Arborist Insights

The trouble with memorial trees

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

Memorial trees

Planting memorial trees is a natural reaction from people who lose their loved ones or pets. But there is added stress because when you plant a tree as a memorial, you need it to survive. There is a lot riding on this planting. Not only do you need the tree to live and thrive, many times ashes are scattered in the planting hole or on the surface.

I didn’t really think much about memorial trees until my sister and her partner lost their young daughter in a car crash. My sister called me, slightly panicked, because the memorial tree they planted at their ranch wasn’t doing well. Now, normally I would take one weekend and drive over to help out with the planting but it wasn’t that easy.

The provincial government had, at the time, issued advisories asking people not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary. And, there was the business of protecting the in-laws from COVID; I wasn’t even close to their “bubble”.

So, the tree got planted, in a beautiful heart-shaped bed. I didn’t care for annuals planted around the tree; I’m convinced it’s better to wait until the tree is established. Surficial tree roots and annual plants must compete in that tight space. Of course, the mother-in-law is an experienced home gardener so that’s how it went down.

Ponderosa pines on my sister’s ranch.

2021 check-in

I finally made it to the ranch in the summer of 2021, taking advantage of my son’s away soccer match. It took a few minutes to realize that the tree was planted a bit low. As I ran my fingers in the soil around the tree trunk, I noticed the partner’s pained facial expression which could mean that they had scattered ashes at the base of the tree. It’s not a bad idea to ask for permission before you start digging around memorial trees.

This is my pro-tip: always find the root flare where the stem becomes root and plant the tree at this level, flush with the ground. Planting too deep means that stem tissues will get wet and they could rot, inviting disease in.

I got my sister to excavate around the tree until there was an obvious tree well. Sticking my fingers in there again wouldn’t have been a great idea.

Other considerations

Obviously, the tree species should make sense for your home area. My sister lives in the BC Interior on a ranch without great layers of soil and the summers are hot and dry. If I recall correctly, they picked a flowering dogwood that won’t overwhelm the space it’s in.

You can do it!

I love the idea of tree planting; the more trees we have, the better. Planting memorial trees is a great idea but beware of the extra stress. Because the tree is planted in someone’s memory and the planting might include the deceased ashes, there is a lot riding on the tree’s proper planting and survival.

When my sister’s memorial tree wasn’t doing well, I could tell from her voice that she was stressed. Unfortunately, the raging pandemic prevented me from driving over to help.

If you’re thinking about planting a memorial tree, you can do it! If you need help, call me.

How to avoid killing landscape trees

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

Proper planting

If you want to avoid killing landscape trees, start by planting them properly. Follow the advice of gurus like my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, who recommends that only trees go into planting holes. Get rid of strings, wires, and baskets. If you don’t, your new landscape tree could suffer.

A routine tree removal

It happens all the time in landscape maintenance. Residents notice brown trees and call us in to remove them. But I also like to ask why the tree didn’t make it. Did the June ‘heat dome’ push it over the edge; was it planted incorrectly; was it abused by pet dogs or damaged by love struck teenagers?

We can’t tolerate dead trees on site.

The removal was fairly easy so the tree was definitely dead. A shovel did the trick plus an ax for a few stubborn roots. And my questions were answered even before the tree was completely out.


Girdling is like choking at slow speed. When this tree was planted nobody bothered to cut the root ball strings. So, as the tree got bigger, the string got incorporated into the tree. This leads to girdling where nutrients and water can’t pass through and the top eventually dies.

It’s common for the tree to fail at the girdling zone.

Note the string on the left.


Poor planting technique can kill landscape trees which then leads to extra costs. I’m paid hefty fees to remove the tree and recycle it in green waste. And if the strata council decides to replace the tree, it will cost them at least a few hundred dollars.

We also miss the free ecosystem services the tree used to provide for free. Think oxygen, shade, beauty, and many others.

When you plant trees, only put the tree in your planting hole. Remove all strings, plastic and wires. The death of this tree was preventable; simply cut the string after planting.

Magnolia trees need space

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

Round 1

As a professional landscaper and ISA certified arborist, I provide the best possible advice for our clients. So, when a client is asking me to plant a tree near his gate, I have to object to his plan. Gently.

Take a look. What’s the problem here?

Freshly planted Magnolia.

First of all, the planting spot has marginal soil; and you can see immediate access issues for the owners and for landscapers walking in to do lawn care maintenance: the branches are already sticking out.

