Tag Archives: Mark Cullen

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Why the end of summer is the perfect time to plant

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Why the end of summer is the perfect time to plant

It’s autumn and this is no time to panic – there’s lots of time for that. But there are a few jobs around the garden that could use your attention. While there is some strength in the sun and being out of doors still feels comfortable, we have a few suggestions.

Our garden priorities for mid-Fall

1 Leave the leaves. Let us start with what not to do. Do not blow your leaves, with a leaf blower no less, into a pile, shove them into a paper bag and drag them down to the street for the city to pick up. Instead, rake them onto your garden. That’s it. Just let them sit there all winter until the earthworms pull them down, drowning them in the existing soil and digesting them into nitrogen rich earth worm poop. In other words, let the worms do the work. Your garden will look much better for their efforts. And this takes a lot less effort than the alternative. If you have too many leaves, run your power mower over them before you rake them onto the garden.

2 Plant Holland bulbs. This is a job for planners. You plant dormant, rather unattractive tulip, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs this time of year and wait until spring for something to happen. We are here to assure you that your investment is not wasted. Come spring, you will feel great joy when your crocus emerges from the depths of the recently frozen earth. They arrive, like trumpets, blowing colour into an otherwise brown, dreary landscape. “Spring is here!” they announce. And so, life and hope and joy abound. But only if you plant the bulbs now.

Bulbs should always be planted in quality, well-drained soil, about three times as deep as the bulb is thick, measured from top to bottom.

3 Fertilize your lawn. Your application of lawn fertilizer this time of year is the most important of the year. The fall formula of lawn fertilizer should be 12-0-18, with less nitrogen (the first number) and more potassium (the third number) than the fertilizer you applied earlier in the season. The potassium provides nutrients to the roots of your grass plants, beefing them up for the long winter ahead. The result is a stronger lawn that recovers from winter-related stress much better than unfertilized lawns. Apply just before the snow flies.

4 Dig and divide. Many of the perennial plants that have established over the years in your garden are ripe for dividing and moving around your garden. Hostas and daylilies are perfect examples of plants that divide very well this time of year. Dig out the whole plant, cut it in half with a sharp shovel or spade. If it is big enough, say, the size of a large pie plate, divide it again, into quarters. You may think that you will get wedge-shaped plants next spring but not so. Through some miracle, they appear in late April looking healthy and just like any plant that you might have purchased in a round pot. Be sure to plant in quality soil.

Water them thoroughly after planting.

5 Prune trees and shrubs. This is the perfect time of year to prune a cedar hedge, large spruce or pine, deciduous trees including maples and birch (which bleed come spring if you leave this job much later). Flowering shrubs that have finished blooming late this season should be pruned now. Rose of Sharon bloom better next year when pruned now. We do not prune ornamental grasses or hydrangeas until spring. And we postpone apple pruning until late winter.

Remember to sit and absorb the remaining weeks in your garden before the snow flies. Allow the effects of nature to seep into your bones and be absorbed by your hard drive. Come winter, you will want to retrieve these images.

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

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4 tips to create a water garden that is beautiful and functional

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4 tips to create a water garden that is beautiful and functional

Are you a modern gardener? One who plants and nurtures your own garden space with an eye to enhancing the biodiversity in your community? It has taken a few generations, but now we are at a point where we have torn up our property deed, figuratively, and replaced it with a consciousness of the impact our outdoor activity has on nature, up and down the street.

If one of your garden goals is to maximize the attraction of beneficial insects, songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds: Welcome.

The most impactful addition you can make to your garden is to add still water. A half barrel, a pond or any small container filled with water and “managed” will attract amphibians, dragonflies and many more helpful critters in the local environment. Here are some top tips for still water features in the garden:

1 | Amphibians.

When you are successful in attracting frogs, toads and salamanders to your water garden, you have achieved a very special level of success. These creatures breathe through their skin and as such are very sensitive to environmental changes and pollution. Nurture them by not disturbing your water garden too severely each spring. Provide habitat by placing water plants in it.

Locate your water feature in part sun. Ideally, about 60 per cent of the surface of the water should be shaded. You can provide shade using a nearby tree, water plants that float and by planting broad leaved water lilies that produce leaves up to the surface of the water.

