Monthly Archives

April 2022

Scanning for late winter details

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

Scanning your sites

Whenever I’m sent to a site after several months, I like to take a walk around and catalog any blemishes I see. This is especially easy to do in late winter when it’s already nice out but lawn care hasn’t started yet. I did this recently and this blog post will show you some of the details I found.

Broken branches

I detest having broken branches on shrubs or trees. It can invite disease into the plants, and it looks awful. One broken Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) branch was right in the middle of a high-profile corridor between two buildings.

Since the cut was too large for my hand snips, I waited until I was able to retrieve a hand saw from the my car. I could have tried it with my hand snips, but blowing my wrist is a bad idea. It wasn’t an emergency; safety first.

Groundcover in check

Groundcover plants do what they’re supposed to: they cover the ground so weeds don’t move in. Left untouched, some groundcovers grow out of bounce. That’s what happened with Rubus climbing into Rhododendrons.

Rubus climbing into a Rhodendron
Much better!

It took only a few minutes and it looks better. The Rubus is cut back down to its grouncover function and the Rhododendron is left unmolested.

Missing ivy

This third example makes me mad because it could have been prevented. Last year, someone made the strange decision to remove ivy (Hedera helix) from this power box. I wrongly assumed that something else would replace the ivy.

That’s why I shook my head last week when I had to weed the now bare ground. I knew it would come to this: nature hates bare spots. Weeds move in and have a great time with plenty of sunlight reaching them. It wasn’t that easy for them when ivy still covered the ground. Groundcover plants cover ground; they look good and they prevent unwanted plants from moving in.

The power box looked much better surrounded by ivy. Only remove it if you have a good plan for the spot. Bare ground is the worst option.

You can see weeds creeping in.
Cultivated by Vas but ivy did the job well before.

Late winter details

Late winter is a great time to scan your gardens for blemishes like the three mentioned above. It’s already nice out but lawn care hasn’t started yet. So, take the time to identify and eliminate little blemishes from your gardens.

Sarcococca condemned by caretaker

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

Weird requests

I’m used to being dragged away from my regular landscape duties by caretakers, but sometimes it’s hard to swallow the weird requests they assault me with. Take last week, as an example. It was late in our shift and we were barely thirty minutes away from calling it a day.

Then, out he came, caretaker on a mission, sneezing and looking like he had Omicron. Now, he’s a great guy and a huge ally. But I couldn’t believe what he was asking me to do.


The poor caretaker was suffering from terrible allergies. Allegedly he had trouble breathing at night, his eyes watered and his nose was runny, like a pre-schooler’s. So of course, right away I thought that taking a COVID rapid test would have been a great idea but I’m not a doctor.

To avoid stuffing his body with pills and adding to Big Pharma’s profits, he needed me to level a patch of Sarcococca growing under his windows. The evergreen shrub flowers now, in February, and produces a sweet fragrance, especially when mass-planted.

Now, I had never before heard of anyone suffering allergic reactions from Sarcococcas. It’s plausible, I guess, but weird. And so was his request.

I did hear from a Facebook friend who claims to suffer nasty headaches from the fragrance.

So, out came my power shears. And before I annihilated the plants, the caretaker reminded me to watch out for the sprinkler heads. Last year, all of them got slashed.

The only trick was to hand snip the plants from all of the wall edges and from around the irrigation sprinklers. Then we raked up most of the mutilated plant material and went home. I promised myself I would blog about this. Perhaps there are other caretakers like this.

When Sarcococca goes missing

It looks like hell but, luckily, it’s a very low profile corner. Long term, it should be changed over, assuming there is budget.

Like COVID, weird requests aren’t going away anytime soon. I have to learn to live with them and decline the ones that are clearly over-the-top.

