How to have fun with winter plant ID

By | Seasonal, Species | No Comments

Winter can be a great time for practicing your plant identification skills. The work days aren’t as hectic and the winter season offers a different look. Walking through your landscapes, you might notice a plant and realize that its name escapes you. I know all about it. It happens to me lots. At the worst moment, too. Like when the boss arrives on site.

Let’s look at a few examples.


Pinus contorta subsp contorta (Shore pine or Lodgepole pine)



This is a commonly used pine in our West Coast landscapes. Plant ID hints: a) The needles come in pairs and b) the cones have sharp prickles on their scales.


Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon)

You must be familiar with the Rose of Sharon flowers. But what about winter? What we are seeing is dehiscent seed pods. This means that the seed pods open along built-in lines to release their contents. In this case, the seed pod opens into five distinct parts and the seeds spill out.

The seeds are actually very cute. They are almost heart-shaped with hairs. I saved some and if I find time, I will try to grow them.




Choisya arizonica (Aztec pearl)



You will be familiar with Choisya ternata which has bigger leaves. This shrub has finer greenery and its white flowers are equally as nice. This is the one plant I had trouble memorizing until I saw it at last year’s CanWest Hort Show in Abbotsford. Now I try to associate it with Arizona.


Ophiopogon planiscapus (Black Mondo grass)

Full marks if you remembered the full species name! I love this plant because it’s so dark. New foliage is dark green. It produces bell-like summer flowers which turn into black berries. The Black Mondo grass in this photo is a great border plant close to a clubhouse.




Sambucus racemosa (Red elderberry)

I remember this tree-like shrub well because we have hack it up every winter so it doesn’t go too wild on our strata properties. It looks bad for a while but the shrubs look fine in spring. It can grow 2-6 meters tall. Because it has soft stems with a pithy center, you can cut through most canes with your Felcos. (For my blog on Felco snips click here.)

Flowers appear at the ends of branches and are visited by butterflies and hummingbirds.



Now check out the sister plant Sambucus nigra (Black lace). This species is planted in people’s yards, not in wild zones, because it’s stunning. The first time I saw it in White Rock I was hooked. It took me a while to realize that this plant was related to its sisters in the riverbed zone. The sisters I rudely demolished so they wouldn’t grow out of hand.




Winter can be a great time for plant ID skill work. Give it a try. You never know what you will discover.

Grinding through winter landscapes

By | Landscaping, Seasonal, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Last year came to a close with unusually cold temperatures and lots of snow in the Lower Mainland. As I write this blog post in early February, 2017, the cold weather continues. While working in cold weather with frosty landscapes can get very old and annoying, there is work. If you look closely. Some of it is obvious; some of it requires imagination. Consider yourself lucky if your employer let’s you work. In winter seasons past I used to get my work hours cut just because it happened to be foggy outside. Foggy!


The obvious

Snow clearing from walks and roads. The obvious and back-breaking task. Dress well and have some spare snow shovels ready. Just in case. Hydrate properly. Clear off high-profile walkways and car ramps.


Brushing snow of plants. Gently take the load off. This will prevent damage. The Nandina domestica below must feel better.



Surveying for damage. There will be branches to prune off and shrubs to stake or tie back.

Tree pruning. Assuming it’s not extremely cold outside, tree pruning is a perfect winter activity. The crown structure is clearly visible. Identify broken, crossing and rubbing branches; and anything dead or diseased. Identify every single tree species on your site using scientific names.

Cedars. Unless it’s extremely cold outside and positioning your ladder looks sketchy, cedar hedges can be sheared. Don’t forget you can warm up your hands on the gear case of your power shears. Just make sure the shear blades are stopped! No, it’s not very safe but what do you do with frost bitten hands?

Perennial and grass cutback. Some perennials get missed in fall or they are left to provide some winter interest. For example, Sedums and ornamental grasses. If you see snow damage it’s OK to cut them back.


