremost authority on the subject, our bird population is anything but ‘fine.’ There are many bird species in decline. The population of eastern meadowlarks, chimney swifts, barn swallows and nighthawks are all in trouble, if the numbers mean anything. Across Canada, four bird species in 10 are in some form of long-term decline, some of them quite seriously.


After years of reviewing the facts, Bird Studies Canada has determined that birds are an excellent ‘indicator’ of environmental health and trends. BSC uses their now famous ‘citizen science’ models to help them determine how many birds are out there, one species at a time.

Here are some of the facts, courtesy of Bird Studies Canada:

  • Birds eat enormous amounts of seeds, fruits, insects and invertebrates. Changes in bird population numbers often reflect changes in less visible forms of life in nature. Put another way, a decline in some bird species may allow for an unnatural outbreak of certain insect infestations. A farm without a hawk or other raptor hovering over the fields will have far more rodents prowling around.
  • Birds are a ‘canary in the environmental coal mine.’ For example, the dramatic decline of the bald eagle population, two generations ago, was an indicator of the effects of the chemical DDT on our natural landscape. Once humans were alerted to it, we mobilized to change our behaviour.


Cats. For all of the discussion about how birds meet their demise at the ‘hands of man,’ none is more impactful than cats. I am not suggesting that you should get rid of your cat, but be mindful of the impact that a cat with claws can havein your yard and neighbourhood. Consider not letting your cat out the door, or limiting their time outdoors to the night hours when bird activity is low.

Plant native shrubs and trees, especially those that produce fruit. To maintain a healthy bird population, plant serviceberry, mountain ash, American highbush cranberry, and many native perennials that can stand upright over winter to provide food and shelter for birds.


You can help to build a database of information about birds and the bird population by joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, February 16 to 19, 2018. Take 15 minutes per day (or more) to count the birds and species in your yard or community (you can take a walk through a local park or conservation area if you like, don’t restrict yourself to your backyard). Report the numbers that you record on the Bird Studies Canada website.

This information is aggregated across the country, as it has been for many years. With these numbers, BSC can determine the increase or decline of bird populations across the country.


Another great way to get engaged and help is to count the birds on your feeder and report them to BSC on their website. Project Feeder Watch was instigated by Bird Studies Canada in 1976. Through a partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology as their U.S. partner, they have expanded the program to cover the entire continent. The program occurs from November through April (so there is no better time to get started than now). For details of both programs, visit birdscanada.org.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @ MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com


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In The Garden: Winter Pleasures Birds Can Be Picky About Their Food

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In The Garden: Winter Pleasures Birds Can Be Picky About Their Food

Birds can be picky about their food – even in foul weather

There are few things that delight me more than watching the birds in my yard during the winter months. At this time of the year, I’m so grateful that I resisted the temptation to cut down the ornamental grasses in the fall, as the birds so enjoy the seed heads.

My suet cage is always emptied. While I keep it full year-round, the Downy woodpeckers love to hack away at it in the winter, as they do their best to accumulate fat and carbohydrates to keep warm. If you have problems with unwanted birds raiding your suet cakes, try using an upside-down suet cage. Woodpeckers love to feed on their backs, unlike ‘bully birds’ like the Grackles and Blue Jays.


Especially if there’s a snow fall, keep your bird feeder full throughout the winter. Hungry birds have fewer options for food sources. Many birds will kick out the corn in search of their favourite seeds, like high quality millet, black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts. Birdseed producers love to load up their mixes with cracked corn as it attracts the bird feeding public, and it’s cheap.

Like lawn fertilizer, you get what you pay for with birdseed. There are some good quality mixes around for an attractive price, but take a good look at the mix before you make your purchase.


I like to put out a peanut feeder – the kind that takes shelled peanuts. These tend to attract the Blue Jays and the woodpeckers. When the Downys frequent the yard, they add their own characteristics like their distinct colouring and squeaks – that’s right, they don’t chirp, they squeak.

As for the Blue Jays, they are often in search of the whole peanut – for bird consumption, make sure they’re not salted. No sooner do I place some on the platform outside the kitchen window, then one giant Blue Jay announces to the others that they’ve arrived. The neighbouring jays arrive in droves, swooping and squawking at each other, taking their turn at the feeding platform until they’re all gone. They remove each peanut and take it to the high branches of a tree and peck out the good stu , and then drop the shell to the ground with a perfect little hole in it. Then they take the peanut meat and jam it between the branches of trees all over the neighbourhood for later consumption. I am told, on good authority, that this sustains them through the cold and the now.

Personally, I don’t like Blue Jays well enough to feed them peanuts all of the time. They’re big, and they’re bossy. I often wait until we’re expecting company, and then I’ll put out some peanuts, and without exception, visitors comment on the busy Blue Jay population in our yard.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Check out his new book The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @MarkCullen4. MarkCullen.com


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Garden Expert: Come One, Come All

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Garden Expert: Come One, Come All

Create biodiversity in your yard to ensure a growing population of pollinators

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~LAO TZU

I made several insect hotels in my wood working shop for some of my gardening friends. They were received graciously but, at the same time, with a common query: “What IS it? What does an insect hotel do? What kind of insects will it attract? Are they all good for my garden?”

An insect hotel encourages insects to visit and reside in your yard. It can be as simple or as complex as you choose. There are many designs for insect hotels, and if you are a creative type, you can create your own.