Fragrant plants for a shady garden

By | gardening, Plants | No Comments

Plants matter

Plant knowledge is very important in gardening and landscaping. I still shake my head when I recall how a fourth level apprentice in landscape horticulture dismissed plants. Standing in a planted bed, he flat out told me that me telling him plant names had no meaning at all. He didn’t care; which, I suspect, is one reason he is struggling to pass the Red Seal exam.

Now, let’s talk about my new residential client. She found me through Google My Business and happens to be a mobile detailer. So it makes sense that someone like that would like to have fragrant plants in her mostly shady garden.


I openly admit to not being a garden designer. I often have to consult my notes at home before offering plant suggestions. My day-job boss, on the other hand, expects a detailed list on the spot.

One fragrant plant that came to my mind right away is Cimicifuga which flowers in late summer. It’s best planted in multiples, not as a single specimen. It will send out a flower spike and the fragrance is amazing. Intoxicating even. When I stop to enjoy it, I linger there, completely ignoring the fact that I’m there on company time.

An obvious choice for early summer are Lilacs (Syringa).

The owner bought two specimens of Sarcococca, which flowers now, in February. For some reason, some people can’t enjoy the fragrance. Incredibly, last week I had to level an entire corner just to please a caretaker who argued he was suffering from allergic reactions.


Most gardeners enjoy the Sarcococca fragrance, including me. The key is to mass plant them so I told the client to plant in odd groups. Three is better than two.

Viburnum bodnantense is an awesome shrub. It pushes out fragrant, trumpet like flowers while the branches are bare. The first time I saw it, it looked like a mistake.

Viburnum bodnantense

Also fragrant is the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) which also looks stunning with its spider-like flowers. It never gets old.

Hamamelis mollis

Daphne is smaller than the two shrubs above and smells awesome. I wish I could describe fragrances well, but I can’t.



I always recommend that clients experiment in their gardens. Buy a few fragrant plants and see how you like them; and how they establish in their semi-shade home.

I expect to be around the garden doing regular maintenance and hope to enjoy the changes. It might inspire a few future blog posts.

New climate-change driven landscape requests

By | Events, health and safety | No Comments

New AC

The owners sacrificed a healthy Camellia for a new AC unit.

This winter I’ve been getting a lot of new requests involving shrub clearance around buildings. By itself, that’s nothing unusual but many owners are now installing air-conditioning units. Aha, that’s our twist.

To understand it, you’d have to know about the unprecedented, anywhere on Earth, heat dome we experienced in June 2021. For weeks we head super high summer temperatures and according to provincial reports, 595 people died as a result of the oppressive heat. Seniors are especially vulnerable so they’re getting ready by installing air-conditioning units. If there are boxwood hedges or flowering shrubs in perfect health in the way, so what. Summer safety comes first.

The actual physical work was easy. I had to prune away sections of boxwood which looked ridiculous until the AC unit got installed. And the elderly owner was super happy. If we get another summer heat dome, he’ll ride it out inside.

And the workers?

And what about the workers? I’m currently working on a second edition of my e-book “How to become a landscape professional” and now I wonder if it’s right to recommend landscaping as a career. It could be a mess with global warming driven changes.

The heat dome was oppressive, to put it mildly. One complex provided us with water coolers and a misting station but that was a rarity. For weeks, we suffered and went home early. Most of the professionals on staff managed; most of the hypochondriacs on staff bailed early and this time they didn’t need any elaborate excuses.

People were actually dying from the heat in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia; mostly seniors, sick people and the homeless. Five-hundred and ninety five heat-related deaths is 595 too many. Welcome to climate change. It’s very real.

Some clients care about their landscapers.


With the pandemic continuing, I fully expect another eventful summer. If we get hit with another heat dome, we’ll get through it. And so will the seniors who invested into new AC units, sacrificing perfectly good shrubs to stay safe. Here we go. Bring on summer.

Mind your landscape fabric

By | gardening, Mulch | No Comments

A big clue

When your landscaper uses a line edger in your planted beds for weed control, you know you have a problem. Lawn care machines don’t belong in planted beds; it’s a sign of desperation. It’s also unsafe because you can damage plants and launch stones into elderly passersby or windows.