2 | Avoid raccoons and mosquitoes.

The two objections that we hear most, where water features are concerned, are “I don’t want raccoons” and “I don’t want to encourage mosquitoes.” To avoid raccoon problems, design your pond with sides that slope steeply downwards, about 50 cm deep. Raccoons can’t (or won’t) swim and are unable to swipe the fish out of your pond if it is steep enough.

Mosquitoes are easy to manage. Just put some goldfish or koi carp in your pond. Mark has a 10-by-10-metre pond and he has about 30 small fish that do the job very nicely. You can have too many fish, though, as they create a carbon-rich environment that encourages algae growth.

3 | Butterflies and dragonflies love ponds.

Especially where water lilies and other broad-leaved plants sit on the surface of the water. These flying insects do not use bird baths to either drink from or bathe. They are both “top heavy” and prefer to drink from water droplets on the surface of water plants or in mud, which can occur at the margin of your pond. Note that dragonfly nymphs live in still water for up to four years before they mature into flying adults – another good reason not to clean your pond too thoroughly each spring.

4 | Marginals.

The plants you establish around your pond are as important as the ones that you place in it. They provide cover for egg laying and drying post for emerging dragon flies. Consider native marsh marigolds, water iris, tall water forget-me-nots, hibiscus and Joe Pye Weed (a butterfly magnet).

When you build a garden pond, we recommend using a butyl pond liner as it will not break down as PVC will over time. The pond cavity should be lined with sand and a layer of polyester fibre that acts as a buffer against the existing soil.

Once you learn these basics and design your water garden, you’ll see it can literally become a living, breathing yard feature you can be proud of and enjoy for years to come.

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

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Fowl play

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Fowl play

Expert tips on how to attract some feathered friends to your home

Our involvement with Birds Canada began more than eight years ago when they invited Mark to join one of their bird-a-thons. This experience was very impactful indeed and as a result, we have learned so much about backyard birding. Although, we now know people like Jody Allair, director of Citizen Science and Community Engagement at Birds Canada, who has forgotten more than we will ever learn about wild birds. We are honoured to include a contribution from Jody in our monthly e-newsletter (available at markcullen.com for free).

Here are some highlights of what we have learned:

1. Birds do not need us to feed them. Many well-intentioned feeders of birds (vs. ‘bird feeders’) believe that wild birds become dependent on us for food. Other than, perhaps, the coldest days of the year and the ones with the deepest snow fall, birds are very capable of finding food from natural sources. They are much like us in that they will take the easiest path to a meal and if it happens to be at your feeder, that is where they congregate.

2. Use the appropriate seed. Birds are foragers: they find food in some of the most unlikely places, like the seed heads of ornamental grasses in your yard. Consider what kinds of birds you wish to attract to your yard and put out the appropriate seed in your feeders. Here is a short list from Birds Canada:

A. Black oil sunflower/premium mixed seed attracts Cardinal, Blue Jays, black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, song sparrow and common Grackle.

B. Suet and bird peanuts (vs. peanuts for human consumption, which is a no-no as birds should not have salt – something else that we learned) attract Blue Jay, red-breasted nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Whitebreasted Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker (all woodpeckers).

C. Nyjer/Black oil sunflower seed attracts house finch, American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin. Use a nyjer feeder and watch the bird population scrap over who gets the spoils first.

D. Fruit attracts the American Robin. Note that much of the fruit on your crabapples and Mountain ash trees will be foraged by robins who decide that it is a good idea to stay here over winter. They usually strip a fruit-bearing tree clean after the first heavy snow fall.

3. Plants. There are so many plants that birds love that we can’t list them all here. Truth is, the seeds of their favourite plants are what they are really interested in. Broadly speaking, the following plants are bell ringers for attracting birds: ornamental grasses, Joe Pye weed, Echinacea, cedars and rudbeckia. And when you are shopping at your favourite garden retailer, be sure to look for plant labels that state ‘Attracts birds.’

