Making a house a home

by Mark and Ben Cullen

When does a house become a home? When fresh baked cookies come out of the oven, when a new baby is brought ‘home’, and when the place in which we live becomes larger than life.

Recently we were privileged to attend the Toronto Garden Awards Ceremony at City Hall as sponsors. There were over 300 entries in 6 categories. With so many great gardens, contest judge Tony DiGiovanni remarked, “Choosing winners was the hardest job of all.”

Among the entries, was a letter from a homeowner that moved the judges and tugged at their heart strings. We are sharing an excerpt from the letter with you here.

“Dear Judges,

My name is Shanthi, I have been living at this address since 2012 Summer, I have been renting this house from 2012 to 2014 December when I bought it. When we moved into the property, there was no flower, plants or anything on the property except trees, dried grass, and lots of dandelions. After I took ownership of the property I worked on my gardening with the help of my son and daughter, and made my house and property beautiful. When we moved into the area, not a lot of neighbors were gardening.

Since 2015, I see a lot of neighbors working on their gardens. One of my neighbours gave me a few of her plants, and I gave her some of my plants in exchange. This encouraged neighbors to do more gardening.

My son and gardening has helped me a lot to find peace, and gardening is my hobby. We don’t throw out old vegetables, fruits, or dried leaves, egg shells or tea bags. My son digs and burys these, this helps the soil and plants to grow healthier.

Thank you so much, this encourages me to do a lot more for my garden.

God Bless You

If a house becomes a home when we fill it with love and if it is a place where we find peace, what role can your garden play?
When Mark was four years old his father pointed to five pyramid cedars planted in a row across the back of the yard. “The middle one is yours.” He said. Without any more explanation he had given a young lad ownership over a living thing and it felt very special. Mark was the middle kid of five siblings and as the years passed his image of that house was framed by an image in his mind of that one tall cedar tree. A house became a home.

Sometimes, we create spaces in our living quarters that make our house feel more like a home. When you walk up to the front door of our family house you are greeted by flowering plants in pots or evergreen boughs, in season. We have four large hanging baskets dripping with fern foliage across the front of the house all summer. Ben plants up window boxes with fresh herbs through summer at his rented house, and always has a pumpkin and squash at his door come fall. Food gardening is his thing. Even at the front door of his house.

After you garden for a while you learn a lot about people by observing the treatment they use at the front of their house. A swing on a porch, visible from the street, says that the owners are social and desire to be inclusive.

A tall hedge at the street, that blocks the view of the front door, tells us that the owners enjoy their privacy.

An unkempt hedge or yard and a lack of outdoor furniture is likely the sign of, well, you know, and we hesitate to say, “Indoor” people.

A house, a home. The difference is what we invest of ourselves in the process. Much more than a single sheet of fresh baked cookies, a mature cedar tree or a landscape that transforms the front of the house from grey/brown to a riot of living colour. It is not just one thing that makes a house a home and it is not just love. It is an accumulation of honest efforts made to warm a place up and the garden can be at its’ heart.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.