But by far the worst sin-one I see repeated all the time- is the owner’s refusal to consider the Magnolia’s mature size. All he needs to do is look around; there are several mature Magnolias around his unit.

Since the owner paid for the tree and my labor, it had to be done his way, over my objections. So I did the work and let it go. But I didn’t think I’d be back months later.

Round 2

It turns out, somebody in the complex convinced the owner to move the tree to a more suitable spot. Well done.

Luckily, we found space just over the fence where he would still be able to see the Magnolia. Now we just had to dig up the tree and move it, which wasn’t easy considering the root ball size.

Much better!

Now I can sleep at night. This Magnolia should be happier in this corner because it has more room and it won’t be in the way. Once the nearby dead western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) gets removed, there will also be more available light.

I’m pretty confident the owner will be able to see the flowers from his unit. If the tree somehow fails to thrive, I will find a helper to blame.


Always consider your new tree’s mature size before planting. Don’t get distracted by its beauty. Otherwise, you will have to re-plant it later like I did with this Magnolia.

Let us grow!

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

I spent a Monday working in White Rock recently, and at lunch time I walked to a pizza place down the block. Mask on, of course. As I walked by a bus shelter I noticed a City of Surrey poster. And a blog post was born.

I looked up the Bylaw #5835 and it’s a simple two page document. It says don’t touch city trees and don’t remove them, even if firewood is your family’s only source of heat. You could be fined $500. Simple enough.

A real problem

As a certified landscape professional and arborist, I attend many trade shows and seminars for education credits (CEUs) and to gain knowledge. The coronavirus pushed all of this online but learning never stops. It can’t. It continues even during a pandemic.

I mention trade shows because the presentations with the worst tree abuse cases consistently came from City of Surrey speakers. It became a running joke. As soon as I saw City of Surrey speakers, I signed up; and I can’t think of one single disappointing event.

“Pruning” by residents often meant ugly topping or outright tree removal. That might have been overlooked in years past but not anymore. Now cities care about canopy cover percentages, cooling, beauty, and ecosystem services.

Tree bylaws get drafted and workers get ISA certified so they can take great care of city trees.

Let them grow

I totally agree with the bus shelter poster. Leave street trees alone. We need them to look great and provide us with their many free ecosystem services. Let professionals do the pruning.

However, I do understand people’s frustrations. Municipalities can take months to respond to requests for pruning. I’ve done some pruning on city trees before but it wasn’t anything crazy. In one case, the owner was going bonkers with honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera). Her car, sidewalk and patio were covered in sticky honeydew. Her patio was basically unusable. So, I removed whatever branches I could reach but it didn’t solve the problem completely.

Tulip tree flower

Aphids aren’t good enough reason to remove healthy trees. And we know that tulip trees come with summer aphids. Maybe some sort of cover for the patio would be a better solution.


Let city arborists handle city trees.

The case of an abused snowbell tree

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

When strata contracts run for only ten months, the owners get two winter months to turn rogue. That’s how one snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus) lost one half of its trunk.

Because we don’t recommend “pruning” this severe, the owner probably got fed up with strata council approval requests. Requests can go from council to the management company; and from there to the landscape contractor. I’ve seen requests so old, they were completed several weeks before the contractor formally received them.

The setting

I’m not sure how the poor tree ended up so close to the owner’s patio. It might have been a wayward seed or deliberate planting. Either way, the tree is way too close to the patio. Even if the roots don’t affect the patio stones, chances are, the foliage will eventually touch the building.

Styrax flowers are beautiful snow bells but they turn into hundreds of seeds that cover the patio and could cause the owner to slip. I’m also not sure if they wanted this much shade on their patio. I never got to interview them.

The bottom line is: the tree is situated too close to the patio.

Best solution

By far the best solution would be to remove the tree completely. There is very little available space for the tree to grow.

The owner’s solution didn’t go far enough. She cut the tree at 4-5 feet so only the trunk was left. Which looks weird. It also removes whatever food was stored in the branches.

When over half of a tree goes missing, the tree notices it and pushes out many sprouts. After all, it will need leaves to feed itself. You can see the response in the picture below.

The response is furious, as the tree fights. The new sprouts mature into poorly attached branches and the owner is back to square one. Now you have a choice: remove the sprouts every year, remove the tree or rehabilitate it.

You can see the original cut at roughly 4 feet.

You can rehabilitate topped trees by keeping a few leaders, subordinating a few more sprouts, and completely removing the others. But here it wouldn’t make sense because there is not enough room for this Styrax.