4. Water. This is the single most impactful feature that you can add to your yard in your effort to attract birds (apart from a full bird feeder). Birds need water to drink and bathe. Simple as that. Once again, they have a few things in common with people. A half barrel or a full-blown pond and stream works wonders. Mark has five bird ‘baths’ in his yard at last count. They use them all.

5. Shelter. Birds need shelter to breed and for protection from cold, wind, snow and their enemies like hawks, falcons and neighbourhood cats. Especially cats. The best protection that you can provide wild birds is evergreens that grow tall and thick. Cedars, spruce, fir, along with others, work like a charm. Keep in mind that bird feeders should be located within a metre of a window or more than 10 metres from a window. Within a metre, birds cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves too seriously if they hit the window and more than 10 metres away provides them an opportunity to veer away from the window when they realize that it is not a thoroughfare to another part of your garden.

Birds Canada is the largest and most sophisticated organization of its kind. There are over 20 full-time employees, including several well-educated and enthusiastic ornithologists who study birds very carefully. Each year these specialists depend on the public – people like you and me – to help them determine the migration patterns of all wild bird species and population growth and decline.

You can become a ‘citizen scientist’ by taking part in Project Nest Watch and Project Feeder Watch. Visit birdscanada.org to learn more and register. It is fun, educational and who knows, you could become hooked and skip the trip south next winter in favour of birdwatching.

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 (https://www.facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/markcullengardening/).

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What is a weed?

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What is a weed?

May is planting month – and the beginning of weeding season. Gardeners take the good with the bad. Off we go digging, planting and weeding.

We enjoy weeding, for the first couple of weeks of spring. But their persistence gets to us after a while and we begin looking for short cuts. How can we control weeds with as little commitment to time and effort as possible?

Fortunately, our years of gardening experience have taught me a few things about this.

Here are our top weeding tips:

BE AN EARLY BIRD. The early bird does, indeed, get the weed. Knock a weed down while it is a baby and you have removed future work 10-fold. How is that? The root of a weed gives the top half of the weed life, vigor and speed. Cut a weed off with a sharpened hoe and you remove the ability of the plant to photosynthesize. This either starves the poor darling to death or, at the very least; it pushes the ability of the weed to re-grow backwards for a spell. The secret: Sharpen your hoe with a file each time that you use it. Spray it with a little oil to help it move effortlessly through the soil. And do it early in the season before the root gets too deep. Like now. Tip: for the most effortless weeding use a Mark’s Choice Back Hoe. Home Hardware.

MULCH. The miracle of bark mulch is that it is non-chemical, easy, fun to spread (it smells nice!) and it can eliminate up to 90 per cent of weeds before they become established. The secret is to use at least six cm of shredded cedar or pine bark mulch to prevent most annual weeds from popping through the soil in the first place. The sooner you do this, the better.

BLACK PLASTIC. Place thick (at least six mil) black plastic over your lawn or garden and anchor it with something heavy. Wait for a minimum of six to eight weeks and you will kill just about everything under the plastic membrane. Other than some stubborn hard-to-kill weeds like horse tail or Phragmites (the new imported curse) you are good to go once you have cooked the weeds beneath the plastic. While the process takes time, it is thorough, and no chemicals are involved. This process works best in bright sun.

Weed control does not have to be onerous. In fact, we find some recreation in the activity of hoeing weeds down in the garden and pulling them from the lawn.

Lawn Weeds

The most frequently asked question we hear is, “How do I kill lawn weeds?” And the answer is simple: Compete them out of existence. Here is our fourstep recipe for a thicker, greener and (for the most part) weed-free lawn.

  • Rake the area of thin or tired grass gently using a leaf rake, removing all loose debris and getting grass blades to stand up on end.
  • Spread lawn soil (or triple mix) about three to five cm thick and rake this smooth.
  • Hand-broadcast quality grass seed on the area.
  • Rake this smooth, step on it to bring the seed in firm contact with the soil and water until germination occurs. Keep it damp during hot, dry spells and fertilize with quality, iron-based lawn fertilizer containing slow release nitrogen.

