Tag Archives: Mark Cullen

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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.

REALITY CHECK

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.

BIRD’S EYEVIEW

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.

PERILS & PROACTIVE STEPS

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.

WHAT CAN I DO?

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.

PROJECT FEEDER WATCH

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.

BIRD SEED

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.

PEANUTS

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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Garden Expert: In The Food Garden

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Garden Expert: In The Food Garden

Cooler temperatures still yield garden goodness.

I have been thinking about food a lot lately. Every time I go out into my 10-acre garden, I am reminded that the food I grew with such pride through the summer is melting away into pockets of rot. But I am here to tell you there is an encore happening in your garden, and the celebration is not quite finished. It won’t be, in fact, for another few weeks.

LEEKS

Leeks are running my life these days. I grew more than I expected on account of when I sowed four packets of their seeds, I had 110 per cent germination (an impossibility, I know, but this is how it feels to be successful in the garden). Every gardener has had this experience. Leeks enjoy the cold, especially temperatures below freezing. They get bigger and better by the day.

CARROTS

Carrots are much the same. “Bring on the cold weather,” they say to one another as they huddle shoulder to shoulder in the cold, sandy soil. I suggest that you dig them soon and put them in bushel baskets of dry sand to hold them over the next couple of months in your garage or cold cellar. They can carry on their discussion there while waiting for you to bring them to the table.

PUMPKINS

You will no doubt be picking up a pumpkin at your local food retailer or farmers’ market soon. I suggest that you keep it on your porch or in your garage until Halloween just to prevent it from being hit by frost and going gooey and rotten before the big day.

I remind you that pumpkins are 90 per cent water. Therefore, throwing them out or disposing of them at the end of your driveway makes no sense. Think about all the garbage trucks in early November that are driving around with large, orange vegetables: neat packages full of water. It makes more sense to place it on the surface of the soil in your garden and let Mother Nature rot it down into something useful. In time it will assist in building microbes and organic matter there.

GARLIC

The whole routine of planting and harvesting garlic is counterintuitive. You plant the cloves now in open, welldrained soil. Come July, they will sprout a long stem with a pigtail and flower on the end of it: this is called a scape. Three or four of these sell for big bucks at the farmers’ market in July, so cut and use them. Every part of the garlic plant is edible, so be creative and use the flowers in salads or whatever you are cooking on the barbecue that time of year. Harvest the garlic in August and leave the bulbs in the sun for a few days. Then tie the stems together and hang them in a cool, well-ventilated place until you are ready to use them in the kitchen.

RASPBERRIES

If you had a great crop of raspberries this season, now is the time to cut them down by removing the canes that fruited this summer. Cut the woody stems to the ground. Leave the young growth that occurred in August to mature and produce fruit next season. If you have fall-bearing raspberries, then finish picking and cut down the fruiting canes next spring.

RHUBARB

If you have a large rhubarb plant in the garden, now is an appropriate time to dig it up, divide it into smaller root portions and replant it or give away some of the divisions. This is also true for hostas, daylilies, monarda, and many other perennial flowering plants.

STRAWBERRIES

Strawberries that have been in the same soil for three years or more are ready to be dug up, separated, and moved to new ground. Make sure that their new home is completely weed-free at the time of planting or you will regret it. Weeding strawberries is not my favourite job.

ASPARAGUS

Spring is when the new plants are available for sale and therefore planting. However, if you have an established clump, now is an appropriate time to make sure that it is weed-free. Let the leaves and stems stand over winter. They will help to accumulate snow as a natural insulator and they add some interest to the winter garden.

It may be late in the gardening season, but don’t forget that the garden still needs some of your attention.

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: Raided in a Bed

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In The Garden: Raided in a Bed

Tuck plants in for an extended season.

If you’re thinking of building a raised bed in your yard, urban gardener Tara Nolan has the answers to all of your questions. Nolan is an authority on this subject, and with all the changes in the business of gardening over the recent years, it’s great to have a comprehensive, go-to book on this very popular topic.

Early autumn is the perfect time of year to get handy and build a raised bed to plant in for this season, or in preparation for spring.

There are caveats to the raised bed phenomena. The roots of winterhardy plants are exposed to excess cold in the depth of winter. With this in mind, choose plants that are hardy in a planting zone one above your own. For example, plant winterhardy plants that are rated for Zone Five in a Zone Six Toronto garden.

Raised beds also tend to dry out more quickly than ground level beds. On the positive side, this can decrease the likelihood of over watering, which is at the root of 90 per cent of all plant problems. However, you do have to be vigilant about watering especially during hot, dry weather.

Tara Nolan is a Canadian writer. Her book is a comprehensive treatise on the subject, with a third of the book dedicated to DIY raised bed projects.

Raised Bed Revolution – Build It, Fill It, Plant ItGarden Anywhere is published by Cool Spring Press.