ISA certified arborist Vas recommends complete removal!

Always learning about trees

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

Learning never stops

Learning never stops! Which is why I love the green industry and feel like I will never run out of topics to write about. Especially about trees. There is so much to learn.

Lee Valley

Take my shopping visit to Lee Valley as an example. I was there to buy new blades and springs for my Felcos ( Visit again on March 6, 2021, to read my Felco blog post). As soon as left my car, I noticed a cherry tree, planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Fungal fruiting bodies were screaming at me to notice them. And bang, as soon as I saw them, I knew the cherry tree was dead. That’s the rule. Fungus inside your tree is a disaster.

I love how the fungus-tree death connection automatically clicked in my head.

Healthy trees don’t sport fungal fruiting bodies.

Ray cells

Ray cells.

It pays to be connected to people on LinkedIn. I got this picture from a contact who marveled at seeing ray cells so clearly. Allegedly, ray cells are clearly seen in oaks.

Now, in keeping with the continuing education theme of this blog post, I went home and looked up ray cells on the internet. And I found out they’re pretty amazing.

The two main functions of ray cells in trees are:

  1. ray cells keep the growth rings together
  2. ray cells help shuttle water and nutrients in the xylem

They also look cool in cross-section.

Heading cuts

One of my private clients received a letter from her municipality, asking her to clear Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) branches off their city lamp. So they hired an arborist to do the jobs. And when I was on site to do finesse work (a nice way to say weeding), I took pictures of his heading cuts.

A heading cut.

Heading cuts are made to discourage main stem growth and promote side growth. In this case, we want to keep the maple from reaching the city lamp. The cut is made just above a branchlet or bud. And we can expect any new growth to happen sideways, not straight to the top.

Then I put my iPhone away and went back to weeding, mumbling something like “I could have made those cuts!”.

Never stop learning!

Tree topping disaster

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

Don’t do it!

Tree topping rules are straight forward: don’t do it! I was stunned recently at a site in White Rock, British Columbia, when I saw a topped Persian ironwood (Parottia persica) tree.

Persian ironwood trees are bulletproof. They don’t suffer from any diseases, the branches have interesting look and their fall color is spectacular. You can’t do much better when deciding on a landscape tree. But this owner had his own ideas; and it helped that he was the strata council president. That’s how it works. If you’re not on council, you won’t get approval.

If you’re feeling crowded, then take out the whole tree. But that’s very complicated nowadays because municipalities now care about tree canopy cover percentages. Unless your tree is dangerous, it’s difficult to get a removal permit.

I suspect, if the municipality knew about this tree topping, they might issue a ticket. It’s a nasty procedure. So nasty, I had to compose this blog post about it. So nasty, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) publishes a handout about tree topping.

Future growth

The tree will now push out new sprouts and the president will have to hack them down every year to keep the tree at the same height. If you don’t remove the sprouts, they will develop into poorly attached shoots.

Another drawback is that it no longer looks like a Persian ironwood tree while the other specimens nearby still look great. It’s a weird effect.

Trees also store food in their branches and heavy removal can cause serious shortages for the tree. They also need lots of leaves to produce food and topping removes huge chunks of the tree crown where leaves would have developed.

Also, large wounds like these may not heal and could potentially invite insects and diseases in. Generally speaking, three inch diameter is your rule. Any cut bigger than that, may be slow to heal.

With huge sections of the crown missing, the bark can also get injured by heavy sun exposure.


Don’t top your trees!

Why trees are good

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

One picture summary

Now, take a good look and decide which tree owner you are. I am a green industry professional and I own a green blog so I’m the guy on the left, obviously. As an aside, I must say that my wife doesn’t cling me like this while we admire the beauty of trees. That was way before we had kids.

I rarely consider the drop on the ground, until I have to clean it up at work. I never considered trees “messy”. That’s absurd. Just last Friday, we cleaned-up sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) seed pods off roadways and it didn’t bother me. I love the way the seed pods look, all spiky, like World War II floating mines.

The real challenge at work and outside is to convince the person on the right that trees are good. They’re not “messy”. You’d be surprised to learn that there are many tree haters. Recently, I went for a site walk with two ladies in White Rock and they proudly informed me of the number of sweetgums they had managed to clear-cut off their property. So, I nodded politely and cringed on the inside, all the while wondering if they enjoyed free oxygen.

Fun exercise

Let’s have some fun. Grab a pencil and some scrap paper and try to think of the benefits trees provide for us, free of charge. What is referred to as eco-system services.