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

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Begonias and Dahlias

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Begonias and Dahlias

Start planting these bulbs indoors now for a summer spectacle in your garden

At this time of year, gardeners are anxious to start their spring planting. We encourage you to pot up some summer flowering bulbs, indoors. Not to be confused with ‘spring’ flowering bulbs, like tulips and daffodils, which you plant in the fall. Summer flowering bulbs are planted now through spring, for the most part. Two of our favourites for early spring ‘potting up’ are tuberous begonias and dahlias.

Tuberous Begonias

We absolutely love tuberous begonias. If you have partly shaded areas in your garden (they prefer eastern exposure), give them a try. They perform best in ‘dappled’ shade. Avoid total or dense shade. We guarantee they’ll impress you with their blooms.

Tuberous begonias provide a wide range of flower and leaf colour in low-light areas of your garden ALL summer long. They aren’t difficult to care for, and if you pay a little attention to them, you’ll be rewarded with luxuriant plant growth. With large double blossoms, we consider them the ‘roses’ of the shade garden.

Begonia

The time to start tuberous begonias indoors is in the month of March. They should have two to three months head start before setting them outside at the end of May.

Make sure the tubers are in good shape when you purchase them. Pick up some peat moss and a shallow growing tray if you don’t have them at home. You’ll also need clay pots that are four inches in diameter (one for each tuber), some quality potting soil and a good water-soluble fertilizer for flowering plants.

How to start

Spread a layer of peat moss in the bottom of your shallow growing tray, then place the begonia tubers hollow (concave) side up in the peat moss. Sprinkle enough peat moss in another layer to just cover the bulbs. Keep the peat moss lightly moist until the tubers (or bulbs) have developed substantial roots (about an inch long). Place the tray in a warm spot while the roots are forming. The top of the refrigerator works well. Once white roots have reached two or three centimetres long, pot each tuber up in a four-inch clay pot with good drainage and sterilized potting soil. Place the pots in a sunny window until top growth starts and then pull them back from the light if it’s too bright.

Fertilize your new begonia plants every three weeks with Pro-Mix Multi-Purpose 20-8-8 and keep them well watered but not soggy.

At the end of May, plant the begonias in shaded, protected areas of your garden or in pots and keep them reasonably watered all summer long.

Tuberous begonias are wonderful in hanging baskets. Pot some up now and we know you’ll be pleased.

Dahlias

Unlike shade-loving begonias, dahlias love the heat and sunshine. To get the best show out of dahlias, you should
really start them in March in large, gallon sized pots. Use quality potting soil, like Pro-Mix premium potting mix, and place them in a sunny window to put down roots and begin to sprout.

Dahlia

If you have dahlia tubers stored in the basement from last year’s crop, it’s time to bring them upstairs. Separate the viable/healthy tubers and get potting. What you cannot accommodate in your house you can give to willing recipients in the family or neighbours on the street.

Not all summer flowering bulbs require an early start. Gladiolas will perform much better planted directly in the ground come late April. Space the plantings apart by about two weeks over a couple of months to create a succession of bloom.

Dahlia

Give summer flowering bulbs a try this spring for a great show all summer.

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 (https://www.facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/markcullengardening/).

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Composting compost, the magic elixir for your garden

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Composting compost, the magic elixir for your garden

We waste up to 50 per cent of our compostable materials. According to Susan Antler, executive director of the Composting Council of Canada, we’re not very good at composting the organics from inside, and outside, of where we live. “Whether it’s the backyard composter at home, or through green bin composting programs, those banana peels (no stickers please), apple cores, fallen leaves and garden trimmings can be recycled,” says Antler.

Even though approximately 61 per cent of Canadians have access to some form of composting, many of us do not take full advantage of it.

We can do better

This year, Compost Awareness Week takes place from May 3rd to the 9th, 2020. It’s the perfect time to reignite your commitment to save the planet. Convert the raw, organic material from your kitchen and garden into a magic elixir. All plant life relies on it for sustenance.

It’s reported that 45 per cent of households compost their kitchen waste, and 68 per cent of Canadians recycle their garden waste. One of the biggest challenges is to come up with a broad-based program for condos and apartments.

Don’t slip

When you put a banana peel, or other organic waste, in the garbage, it produces gases, which is composed primarily of methane – a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The decomposition of methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential.

