Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

Lake Simcoe-area gardening authority Mark Cullen is turning his energy and enthusiasm to planting trees. About two million of them

Mark Cullen is known across Canada for his expertise in all facets of gardening, sharing his knowledge and skills through decades of speaking, writing and broadcasting. Raised in the retail nursery stores of Weall & Cullen, started by his father, he is the spokesperson and horticultural consultant to Home Hardware Canada.
He is, with son Ben and their Mark’s Choice brand, title sponsor for Canada Blooms, the country’s largest garden and floral festival. (The festival, scheduled to start March 13, was cancelled for 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak.) He has been awarded the Order of Canada for “his contributions to promoting and developing horticulture education in Canada and for his ability to explain how Canadians can protect the environment.”
Now, Cullen has taken on a special focus: planting trees. Millions of them.
Cullen, whose home is an organic farm in the Lake Simcoe area, says he is easing out of the gardening business, giving more responsibility to Ben, and turning much of his energy and enthusiasm to this tree-planting mission.
Cullen is the tree campaign chair and co-founder of Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, a registered charity that is honouring Canada’s military by planting trees.

A very Canadian thing
During the Afghan conflict, 159 servicemen and women lost their lives. Once repatriated at CFB Trenton, their bodies were driven to the coroner’s office in Toronto.
“A very Canadian thing happened during those years,” the Highway of Heroes charity says. “Hundreds of people turned out to stand on bridges along Highway 401 to salute the fallen heroes passing by in hearses.” That stretch of highway earned the name Highway of Heroes.
That is where Highway of Heroes Living Tribute charity plans to plant two million trees, for all Canadians that have served during times of conflict since Confederation and including the War of 1812.

Cullen says 117,000 “hero” trees will be planted along and near the Highway of Heroes, one tree for every life lost while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces. These are two- to three-year-old native trees that stand about a metre high.
“We have a list of 32 native species that we’re using and we’re choosing trees according to the conditions where they are getting planted,” Cullen says. “We have the assistance of a volunteer landscape architect, Scott Wentworth, of Wentworth Landscapes, in Picton, Prince Edward County — he’s creating a design for our trees. So they’re not just getting lined up — there is a plan.”
In a secondary plan, another 1.8 million trees will be planted within a 30-kilometre corridor of the highway — so, 15 km either side. Each of these trees represents a Canadian who volunteered for military service during times of war, including the Afghan conflict.
“A lot of Canadians volunteered to go,” Cullen says. “A lot of men and women put up their hand not just once, but two or three times, to do a tour of duty over there. This is something I think the average Canadian probably doesn’t know.”
These “service” trees also are native species — two- to three-year-old seedlings in the range of six to eight inches high.
Ultimately, this will create a parkway — a highway through a park — with myriad environmental benefits, including: sequestering tonnes of carbon dioxide, cleaning pollutants from the air, filtering water, and providing food and habitat to native wildlife.

Cullen says Highway of Heroes is enjoying a lot of success. “It is a $10-million campaign and we have 78-percent of the money we need to do the job. By the end of fiscal 2019, we will have planted over 130,000 trees towards our two million tree goal, with plans to finish the job by 2022 — we’re right on track for that.”
The charity still needs to raise $2.3-million to finish the project, however, and land is needed in the 30-km-wide corridor for the 1.8 million “service” trees to be planted.
“Accessing land is an interesting challenge for us — it can be private, public, any land — but we need a minimum of an acre or two to efficiently plant 1.8 million trees. We can’t afford to do it one tree at a time.”

The HoH campaign recently received a boost, through a recently announced Private Landowner Partnership Program with the federally funded organization Forests Ontario and their 50 Million Tree Program. Property owners can now apply for a funding subsidy that provides financial assistance to help plant trees near Highway 401, in an expanded 30-km-wide ribbon of land from Windsor to Cornwall. The subsidy will help support site preparation, tree seedlings, planting and survival assessments. Anyone with space to plant a minimum of 500 trees near Highway 401 may apply.

The partnership program expands the Highway of Heroes effort to include private land, and will enlist such planting partners as conservation authorities, stewardship groups, municipalities and forestry consultants that provide tree-planting along the 401.
This is expected to result in new forests that will provide wind and snow barriers, stabilize soil, maintain groundwater, and provide corridors and habitat for wildlife, in addition to mitigating the effects of climate change.
“You could have a piece of the world’s largest living tribute while doing your part to protect our environment, beautify our communities and honour our Canadian Heroes. This will help us reach our target of planting 1.8 million seedlings by 2022,” Cullen says.

If you own land in the 30-km corridor along Highway 401 and would like to take part in the Highway of Heroes project, or if you know someone who owns land there and who would like to take part, please contact Highway of Heroes Living Tribute through their website at Donations to the project also are invited.

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