Mark and Ben Cullen's newsletter

Without Canada Blooms, Seedy Saturday, or any number of plant sales we might look forward to from year to year, it feels like Spring 2020 has not had much of a wind-up.
Persistent cold weather into late April has not helped.

But that's okay, because the gardener's internal clock knows what time it is, and we can hear it calling cuckoo.  

Okay, so maybe that's us going a little cuckoo as we head into the gardening season. Thankfully, the best salve is spending time in the garden, which is exactly what we intend to do as we stay close to home this May.

Spring is not the only goods news - we were also delighted to hear the announcement that community gardens were given the blessing to re-open across Ontario, just in time for spring planting. These spaces will provide vital food security for thousands of Canadians while giving them the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of gardening.

We are hopeful that retail garden centres will also get the green light, with all of the health and safety protocols in place, of course.


Speaking of Canada Blooms, we remind you that this year's theme was "Birds of a Feather". Birding and gardening just go so well together.

Last week, Mark celebrated the return of his tree swallows, taking up residency in the 40-plus houses he has built for them around the property. Not before he had the opportunity to clean them out this winter - an important care taking responsibility. Watch the video.

Hummingbirds are another favourite sighting in Mark's garden - don't forget to put out your hummingbird feeders this weekend if you haven't yet. If you aren't sure when to expect them in your part of the country, reference , but remember that they have been arriving earlier than usual over the last few years.

The Canada Geese have been here for a few weeks now, including the mother goose that has made a home on the "green roof" of Mark's woodshed. She sits on 5 pale white eggs (vs. golden ones). Male geese are standing guard and we expect goslings any day now. Not everybody appreciates the Canada Goose, and we appreciate that they can be a nuisance, but they are one of Ben's favourite birds for their dependability and their early harbinger of spring.


Another great migration is underway - that of the monarch butterfly.  

We recommend this great website to read and report on sightings is - the most recent we saw reported were coming from Virginia on April 22.

Consider propagating some milkweed seeds for your garden this year to host monarchs and help support these struggling populations. Available on the seed racks at retailers.

We are excited to announce our new podcast, "Green File" hosted by us, Ben and Mark! We will be releasing Green File twice per month in 30 minute episodes, corresponding with our newsletters on the 1st and 15th of the month throughout the growing season.

Green File will run the gamut of our favourite food and gardening subjects along with some of our favourite people as guests. Tune in for our inaugural episode on May 15th, "wherever you get your podcasts".

Wishing you good health and comfort from your gardening experience as we take this COVID-19 journey together.

Mark and Ben Cullen

Merchants of Beauty


Get Ahead of Insects and Disease with Dormant Spray. Wait until nighttime temperatures are above freezing for an after dark treatment of your trees, shrubs and roses. Apply before the buds have fully broken.

Start your zinnias, marigolds, cucumbers, squash and other fast growers or wait another couple weeks and direct sow them outdoors. Always in a sunny garden.

Overseed the lawn with quality lawn soil and grass seed, and apply CIL Iron+ to existing lawns. Ben has taken the opportunity to tear Creeping Charlie out of his lawn, which he intends to smother with cardboard, a thick layer of topsoil, and new sod. Wish him luck.

Pot up your hanging baskets and containers. Ben is splitting a Boston fern he overwintered in his kitchen for the hanging baskets on his porch this summer. He will also be planting his potatoes into containers in the coming days - something we are both doing more and more.
Container growing potatoes not only makes for an easier harvest (just dump them out), but it saves harming the soil in your vegetable garden with excessive digging and potential year-over-year disease pressure such as scab.

We are working hard to share Practical Gardening Info every day.  It's our goal to inform and excite Canadians to get out and garden.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we post a new story on and Facebook.  View the growing list of stories here.

Every day of the week, we post a new video "Mark and Ben from the Garden. Daily."  You can watch the videos on, our YouTube Channel and on our Facebook page.

And we have been busy working with our media partners:

Toronto Star - Part 1 of Mark's 5-part video series is available now.  Join Mark for a tour of his greenhouse full of seedlings.  Thank You Mary for agreeing to be the videographer!

The Weather Network - Mark's Tips for Dividing Hostas. Watch the video.




The opening of community gardens in Ontario and some other provinces across the country, is a reason to celebrate.  If you live in a province where this has not happened, let us know and we will write to your provincial Premier to support the idea.

We also support the opening of retail garden centres across the country.  Currently some provinces allow it while others do not (e.g. Ontario).  

We believe that all Canadians who want to grow their own food should have access to vegetable transplants, seeds, fruit trees, berry bushes and herb plants.  This is an important part of a plan to maximize food security.  

Tomato plants ready to go

Based on our experience there is a heightened interest coast to coast to coast in food gardening and gardening generally.  With the crops ready to go in greenhouses across the country, we believe that opening garden centres, with the appropriate health and safety measures in place, should be treated no differently than food stores.