The less obvious

River rock install. This was unexpected but it made perfect sense. Imagine a deserted landscape supply store on a cold morning. Loading my truck was quick and easy. No waiting. The client needed to cover up plastic that was protruding from her patio rocks. So we buried it with 2-6″ rover rock. As she came out to inspect the work and point out the protruding plastic, we enjoyed the heat escaping from her unit!

Drains. It’s critical to expose all snow covered drains. Before the surrounding areas flood. This step often gets skipped because it’s assumed municipalities are responsible for it. They are but they’re also busy. Be glad you have some work to do.

Exploring new sites. As new sites come on, this is a good time to familiarize yourself with your new work areas. Walk every inch, make notes, written and mental. Take pictures. Survey. You’ll be glad you did when the weather improves. This includes site clubhouses with washrooms and heat. Consider a brief safety meeting as you defrost. Just don’t make a mess.

Tree stake removal. Check to see how long the tree stakes have been on the trees. Anything over one year should be removed. Unless it’s a special case like downhill leaning pines that would collapse instantly. Staked trees fail to form reaction wood which is formed when wind events run though. It makes trees stronger.



Tree training. Now is a good time to take a new arboriculture apprentice and point out weak, crossing and damaged branches.

Blowing snow. I hate blowers and the noise they make but there are cases when blowing snow makes a lot of sense. We exposed the light top layer and shovelled the remainder, thus saving ourselves a lot of time and back-breaking labour. Ice can also be blown away if you’re patient enough to let air build up under the ice. This can actually be a fun activity.



There is winter work to be done even when the weather does not cooperate. Just do it safely. Dress properly. I spent money today on a new, warmer toque, $1.99 on a neck warmer, and new, what I hope will be much warmer gloves. Test day tomorrow. There will be food on the table for my kids. That thought always warms me up!

It’s also a good idea to enjoy the frosty landscape views. Kids make cute snowmen; the mountains look great covered in white. Make the best of it.




How to design pots without stress

By | gardening, Landscaping, Seasonal, Strata Maintenance, Tips | No Comments

First, a quick flashback to 2014. Late in the day we pulled up at a seniors center and my municipal gardener boss asked us to quickly use up the flowers on the back of the truck. By planting four large pots. No guide, no plan. Go, go, go! I admit I panicked. How do you quickly arrange everything? Which plants go where? Colors? Oh my, I was sweating. Luckily it all turned out fine. I took a picture kneeling by “my” pot but the smile hid a ton of stress.

This event popped up in my head when I opened a recent issue of Landscape Management magazine (February 2016, page 16) and saw an article on pot design. The how to article conveniently divided the planting task into three categories.

  1. The pot should have a thriller in the middle to attract attention.
  2. Spiller plants spill out over the pot edges.
  3. Filler plants are placed in between the thriller and spiller plants.

Clearly this article was published a few years too late. I love the simplicity. Thriller, spiller, filler. Done.

Now for some examples before YOU start to panic.

Thriller plants could be: yuccas, cannas, fountain grasses, Angelonias, and dracaenas. For shade pots you can use ferns, hostas or heucheras.

Spiller plants could be: creeping jennies, vincas, bacopas, calibrachoas, lotuses and scaevolas

Filler plants could be most annuals.

Of course, proper design considers more than plants. Don’t forget other factors like wind, sun, fertilizers, water, upkeep, deadheading and yes, theft.

Now let’s practice:




City of Coquitlam iGarden

Thriller: Cornus sericea

Filler and spiller: Skimmia

Spiller: Hyacinth



Maple Ridge home owner

Extreme thriller: Ginkgo biloba tree

Spiller: Becopa

Filler: Pansies



City of Coquitlam park event- my kids helped plant this pot.

Thriller: Dracaena

Spiller: Calibrachoa and potato vines

Fillers: many

Don’t stress like me. Design your pots with confidence. Have some fun. Change things up.

