Saving kids’ lives, no more!

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Update on my 2021 blog post

Yesterday, on the way home I stopped by a site to check on the progress of our project. I published my post in September 2021 and on my last visit in 2023 everything looked fine. Briefly, there was a gap in a Berberis shrub and the kids would run through it and turn left to go play in the fields. However, there was a problem.

Just beyond the Berberis gap was a cedar hedge which hid the kids from view for exiting cars. The drivers wouldn’t see the kids until the last few seconds. And while I don’t recall any fatalities, there were several close calls.

Enough close calls for the strata to call for a solution.

Natural solution

I’ll be honest, this was an exciting, small project. It involved plants and saving kids’ lives. Sign me up.

Now, Berberis is widely available in local nurseries and it’s reasonably priced. I think we planted only three specimens so it wasn’t a huge hit for the strata; my labour charges were a different story.

Why Berberis? Because it’s already there making a big, mature hedge. The prickles on the plant are soft so if any of the kids decided to cheat and run through the gap, they would feel it but they wouldn’t lose any blood.

When I checked on this gap last year (2023), it looked fine. The new specimens were slower than the existing hedge so the gap was closing nicely but mainly from the top. Which was good enough for me.

New Berberis installed as barrier in 2021.


Yesterday, on my follow-up visit, I was disappointed. Take a look and you’ll understand why.

January 2024 and the gap is open again.

The three specimens I planted in 2021 showed signs of being cut and trampled. The tops on both sides were also pruned back. Now, I have no idea what exactly happened. Sometimes strata management changes; and so do their wishes. Perhaps some parents wanted the gap opened up again but I doubt it. Remember the close calls with cars?

I suspect the kids frequenting the gap sabotaged the plants; and then somebody asked the current landscape contractor to prune the sides. Whatever the case, somebody ruined this project. Red Seal isn’t saving kids’ lives anymore. Too bad. I tried.

Notes on tree planting

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Today I spent the day in Burnaby and I made some notes for this blog post. It’s a kind of follow-up because I don’t always come to this part of Burnaby, but it’s nice to see how things change.

Horse chestnut

Aesculus hippocastanum

This City of Burnaby planting checked many boxes. The city workers staked the tree, and they made a tree well around it. And, just to make sure lawn care people knew to stay away, they also installed a plastic guard.

Now, months later, there is some work to be done. I would weed the circle and I would get ready to remove the tree stakes. Stakes shouldn’t stay on longer than 14 months: this allows the tree to develop reaction wood in response to wind events, and thus get stronger.

I would keep the plastic guard on, even though the tree circle should make it obvious that lawn care machines shouldn’t get anywhere near the bark.


When I walked by this Styrax japonicus I immediately noticed the cage sticking out. Now, we know that planting trees with cages is totally fine. So far there isn’t any scientific evidence showing that cages cause harm. It’s totally up to you: keep it or remove it. But, it does look ugly.

When you install the tree, bend the top of the cage down or remove it completely. Don’t leave it sticking out like this. I already know that line edgers will get their line stuck in it when they show up in spring to edge the grass.

Also, there is a tiny soil volcano touching the trunk. It’s important to locate the root flare (where the trunk turns into roots) and make sure there isn’t any soil piled above it. These infamous volcanoes kill trees. You can watch my video on this important topic here. It tells you why the volcanoes kill trees.


Tree planting is no joke. It’s a science and we need to get it right if we want our trees to thrive. Take your time, do it well and you will be rewarded with beautiful, healthy trees.

Watch where you plant!

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Think about your planting spots

Some planting spots are better than others. This is what I was thinking today on a visit to my client’s place. I had to remove remnants of a pruning job I did to keep mature Photinias from touching the house; and I also had to knock down some blackberries.

As you can guess, this isn’t a well-maintained landscape. The owner calls me to put out fires periodically; I wish she would pay for regular maintenance throughout the year.

Shrubs in lawn

To reach the Photinia debris I had to walk past the front lawn where one small rhododendron sat. It’s a sad-looking specimen. The reason it’s struggling is because it’s sitting in a lawn and competing with grasses for resources like water and food. Never underestimate your turf grasses.

Even if you cut out a small tree circle around the rhododendron, you will likely get no growth or very slow growth. And I’m not making it up. Even the legendary gardener Christopher Lloyd agrees on page 17 of his excellent book “The well-tempered garden“.

Sadly, this isn’t my first blog on this topic. In 2022 I published a blog about a struggling Pieris, now long gone. This poor shrub struggled with grass competition and lawn care machine abuse. It never had a chance without a circle cut out to warn workers to stay away.

Trees in plastic turf

Next door to my client lives a homeowner with three Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei). Two are planted in beds and doing fine; one sits in plastic turf! I’m not kidding. It looked all brown a sad with only a hint of green this past summer. Today I found it beheaded with only a “joystick” left.