Why build a raised bed?

In her book, Raised Bed Revolution – Build It, Fill It, Plant It…Garden Anywhere, Nolan dedicates 12 pages of reasons as to why you might want might to build a raised bed for your veggies and ornamentals. Here are some of my favourites.

  • Season extension
  • Start earlier, harvest later. The soil in a raised bed warms up quicker come spring. If you have a glassedin structure around a raised bed, or use white Reemay cloth, you can extend the season for several weeks.
  • Control soil quality
  • People frequently ask me what they should do with clay soil. They’re never happy when I advise them to dig out 30 to 40 centimetres of the clay soil and replace it with 50 to 60 centimetres of new triple mix. When you build a raised bed in your yard, you don’t have to dig down and remove the soil. Fill the raised bed with the best quality, weed-free soil that you can get your hands on.
  • Accessibility
  • At Wind Reach Farm (a centre designed to meet the needs of individuals with a variety of disabilities in Ashburn, Ontario), I saw some of the most practical, and handsome, raised bed gardens for wheelchair gardeners. If this is a consideration, be sure to design a wheelchair garden with a wraparound feature for the plants on the left, and a shelf for shallow rooted plants on the right, so that the gardener can belly up to the garden with their legs safely nested underneath.

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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Garden Expert: A Few of My Favorite Things

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Garden Expert: A Few of My Favorite Things

Mark singles out some of his preferred garden performers

It’s late summer and the autumn planting season is on our threshold. Soon, we’ll be tempted by the new plants that growers deliver to retailers. We will be drawn to their colour and fragrance; the pollinators in our neighbourhoods will be drawn in as well. Bees, songbirds, hummingbirds (back from a vacation in the Boreal forest), and of course, butterflies will enjoy our new additions, no doubt.

In my ongoing efforts to help you prioritize your plant-buying decisions, here are some of my favourite garden performers:

HYDRANGEA

HYDRANGEA [Arborescens]

When we built our home in my dream garden eight years ago, I had an image of a giant mass of Annabelle hydrangeas nesting their metre-high blossoms at the foot of our front porch.

To accomplish this, however, I had to plant big. Twenty-seven new plants were placed about 80 cm apart and nurtured into a mass planting that when they grew in, came very close to the mental image that I had of them before I put them in the ground which, frankly, seldom happens.

Annabelle hydrangea was introduced around 1888 and stands as a stalwart perennial shrub bloomer. Virtually no insects or disease are a problem and they stay put for the most part, not travelling across my yard seeking to take over like many other perennials do.

BLACK-EYED SUSAN ‘GOLDSTURM’

BLACK-EYED SUSAN ‘GOLDSTURM’ [Rudbeckia fulgida]

‘Goldsturm’ was named the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year. It blooms for up to three months. Three months! What perennial does that? And has virtually no enemies in the bug and disease departments. I do get some aphids on mine from time to time but I just blast them with a stream of water from the end of the hose to fix them. They love the sun, grow to 60 cm tall and they do spread from year to year. I find that I can control their spreading habit by cutting out the new root with a sharp spade in spring.

SPEEDWELL

SPEEDWELL [Veronica]

Another perennial that comes back year after year in my garden, only this one gives me two seasons in one. It produces a 50 cm spire of blue flowers in early to late July, which I cut off with hedge shears the first week of August. Then they re-flower in September and the flowers last even longer, due to the cooler temperatures that time of year. You can cut Speedwell flowers and bring them indoors. Hummingbirds and honeybees like them.

STONECROP

STONECROP [Sedum and sempervivum]

I performed an experiment with these indestructible plants three years ago. I used the roof of a garden shed on my property as a garden in which I planted the lowest maintenance flowering perennials known to humankind: sedums and sempervivums. The results were a little slow in coming but now, in the third season on my shed roof, they are a showstopper. I planted about 12 different varieties, each blooming at slightly various times for a succession of bloom. The first year, I watered and weeded quite diligently, last year much less so, and this year I have done nothing. They have rooted in and provided a great show with virtually no work. Plant them in containers, rock gardens, wall planters, and of course on your roof. They like a soil medium that is at least 40 per cent sharp sand and 60 per cent compost/soil.

HOSTA

HOSTA

I have lost count of the number of hosta plants that I have in my 10-acre garden. Lots. And I love them all. This family of broadleafed perennials includes some mammoth varieties. Sometimes their name says it all: ‘Wide Brimmed Hat,’ ‘Big Daddy,’ ‘Skywalker,’ and ‘Blue Mammoth.’ Others are very small and considered appropriate for the hosta collector but otherwise these may get lost in your garden. Look for ‘Flash Forward’ and ‘Blue Mouse Ears,’ which only grow to 15 cm high and wide.