Remember the three key elements: Thriller, Spiller, and Filler. Good luck.

How to make people happy with free plants

By | Landscaping, Seasonal, Species | No Comments

It pays to think before tossing perfectly good plants into your green waste. In the fall of 2015,  I took bulbs pulled and discarded from a municipal display bed and planted them at my client’s rental place. For free. Of course. The municipality, which we don’t have to name, normally doesn’t reuse its bulbs. Tulips, for example, give the best show in season one. Beyond that they’re not as reliable. Other bulbs on the other hand will keep on giving, assuming you don’t get tired of them. Some bulbs, like daffodils, can be naturalized.

Happy 1

My client was totally happy this year when she looked out of her kitchen window and saw her free bulbs popping up. She had no idea what I put in last year. Not bad considering these bulbs were free, took only minutes to plant ( I have had lots of practice!) and improved bare spots.


photo 1

Free bulbs!


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Not bad considering these bulbs were discarded; and the bed was a weedy bare spot

Happy 2

The Rhodos and Hydrangeas pictured below came from a strata landscape edit job and were delivered to a gardener in Port Coquitlam. The owner will find a good home for them on her large property. In exchange for the free plants, the property owner gave us a quick tour of her garden; the property is on the annual Port Coquitlam garden tour circuit. It’s good to give!



Homeless Rhodos and Hydrangeas


Garden tour pictures



Astilbe hedge!



Clematis vine with (correctly!) protected base



$200 plastic planter box; doesn’t rot like wood but you need deeper pockets to buy these



Chainsaw decoration; I prefer 2016 Stihl models










I have some crazy stories about unwanted plants. On one memorable day, a prominent strata member came out to ask me to remove Echinacea because they were spent. I reminded her they were perennials and would bloom again next year. It didn’t matter. Next year was too far away and she had cash for new plants. I kept a few and gave away the others.

Think before you toss unwanted plants. You could make someone very happy!

Free garden and landscape seminar May 11, 2016

By | Education, gardening, Landscaping, Lawn Care, Mulch, Seasonal, Tips | No Comments

Free seminar

A free gardening seminar in Port Moody within walking distance from my place will take place on Wednesday May 11, 2016. It sounds great already! Remember, this is in line with our goal of continuous improvement. Free education is awesome.

Master Gardener Dr. Linda Gilkeson will talk about “Naturally resilient gardens and landscapes.” Come learn how to make your lawns and gardens more resilient to variable weather patterns; and about year-round natural gardening, native plant selection and natural pest management. Also discussed will be gardening methods for drier and warmer summers, water shortages, and other types of extreme weather. This is very topical. I am in. Notebook in hand. Are you?

When: Wednesday May 11, 2016

Where: Inlet Theatre, 100 Newport Drive, Port Moody

Admission: Free!

A Sedum solution

The theme of this seminar reminds me of a recent strata complex case in Langley. The complex boulevard beds are exposed to the sun and the original planting didn’t survive. Planted between Acer campestre trees were Skimmias and Heathers. Many of them didn’t survive the hot summer. The proposed solution is to plant succulents like Sedums between the trees. It will be interesting to see what happens; and if we get another hot summer.



Acer campestre and some surviving Heathers and Skimmias; Sedums will replace the Skimmias and Heathers.



Feeling happy with spring color

By | Education, Landscaping, Seasonal, Species | No Comments

Spring is here and it feels fantastic to leave winter behind. Walking home with my son from Menchie’s- side trips we don’t tell mom about- I noticed my favorite Doronicum flowers by the liquor store. The yellow is very warm and happy. These are the earliest flowering daisies. They are herbaceous perennials growing from a rhizome (underground stem). I first discovered them as a municipal worker by Como Lake.


