Tag Archives: Garden


A burst of colour, April shows bring May flowers

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A burst of colour, April shows bring May flowers

During the month of May, local garden centres are receiving their stock of trees, flowering shrubs, evergreens, roses and perennials – often the best selection you’ll find throughout the entire year. In spring, we want magnolias, Japanese maples, flowering cherries and other ornamental trees and shrubs that offer exquisite blooms. The best quality plants are sold first, so if you’re a late spring shopper, you’ll never know the difference between the ‘best’ and the ‘next best’. In this case, the early bird catches the worm of the highest value.

Plants differ in size, colour and texture. However marginal those differences are to the untrained eye, there can be a marked difference, especially where ‘woody’ plants are concerned. Trees, shrubs, fruit trees and evergreens can vary greatly in their appearance at the time of sale. Any retail garden sales consultant will tell you that they spend a lot of time pulling out products, usually from the back of a row, in order to find the perfect specimen.

Early perennials

Barronwort (Epimedium) | They tolerate dry conditions and almost full shade, they flower for several weeks beginning in May, and they make a great ground cover under a dense tree canopy.

Pansies | We’ve planted pansies as early as the 15th of April. They will take some frost and flower best in cool temperatures (under 25°C). They love the sun (east exposure) and are available in an array of vibrant colours.

Violas | These are more frost- and heattolerant than their larger cousins – the pansy. Neither are reliable perennials, so you may want to treat them as annuals. However, they have been known to overwinter after their first year in the garden. Violas often selfseed with aggression.

Peonies | They’re not early bloomers, but they are among our favourite flowers. It’s well worth the wait (late May or early June) for them to produce an abundance of mop head, roselike flowers. They are reliable, winterhardy perennials that come back year after year. In fact, there are peonies that were planted around pioneer cabins more than a century ago that still live on. The peony is more than a perennial – it’s an heirloom.

Don’t plant peonies too deep. Prepare a hole with generous quantities of compost and 30 per cent sharp sand for drainage. Do not place soil more than 10 centimetres over the top of the highest crown bud on a bare-root plant. Divide in September.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra) | Plant this old fashioned favourite in a sunny or semi-shaded garden. The hanging pink, or white, flowers of the original varieties are beautiful, but only bloom for a few short days. The newer ‘Luxuriant’ variety blooms for weeks on end, beginning in mid- June, throughout the summer and into early autumn.

Other early blooming perennials include trilliums (nursery grown, never taken from the wild), primula, tiarella, geranium and brunnera. Plan, peruse and then plant in well prepared soil.

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada, and provides gardening advice to more than 2,000,000 Canadians each week. Ben Cullen’s specialty is food gardening. markcullen.com; Facebook @MarkCullenGardening; Pinterest @MarkCullenGardening.


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The living carpet Ontario is home to great turf

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The living carpet Ontario is home to great turf

In mid-April, there is little that satisfies the homeowner more than spending time outdoors improving his or her surroundings. After a long Canadian winter, even hosing down the driveway feels like a trip to Florida but we don’t recommend it as it wastes water. There are more worthwhile ventures in the yard like spending some time on your lawn.

Canadian gardeners are learning to value the lawn for what it is: the most sophisticated living ground cover known to humankind. What ‘plant’ – other than a grass plant – will take the abuses of foot traffic, dog traffic, the occasional driving over by a car, 18 or so mowings a year, will tolerate drought and stormy weather, minus 40°C weather, snow and its slow spring melt, a heat wave, and you can throw your own abuse on this list.

You can be sure that if there were a plant that could ‘take it,’ the golf course industry would be all over it. Ontario is a natural place for growing great turf. There is more sod grown per capita in

Ontario than any place on earth. Why? Because it loves to grow here. You can enjoy all of the benefits of having a great-looking lawn – including the environmental benefits – without causing harm to the environment. Most of what we have to suggest to achieve great, chemical-free results is just common sense – like watering less often, cutting your lawn at least 6 cm (2 ½ inches) high and using a low emissions, mulching mower.


A weed is a competitor first and foremost. Not the nice kind either, unless you like to walk barefoot on thistles. And being able to walk comfortably barefoot is one litmus test for a great lawn.

If a weed is a fierce competitor, then your job is to out-compete it.

Do that by thickening your lawn with fresh, top-quality grass seed right now.

Rake the area to be seeded gently with a fan rake, removing debris and loose, dead grass.

Spread good-quality triple mix (1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost) or a ‘lawn-seeding soil’ over the area about 3 to 5 cm thick, being sure to fill in depressions in your lawn and even out the peaks.