My real favourites are the tough ones that tolerate shade, thrive in the sun, and can take the competition of mature tree roots. One of my favourites is ‘Halcyon,’ featuring bluish leaves and August flowers. Another is ‘Fragrant Bouquet’ [the 1998 American Hosta Growers Hosta of the Year] featuring a long-flowering plant in July/August that smells wonderful with lime/ivory leaves. Grows to 50 cm high and wide.

With over 7,000 varieties in the hosta family, there must be a few that would appeal to you. The flowers of hostas all attract hummingbirds and bumblebees. Another bonus.

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: Stay-Cool Gardening

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In The Garden: Stay-Cool Gardening

Whether you follow the farmers’ almanac, the pundits of global warming, or listen to the long range forecast, this summer is bound to be a hot one. So, the burning question is, “How do you enjoy a great-looking garden in the heat?”

You can train plants to expect water only when the soil around their roots dries to three to five centimetres below the surface of the soil. Of course the amount will vary from plant to plant, but the point is that if you water your garden a little bit at a time, the roots stay up near the surface of the soil and wait for you to stand at the end of your hose each evening. It may be water therapy for you, but its bad training for your plants. This rule is equally true for perennials, annuals, veggies, and even the shrubs and trees on your property – not to mention your lawn.

Plants that are watered infrequently, and deeply, will send down roots in search of moisture.

Plants that are watered infrequently, and deeply, will send down roots in search of moisture as the temperature rises, and the timing between summer rainfalls stretches from days into weeks.

THE LAWN

Don’t water your lawn at all in a drought situation. Save yourself the time, expense and the resources that are required to cut your lawn when its actively growing. Yes, it will become brown and dormant, but it will not die. Dormant is the equivalent of sleeping.

Come mid-August your lawn will wake up as days get shorter, evening temperatures fall and the morning dew increases. This is the reason why every sod grower in the province (and there are many) sow their seeds for the next crop between the middle of August and the end of September.

THIRSTY TREES

Trees need water too – more so when you think back to the weeks of below normal rain fall that we experienced last summer. Apply water to the root zone of both young and mature trees by placing a hose at the base of the tree with just a trickle of water coming out. Leave it there for three to four hours.

If you have trees on your property that were planted within the last three years, watering them is critical at this time of year. A mature, 20-metre-high maple tree transpires more than 500 litres of water on a hot day, so its important to get water down to its roots. The tree that grows on the boulevard also needs water. Even though it may be owned by the municipality, consider it your responsibility and give it healthy drink.

THE MIRACLE OF MULCH

A six- to eight-centimetre layer of finely ground cedar or pine bark insulates the soil from the drying effects of the sun and the wind. This layer of mulch can reduce the need for water by up to 70 per cent, and is one of the best monetary, and timesaving, investments that you can make for your garden.

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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Garden Expert: Home Turf

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Garden Expert: Home Turf

These lawn-care tips promote healthy and green grass throughout the peak summer months

Now that June is here, summer weather will come calling, with high temperatures followed, no doubt, and a lack of water. It is time to sit back and let your lawn take care of itself. You can have a great-looking lawn without the supposed ‘work’ or environmental detriment. This is the perfect time of year to get to work on it and make a season-long difference.

Environmental Benefits of Lawns

According to the North American Lawn Institute, an averagesized suburban lawn produces enough oxygen to support a family of four. A lawn is not some green carpet that the Blue Jays play on (which is fake turf) but a high functioning, living, breathing colony of oxygen-producing plants that are knit together to form a low-growing welcome mat to your home.

A properly maintained lawn is cool to walk on as it transpires moisture through its blades. As it cools the air it also cleans it, through the miracle of photosynthesis.

As rain falls, toxins are filtered through the sophisticated root structure of grass plants. Not only do grass roots slow the flow of water through the soil, preventing flooding, but they also absorb an enormous amount of moisture in the normal course of their workday. That is not to say, however, that a lawn is a water hog.

You can give your lawn a boost and help it do its job more efficiently by following these few simple steps:

CUT YOUR LAWN HIGH Six to eight cm will do the job. For generations we cut our lawns much shorter, not realizing that tall grass blades produce deeper roots that are more drought tolerant. Also, the taller the grass blades, the fewer the weeds as weed seeds are ‘shaded out’ by the grass before they get a chance to germinate. More on weed control later.

USE A MULCHING MOWER The cut grass blades are regurgitated up into the cutting chamber of the mower where they are re-cut before being thrust down into the root zone of the grass plants. As they decompose they add precious nitrogen to the soil: the element that grass plants crave the most.