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Cherries (Prunus) are everyone’s favorites even though they are bittersweet: they are beautiful but, like life, they don’t last very long. A side-note on cherries. When I lived in Japan, I got a chance to visit a revered old fuyu-zakura or winter cherry. I was blown away with the whole idea: winter flowering cherry? Really? It was true. There it stood in the middle of a snowy open field with its gorgeous flowers. Protective fencing ran around the drip line. We already know from an earlier blog what soil compaction does to trees.


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This past week I discovered deep red colored Magnolias at a mall parking lot in White Rock. The effect is stunning. It’s impossible to miss the parking lot trees.


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Camellia japonica flowers totally dominate gardens at the moment.






Tulips and Daffodils are perennial favorites. Tulips are good for one or two shows and then best replaced. Daffodils can be naturalized and they will keep on wowing you every spring. One such event happened in 2014 at Como Lake in Coquitlam, BC. Volunteers were recruited to plant bulbs in fall on the west side of the lake.  Many were ESL students and recent immigrants; this was the first time they planted anything. I hope they got to see the result of their work.

Bulb planting tip: look at your bulb height, double it and plant it that deep. Keep the planting depth consistent, otherwise your bulbs will emerge unevenly.

What color have you noticed lately?

Annual Cuts

By | Arborist Insights, Education, Landscaping, Seasonal | One Comment

Every year I look for new experiences, both in my personal life and at work. This year I got a chance to work on annual cuts for the first time. This involves line-trimming meadow like fields and buffer zones using heavy-duty line. It can take days, and it will not be done for another year. Large areas are covered by Deere ride-on mowers.

Sometimes it feels like harvest time and the view can be great depending on your exact location. If you are working close to people, stop and let them pass.

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Annual cut detail shot

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Not a bad place to spend a day….

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Stop to let people and pets go by…..

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Heavy duty line

​If time permits, harvest ripe blackberries (Rubus discolor) before pushing back the thorny invasive canes. There are other hazards! The tall growth can hide all sorts of objects and small animals. I recommend using a full face shield but they are awkward and expensive. Goggles, ear protection and pants are mandatory. Use a hat, sun screen and bring water.

Best Advice: if you are not using a full face shield, CLOSE YOUR MOUTH! Little voles usually run away from the noise but I did not expect to decapitate two garter snakes in the space of three minutes. And I hate snakes. Harsh previous experience has thought me to look out for improperly discarded doggy bags; the contents defy description after six months of sitting in a meadow. Then there is garbage and rocks which can become nasty projectiles.
It feels great once the work is safely completed.

Adding Summer Colour

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping, Resources, Seasonal, Tips | No Comments

Adding summer color to your garden can be quite easy. Look what happens when you use a simple two plant combination. Blue Salvias work great with Impatients. You can pick your favorite colors and have some fun arranging them. The taller Salvias go in the back. Make sure everything is well-watered. Next season change things up with a different combination or add other plants.

2015summer-056 photo 1 photo 2 (1)

Your Safety Equipment

By | Arborist Insights, Company News, Landscaping, Resources, Seasonal, Tips | One Comment

Safety has to be taken seriously. Employers have to comply with WCB regulations that aim to protect the health and well-being of all employees. Are the contractors you hire thinking about safety?


A) safety goggles
B) gloves
C) high visibility vest
D) water and stain resistant work pants with extra pockets
E) STIHL Landscape Pro steel-toe, lawngrips

And do NOT forget hearing protection when working with or around machines. Some companies pay for annual hearing tests.

Stay safe!

Garden Giant Gunnera

By | Arborist Insights, Company News, Landscaping, Resources, Seasonal, Strata Maintenance, Tips | No Comments

Gunnera manicata is one of the biggest and most spectacular herbaceous plants. It requires a lot of space and is best used as specimen plant in damp bog gardens or beside ponds.

The fat growth buds clustered in the crown are prone to frost damage so cut back the leaves in the fall and pile them over the buds for winter protection.


Picture A is from fall 2014; picture B is from spring 2015.