Broadcast fresh, quality grass seed over the new soil at the rate of 1/2 kg per 40 m² (one pound per 400 ft²). Use a hand-held spreader or, for smaller areas, just let the seed drop from between your thumb and index finger while moving your arm back and forth in a swaying motion. Now rake it smooth with a fan rake.

Step on the seed/soil mix to bring them into firm contact, otherwise the seed risks floating down into small streams and rivulets. For a large area you will 1/3 fill a lawn roller and roll the works in two opposing directions.

Water gently. Keep watering daily until germination takes place, then every two days until you can see the seed is germinated, and then only as the surface of the soil dries. After six to eight weeks, you will only water your new lawn when you water your established lawn.


Buy the best quality grass seed that you can afford. There are times when it pays to buy cheap stuff; this is not one of them. I use CIL as it is 99.9 per cent weed-free and produced in Canada: above all, it is important to remember that the pedigree of your lawn is in the bag.

Water diligently for the first few weeks. If Mother Nature rains on your parade, give thanks — this is your day off. Otherwise, be sure not to let the seed/soil mix dry out completely until the new lawn is established.

Do it now. As the spring season progresses towards summer and day temperatures rise, so does the difficulty of starting a new lawn from seed or the thickening of an established one. After Father’s Day we suggest that it is best to leave lawn seed sowing until mid-August, if you can.

If you follow our advice here, we can guarantee you a great-looking lawn. And one that the kids can run and roll on without you having to worry.

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada. He reaches over 2 million Canadians with his gardening/environment messages every week. Receive his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com Ben Cullen is a professional gardener with a keen interest in food gardening and the environment. You can follow both Mark and Ben on Twitter (@MarkCullen4), Facebook and Instagram


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Which type of beetles are good for your garden

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Which type of beetles are good for your garden

Know which variety of these beetles are good for your garden, and the ones that aren’t

Have you ever noticed that we tend not to think of the nuisances in life until they crop up? When we are feeling good, we forget what it feels like to be sick. When we are cold, we cannot imagine how it feels in a summer heat wave.

Same with insects. During the summer months we are plagued with mosquitoes, ants, deer flies and the like. Come winter and we have all but forgotten what it was like to have to protect ourselves from insects in summer. As we approach the end of winter, we remind you that bug season is just around the corner.


It is likely that your first reminder that insect season is about to pounce will be the arrival of Lady Bugs indoors. Come March, we will be overwhelmed with questions about these colourful little creatures. It was not always so.

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

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


As the temperatures in your home rise and as days grow longer, the lady beetles that have hibernated in your home since last fall will awaken and begin to make ‘whoopee’ in the dark corners of your house. During the day, they will move towards the sunshine, that is why you find many of them on windowsills this time of year.

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

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

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

One last thing on Lady Bugs. The Asian variety (Harmonia axyridis) should not be confused with the three ‘good guys’ that are native to our land. The 7 Spotted Lady Beetle, Oval Lady Beetle and the Pink Spotted Lady Bug are great friends to the gardener and farmer. They too will consume nasty bugs like aphids, scale and other sucking insects that otherwise can do a lot of damage.

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

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada. He reaches more than two million Canadians with his gardening/environment messages every week. Receive his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com Ben Cullen is a professional gardener with a keen interest in food gardening and the environment. You can follow both Mark and Ben on Twitter (@MarkCullen4), Facebook (facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (instagram.com/markcullengardening/).


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Engage in the art of growing

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Engage in the art of growing

More than ever, Canadians are making an attempt to shop at local farms and food markets. You only have to turn on the television and check out some of the celebrity chef programs to get a sense of the growing interest in food preparation. Growing fruits and veggies is at an all-time high.

Community gardens

These are gardens that are supported by a whole community of people. The harvest is shared with everyone who made a contribution of effort. Often a central kitchen is provided for the use by the same community. The growing interest in community gardens tells us that there is a large contingency of people who are looking for better quality produce from their own backyard.

Allotment gardens

These small areas of real estate are planted and nurtured by individuals, and are often supported by municipal government. They are great places to visit with like minded people, even if you do not have an allotment. Without a great deal of effort, you’ll witness a wide variety of garden designs and plant selections, as well as differing methods of growing and maintaining gardens.

Public gardeners have the added benefit of being able to ask questions, and observe practices and techniques that have proven to be helpful to other gardeners. Recipes are shared – not just for dinner, but also for soil preparation, and disease and insect treatment. Check out our website for growing the best tomatoes on the block.

