Garden lessons from a new residential client

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I love meeting new clients and getting to know them and their needs. I really love it when it becomes obvious I can help them. And during the garden assessment, you can take a look at the place and see what condition it’s in. When I meet the people I obviously don’t tell them they will be my next blog post topic.

What I see

If you read my blogs regularly, you will know that I hate landscape fabric. But if it’s already installed, then at least bury it with several inches of mulch or soil. This garden had lots of fabric showing so I recommended adding two inches throughout to keep the weeds down; and to give the planted bed a uniform look. Otherwise, they would see there more often, weeding.

Exposed root flare and landscape fabric.

Pro tip: Best case, your landscape fabric will delay weeds. Even with two inches of mulch installed, weeds will still drift in with animals and the wind.

I love gardening and I think people should bravely experiment in their gardens. Here, the owners planted lots of single plants which works best for specimens. Like having one weeping Japanese maple in the middle of the bed. More on this soon. But for perennials, multiples are better.

For example, one tiger lily doesn’t have the same effect as, say, 5-7. Instead of having two Bergenias, I would go for 3, 5 or 7. Planting more also means more competition for weeds which love open bed spaces.

One Hellebore and two Bergenias. You could add two or four Hellebores and at least one Bergenia.

Pro tip: plant in odd numbers. Three is better than two. Five, seven, etc.

Proper tree planting is also important. I really like that this client gave it a go. When I told her the maple was planted a bit low she smiled and said something about learning. That’s right, she has the right attitude.

I uncovered the root flare and created a quick tree well so the stem didn’t rot in the soil. The tree should be fine.

The outside boulevard also needed some attention. It was still leafy from the fall and it was covered with cherry pits. And the lawn edge also required blade edging. Now it looks much better.

Blade edged and blown clean.

Normally I would be tempted to make some inappropriate joke but, since these were brand new clients, I just mentioned in passing that their Skimmias were all female. It’s always nice to plant males nearby.

The future

The beauty of having clients is that you can teach them while you make money. Customers, on the other hand, only care about prices and rates, don’t care to learn and will dump you for Miguel who charges $1 less per hour.

I expect to work with this couple all year and beyond. Since the owner loves fragrant plants, I’m looking forward to transforming their garden into a semi-shade oasis. It might generate a few more blog posts this year.

Fragrant plants for a shady garden

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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.

Mind your landscape fabric

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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

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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.

Spring is here!!

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Spring is here, officially, and I’m really happy about it. Bulbs are pushing out, gardeners are getting busy in their gardens, and people are calling about spring garden work.

But the best is the warmer weather and colour in the landscape. My favourite early spring Doronicums aren’t popping up yet but the plants are now noticeable. And I can’t wait for shorts and t-shirts.

Spring projects

If you live in a strata complex maintained by Proper Landscaping then, chances are, your landscaping is ready for mowing season. I suspect we are one to two weeks away from the first mow.

Privately, I’ve set up a few mow gigs and I’m planning to use a new battery-operated mower. Not just because the price of gas has gone up; the model I want is light and the handles can be folded. Plus I won’t have to suck exhaust after hours.


Sometimes spring clean-up can mean just blowing off your sidewalk and blade edging it. You get instant results and your neighbours thank you for not lowering neighbourhood property values.

No wonder your neighbours send you hate mail.
Blow, blade edge and lime application.

This is a quick fix. I love sharp lawn edges.

Lime and aerate

If you don’t do anything to your lawn all year, at least aerate it and put down lime. Lime should help with lowering the pH of your lawn from acidic to alkaline. But you will need to good heavy.

Aeration can be done with a hand tool on small lawn patches or with a machine on bigger patches. Extracting core plugs from your lawn allows water and oxygen to enter the root zone. It’s also a great chance to examine your grass. Pick up a core sample and see how good the roots are.


Small corners are easy to weed.

A trowel and bucket is all you need!

If you’re not up to weeding, you can always bury your garden with new mulch to keep the weeds down by depriving them of sunlight.

Fresh mulch means these clients won’t have to see me for a while!

Enjoy the colour

Enjoy the spring

Spring 2022 is full of bad news, from COVID, inflation and interest rates to wars waged by maniac dictators. Beautiful spring gardens are exactly what we need to escape the bad news.

Enjoy the spring!

Why use raised garden beds?

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Raised bed advantage

I’ve written a blog post about a community garden which popped up this summer across from my building in Port Moody, British Columbia. So, there the advantage of raised beds is obvious: you can run a lottery and let people take charge of one raised bed each.

But why raised beds? It’s a good question someone asked in a Facebook group.