I see this done when landscapers try to move out as quickly as possible, probably on the way to their next gig. Weeding is time-consuming. Perhaps it’s time to get a new residential landscape contractor.

One big clue is landscape fabric showing in the soil. Now, I’m not a fan of landscape fabric because over time, it doesn’t work. It clogs up and doesn’t allow water through. The sales dude at your local garden store doesn’t tell you that. He assures you that with fabric in place, you won’t have to worry about weeds.

If you must use landscape fabric, bury with at least two inches of mulch. This will deprive the weeds of sunlight. Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has convincingly shown that going light on mulch can actually help the weeds. This is because they still get light and moisture protection from the skinny mulch. Making weeds feel cozy in your garden is a bad idea.

It’s time to bring in more mulch.

My suggestions

I made two suggestions to my new residential clients. One, leave everything as is, and pay me to hand weed their garden every month. I use hand tools, buckets and tarps to weed, never machines. That’s desperately amateurish, in my humble opinion. This option keeps my kids well-fed.

Two, bury the existing landscape fabric with at least two inches of mulch, and see me less often. Remember that weeds will be blown in or deposited by birds, so you will get weeds. But if you pay for regular maintenance visits, your garden will look great. With this option, my kids will still be well-fed but I will have to hustle elsewhere.


When you start seeing exposed landscape fabric and weeds, it’s time to top up your mulch or soil. I suggest two inches. And if your landscaper line trims your garden weeds, look for a better residential landscape company. Like this one.

Leave frosty Escallonia shrubs alone

By | gardening, Pruning | No Comments


Late January isn’t the best time for shrub pruning. Especially when those shrubs are covered in frost. The season and presence of frost should feel like a stop sign. I don’t recall ever hand pruning shrubs in late January.

But for some dudes it feels fine because they look for an easy shift at work, away from finesse work. It’s super relaxing to stand there, talk non-stop with a cigarette in your mouth and snip away while others weeds and rake up debris.

In this case it was an Escallonia, covered in frost and already looking rough after getting hammered by Christmas time snow events. It’s a terrible candidate for hand pruning.

This is a terrible candidate for hand pruning.

When to prune Escallonias

The best time to prune Escallonias is after flowering in summer. This is a good general rule for most shrubs. Enjoy the show and then get your snips out.

Now, if you want to renovate an Escallonia, the best time to do that is in late spring. That’s when temperatures go up and the shrubs hasn’t fully developed yet.

You might want to do that if your shrub is too big for its space or, like I have to do once in a while, when winter-killed branches have to be removed. This is what should have happened to the shrub pictured above. Wait until it warms up and then renovate it so it’s ready for the new season.

In late January, there is less water and oxygen in the tissues so it’s easier to cause damage. Plus, until the shrub starts to push out leaves, it’s hard to tell how much we’ll have to remove.

One example

Three to four years ago, this Escallonia got hit hard by snow and I had to remove the top half. Note that I did it in early spring, like a pro. This picture is from last week (early February 2022) and the shrub is back to its original size, if not bigger. We’ll see if it comes back fully this spring.


Remember the rule for pruning Escallonia shrubs. Prune them after flowering in summer or renovate-prune in spring. Pruning in late January, when they’re covered in frost isn’t recommended. It’s my humble opinion that you’re just causing more harm.

How to plant Styrax japonicus

By | Trees | No Comments

Planting with Vas

My last blog post from March 30 showed my small tree removal and encouraged home owners to give it a shot, if they got a chance. Today’s blog post shows my tree planting using the same hole.

Recall that I removed a dead Amur maple (Acer ginnala) and, while I advised people to cover up the hole to avoid accidents, I did no such thing. I got in my work truck and I drove to Golden Spruce nursery. There, I picked up a Styrax japonicus (Japanese snowbell) specimen. I note the botanical name first on purpose; that’s how you buy trees at a nursery. Common names are useless.