Help us get the word out that garden centres should be deemed an essential service by writing to your MPP (as this is a provincial matter).  Mark and Ben


Some good news!  The Highway of Heroes Tree Campaign is in full swing.  Our goal to plant 2 million trees on and near the Highway of Heroes is gaining traction this spring as we plant 600,000 trees.  These include about 15,000 on the highway right of way and the balance on lands near the highway.  


A great big "Thank you" to our growers, professional planting organizations, Forests Ontario and our staff members April Stevenson and David Turnbull who are making this happen.


We are within $1.5 million of our fundraising goal of $10 million.  To learn more and to support our campaign please visit

May 3-9, 2020

Visit for the details.

Backhoe (mini, mid-size, and full-size)

This is our favourite garden tool!
We have received countless compliments from Canadian gardeners who have used it.
The Backhoe is a multi-function weeding tool. You can pop large, deeply rooted weeds out of the ground by dropping the sharp, pointy end of the head into the soil behind the weed. Give it a tug and out pops the weed.

This is the first weeding tool that you will purchase that does not need sharpening when you bring it home. It is pre-sharpened.   It features a stainless-steel head, serrated back-side for combing chickweed and moss out of the garden and a 59" solid ash handle.
This run-away sensation also has a brother and sister. One is the same long handled tool with a head that is 2/3 the size of the original model. It is great for use in tightly planted gardens and small, urban spaces.
There is also a short-handled 'mini' backhoe. It features the same stainless steel, pre-sharpened 2/3 sized head on a shorter, 16 inch solid ash handle. Perfect for weeding and planting raised beds or while working in a crouch position.
Home Hardware # 5036-415 (original), 5036-414 (medium), 5036-413 (mini)


We write a weekly column for the New In Homes & Condos section of the Saturday Toronto Star.
In case you missed it, these are the exciting gardening/environment columns we wrote in April.


While we stay at home, let's help the birds

BIRDS IN FOCUS: Hairy Woodpecker
By Jody Allair
One woodpecker that I've always enjoyed watching is the Hairy Woodpecker. They're a bit noisy, nicely plumaged, full of personality and can be attracted to your backyard bird feeders. What's not to like? There's also some fascinating convergent evolution going on with these woodpeckers, as they are not closely related to the smaller and similar looking Downy Woodpecker!
Hairy Woodpeckers can be found year-round in forested regions right across Canada. They are about the size of an American Robin, they nest in tree cavities and feed primarily on insects, which they painstakingly excavate from rotten and dying trees. The easiest way to tell them apart from Downy Woodpeckers is by their overall size (Hairy = robin-sized vs Downy = sparrow-sized) bill length (Hairy's bill = approximately the length of their head vs. a Downy's bill = ⅓ the length of their head) and tail pattern (Hairy = pure white outer tail feathers vs Downy = black spotted outer tail feathers).

Hairy Woodpecker
photo credit: Jody Allair

The question of why they look so similar to Downy Woodpeckers is the subject of much speculation and research. One theory is that Downy Woodpeckers evolved to appear similar to Hairy Woodpeckers so they could reduce the likelihood of being chased away from food resources. If you're interested in learning more about this fascinating subject check out this article from our Project Feederwatch website.
Since moving into our new house a year and a half ago, we've had the privilege of playing host to a female Hairy Woodpecker (see photo). This amazing bird visits the suet and peanut feeders regularly and I get a lot of enjoyment watching the daily behaviours of this one particular bird - especially the disdain she shows the squirrels. My suggestion for the coming month would be to get to know your individual birds that visit your yard. The rewards are many, but will most definitely include a closer connection to your local bird life.
Good Birding at Home!
Jody Allair
Director, Citizen Science and Community Engagement
Connect with me on Twitter at: @JodyAllair

A Special Offer Exclusively for our newsletter subscribers

Harrowsmith magazine is offering a special promo exclusively for our subscribers.
Subscribe to Harrowsmith at the special rate of just $26.
Click on this link to take advantage of this special promo.


Come Alive Outside has set up a challenge to get you and your family outside during this time of isolation. Spending time outdoors is good for both your physical and mental health, and this challenge helps to improve both. 

Visit their website to download the activity guide and tracking sheet, complete one activity from each category every week for 5 weeks, and submit a picture of your completed tracking sheet to enter their grand prize draw!

You are staying home and staying safe. For many of us, this means extra time in the garden.
Are you trying something new in your garden this year? We would like to hear about it.
Send us a photo and let us know what you're working on. Email a photo to

Mark's new potting shed

We'll post all photos on our Facebook page. The photo with the most likes will receive a $50 gift card for Home Hardware.

Vote for your favourite photo!

Deadline for entry: May 10, 2020.

Enter today!

Mark and Ben's Gardening Connections  

Home Hardware

Toronto Star