Brown stuff/green stuff

When composting in your yard, the green organic material that you add to your compost pile is nitrogen rich. The brown stuff, including fallen leaves and shredded newspaper, is carbon rich. Ideally, you should include one part green stuff in your compost for every five to 10 parts of brown stuff. This will also help to prevent your compost from smelling bad.

Oxygen is your friend. Keep turning it. Similar to starting a fire by blowing on it, you will ignite the decomposition process in your bin or compost pile when you turn it over with a garden fork every few weeks. It’s okay if you don’t turn it, but you will wait much longer for results.

Soil health

The success that you achieve in your garden is the direct result of proper soil enhancement and natural fertility. Soils are living ecosystems. Susan Antler reminds us that a handful of healthy soil contains more living organisms than there are people on the planet. When we add finished compost to our soil, we enhance the life-giving bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes, as well as other more visible creatures such as earthworms. It’s the perfect time of year to add a two- to three centimetre layer of compost over your garden soil.

In short, composting and adding quality compost to your garden is the ultimate carbon trading scheme, as plants use photosynthesis to fix carbon in an organic form from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Healthy soil enhances soil aggregation and porosity, sequesters nitrogen and other nutrients, and reduces nutrient loss to pollution. It also out-competes disease and pest organisms, enhancing crop yields – and blooms.

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

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Mid-winter research; heritage, hybrids and natural mutations

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Mid-winter research; heritage, hybrids and natural mutations

As your gardening anticipation grows, it’s the perfect time of year to pour through seed catalogues and make plans. We all want to grow the very best quality plants, otherwise what’s the point of growing your own?

When we grow our own produce, we have control over the process. We grow it because it tastes better – think of the vine-ripened tomato, or the sweetness of a carrot just pulled from the ground and wiped on your pant leg. Children enjoy the experience as well.

Hybrid rose, Bonica

Hybrid pros and cons

A hybrid is the result of crossing two closely related species in a controlled environment. Professionals, like those at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario are coming up with new varieties every day.

Many hybrids that make it to market are more disease-resistant than their parents, they bloom longer, and they produce hardier fruit, which is great for shipping long distances. While flavour is often compromised, they generally possess a couple of qualities that make the plant, or its fruit, appealing to buyers.

The Sweet One Million cherry tomato is a hybrid, and it’s the most prolific producer and, by far, the sweetest in its category. My favourite rose, the Bonica, is another hybrid. If you see ‘F1’ after the name of a plant, this means that it’s a hybrid that was created by crossing two pure parents. It takes growers many years to achieve a pure line before they can continue with their goal to produce an F1 hybrid. These varieties generally have outstanding characteristics, but cost more because they are expensive to produce.

Open-pollinated re-selections

Strange things can happen in the garden. A cucumber can cross with its close cousin, the pumpkin, and create a cuckin. The melon family are famous for family in-breeding. The reason is that they are open pollinated. This can happen if a bee or a hummingbird visits a flower on one plant, gathers its pollen or nectar, and then moves on to another.

Heritage varieties

Purists often go out of their way to find those varieties that have been around for more than 100 years. If you grow heritage varieties, be sure to keep a keen eye out for powdery mildew, and the like, as many can be susceptible to disease. Give your heritage plants lots of space in the sunniest positions in your garden to increase air flow and to help burn off disease spores in hot, dry weather.

Natural mutations

Plants will produce unpredictable changes as they evolve from one generation to another. It has been reported that Purina was growing a large field of sweet potatoes for use in their dog food products when one of the plants produced brilliant lime green leaves. A smart-thinking plant breeder isolated the plant, produced seeds from it that were true to their parent, and created a whole new ornamental plant category – the sweet potato vine has become a staple in floral containers with its vibrant, trailing leaves.

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

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Once upon a seed

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Once upon a seed

We love to sow and grow our own annual flowering plants. There is a measure of satisfaction from the activity that is greater than any that we grow from store-bought transplants.

Growing annuals in the flower border helps to provide colour from spring to fall, bridging the gaps between perennials. By growing your annuals from seed, you get a head start and save some money – and you’ll also get a lot of pleasure from it.

You can start many seeds now through early May, indoors in flats or cell packs and many other seeds lend themselves to sowing direct into the garden soil as early as the second week of April.

