Monthly Archives

May 2016

Almost a gardener: the anatomy of a great season

By | Education, gardening, Landscaping, Tips | No Comments

My 2014 municipal season has, so far, been my best working year ever. Sadly, when it became clear that there wouldn’t be a repeat in 2015, I was forced to think about the anatomy of my great season. What was it that made it great?


Robin Sharma often uses this quote: “If you are the smartest person in the room, find another room.” My gardener-boss was fun, smart, experienced and certified, with killer plant identification skills. I had her all to myself on most days. Apprentice Vas couldn’t ask for more. Progress was guaranteed.

Encouraged by her positive comments, I walked into my Red Seal exam challenge with confidence; and passed! Now I belonged. It also wasn’t just another paper. It was a huge culmination of 16 sweaty, hard seasons outside in the landscape.

Learning is critical.

Embracing change

Everything was new and exciting and I handled the change fairly well. Some people don’t. Change is good. I found out some subtle and not so subtle differences between landscapers and gardeners. For example, we rarely used a backpack blower. Not every leaf was a messy enemy. Free arbor chips didn’t go to green waste; they were made for bed and tree well mulching. Some weeds were tolerated. No cheating with banned chemicals. Trucks drove speed limits and it was OK to park them on sidewalks. Yes, on sidewalks. Road medians aren’t gardens; they should look good at 60 km/hr.



Free arbor chips, the best stuff for bed and tree well mulching


Scale. All of a sudden you are planting hundreds, thousands of bulbs, rototilling soil and diligently editing out spent bulbs so they don’t ruin next year’s display. Rocks that pop up stay: think soil pore spaces. Bulb planting depths stay uniform. Watering a hanging basket means soaking it.

Perennials everywhere. My notebook showed about 300 plants that were new to me. It is work in progress so I stretch myself. Weekly.

Planting trees bare-root for the first time was an awesome experience. I paid attention. That was exciting stuff.

You should always aim to be better than you were yesterday.



My first-ever bare root planting


Facing your fears

On some days I showed up literally scared. It sucked in the moment but it felt great afterwards. Imagine my horror when I was asked to use a front loader for the first time. Luckily, we were the only ones in the yard. My gardener boss patiently waited as I got used to colliding the front loader with piles of mulch.

Then there was bulb removal. Since the bulb arrangements are changed every season, it is critical to remove 100% of the old, spent bulbs. Gold help you if you missed one.

Once, late in the day, I was asked to quickly plant pots with plants on the truck. No guide, no plan. Go! That was stressful. A  future blog on pots will show that there is no reason to feel stress with pots.


Work should be fun. I can not openly recount here all of the fun incidents but trust me, there was laughter with great people. On days when we installed brand new perennial beds, work didn’t feel like work. Same on the day I got to use a dibbler for planting for the first time. Magic.

One summer day, getting close to completing a new bed install, I had a young girl stop by, admire the new plants and tell me that I must be the world’s best gardener. Well, almost!

What was your best working year like?


Vas Sladek - Copy - Copy


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!


photo 3

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!

8 steps to becoming a landscape maintenance professional

By | Education, Landscape Industry, Tips | No Comments

Yes, you can become a landscape maintenance professional. Just consider the following eight steps. I originally published this list in a post on LinkedIn. This is a new, improved version. It came to life as I arrived at a crossroads early in 2016 and had to make a decision. Do I continue with my temporary full-time municipal parks laborer position or accept a better paying, full-time senior supervisor position in the private sector. As I reflected on my own sweaty 16-year journey from rookie at a landscape maintenance corporation to Red Seal Journeyman Horticulturist, the list was born. Feel free to add comments or ask for help.


Practice, practice

New landscape maintenance workers inevitably mow miles of lawns but the idea is to get it down quickly and then move on to all of the other machines. Edgers, blowers, bedwork and power shears. Ask for training. Face your fears. Gain skills and confidence. Add value to your company. The goal is a quick progression from mowing to all of the other skills.


Plant ID

Don’t dismiss this crucial skill. Start on day one. Keep a notebook, take pictures with your smartphone. Learn only botanical names. Some plants have multiple common names so don’t waste your time. All nurseries deal in botanical names. Tests use botanical names.