My hit list

I like raised beds because I hate bending over all day. I used to have a community garden plot and I had to get on my knees to take care of it. If you’re older, go with a raised bed.

Since the plot is nicely defined, you eliminate the risk of stepping on other plants and compacting the soil.

Another advantage is weeds are less likely to migrate into your raised plot or get delivered there by wind. If you do get some drifting in, you can easily weed them out.

I also feel like animals and insects aren’t as bad in raised beds. There is some effort required to climb up.

Raised beds also look neater. Freshly installed, without plants, some residents in my neighbourhood wondered why there were “coffins” on the lawn; today the raised beds are well-used and there is new fencing around the garden.

When thieves hit your raised garden plot, it’s easier to detect.

Other advantages of raised beds

Soil in raised beds drains better and warms-up faster. That helps your plants grow better. It’s also much easier to amend; and, I suspect you will have to amend it because store-bought soils aren’t great. When I rented my garden plot years ago, the group brought in compost every spring. It definitely helped and it was fairly cheap.

Raised garden plots are easier to plant, weed and harvest. But we’ve covered that already under bending over.

If you’re worried about invaders, it’s easy to install barriers on all four sides to prevent invasions.

Somebody also suggested that it’s easier to install cold frames over raised beds.

Port Moody Rec Centre community garden (2021).

Give it a go

It’s best to create a raised bed and see how you like it. When I had a regular plot, it worked out fine because it was very small; and I didn’t have it for long. A year into my community garden membership, a bigger -raised!- plot became available.

Sweat the details like a pro

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Yes, it’s OK to sweat the details in your garden. I’m writing this blog post in late January, 2022, and the snow is gone so we can do finesse work in the garden. And by finesse I mean clean-ups and pruning.

Since we don’t do lawn care in January, there is time to look for blemishes and eliminate them. Here’s how a professional sweats the details. Perhaps it will give you a little hint, if you’re not sure what to look for.

Cherry suckers


We don’t really want these three shoots to get any bigger so eliminate them as soon as you can. This leaves the main cherry and whatever plants are growing around it. Grasses and hostas, I think.

Security signs

This is another quick job for your hand snips. Remove the rhododendron branches to expose the security sign. There are plenty of flowers up top so don’t worry about losing a few flowers; worry about burglars breaking in. It’s easy to miss details like this when you’re busy mowing.

Forgotten corners

Check every corner of your garden and look for neglected spaces. Here we removed the leafiness carefully, so as not to remove all of the bark mulch. In strata maintenance, it’s always good to cover the entire property, not just the high-profile “beauty strip”.

Easy clean-up

I sheared the side of this hedge; the tops were done by the neighbor who employs a retiree gardener. Do you see how nice and clean the stones are? That’s because I put down tarps before shearing. That made the clean-up a breeze.

If you let the cedar clippings rain down on the stones, you’re looking at horrific clean-up. Instead, put down tarps and save yourself the headache.

Slow down


Winter is a bit slower so enjoy the season. Look around, take care of details and take some pictures. Like I did last week when I saw my first bunch of snowdrops (Galanthus). To see them properly, I had to remove spent Hosta foliage first. And I must say, it was a nice hint of spring on a warm January Friday.

January is a slow month in the landscape. Every year I suffer from January blahs but you can still take care of some details in your gardens. Go take a look.

A new mom’s pivot into container gardening

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I love kids! My two teenagers mean the world to me. But let’s be open about this, kids and pandemics are harsh on women’s careers. Since it’s usual for the wife to take care of the kids, her own goals and aspirations must be put on hold.

I mention this because a few weeks ago I met a woman who reinvented herself after her maternity leave as a container gardener. I noticed her older Nissan van before I even saw her and her two employees. The van sported neat green graphics and, it turns out, it wasn’t that expensive. Now she was in business and doing well. Aha!

Good news

It’s been hard to find good news during a continuing global pandemic but this qualifies quite nicely. I love seeing people start green businesses and do well. This lady specializes in container gardening.

On this day, she was decorating one unit for Christmas by changing pots and pimping out a staircase. And she was booked solid.


All I know about planting pots comes from a one page article from Landscape Management magazine. And it might be all you need to know.

All pots have three main components:

a) There is something imposing or noticeable in the middle, like the star of a show. That’s the thriller and it should thrill you.

b) Trailing from the pot are plants the spill over the sides, thus we call them spillers.

c) The gaps between the thriller and the spiller plants are filled with, you guessed it, fillers.

Now you know the secret to pot planting: thriller, spiller and filler.


Now, I confess to not having the required imagination for planting design. I could, of course, take a stab at it but I’m not completely sure you’d want to pay my invoice.

