Secrets of the garden

Friends were over for dinner the other night and after a wonderful meal featuring our own eggs, Swiss chard, potatoes, onions and tomatoes, it was time for the obligatory garden tour. Guests of ours do not get the option to sit this one out: not during the peak of the gardening season.

Remember this should you be invited out for dinner to friends who enjoy gardening. They may not say it, but the greatest form of flattery on your part — and a gracious one if you wish to be welcomed back — is to volunteer to see their garden. At the very least, ask a few questions and pretend you are interested.

Even if you have seen the garden many times before, there is a good reason to see it again: it is always changing. As an art form, gardening and garden design is perhaps the only one that won’t stand still. The keen observer can see changes by the day, but only based on frequent visits to the yard and garden to “check it out” (which is what we usually mean when we say we are “gardening” — reach down and pull just one weed and you are “gardening,” right?).

I have lived in my garden for seven seasons and I marvel at the rate of its maturity. A bed full of sedum that I planted in full, blazing sun the year we moved in is thin and weak due to the shade cast by the oak and birch trees that I planted on either side of it. They grew, changed the environment, and now I am shopping for a couple of trays of shade-tolerant sweet woodruff to replace the sad display of sedums.


This spring I decided that I had enough of twitch grass in my perennial beds and dug out the works. Soil and all. In many cases, an otherwise healthy daylily bit the dust: a sacrificial lamb to the weed gods. Having dug the soil down about 12 centimetres, I replaced what was there with fresh compost, peat, and sand mixed together in equal portions (otherwise known as ­triple mix). I thinned out many of my perennials and decided that it would be OK to look at some bare soil between plants for a change.

In late May, three large areas of the garden, where aggressive perennials and twitch once grew, were sown with a cocktail of annual/wild flowers. I purchased a variety of flower seeds that appealed to me at the moment from the retail seed racks. Lupines, poppies, asters, zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, alyssum, rudbeckia, nasturtiums, larkspur and foxglove, to name just a few. The pictures on the packets influence my decision to buy more often than I care to admit here. I took a bucket two-thirds filled with vermiculite (though dried sand works just as well) and I poured the contents of each packet into it. I then carefully mixed the seeds with the vermiculite.

With the seeding area well prepared with the new soil, I cast the seed mixture over the area as evenly as I could using a bare hand, swinging my arm from side to side as I walked backwards through the bed. As I released the seeds I “eye balled” the area that I covered with the mix. I raked the ­area smooth with a stiff garden rake about two centimetres deep. I watered it gently and kept it wet daily until the seeds began to sprout about two weeks later.

The result of this annual seed sowing exercise was a surprise, of the very best kind. I cut many of the flowers for use indoors; many of the finished flowers produce seeds that attract song birds; flowers attract pollinators including hummingbirds and butterflies; and many of the perennials can be dug up and moved around the yard for future enjoyment. Most of all, my flower-seed-cocktail provides some pleasant surprises in the form of flowers that I have never grown from seed before.


The mention of annuals/biannuals/perennial plants in one sentence always raises the question: “What is the difference?” and “How do you know if it is one or the other?” The answers are: There is a huge difference, and you don’t always know what category your newly discovered flowering plant falls under.

An annual lives fast and dies young. It is a plant that finishes its life cycle in one year, from germination to flower to seed. Then it dies.

A biannual does the same thing in two years. It drives in the right lane, allowing the annuals to pass on their left and out-flower them in their all too brief life. But the biannual gets to out-perform in the second year. Foxgloves and lupines are popular biannuals.

A perennial can be slow to start but comes back from year to year, often self-propagating by root or rhizome. You could say that perennials drive the rural route where they can take their time and generally be ignored, except for weeding.

Some perennials return only for a few short years. Delphiniums, my Dad used to say, peak in their third year and after that you are best to rip them out. Let the self-sown babies take over.


Self-sowing plants are a gift to the resourceful gardener. Many popular bi-annuals are very good at this: lupines, foxglove, and Sweet William to name three. The secret here is to relax: don’t cut all of the flowers after they finish, let the flower stalks and stems of the late season blooms mature and drop their seeds naturally to the ground where they will germinate and produce a lovely little plant that you will be tempted to weed out.

This is why I prefer to do my own weeding in the perennial bed. An inexperienced eye can cut down next year’s flower garden with one swoosh of the hoe.

My friend is enjoying his tour of my garden when he exclaims, “My, your plants sure have filled in! Look at how closely they are growing together.” At that moment I imagine the small mountain of old soil, tired perennials, and twitch grass that lies at the back of the property, out of sight. If he only knew.

The gardener’s life is full of secrets. My twitch-grass mountain is just one of them.

Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at

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