Since I worked solo, I had to improvise. I parked my truck over a curb to make off-loading the tree easier. I then gently lowered it onto my wheelbarrow.

Since the backyard was accessed by a slight incline, I had to struggle to get the tree up there. It’s only at times like these that I wish I was more than a chess player with weak arms.

Now I had to make a critical decision.

Yes or no to wire and burlap?

Do you keep the wire cage and burlap or do you remove them before planting? This question used to have a straight answer. My mentor, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott says remove everything; only the tree goes in the planting hole.

But then I opened up my October, 2022 issue of Arborist News. The article, good for one education credit, says that the answer depends on personal preferences or client wishes.

Now, since I had zero input from the clients, I did what I always do. I removed everything, wire cage and burlap before planting. One argument against this removal is that it disrupts the root ball. So, I dropped it in the hole very gently, keeping the clay root ball intact as much as possible.

The article says there is no conclusive evidence showing harm to the tree by keeping the wire cage and burlap. So, it’s up to you. If you’re planting trees with me, we take everything off. If you’re planting at home, you decide.

Pro tip: make sure the strings are cut no matter what.

Planting hole

The planting hole should be wide and deep enough so the root flare is at grade. The root flare is where the trunk turns into roots and it’s visible once you remove the burlap and peel off the clay.

You can’t plant the root flare too deep or too high. Once you identify the zone, drop the root ball in the hole and put a shovel handle over top: the shovel should be straight across so the root flare and planting hole edges are in line.

My tree was planted slightly higher because I expect some settling to happen with watering.


Always backfill your planting hole with the native soil. You can amend it a little bit with better soil but don’t try to substitute it. That’s because water will find it easier to penetrate new fluffy soil and your tree could “joystick” on you.

I used new soil only to top-dress the planted tree.


New trees need water. Obviously, don’t suffocate them by overwatering. But add some water regularly, even in winter. If everything goes well, the roots will push out into the surrounding soil and the tree will get established in its new environment.

Sometimes I stress about the trees I plant.

All done!

The ugly sister of landscape plants

By | Plant Species Information | No Comments

Say my name

I feel like Leucothoe is the ugly sister of landscape plants because nobody seems to remember its name. Incredibly, this includes experienced foremen who see the evergreen shrubs on their sites all year. As soon as I come to help, they ask me what the shrub is called. Thus the ugly sister label.

Its common name ‘dog hobble’ is so bad, sticking with Leucothoe makes more sense.

And Leucothoe is hardly an ugly plant. It’s a native of the Appalachian mountains where it grows in moist forests. I like that it’s evergreen and forms nice clumps. It’s a shade plant but it can survive in semi-shade. The specimen below is planted, incorrectly, out in the open so no wonder it isn’t forming a full mound.

Not much shade for this Leucothoe.


Leucothoe is best mass-planted in the shade, under your trees. In May it pushes out flowers; and it has great winter interest. Depending on the species or variety, Leucothoe changes color in winter, usually into something maroon.

Occasionally I shear the shrub to keep it off lawn edges but, overall, it’s a low maintenance shrub. It also doesn’t have any serious insect or disease problems. When air circulation is bad around the shrub, it can suffer from leaf spots.

Leucothoe works well as a hedge or a woodland garden shrub. You can also let it naturalize.

Most strata complexes have a few groupings of Leucothoe but people don’t seem to remember its name. Perhaps because it’s a shade plant, usually parked under tree canopies. I feel like people asked me to identify it in the field more than any other plant. When I refer to it as an ugly sister, I do it jokingly. I like the way the shrub cascades and clumps up nicely with its laurel-like glossy evergreen leaves. It totally fits in a moist forest.

So, please say the name Leucothoe and practice it. It sounds better than dog hobble.