People like me stress about pot planting. This happened to me years ago when I worked for the City of Coquitlam parks department. We arrived at a seniors residence late in the day, and the back of the work truck was still full of plants.

So, my city gardener boss sent us out to plant one pot each, freestyle. That would be sweet music for some people but it genuinely frightened me. And, I did it. I stuffed the pot so much, it was dominated by fillers but I doubt anybody noticed. Most of the elderly shuffling unsteadily by only noticed the flowers, not the arrangement.

Hire pros

If you have pots that need some updating, hire a professional like Pamela, the owner of Magnolia Boutique Gardening. Give her a call (778-228-2301) and enjoy a consultation visit with her. She’s extremely nice and patient. The poor woman was trying to get her project completed and I kept on asking her questions.

Visit the company website for more project photos.


Soon we’ll welcome the new year and the pandemic will still be with us. I hope to meet more green professionals like Pamela next year. People who run green businesses successfully. That would cheer me up.

On native fern resilience

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My Dec 21, 2020 blog post covered the whole fern mutilation affair so please read it to get the whole story. I will only recap the key points here.

Our West Coast forests are full of the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It does fine in the wild and in our managed landscapes. Except when experienced landscapers don’t use their heads and power shear it.

Imagine the horror when I discovered that the fronds had been halved by power shears- in winter- and the mess was never cleaned up. And we’re talking about experienced workers, not new dudes. It’s not clear what happened but clearly there was a breakdown somewhere.

Finished product

I’m sorry, but this kind of shoddy work can not be tolerated. Here’s why.

  1. Use hand snips to take out the brown fronds, if they bother you. It does make the sword ferns look neater. Don’t power shear ferns. Ever! I don’t care if it takes longer.
  2. The fronds only make sense when they are intact, not halved. It looks freaky.
  3. Not cleaning things up is the ultimate sin. How people walk away from this carnage is beyond me. Clearly, there were some problems with the crew. Pruning and clean-up go hand in hand. Both should be fantastic.
  4. The timing is awful. If you look at the base of the ferns, you should see next season’s fronds tightly packed together. When they pop up in spring, then you can take out the old brown fronds. Not in winter. Since nothing new emerges until spring, the residents get to look at halved sword ferns all winter. That’s just bizarre.

Good news!

Because plants are resilient, we have some good news to report a year later. I’m happy to report that the sword ferns recovered nicely! And the crews are under strict orders not to touch them until next spring. Hopefully, they learned their lesson.

Like nothing happened.

Left alone until spring, these sword ferns look great all winter.

Now you know how to handle our native sword ferns. Use snips in spring to prune out the brown fronds. That’s it. Then enjoy them for the rest of the year.

Community garden success

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Sweetgum prologue

Across the street from my building is a strip of lawn, squeezed between a recreation center parking lot and the road. Then, one day, the city of Port Moody planted three sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) there. I clearly remember this because the stakes were placed ridiculously far from the trees. They did nothing for the trees; and I fully expected kids to get clotheslined on the arbor tie. My picture of this poor staking job made it into level 1 apprentice courses. Without permission.

Weeks later, the trees went missing!? I never found out where they were moved.

Before the garden: columnar sweetgums with staking removed

A new community garden

Once the city installed raised beds on the lawn, it all made sense. And it was also clear that I was way too slow to get in on the garden lottery. I’m a busy man. But I’m happy to report that every single plot has been well used, mostly by women of a certain age.

Creating a new community garden is a great project anytime but it’s especially important during a pandemic. People can be outside fairly safely and taking care of plants gives them some measure of control, just as things seem to be spinning out of control.

One nice touch are the planted borders between the plots and parking stalls. They’re planted in perennials and add color, something vegetables can’t really do.

The city added a water source, which is critical because I expect summer 2022 to be hot. I’m not sure what happens to the green waste. I imagine the city hauls it away.

Considering the garden’s location, I wondered if some of the harvest would go missing under cover of darkness. Since I haven’t heard anything, I’m assuming the owners got to enjoy their harvests.

When I had a tiny rented plot in Burquitlam years ago, teenagers would stop by to collect apples in broad daylight. Who knows what else went missing.

A great idea

When the City of Port Moody planted sweetgum trees in a lawn across the street, with poorly installed stakes, I shook my head every time I walked by. Then the trees went missing and I shook my head some more. Wasn’t this a waste of money and labor.

Then the city installed community garden plots and life made more sense. The garden is well-used and the buffer zones are planted in perennials. So now we have some color visible from the road and from the recreation center parking lot. It may just brighten up our pandemic life.

Buffer zone Monarda