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What’s on Mark Cullen’s Bedside Table?

Our gardening wizard’s top four must-read gardening books

1. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (Knopf, 2012)

Founding Gardeners is a fascinating look into the lives of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Together, they helped shape a country that would grow into the world’s most powerful nation, the principles of which are rooted in horticulture.

I was fascinated to learn that among the original pack of Revolutionaries, the first four presidents of the United States enjoyed a relationship that was woven together by a common interest in gardening. Yes, without horticulture, the United States may never have come into being.

Reading this book, I learned that during the Revolutionary War, George Washington gave his generals orders “to make regimental gardens in order to produce vegetables for army rations.” He believed it would be healthy and comforting for his men—what we would call therapeutic.

Did a box of seeds clinch the deal known as the Louisiana Purchase? On Independence Day on July 4, 1804, Jefferson celebrated the anniversary of the birth of the nation for another reason: he had just acquired 2,071,990 sq km (800,000 square miles) of land from France thanks to the Louisiana Purchase. It is a long story, but the fact is that Jefferson had dispatched James Monroe to France as a special envoy to engage the new emperor, Napoleon, in talks to acquire New Orleans. Jefferson sent Monroe with a box of American seeds, as a gift and gesture of friendship to the French. It was a warm-up for discussions to come, and in the end, the Americans got much more than they’d originally bargained for.

Captain Meriwether Lewis and his second lieutenant, William Clark,were on a horticultural mission to feed the new nation. It is a little known fact that the highly controversial expedition of Lewis and Clark in May 1804 was a horticultural expedition. As they trudged across the new continent to the Pacific Coast, their primary responsibility was to gather seeds and horticultural information about plant husbandry from native peoples. The result was America’s first botanical textbook, Elements of Botany, a compendium of the horticultural lessons of the trip. New plants adorned the flower beds and vegetable gardens of America as a result of the two-and-a-half-year journey.

In 1819, one magazine reported that “In no other country would heads of state return to their private lives to promote agriculture, botany and other useful sciences.” Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were founding fathers to be sure, but they were also founding gardeners.

2. Raised Bed Revolution: Build It, Fill It, Plant It…Garden Anywhere! by Tara Nolan (Cool Springs Press, 2016)

Why would you want to build a raised bed in your yard? There are many answers to this question, and most of them can be found in urban gardener Tara Nolan’s first book, Raised Bed Revolution. Nolan is a new authority on the subject, and we are due for one. Over recent years, things have changed in the business of gardening to the extent that a comprehensive new book on this topic is indeed welcome.

There are myriad reasons to build a raised bed for your veggies or ornamentals. Nolan offers 12 pages of reasons. Some of my favourites include the following.

• Season extension. Start earlier and harvest later. In spring, soil in raised beds warms more quickly than soil in the ground. Using white remay cloth or a glassed-in structure around a raised bed extends the season for several weeks.

• Controlling soil quality. People frequently ask me, “What do I do with clay soil?” When I tell them that they have to dig it out about 30 to 40 cm (12 to 15.6 inches) deep and replace it with 50 to 60 cm (19.7 to 23.6 inches) of new triple mix, they are never happy. When you build a raised bed in your yard, you don’t have to dig down and remove soil; in fact, you can place a garden right on top of a grassy area if you cover it with enough newspaper. Fill the raised bed with the best-quality weed-free soil that you can get your hands on.

• Accessibility. Some of the most handsome and practical raised bed gardens that I have seen are designed for wheelchair gardeners. While recently attending a special event at Wind Reach Farms (a horse farm and garden dedicated to the needs of disabled children) in Ashburn, Ontario, I saw the most remarkable raised bed gardens designed for this purpose.

Raised beds are a great idea for the small-space gardener who wants to maximize colour and produce from a limited space. In recent years, I have seen a lot of community gardens that feature raised beds.

This book is a thorough treatise on the subject, and I am delighted that a well-known Canadian writer has produced it. The back third of the book provides many do-it-yourself raised bed projects. And this is the perfect time of year to dig in and build some of them.

3. The New Canadian Garden by Mark Cullen (Dundurn Press, 2016)

Yes, I wrote this book, but it is still one of my “new” favourites.

This book reflects on an exciting vision of the blossoming new role that gardening plays for this generation and the next.

I have had this story rattling around inside my head for several years. What if I could share my experience, as I travel across Canada, with readers who are interested in the future of gardening? Who are the new gardeners? How are they changing the “garden landscape”? What are their concerns? How are they addressing those concerns? What will the typical Canadian garden look like in a generation? What can we learn from the new gardeners?

• Edible plants. Edible plants have always been around, but the interest in them has never been this intense. I don’t think that the Victory Garden era during the Second World War was a time of such focus on food plants. Why? Thank the youth of today, who see homegrown food as a path to better health and a brighter future. Homegrown vegetables provide an opportunity to control the environment in which our food is grown, an education in working with soil and an activity that is part of nature. Young parents are leading the way.

• Environment. The New Canadian Garden provides information about the connection between nature and gardens. I talk about introducing beneficial insects into your yard with an insect hotel. I take the time to “drill down” and provide information about the environment as it relates to gardening in detail. You will enjoy this!

• Kids. More than 10 years ago, we were introduced to the concept of nature deficit disorder by Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods. Since then, a whole new generation of parents and grandparents have worked hard to introduce kids to the natural world around them, starting in their own backyard. My new book offers a myriad of ideas on how to bring butterflies, hummingbirds, songbirds and beneficial insects into your yard. And I explain why you should!

4. No Guff Vegetable Gardening by Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs (No Guff Press, 2011)

“No guff. Lots of fun.” is the subtitle of this all-Canadian book. The expression on the faces of the two authors tells you, before you open the book, that they mean it. Donna Balzer, my friend from our HGTV days, signed up with first-time author Steven Biggs to create a book that addresses the fastest-growing trend in gardening today: food gardening.

It is appropriate, I think, that Biggs, the younger of the two, takes the lead in most chapters—his enthusiasm comes through in the text. It is, after all, the 20- and 30-somethings who are driving the demand for local food. The explosion in popularity of farmers’ markets across the continent is a direct reflection of the keen interest that the new generation has in local food. When you boil it down, it is more about taking responsibility for the quality of the food that we put in our bodies than it is about gardening.

One can only hope that as this new generation gets its hands dirty in an effort to grow its own, these gardeners will learn that the experience of growing plants has its own benefits, like exercise and fresh air. When you get into it, gardening can be more fun than most anything (you name it).

All of this, of course, comes out in the book. The illustrations are funky and sometimes amusing. The tables and charts cut to the chase. Want to know the no-sweat substitutions for harder-to-grow veggies?