Clearly, this discussion has a long way to go. It started with concern about the decline in the honeybee population, and has extended to the general concern shared by naturalists everywhere about the problems with our native population of pollinators.

We are no longer concerned exclusively with the decline of honeybees. Truth is, there are over 700 species of native bees (honeybees are not native) that serve as primary pollinators ‘out there’ in the natural environment, many of which you can attract to your yard with an insect hotel. In addition, there are thousands of other invertebrates that either pollinate over 30 per cent of the plants that we rely on for food, or are essential members of the web of insects that make up the whole show.

Take a winter moment to digest the following and you will be on your way to understanding the whole, big picture.

1. UNDERSTAND THE MEANING OF BIODIVERSITY. The word comes from ‘biological diversity.’ WWF defines it as, “The term given to the variety of life on Earth. It is the variety within and between all species of plants, animals and micro-organisms and the ecosystems within which they live and interact.” Biodiversity in your yard is represented by the range of naturally occurring plant, animal and insect life that exists in it. There is much that you can do to increase biodiversity, or the range of life in your yard.

2. PLANTS–PACK THEM IN. Do not underestimate the impact that you can have on the beneficial insect life in your neighbourhood by planting flowering plants. The longer each plant produces a flower, and the more of them, the better. If you have a minimum of six hours of sunshine in your garden, you are in luck. The varieties of plants available to you are nearly limitless. If you are dealing with shade, you also have opportunities to plant flowering plants galore, but you will need to be more thoughtful about your plan. In either case, place your plants densely to attract the maximum number of pollinators.

3. GO NATIVE…OR NOT. A recent study in England indicated that it is not important to a bug that a plant is native, if it produces a blossom that attracts them in the first place. According to the results of “The Plants for Bugs Pollinator” research, it is the diversity of plant material that attracts the maximum range of bug species, not whether they are native. To quote the study, “The value of a site can be maximized for pollinators by choosing plants from different regions of the world.”

4. ADD WATER AND DON’T STIR. Adding a still-water element is the single most impactful feature that you can add to your garden or balcony for attracting pollinators. A pond in the yard or a half-barrel on the balcony works just fine. When you add a water feature, I can guarantee that you will discover wildlife in your yard that you have never seen before. As dragonflies, salamanders, frogs, toads, water beetles, amphibians, mammals and bugs discover your new drinking hole, they will grow, thrive and breed.

We are only beginning this discussion about the importance of creating biodiversity in our yards and gardens. As I look in to the crystal ball, I see the interest in attracting pollinators and creating biodiversity in Canadian gardens as growing steadily.

DIY INSECT HOTEL: Use natural materials and arrange them in such a manner that insects find attractive and move in. NB. They don’t like a sanitized environment. Instead insects like messy and thrive on clods of rotting leaves, rough-cut lumber, or better still, a stack of rotting, split firewood.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook. markcullen.com


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In The Garden: Last Minute Gardening Must-Dos

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In The Garden: Last Minute Gardening Must-Dos

For those of you who thought you were done with your lawn and garden responsibilities for the year – think again. Here’s a last-minute check list.

Fertilize the lawn

This is the best time of year to apply the most important application of lawn food. Before it goes to sleep for the winter, your lawn will absorb the nutritional benefits of a fall feed. Nutrients and sugars are stored in its roots in anticipation of the long, cold winter ahead. Choose a fertilizer with a slow release nitrogen (which is the first number), and high potassium (the third number), like 12-0-18.

Wrap the cedars

Cedar trees that are close to the road, especially those that are located on the east side where they are susceptible to the salt spray carried in the westerly winds, are the most vulnerable. To prevent permanent damage from the salt, wrap them in a layer of burlap, and then wrap them a second time. The two layers protect them from drying out – especially those that feel the brunt of the winds from the west, and from the north.

Organic composting

Ideally, all the leaves have now fallen from your trees, and you’ve raked them off your lawn and on to your gardens. If you have a compost pile or bin, now is an excellent time to empty the contents of it on to your garden. Spread it with a rake and let it sit there over the winter. Come early spring, earthworms will pull the raw compost under the surface of the soil and convert it into nitrogen rich castings.

Protect fruit trees

Mice and bunnies can do quite a bit of damage by nibbling away at the bark of fruit trees that are less than six years old, especially if we get an average dump of snow this winter. Wrap each tree with a plastic spiral that extends about one metre up the trunk, from the ground. After the tree has aged for more than six years, the trunks of most trees become too tough for rodents to enjoy.

Refresh and renew

Protect rhododendrons and other wind sensitive evergreens, like taxus (yews) and boxwood, with one application of Wilt-Pruf – it helps to prevent the drying effects of the wind, as well as the low humidity that we experience during our Canadian winters. Hang on to the leftovers and apply Wilt- Pruf to your freshly cut Christmas Tree. It works better than any other preservative that I’m aware of.

Clean the bird feeders

While I don’t anticipate seeing any hummingbirds until mid spring, there still may be wasps around at this time of year. Therefore, make sure to bring in the hummingbird feeders, and clean them in warm, soapy water. All bird feeders should be cleaned to help reduce the risk of disease.

Now that you’ve battened down the gardening hatches for another year, you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Check out his new book The New Canadian Garden published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and on Facebook. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at MarkCullen.com


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