I will do this exercise right now, in this blog post, without any preparation. I will list whatever comes to my mind. No assistance from Google. If you do it, you might change your mind about the trees in your garden or your strata complex.

Don’t look at my list below just yet. Try the exercise first.

We need trees- Vas takes the challenge

  • oxygen production
  • shade
  • bird and animal habitat, including dead wildlife trees
  • cooling in cities which tend to act as heat islands
  • beauty, including fall colors
  • medicinal use, e.g. bark, fruit
  • edible fruit
  • soil and bank stabilization
  • stormflow control (forests absorb water and release it slowly)
  • inspiration, e.g. when you see trees thousands of years old
  • carbon storage, crucial on a warming planet
  • building materials, my least-favorite benefit
  • micro climate, your home climate would be different without trees
  • annual wood production through coppicing and pollarding
  • climbing fun for kids
  • hammock anchoring
  • blog post topics
  • leaf mulch for planted beds
  • lessons, I had no idea there were winter-flowering cherries in Japan

Now I have to stop. How did you do? Remember, we need trees on a warming planet so take care of the ones you have in your garden or common property. Get to know them and plant new ones, if you have space. Maintain them well. Message me if you need help.

Pine cones from Douglas fir

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance | No Comments


Getting requests from strata owners and councils is standard. Some of them are quick and easy; and some are more involved and require approval; some generate extra invoices. Also, some are suspicious.

At one small site last fall, I got a request to clean-up pine cones along the boulevard. Ok. Except I knew there weren’t any pine trees growing along the boulevard. But, I had to go check it out. Requests are no joke, they must be taken care of.

Psedotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir)

Douglas fir

The only cones I could find belonged to a massive Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which is a native tree in British Columbia. Thus, you find it everywhere and it’s easy to identify because of its cones.

The cones have protruding bracts which make it super easy to identify the tree. People living in British Columbia should be familiar with the tree. But, not in this complex. Here, every cone is a pine cone.

So, what’s the point of this blog post? Am I just poking fun at people’s ignorance? No, although, it wouldn’t hurt if people could identify a few key native tree species.


What concerned me was the site foreman’s relaxed attitude. Why not use this request as a way to educate the clients about their own trees? If you do it gently, they might even appreciate it. You can even offer them a free copy of my picture e-book.

The other issue is removing “pine cones” from a semi-wild corner. Douglas firs shed branches and cones all year. It’s extremely difficult to keep forests “clean”. I think it’s pointless, but their strata fees pay for our services. So, we clean forest floors by removing “pine cones”. Now you know.

Pine cone-free zone!


Learn about your local native trees or, if you’re an expert, share your knowledge with your friends and neighbors. Leave some debris on the forest floor.

On pruning abused plum trees

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

Topped plum tree

Topped plum tree with suckers

Well, this happens all the time. To reclaim his view, the neighbor “pruned” my client’s plum tree without asking. You can see the previous harsh cuts because that’s where all of the suckers originate. It’s a normal response by the tree and now, instead of one branch, we have many new suckers.

Pro tip: don’t top trees!

Now, months later, there is a new owner next door and was she ever excited to see me! This will be our annual dance from now on.

Is it hopeless?

Are topped trees doomed? Not necessarily. I pruned above the previous cuts and took out most of the suckers. I left some higher as new leaders, and some just below as subordinates. That’s the procedure: establish new leaders, subordinates and eliminate the rest. This way the tree will regain it’s “natural” shape.

Option two is to eliminate all of the suckers every year, which resembles pollarding. You can save the branches and keep your family warm in winter; or learn basket-weaving.

Next winter, I will do more corrective pruning on this tree.

Better, but I will do more on this tree in 12 months.


As soon as I started pruning this plum tree, the new neighbor came out in homely sweat pants, smiling. Then, across the street came a nicely dressed lady, still holding the keys to her Land Rover; and very new to the neighborhood. Clearly, her family up-sized to a nice corner lot house.

As we walked around her garden, two workers moved what appeared to be an extremely heavy safe over the lawn to the back of the house. Right there I knew it, they could afford me!

Two days later I was hired to prune their maples and cedar hedges. Bonus!


Don’t top trees! Trespassing on your neighbor’s property to top trees is even worse. If you google tree topping, you will see a long list of negative consequences.

If you want to improve previously topped trees, keep some of the new suckers as new leaders, cut others shorter as subordinates, and eliminate the rest.