Gardening Guru: Small things can keep dreams alive

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Call me nuts; you would not be the first. I just cleaned out the 27 nesting boxes on my property the other day, and the following day the tree swallows arrived. Swooping through the air like living torpedoes, their perfectly designed bodies are so aerodynamic that anyone with eyes would be foolish not to stop and take notice. Snapping up mosquitoes as they fly, they eliminate one of the great pests of summer while providing entertainment as they feast. Tree swallows are among the declining population of birds that we need to protect. The day that they arrive is a high point on my calendar. 

As if this news was not perfect enough, the next day I spotted an eastern blue bird perched in a tree by my vegetable garden. I stopped and wondered out loud if he would please, please stop here and make a family. Alas, perched on a tree on the opposite side of the lane was his camouflaged female other-half. My mouth was agape at the thought that a blue bird family may finally make its home in my meadow. I was counting the eggs before the kids were born.

Seemingly small things can keep our dreams alive. Like your dream of the best looking garden ever. Or the most productive vegetable and herb garden ever. 

I am your springtime dream realizer: you dream it and I enable you to make it reality.  Through the miracle of the written word, this column can change your life. Or, at least it can make it better looking. This is ‘gardening month' so let's get to work.

Haul out your containers. Whether you live in a condo or in an estate, chances are you have a bunch of pots and window boxes in storage that need some attention. Don’t get overly fussed by this. I just use a stiff brush to clean the inside wall of each container before I fill them up with new potting/container mix. Don’t replant into the old potting soil as it is finished. Place the used soil in your garden where it is useful as an addition to existing soil and if you live in a high-rise, give the soil to a friend with a yard for this purpose. Don’t throw it out. Replace it with a quality mix like C.I.L., Pro Mix, or my own Container Mix. Use a piece of broken pottery over the drainage hole to allow water to pass through but not the soil in the pot.

Plant frost hardy flowering plants. Pansies, ranunculus, violas, primulas and pots full of daffodils, hyacinths and tulips are brimming over at your local garden retailer. Relieve them of some inventory and plant these out regardless of the weather in the next few weeks. They can all take a hit of frost and bounce back.

Plant trees, shrubs, evergreens and roses. All of the plants that normally survive a winter in your garden are ready to plant now. In fact, this is the second best time of the year to plant all of the ‘woody’ plant material. (The best time is in autumn.)

You won’t get the enormous selection in the fall as you will now when many of our favourites are in bloom. Be sure to prepare planting holes with generous quantities of new triple mix.

Fertilize your lawn. Plan on doing this three times this year using a quality fertilizer with slow release nitrogen and you will reduce weeds dramatically by thickening your lawn and squeezing out the weeds. Cut your lawn at six to eight centimetres with a mulching mower for even better results.

Herbs. Unless they have been grown in a warm greenhouse and new growth has been forced, this is a good time to plant the hardy and semi-hardy herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary and most any other herb. (It is too early for basil: wait until the end of May.)

Plant in containers, window boxes, hanging baskets or the garden — just make sure that they are always placed in the sunniest position in the garden as most like it hot and dry.

Start seeds. It is getting late to start tomato seeds but there are many fast germinating seeds that will perform very well for you in the garden if you start them indoors now. Zinnias, nasturtiums, cosmos, asters, snapdragons, and alyssum are just a few of the many annual flowers that will take off in your garden in early June if you start them in a sunny window or under grow lights this time of year. You will save a small fortune by not buying single plants at the retailer and sowing from seed instead. Thank me later.

Clean the lawn mower.Sharpen the blade, change the oil, check and possibly change the spark plug. If it is a rechargeable electric mower, sharpen the blade and take more time reading the paper as you made a wise decision when you bought your machine. Remember to plug it in to recharge before you use it. 


Canadian gives to British gardens

Here is some news from the United Kingdom. According to the London Times, the late Keith Owen, a Canadian, left his fortune to the Devon seaside town of Sidmouth to plant a million flowers.

“Although he lived in Canada, he often visited Sidmouth where his mother lived and such was his affection for the town he continued to visit after her death.” The interest earned on approximately $4-million will be used to landscape the town each spring using flowering bulbs.

In 2011, the National Horticultural Society in England launched a ‘Change 4 Life Campaign’ and funded a study: The Health Benefits of Green Space.  It found that better health overall was positively related to green space, regardless of people’s income or social position, while there was a “consistently negative relationship between stress levels and lack of access to green space.” Thanks to reader Susan Cooper for bringing this story to my attention.

I attended a green forum hosted by TD Friends of the Environment recently in Toronto. I was impressed by the high level line up of speakers from across the continent and left the session thinking to myself, “My house is in a park. Isn’t everyone’s?” 

Think about that: if you have a garden and live in a house, the butterflies, songbirds and hummingbirds do not recognize your 'yard' as distinct in any way from the other yards on your street or the conservation area, local parks or other green spaces. Contemplate this as you scrub your pots and plant a tree this weekend. And dream on. Miracles are about to happen.


Special event notice

I will be answering your gardening questions via ‘live chat’ at the Windsor Home Hardware on Thursday, May 15 at 7 p.m., Friday, May 16 at noon and Monday, May 19 at 1 p.m.


* * *

Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.




Organizations: London Times, National Horticultural Society, Windsor Home Hardware Canada AM Hants Journal

Geographic location: Sidmouth, Canada, United Kingdom England Toronto

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