Seed packets

Always check the date on the package before you buy. The sell-by date printed on the packet is equally important for seeds as the fresh produce that you purchase from your grocery store and guarantees freshness and successful germination. On the reverse side of each package, you will find complete growing advice, including the number of days you can expect to maturity and whether to plant in sun or shade (essential information!).

Sowing seeds can be as simple or sophisticated as you choose. A sunny window can provide sufficient light, or you may opt for supplemental grow lights. Plasticdomed mini-greenhouses with cell-pack inserts are an excellent alternative to a full-sized greenhouse. The humidity dome helps to seal in moisture and encourages germination. Indoor lighting systems, heating coils and self-watering equipment are available if you are looking for a more advanced approach.

Be sure to use a professional lightweight potting mix, like ProMix Seed Starting Mix, to promote optimum growth. Seed-starting mixes contain sphagnum peat moss and perlite or vermiculite. They have great water retention and drain well.

Peat pellets are another option. They are made from compressed sphagnum peat moss and have a mesh cover. Add water to these pellets and they expand. You can use peat pellets to sow seeds or to root cuttings.

What else will you need?

We recommend that you purchase a small desk fan while shopping for your seeds and supplies. This will help protect against damping off; a fungal disease, which infects young seedlings when there is a lack of air circulation and excessive watering. Place the fan in the same room as your seeding trays to improve air circulation.

ProMix root booster helps all plants develop a strong root system. It has a high concentration of phosphorous, 5-15-5, for strong and rapid root growth in seedlings. Begin feeding seedlings with starter fertilizer once they have their first set of true leaves.

Some plants require up to four months of growth before being planted in the garden. Geraniums are slow-growing and require at least this long to prepare for the outdoors. However, the majority of seeds are ready to be transplanted outdoors in six to 12 weeks from the date they are sown. Seed packets will usually recommend when to start seeds indoors.

Have fun and remember that odds are a packet of seeds is your best bet, if you are betting on anything!

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 (https://www.facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/markcullengardening/).

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Plant Hypochondria, Maladies without long-term consequences

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Plant Hypochondria, Maladies without long-term consequences

You may think that you have an incurable disease in your well-tended garden, but don’t become preoccupied, as most are not life-limiting. We often assume the worst, and wonder if browning leaves are a sign of a permanent problem.

When it comes to our own health, we tend to manufacture all sorts of ailments when we can’t explain a particular symptom, until a doctor puts our mind at rest. There are many conditions that a plant may get, but it might just be a cosmetic concern.

As we hunker down for a four month break from outdoor gardening, otherwise known as winter, we can rest assured that nature has a way of taking care of itself.

Maple blotch

In recent years, an alarming number of gardeners have noticed black ink stains on the leaves of their maples. Chances are they’re varieties that have originated from Norway. As unattractive as it is, this malady is harmless. The spores of maple blotch are airborne, so whether you compost your leaves, or not, it doesn’t make a difference. To avoid the problem, we recommend that you plant Sugar Maples. These are native trees that, like the Paper Birch, are not susceptible.

The mighty Oak

If there is a giant survivor of the native forest, it would surely be the oak. The white, pin, red and burr oak trees are incredibly strong and live for a very long time. They are a source of pride to many a homeowner, and a source of frustration to many perfectionists. Oak trees attract all kinds of insects, and more-than-afew diseases. Aphids, mites, miners, mould, mildew and cankers – you name it, and chances are the oak will attract it. However, oaks generally pull through, quite nicely, no matter the contagious pathogen that they are exposed to.

Apple scab

There are certain apple trees (including crab apple) that attract black spot and apple scab on their leaves like it’s nobody’s business. Gardening professionals (like us) will tell you to spray them in the spring with the all-natural Green Earth dormant spray, in order to help minimize this problem. The truth is, some varieties of apples, and crab apples, are naturally susceptible to these common diseases. And, if the weather conditions in late spring and early summer are just right (cool and wet), there isn’t a darn thing that you can do to prevent the problem.

We have approximately 15 crab apple trees that line our property along the road. Most years, they are leafless by late July. And, just as reliably, we can expect to see a profusion of blossoms each spring, followed by shiny new leaves. It’s a cycle that thrills, and depresses, us each year.

