In the pandemic garden

U of G grad, dad team up to foster sustainable gardening practices

Two of Canada’s leading horticultural practitioners and communicators – Mark Cullen and his son, Ben – see one very good thing emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic: a sharp increase in gardening that has far-reaching implications for the well-being of the environment and people.

Interest in cultivating gardens and landscapes had been steadily rising for years, says Ben, a U of G agriculture diploma graduate. Then came the pandemic, sparking an unforeseen spike in gardening that has the horticulture industry unable to keep up with the demand for seeds, soil, tools and landscaping services.

“From what we’ve heard in the industry, they’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing now in terms of year-over-year activity,” says Ben. “And I think this trend could stick, because gardening is one of those things that once you start, you don’t tend to stop. I think a lot of these habits are here to stay in the post-pandemic world.”

They foresaw some of those ideas in their 2018 book (Nimbus Publishing) called Escape to Reality: How the World Is Changing Gardening, and Gardening Is Changing the World. “We identified food, pollinators, native plants and other things as fast-moving trends a couple of years ago,” says Mark. “And then along came the pandemic and the trends just accelerated.”

Ben says low-grade anxiety about food is coded into our DNA. Natural disasters, economic uncertainty and global virus outbreaks heighten that anxiety. “Gardening can help with that,” he says. “It’s a cathartic experience in terms of developing the capability to grow your own food and your resilience in life.”

more young people are taking an active interest in sustainable growing methods.

He adds that pandemic-bound gardeners now have more time on their hands at home. “They’ve been forced by COVID-19 to slow down. From a mental-health standpoint, when you look at what’s available to you – when you can’t go anywhere and there’s nowhere to spend money – it’s one of the best things you can do with that new-found time. People who are embracing gardening during the pandemic are certainly benefiting and will continue to benefit.”

Mark says more young people are taking an active interest in sustainable growing methods, practising soil health and environmental protection and gaining practical skills to grow food. In precarious times, those are good skills to have, he says, likening pandemic gardening to the Victory Gardens of the Second World War. “This interest is something they perhaps had before, but now it’s more intense.”

For most of his own young life, Ben worked the soil with his professional gardener dad. In 2011, he completed his diploma at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus. His mother, Mary, is also a U of G grad, having graduated in 1979 with a degree in family and consumer studies. And his grandfather, Len Cullen, taught at the Ontario Agricultural College in the late 1940s. Mark is known across Canada as an expert gardener and award-
winning author, broadcaster and columnist (

Ben went on to study commerce at Dalhousie University, which led him into the food industry.

In 2017, Ben joined his father in the family’s horticultural communications company, which aims to inspire others to nurture sustainable gardens and landscapes.

Together, Ben and Mark work hard to simplify gardening for people looking for easy-to-understand answers to their questions about “green” growing.

They recommend growing native trees, shrubs and flowers that require less fertilizer, pesticides and water than non-native plants.

They recommend growing native trees, shrubs and flowers that require less fertilizer, pesticides and water than non-native plants. Native species are better adapted to local soil and growing conditions, they say. These plants have developed defences that allow them to live with other species, and they more readily propagate themselves through seeds.

Native varieties also attract diverse insects, which in turn attract other animals, especially birds. “We really encourage gardeners to attract pollinators, the over 4,000 species of bees native to North America and other insects that are part of the pollinator universe,” Mark says. “It is so important to make a contribution to the pollinator corridor in your neighbourhood. Everyone can do it.”

Mark with an “insect hotel” for attracting native insects.
Mark with an “insect hotel” for attracting native insects.

Ben says seed-saving groups help to preserve local plant genotypes and seed stock. Recently, and especially during the pandemic, small seed-saving businesses have sprouted across Canada. “It would be lovely if every garden got to that level of commitment to natives.”

Growing sustainably requires looking after soil health year after year, says Ben, who last year on Father’s Day delivered a large contractor’s bag of compost to his dad. Ignoring soil quality is the fastest way to fail as a novice gardener. Growing in “garbage soil” – like the subsoil of a new subdivision – doesn’t give your seeds a fighting chance.

Many gardeners, and especially those gardening for the first time during the pandemic, worry about failing. Mark has heard those concerns ever since he began a gardening radio show out of Toronto in 1982. His first advice for beginners is to find the right state of mind – advice echoed by his son.

“The whole act of gardening is a leap of faith from start to finish,” says Ben. Climate change is making growing conditions more difficult to predict, with more frequent dry spells and extreme weather events. But he says you can still rely upon recurring conditions through the seasons.

“You have to have faith in the germination of what you sow but also have faith that good conditions are going to continue throughout the season and end in a successful harvest. What we tell new gardeners is, relax. Whatever you imagine the hurdles to be, they’re not that difficult to get over and not as high as you think.”

Chair supports sustainable food engineering at U of G

Besides gardening, Mark Cullen pursues sustainability through his involvement as a board member with the Barrett Family Foundation (BFF). The foundation works with qualified organizations that impact education, environmental sustainability and humanitarian well-being, including the University of Guelph.

In 2018, BFF supported the establishment of U of G’s Chair in Sustainable Food Engineering, the first of its kind in Canada.

Bob Barrett, president and CEO of Polytainers Inc., established the foundation with his wife, Francine Rouleau Barrett, and their daughters, Kim Barrett McKenna and Rebecca Barrett. A long-time friend, Cullen joined the board six years ago.

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