Why the difference? Well, water falling on the turf runs off and in summer the plastic heats up. That’s why soccer fields are watered down in summer; and why pet owners do the same. A palm standing in plastic turf gets cooked; and surface roots can’t find the resources they need under plastic, assuming they are alive . It’s a terrible idea.



Choose your planting spots well before installing trees and shrubs. Plants struggle to survive in lawns and plastic turf. Now you know.

On the pain of planting in clay

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Clay is a bitch

What’s wrong with this picture?

As soon as I saw this poor willow (Salix) planted way too high, I remembered the setting. The entire neighbourhood in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia sits on clay soils which are notoriously tough to dig through and keep the soils soggy because they can’t drain. And so I knocked on the door and asked the owner what happened: and just as I suspected, he gave up digging in the clay and planted the willow high. Good enough! I guess.

Is it good enough?

Is this planting good enough? I don’t think so. With one half of the root ball showing, many roots will desiccate and die. It also looks funny. But I totally understand because once I had to prepare three holes for cherry tree planting and it was a bitch. The clay layer is so tough, it’s easy to give up. I remembered it was solid but I should mention that all three cherries are doing well and flowering every spring.

A better solution?

My solution would be this: take another stab at the clay on the bottom of the planting hole with different tools. Then, once I would run out of energy and bad words, I would “massage” the root ball to make it smaller. It’s very likely that those two steps would allow for planting at grade, just the way we want it.

You can fight clay soils with organic amendments. Adding some to the planting hole and to the backfill soil would help over time. Sometimes you just have to accept the conditions you’re given and do your best. There is no point stressing but I do find the willow root ball sitting high very annoying. I would fight to plant it close to grade. The willow would be happier and I would sleep better at night.

Watering will save your new cedars!

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Water is the key

It’s pretty sad but I have to say it, newly planted cedars (Thuja occidentalis) require frequent watering after planting. That’s the only way they can establish and thrive. And it sounds so simple and obvious you could be forgiven for thinking I’m wasting your time with this blog post.

And yet, it happens over and over. Every season I’m sent in to catalog and remove dead cedars from multi-family (strata) sites. Then, once the rejects are hauled off to the dump and turned into soil, I visit nurseries to buy new specimens. More time, more labour and more money.

Then comes the hole digging and planting. Obviously, not every site is easy to dig up so the labour involved in this step can be huge. Also, Red Seal Vas doesn’t come cheap but this isn’t about me. I want you to think about watering.

Proper planting

Every time cedars I planted die, I second-guess my planting technique. I always remove burlap before planting but people don’t like that because it voids nursery return agreements. Potted cedars are easier but you still have check the roots, planting depth and water each tree in properly.

Once I’m done, I beg the owners to please water the cedars. After all, you wouldn’t breast feed your baby for just a few days. My wife breast fed for years. Unfortunately, people are busy. And it shows when I show up on site months later.

Night and day

It’s clear what happened here and, shockingly, this is the owner’s patio where they play with their kids and legally smoke copious amounts of marijuana.

Other people on the same site try harder. These specimens look decent so obviously they listened to me. This gives me some hope and stops me from second-guessing my planting technique. It was always about proper, frequent watering. Young cedars are thirsty so water them for at least one year. But don’t drown them. If you’re not sure about moisture levels, stick your finger in the planting hole.


Water your newly planted cedars well and frequently!

Hedge screens: Prunus vs Thuja

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Ask Red Seal Vas

I won’t lie to you, not every client follows my suggestion. But it does happen on occasion. Like when a young couple approached me about creating a screen along their front sidewalk. I was at their house to cut their neglected lawn; more weeds than lawn. So they asked me about potential plants for their sidewalk edge.

Now, cedar hedging is very common. The neighbours on both sides have cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis); and I’ve seen studies from the UK showing how hard they work keeping pollution away from the house.

But given our warming climate, many plantings are now struggling to establish and survive. (See also my blog from December 11 about cedars and proper watering.) That’s why I hesitated when the young mother asked me for a good suggestion.

Portuguese laurels

Prunus lusitanica are very nice laurels with glossy leaves; they grow fairly fast and tolerate shearing. What we’re finding on our multi-family (strata) sites is that they tolerate summer heat much better; and establish better than cedars.

They also cost much more than cedars. Luckily, this young couple has the means to pimp out their newly built house. They paid and had the laurels installed. Obviously, the screen isn’t as tight as with cedars but that might be a good safety feature. There is an obvious screen but it will be difficult for pedophiles to hide behind it.

Next spring I will establish a deep edge between the laurels and the lawn for easier lawn care work and for nicer definition. As it is right now, I really like the laurels. I’m glad the owners went with my suggestion. I’m always happy to help!

Prunus lusitanica in front, neighbour’s cedars in the background.

Prunus lusitanica


If you need a hedging screen, definitely consider Portuguese laurels. They’re nice and glossy and they tolerate shearing and summer heat. But they will cost you more than cedars.