Plant knowledge is critical for proper care and pruning. To get you started I created an eBook called “Common strata plants, A Guide for West Coast Landscapers“. Message me for a copy.




Get tested

If you live in Canada or the US, you can get tested and become a certified landscape technician. The test validates your skills and shows employers and clients that you have the required minimum skills to do a great job for them. Going through the written and practical tests is a humbling experience. Getting my certificate felt great! It will boost your confidence and your income. Get your employer to cover the fees.

I invite all prospective Lower mainland candidates attempting the ornamental maintenance module to contact me for a private review session at very reasonable rates. Save money and time by not making the same mistakes I did.


landscape industry certified technician (1)


Hug trees

You only need two field seasons to qualify to write the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) exam. It’s recognized internationally and prepares you to care for trees in our landscapes. Proper pruning and avoiding conflicts with landscape machines are two critical issues. So is safety. Plus trees are beautiful and provide numerous ecosystem services for free. They deserve a hug!




Remember, the goal is quick acquisition of new skills. Get your foreman and senior workers to help you. I spent one season working under a brilliant municipal gardener and I learned a lot. It took one nice comment from her for me to walk into my Red Seal Journeyman Horticulturist exam challenge with confidence. I also read the works of brilliant horticulture professionals. Look for mentors from the beginning.

Industrial athletes

Your body is a money-maker so take care of it. Everything is neatly summarized in this ISA article. Read it. Study it. Green workers may not think of themselves as athletes but consider the daily physical output required on the job. I would just add a regular exercise program based on sports you enjoy. I take part in road and trail running races. Find your favorite sport and do it. Regularly.

Seal it with Red

Landscape horticulture is a Red Seal trade in British Columbia. The recommended procedure is to sign up for an apprenticeship with a good company. Learn the trade in the field and complete schooling in winter. Four years; 9700 hours required. This is consistent with the 10,000 hour idea developed by Anders Ericsson and made famous by the writings of Malcolm Gladwell. See the latest book by Ericsson. Make the hours count.



If you possess the required documented hours in the field, you can challenge the exam. I did. It wasn’t easy but with field experience, one day preparation course and some study, I passed. You will too. Journeyman status is critical to your career success. Municipal park departments now demand it. In private industry you separate yourself from other workers and management is a possibility.


Kaizen is a Japanese term for continuous improvement. Never stop learning. Read new books, attend conferences, subscribe to journals and stay in touch with your mentors. Keep reading this blog. The goal is to be better than you were yesterday.

Follow the steps above and enjoy your green career!

Redneck tree removal

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

It’s always sad to see trees die on site. Any site. In this case we had three birches (Betula papyrifera) killed off by the bronze birch borer. Birches are shallow rooted and can suffer in heavy heat of late spring and summer. At this site the birches had little room and suffered from reflected heat as well. Drought can lead to dieback at the top of the tree and the bronze birch borer is an expert at detecting  weakened trees. Weakened trees are very attractive to this urban pest. Once the tree is attacked, there is very little hope of saving it.

I was on site to install cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’), Cotoneaster dammeri and Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro’. The heavier tree work was left for last.

Since birches are shallow rooted and the ones on our site were not extremely mature, we decided not to bother with stump grinding. So here I introduce redneck tree removal. Don’t try this at home. Hire certified landscapers or arborists. Please.


Step 1

Remove most of the crown with chainsaws or handsaws. Safety is important here! This strata complex corner was used by cars, residents were washing their cars and kids were playing outside. Wear proper protection if you choose to use chainsaws. Always.



Step 2

Cut notches into the tree so the chains have some place to bite, otherwise they will just slip off under pressure


Step 3

Attach chains to the tree and to the back of your truck, then drive very slowly until the stump is completely out. Use good chain link fasteners. Common locks could blow out.




Step 4

Remove all stumps and fix the lawn area. We used lawn and garden mix soil from a landscape center. Good quality seed also helps.




Mission accomplished. The site will miss the many ecosystem services the birches used to provide, especially summer shade for the adjacent unit.

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.