Great Gardens: How to be a Successful Gardener

Want to become a successful gardener? Learn to think like a plant.

We get a lot of gardening questions. Most of them are specific references to a plant, bug or design challenge. Just yesterday we were asked what those leafy perennial plants are… “You know the ones?” he said. We looked at each other, “You mean hosta?” Bingo! We were right. It is an intuitive thing.

There is another question: the question behind all questions, “How can I succeed in the garden?”

The answer begins with a question. Do you know someone who can fish? Who goes out in a boat and always comes back with a catch? What do they have that the rest of us don’t? The answer is simple: they have learned to think like a fish.

Want to become a successful gardener? Learn to think like a plant.

It is a language.

In high school, there was a select group of gifted kids who successfully learned how to communicate in French. Turns out, neither of us were one of them. People who are multi-lingual tell us that there is a lot of work in it, until you hit the ‘sweet spot’. A point where the grammar, syntax, rhythm and sound make sense. It is a big night when you have your first dream in another language. That night, you ‘arrive’.

Mark dreams in plants. One night he dreamt that it was mid winter and was heading out the door of our home with a briefcase in hand, dressed for work when his wife stopped him and said, “You have been working hard lately. Why not just stay home and garden?”

He turned on his heals, changed into jeans, opened the door and there was the garden in full leaf and bloom, like a Spring morning, just waiting to be tended.

Ben is young, but someday he may dream in plants too.

Since giving up on impatiens (or they gave up on Mark), Mark has been dreaming about bees and birds, like tree swallows.

We like all plants, but not all plants like us.

Peas don’t like us. Even when we grow peas together we can’t grow them.

Most vegetable plants cooperate in our one acre veggie garden.

Years ago, we discovered the answer to poorly producing veggie crops: chickens. Throw your wayward lettuce and pea plants to some chickens and they will thank you for it by producing the finest brown eggs.

The answer for over production is the same. Kale won’t stop producing an abundance of leafy goodness for almost four months: July through October. They say that kale has all kinds of redemptive health qualities that put it up there with the Gods of tasty food. Neither of us can stand the stuff. But, by feeding our chickens armloads every day we get our kale, reconstituted through the gut of a chicken, poached on a plate every morning. It is a wonderful way to feel like royalty.

How do you learn to think like a plant?

Easy. By failing. Who has a beautiful and productive garden without a rigorous process of failure? It happens so often in the garden that we forget what it really is.

We plant a few hundred annuals and veggies each year. Divisions of perennials are planted this time of year and shrubs and trees are moved around the yard like interior decorators move furniture. Often a plant dies. Its failure to put down a root and thrive is not a slight on us, the gardeners, though it can be a disappointment. It is just part of the process, the same way film is expected to fall on the cutting room floor. Before digital, of course.

Following the advice of a landscape architect some 10 years ago, five red oaks were planted within a couple of metres of the house ‘to cool down the wall in the bright sunshine’. They slowly expired as their young roots found the alkaline, clay based soil. Dead as door nails. The other trees that were planted at about the same time matured to the extent that they now shade the south and west walls of the house. Mission accomplished, failure overcome.

How do you know you have arrived? An experienced gardener can spot a thirsty hanging basket at 50 yards.

Experience will tell you when the Japanese beetle has invaded a linden tree from 300 yards. How? You will just know. A trained eye is better than a book. Or higher education, when it comes to that.

When you have looked at enough healthy Linden trees you will know when it isn’t right.

You will have learned to think like a linden. Through experience and your natural powers of observation, you will have arrived.

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.

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