Farmers’ markets

Real food guru, Michael Pollan, weighs in from his book, In Defense of Food. “It is hard to eat badly from the farmers’ market or from your garden. The number of farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of the food marketplace. Buying as much as you can from the farmers’ market, or directly from the farm when that’s an option, is a simple act with a host of profound consequences for your health, as well as for the health of the food chain you’ve now joined.”

Time well spent

The expenditure of time is often viewed in negative terms when it comes to food. In other cultures, it represents a good part of the day – growing, shopping and preparing for the main meal.

As we settle into hibernation during the winter season, it’s a perfect time to think about our food culture. Swap recipes, exchange growing tips, and break bread with a host of family and friends on these long, dark evenings.

Now is also the time to start planning your vegetable garden, and to order seeds. This is the beginning of a year-long process of sowing, growing, nurturing and harvesting. More than 30 per cent of Canadians will engage in this satisfying past time. There’s nothing like seeing, and tasting, the fruits of your labour.

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


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Video: Ornamental grasses in the fall garden

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Video: Ornamental grasses in the fall garden

What not to do in the fall garden. Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses.


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In The Garden: National Tree Day

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In The Garden: National Tree Day

Plant a tree on September 26th

After much debate, a bill was passed in the House of Commons in 2011 to create a National Tree Day each year, which falls on the last Wednesday in the month of September. This year, that day is September 26th. Tree advocates everywhere can now breathe a breath of fresh air.

The Right Time

September is the best time of year to plant. You may choose to do so on National Tree Day, or any other day in the near future. However, I urge you to plant – more than one tree – and soon. The cool evening temperatures slow the growth on the top of the trees, while the warmth of summer still radiates in the soil and encourages young feeding roots to develop. The development of autumn-planted trees usually outgrow those that are planted in the spring. Come spring, your results will be nothing short of spectacular.

In addition, most retailers are clearing out their inventory at this time of year, so there’s an extra incentive to select the trees that you really want at a fraction of the cost – fruit trees, shade trees, ornamental flowering trees, native trees and shrubs.

Plant Native

Whenever, and wherever, you can plant native trees – it just makes sense. For the most part, native trees adapt well to our urban environment, they self propagate, and are disease and insect resistant. In addition, they attract nesting song birds. LEAF (Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection, and enhancement, of the urban forest. Visit yourleaf.org for programs and advice on making the right choice for your environment.

I recommend starting with a nursery-grown native plant. They are properly cared for while developing – after all, they are called nurseries. A field-grown tree will be root pruned before being lifted out of the ground. A container-grown tree will have all of its roots intact at the time of planting. As a result, you’ll be pleased with your investment, because it should be a seamless transition between the nursery and its new home.

Deciduous Dedications

A country-wide tree day could not exist without official tree plantings. Visit treecanada.ca for listings and events going on in your area. Or, better yet, create your own event and register it on the site.

On September 26th do something for yourself, for your grandchildren, for your community and for the environment. Plant a tree on National Tree Day, and celebrate the great work that they do – without complaints or many demands. And, celebrate the fact that we live in a country where we can.

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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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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Grow What You Love

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Grow What You Love

Plan Now For Your Summer Garden

By Emily Murphy

Planning a garden can be difficult – if not daunting. Knowing where to begin is often at the crux of any overwhelming task. I tend to dig out my short list of plants that I love to grow, and suggest that you do the same. Focus on a small space so that your garden is manageable and easy to maintain. When you start with the plants that bring you the most joy, or that provide the most flavor with the least amount of effort, you’ll quickly transform that designated area of dirt into magnificent magic.


Consider raised beds, containers, or pots that edge a stairway. Look for planters that are small enough to move around, but provide plenty of rooting depth for growing plants. Raised beds elevate the planting surface, which make them easier to tend to. You’ll still have plenty of room to grow a variety of plants like pole beans, sunflowers, tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs – all in one container.


For a flourishing garden, start with an organic planting mix, which has plenty of compost to create a soil ecosystem that feeds beneficial soil microbes and fungi to support optimal plant growth. Avoid using pesticides. Instead, add edible flowers and companion plants to the mix. These will help to fend off pests, and give pollinators a place to call home.


There’s nothing like witnessing the various growth stages, so position your garden as close as you can to see it. If the sunniest spot is out of sight, create a space around it where you’ll enjoy spending time.

With lengthening days and warming temperatures, the thought of gardening sows the wild oats of many. Now is the perfect time to start your garden – so get outside and grow.

Author of Grow What You Love, expert gardener, Emily Murphy, focuses on seasonal ingredients. @passthepistil, and her blog; passthepistil.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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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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