BF: When did you first develop a passion for gardening?
MC: It started as a result of the family business, Weall & Cullen nurseries. My father ate, drank and breathed the gardening business. I didn’t feel the same way until my late teens when I finally got the bug, and by my early twenties I had joined the family business full-time. For me, gardening is a great way to improve quality of life for Canadians while also helping the environment. Every time we sell a plant – especially evergreen trees – we’re fulfilling an important service in relation to our environment.
BF: How did you earn the nickname “Canada’s favourite gardener”?
MC: The Home Hardware folks came up with the name and I think it reflects the fact that I’ve always seen myself as just the guy on the other side of the fence – just one neighbour talking to another – and the gardening advice I’ve given over the last 25 years has been in that mode. People listen and watch my shows over breakfast, while contemplating what they will do with their weekend.
BF: As “Canada’s favourite gardener” what does our natural heritage mean to you?
MC: My role in part is to coach and guide people to act as responsible custodians of our natural heritage. For me, that means managing the process and choosing wisely. For example, we all need to plan what material we put in our gardens, with consideration for the long-term benefit of the plants and trees we select. Planning a garden means thinking about the environment like a puzzle – what fits and what doesn’t? Willow trees, with their aggressive root structures, don’t belong in the suburbs. They belong on a farm where there is enough room for them to spread without damaging sewers or nearby structures.
BF: Why did you become an organic gardener?
MC: Twenty-three years ago, when my wife Mary and I had our first child, I took a look at the arsenal of chemicals in my tool shed and decided I didn’t need this. Today, I help people understand that they have alternatives to chemicals – you can eliminate weeds just by using extra grass seed to compete the weeds out of existence. Plus, I’m a huge proponent of composting. 90% of your success in your garden hinges on good soil preparation, and you can accomplish this just by using lots of compost. I am the national spokesperson for the Composting Council of Canada, an active group that has worked hard over the years to establish strict standards for compost. As a result of the work done by the Council, consumers can now choose certified organic compost that meets rigorous quality criteria.
BF: How did you first become concerned about the environment?
MC: Back in 1968, when I was twelve years old, I delivered the newspaper, The Toronto Telegram, in which there was a regular sport fishing column by Tiny Bennett. Through the insights into our natural environment in his column together with my own love of sport fishing, I began to understand that the things we do have an impact on our environment. At the same time, the term “pollution” was just starting to enter our vocabulary as an important issue. Today, environmental issues are so much better understood and more widely communicated in our media.
BF: What actions have you taken around your own home to reduce your environmental footprint?
MC: My wife and I just built a home in the country. We considered going off-grid, but practical considerations led us to compromise by installing a geothermal HVAC system and switching our home to Bullfrog Power. We use rain barrels around the yard to conserve water, minimize our household and yard waste through composting and extensive recycling, and whenever possible select materials made from all natural fibres around the home. We sourced our wool carpeting for example from an ancient mill in the Netherlands. My wife Mary is also very proud of using a clothes line, even in winter, weather permitting. At our previous house in the suburbs, using a clothes line was frowned upon, but we did it anyway.
BF: Why did you switch your household to green electricity from Bullfrog Power?
MC: We believe it’s worth paying a little more for electricity sourced from clean, renewable generation. Switching to Bullfrog Power is also a way to send a message to government and industry that individual citizens want to see positive change on the energy front.
BF: Is there a uniquely Canadian perspective on the environment?
MC: We have a unique frame of reference: this vast, green, rocky piece of real estate we call Canada. We live a lot closer to nature than most of the rest of the world. Our population is sparse relative to our geography and green space, and even our cities are in closer proximity to nature than urban centres elsewhere. In this sense, Canadians are truly exceptional, and in many ways more sensitive and more responsible than the average world citizen. On the other hand, however, we are also energy hogs who use more energy per capita than most countries. We need to recognize that the environment is ours to enjoy, but also ours to protect, and that we have a challenge in front of us to take more responsibility for this.
A year ago, I became the spokesperson for Toronto and Region Conservation’s Living City initiative, their concept for urban living in the new millennium. The Living City represents a very interesting view of the world – in which respect for both the green environment and the animal and plant life that it supports is integral to our development of urban living environments. In essence, the goal is to protect and enhance what we have for future generations, and to help people understand that it is possible to be an environmentally responsible world citizen in an urban environment.
BF: What do we need to do here in Ontario to improve our environment?
MC: We have to get more aggressive at replacing the green canopy in Ontario. The greening of Toronto and our province has suffered in the last decade and we need to reverse this dangerous trend. Our urban areas are too hot; we are consuming too much energy; and we have a great deal of work to do to replace our roads with green space. We need to reset our priorities.
BF: What would you recommend to gardening enthusiasts about taking meaningful environmental action?
MC: When landscaping your garden, consider native plants and trees like red twig dogwood, white ash and red oak. One advantage of using native plants is that they are generally insect and disease resistant as they have already developed their own natural defense mechanisms through centuries of living in this environment.
Selecting native plants can also reduce watering requirements. Another way to reduce watering is to cut your lawn high (no lower than 2.5 inches) and use a mulching mower. Leave clippings on the lawn to provide an insulating layer of mulch that will conserve moisture – you’ll be watering less and have a better looking lawn. On your flower beds, lay a generous two to three inch layer of finely ground cedar or pine bark as a mulch to conserve moisture. This will help reduce watering requirements, especially for thirsty plants such as hydrangeas.
BF: What is next for you?
MC: I’ll be hosting a new show on HGTV called Green Force that will debut in the spring of 2007. We’ll be converting concrete and asphalt spaces into green spaces for several not-for-profit sites including some Ontario schools. We hope that community members, schools and school boards will begin to recognize the immense untapped educational possibilities afforded by their outdoor spaces, when that space is viewed differently. Tune in!
Visit Mark Cullen’s website: www.markcullen.com