FERTILIZE THREE TIMES A YEAR Sometimes lawn fertilizer is called lawn food but this is inaccurate. The fact is, your lawn feeds on soil-borne nutrients and takes the nutrients up with the assistance of microbial activity in the soil. It is a little complicated. What you really need to know is that a quality lawn fertilizer provides nutrients to the soil that are used by the grass plants to grow and thrive. The aforementioned nitrogen is the primary ingredient in a spring/early summer application of fertilizer, and is always represented by the first number in the three number analysis on the bag.

SLOW-RELEASE NITROGEN The nitrogen that produces the best results in your lawn is most useful to it when it is released over an extended period of time. One of the most sophisticated forms of slow-release nitrogen is sulphur-coated urea. It releases nitrogen to the root zone as rain falls, temperatures rise, and microbial activity occurs in the soil. Iron also plays an important role, as it helps to produce green chlorophyll, deepening the colour and enhancing the appearance of your lawn quickly.

OVERSEED Spread triple mix or lawn soil over areas where bare patches occur and apply quality grass seed by hand at the rate of 500 grams per 40 sq meters. Rake smooth, step on it to bring the soil and seed in firm contact, and water well until the roots have taken firm hold. Remember that a thick lawn is your best defence against weeds. Alternatively, consider a new product on the market this season that combines dehydrated compost with quality lawn seed that you apply with a lawn spreader. Look for Golfgreen Iron Plus Lawn Recovery. It is amazing!

WATER LESS As we approach the summer season, the temptation to get out the lawn sprinkler will pull at you. I urge you to hold off until there is a real need. A lawn will grow nicely without water for up to 7 days. If it hasn’t rained for a week give your lawn a drink and apply about 2 cm to make sure that it moves down to the root zone where it is really needed.

DON’T WATER If we get into a drought situation, forget about watering all together. Your lawn will stop growing and it may go brown, but for the most part it will be dormant, not dead. That is, unless the drought continues for four weeks or longer, at which time my theory of ‘dormant not dead’ could prove erroneous. I argue that watering at that point is not going to solve the problem of dead grass. See below.

If you do experience dead areas in your lawn this summer, plan on overseeding in mid-August. By late September your grass will have revived and will be looking good again.

The lawns that we grow here are a cool weather crop. That is why there is more sod grown per capita in Ontario than anywhere in the world. We do it because we can. We have fabulous golf courses, partly for this reason, also.

Final note: If you have racoons or skunks digging up your lawn, you likely have grubs feeding on grass roots. June is the month to apply dormant nematodes, available from garden retailers. Water these microscopic insects into the soil thoroughly after application for best results.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster and Order of Canada recipient. 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: Get Your Fruit On

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In The Garden: Get Your Fruit On

Growing fruit trees has experienced a ground swell of interest over the past few years. There’s no better time of the year than right now to make your purchases at your local garden retailer, as the selection doesn’t get any better as the season wears on.

In southern Ontario, the apple is the number one fruit tree of choice. The McIntosh apple was developed here. A lonely apple tree, without a mate, might yield some fruit, but it’s advisable to have two apple trees. If there’s an apple tree nearby in full flower at the same time as said tree, both will produce many more apples.

Insects and disease are an ongoing concern, and many people want to know if they should spray. The answer is yes. I have 40 apple trees in my 10-acre garden and I spray them all with dormant spray in April before the blossoms break open, and again after the blossoms drop (around the beginning of June). I apply a combination of End All insecticide, along with garden sulphur or the lime sulphur that comes in the dormant spray kit. These products are safe to use and environmentally responsible.

The cross-pollination category that requires mates to maximize their fruiting also include pear, cherry and plum trees. However, sour cherries, like Montmorency, are self-fruitful (pollinated by pollen from another flower on the same fruit tree). A Canadian introduction called Stella, which is classified as a sweet cherry, does not need a mate.

Self-fruitful fruit trees include peach, apricot and nectarine, and they all need a good pruning after the winter. Each spring I assess the winter damage on my trees and prune out any dead wood. Then I open the tree up to the sun and wind by pruning out the heaviest wood right down into the heart of the tree. This makes for odd looking trees, but great fruit.

Pears are the easiest fruit to grow. They generally do not like to be pruned, and they are the least susceptible to insect and disease problems. For the most part, your tree will be overloaded with fruit every second year.

Canadian-grown fruit trees provide some assurance that the tree is hardy to your area, and suitable for growing in our weather and soil conditions.

Plant all fruit trees in open, nutrient rich soil. Peaches really enjoy a soil mix that is 50 per cent sand. Never plant a fruit tree in a depression where water accumulates, as none of them enjoy wet feet. Plant high, dig a wide hole about a metre in diameter, and use three or four bags of quality planting soil mix. Stake your trees for the first three or four years, and in the fall put a spiral plastic rodent protector on the trunk to prevent rabbit damage.

In her book, Growing Urban Orchards, Susan Poizner explores the ups and downs, as well as the how-to’s, of caring for fruit trees in the city. OrchardPeople.com

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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