Sweet spot

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER, 20 Mark and Ben (his son) Cullen are seen in the Star studio for logo photos. The two will be co-writing the weekly Urban Growth column in Homes & Condos. September, 20 2017

Mark and Ben Cullen

This is the most exciting time in history to be a Canadian gardener.

You heard it here first. Or, maybe you read it in our book, Escape to Reality. Alas, it is a statement worth repeating.

The question is, why?

First, because of what we know. Our knowledge of the plant world is growing each day and with this knowledge we are better equipped to succeed at this “hobby” (or full-time occupation, in the case of more than 200,000 Canadians employed in horticulture).

Secondly, choice. Those of us who live in Canada, won the lottery. Visit any retail store and see that there are more choices of diapers, soup, beans, whiskey: you name it, more than ever before. If having choice is a measure of privilege, Canadians have it in spades.

This is true for plants also. Take hydrangeas for example. When Mark started out in the retail gardening business with his father 40 years ago, there were 3 species of hydrangea.

Today, there are dozens of hydrangea hybrids on the market. They bloom longer, stand up straighter and bear much larger blooms than ever before. Take Incrediball (hydrangea arborescens ‘Abetwo’ Incrediball) for example, with creamy white blossoms, born on strong stems, about the size of your head. Some hydrangeas are almost steroidal. What Cirque de Soleil did for the circus business, plant hybridizers have done for the gardening public. We call hydrangeas the new annuals: plant them en masse and watch them perform while you read the weekend newspaper, go for a walk or a trip around the world. For the most part they take care of themselves. They are THAT low maintenance.

Differences of opinion.

The other matter that deserves addressing, the “elephant in the room”, are the widely varying differences of opinion among Canadians. This is generally true and especially true where many gardening issues are concerned. Take our endorsement of hydrangeas for example. Someone will read this and object to nature being manipulated by the “hand of man”. We will argue that hybrids are not the same thing as genetically modified plants. The point is we CAN disagree.

There are organic gardeners and there are Organic gardeners with a capital O. We place ourselves among the former. We only use natural pest controls, where we use pest control at all.  Usually we let nature duke it out. Birds eat many garden pests, like tent caterpillars. Who are we to interfere with natures web of interdependence?

Often, when humankind tries to take control of nature, we botch it up. The results are often unfortunate, like rabbits in Australia or the dandelions in your backyard that were imported as a coffee substitute from Europe about 300 years ago. Europeans might say the same about Canada geese. Who thought it was a good idea to import our native geese to Europe? The word ‘disastrous’ applies to the importation of Giant Hogweed, phragmites and dog strangling vine here at home.

Let’s not beat up on ourselves for making a few mistakes. There are many hybrids and imported plants that our native pollinators and foraging insects enjoy. We recommend hybrid salvia, perennial or annual varieties equally, if you want hummingbirds in your garden. And who doesn’t enjoy the appearance of a mature Japanese maple, Korean boxwood or a Norway spruce? Their names suggest that they came here from elsewhere. Does that make them less useful in our landscapes?

What makes gardening so exciting in Canada today is that there are no rules other than the rules of nature. Plant a messy looking all-natural garden or go formal and use lots of stone or explore the use of permeable interlocking pavers: the choice is yours.

As for nature, we are listening to her as we learn more about how she works.  In the last few years we have learned that trees talk to one another, plants can thrive on a roof top and gardening has numerous benefits for us that are benefit our physical and mental health.

Gardeners: this is our sweet spot. What could be more exciting?

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of 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 markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.