Other plants that suffer from assorted maladies, which don’t have continual effects, include mildew on roses, rust on hollyhocks, slugs on hostas and, for that matter, clover in the lawn. Some people remove clover from their lawn, and others sow it so that they don’t have to cut it so often. The hope is that these two people don’t move in next door to each other.

If you have disease-ridden varieties in your garden, chances are that they’re otherwise healthy – just not healthy looking. When planting, consult with your local retailer or garden designer, and try to choose disease-resistant varieties.

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

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Garden foot soldiers

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Garden foot soldiers

The unsung heroes that will bring rewards to your garden next spring.

We often stated that it is a very good idea to rake the leaves off of your lawn and onto your garden. The leaves will mat down with rain and weight of snow and begin to break down into a quality layer of organic matter. Come spring, when temperatures reach 10 C, the earthworms move up to the surface of the soil and, upon discovering a fine harvest of leaves, munch on them until they disappear.

Take a trip out to your garden on the Canada Day holiday and we guarantee that evidence of your leaves will be gone.

So, what happens to them? Glad you asked. This is December, the month to celebrate all of the good things in life and without a doubt, earthworms are one of them.

A gift to gardeners

Earthworms are part of a biotic community. They, along with centipedes, sow bugs and a variety of other useful earth-bound critters, provide an invaluable service. When earthworms arrive at the surface of the soil, they consume the carbon-rich fallen leaves (and leaf mould). These are mineralized by microorganisms inside of the earthworm’s gut. As the leaves pass through the sophisticated digestive system of the worm, they are converted into nitrogen-rich earthworm ‘castings.’ As the worms move through the soil, sometimes as deep as a metre, they constantly leave these castings behind. They are a gift to the gardener.

Nature’s aerator

The castings quickly stabilize and become resistant to chemical and physical degradation. They enhance the quality of your soil by stabilizing and storing nitrogen and carbon until the microbes in the soil break them down. As the worms move through your soil, they open it up, essentially aerating it, making oxygen available to the roots of your plants. Every plant on earth benefits from oxygen at its root zone.

With healthier roots your plants will perform better, the need to fertilize is minimized (or it disappears) and water moves through the soil more efficiently. Plants more easily channel their roots through the tunnels created by the earthworms.

Transported from warmer climes

While we could assume that earthworms do their work as part of some big, master plan on the part of Mother Nature, it is worthwhile noting that there are no native earthworms in Canada. If they existed at one time, as fossils suggest they did, they were wiped out by the last Ice Age. Your friendly neighbourhood earthworms are immigrants. Either they moved up here from the deep south, where the glaciers never existed, or people brought them over here from Europe during the great plant importing schemes of the 1700s through to 1940.

To nurture the worm population in your yard, it is useful to know:

  • Worms prefer loose, open soil. Turning your soil each spring helps to encourage them.
  • They are moisture-sensitive. During drought they move deep into the soil and enter a resting phase. In heavy rain, they move to the surface of the soil to escape the lack of air in their tunnels.
  • One active worm will process up to one fifth of a kilogram of organic matter per year.
  • An earthworm can live between three and 10 years, depending on species and soil conditions.

The toad touch

Another hero of the garden is the common toad.

They feed on a wide variety of insects and have quite an appetite. The insects that they eat are often a nuisance in the garden, so you want to encourage toads as much as possible. Slugs and mosquitoes are just two of their preferred prey.

They overwinter deep in the soil and will travel up to half a kilometre to reach a breeding ground come spring. Males often get a free ride on the back of a female. Perhaps we should make up a new expression “couch toad” to describe certain males of the human species.

It takes about two years for a toad to mature to full size, but they live for up to 10 years.

To encourage a population of toads in your yard, we suggest that you leave some leaves on the soil (another reason to do this!), do not ‘sanitize’ your garden by removing all of the perennials and mulch that is there this time of year. Give them shelter and they will reward you next season.

Toads and earthworms are just two of the unsung heroes of the garden. Together they are essential weapons in our war against poor quality soil.

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 (https://www.facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/markcullengardening/).

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