Mark Cullen and the Eco-Friendly Garden

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Bring on the birds and the bees. Canadian gardening expert Mark Cullen releases a new book with a homegrown message that inspires us to dig up some dirt.

Green Giving Mark Cullen is the volunteer chair of the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute Campaign. He is donating all author royalties from the sale of The New Canadian Garden to the planting of 117,000 trees – one tree for each of Canada’s war dead – on Canada’s Highway of Heroes, the stretch of Highway 401 in Ontario from Trenton to Keele Street in Toronto along which the bodies of fallen Canadian Forces personnel are taken to the Coroner’s complex before being released to the family. “A living tribute to the greatest sacrifice and the greatest country in the world,” writes Cullen in his dedication.

Try these tips from Cullen’s book to create your own backyard oasis:

1. Water

Even a small pond can add significantly to the “wild” activity that occurs in your yard, says Cullen. “What if I told you that by devoting two square metres of your space to water, you could create a breeding habitat for dragonflies, salamanders, newts and small frogs, provided it has some established greenery growing in and around it?” And how does he combat the insects that use the pond as a breeding ground? “My yard has a pond with koi in it,” he says. “My fish nibble happily at the squirmy mosquito larvae.”

Next: Read on for more tips

2. More pond tips

Ideally, 60 per cent of the pond’s surface should be covered by shade, foliage and flowers. Perimeter plants, or “marginals,” provide nesting habitat for some birds, shelter and shade for turtles, frogs and toads, writes Cullen, and the roots, he says, help to secure the pond’s edges.

Skip tap water, as it’s usually been treated with some sort of chemical. Use a rain barrel to collect water or purchase chemical neutralizers from the local garden retailer.

3. Earth

“I recommend you choose native plants that have been grown locally for best results.” (You’ll find charts and lists of many examples that work across most growing zones in Canada in the book.) He also suggests non-spreading native plants to keep things in check and reduce plants from running amok.

Native plants, says Cullen, can be broken out into what attracts the birds and the bees and all the other good things in the garden.

For the birds, choose seed plants, such as the black-eyed Susan, the sunflower and the coneflower.

For butterflies and hummingbirds, Cullen says nectar plants are best. Plant bluebells, hostas and asters for blooms from spring through fall.

And for the bees, look for pollinator-friendly plants such as purple coneflower (echinacea), bee balm and spotted Joe Pye weed.

Now let your garden grow.

Next: Excerpt from The New Canadian Garden

Excerpt from Mark Cullen’s The New Canadian Garden.

I think of biodiversity in terms of my backyard.

Of course, biodiversity applies to each and every ecosystem that comprises this planet, but it’s easier to think of it in smaller terms. My backyard is a conglomeration of trees, shrubs, small plants, insects, spiders, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and many other related organisms. I do not see all of them, and I doubt I ever will. The biodiversity that exists within my backyard is made up of all of these living organisms. If I plant a new species, say, something native like milkweed (Asclepias spp.), I have introduced a new species to the ecosystem, thereby increasing the biodiversity of my backyard. Not only have I introduced a new plant, but there is a good chance that monarch butterflies will start to visit from a neighbouring property or the forested area nearby. Biodiversity is increased again.

I mix native and non-native species in my garden with the hopes of attracting a wide variety of creatures. There’s room for both. The native plants not only look fantastic, they are where I see most of the pollinators and other beneficial insects. The native insects that have evolved relationships with these plants over thousands of years enjoy the blooms on my echinacea (purple coneflower) plants and the late-summer blanket flowers.

The non-native species in my garden are no slouches, either. I will often see bumblebees foraging through the many dahlias from early August through to late frost. The lady beetles (native and non) find a good meal on my roses, making short work of the aphids that collect on the new growth. There are thousands of these intricate interactions taking place in my garden, thanks to the combination of native and non-native plant species.

While there are purists out there who will plant nothing but natives, I am of the opinion that if a plant attracts pollinators to my garden, it is worth considering.

Next: Add water as a feature to your garden

The truth is, though, that the single most effective arrow you have in your quiver where attracting pollinators to your garden is concerned is water. Adding a water feature to your garden brings life in a variety of forms that would otherwise not exist there.

I support water-loving creatures with a small pond surrounded by grasses and blooming flowers that can tolerate wet conditions. The edges of the pond are sloped slightly and contain a number of natural rescue features for frogs and other creatures that may go into the pond and want back out, or others who are born into the pond water but spend most of their adult life on land. The water is kept aerated with a great deal of plant life that both floats on top and sinks roots into the sandy bottom. The waterfall aerates the water and introduces oxygen, which helps to minimize the growth of algae.

Excerpted from The New Canadian Garden by Mark Cullen © 2016. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press.

A version of this article appeared in our May 2016 issue with the headline, “Eco-Friendly,” p.75-77.