I was planning to write a quick blog post about color finally showing in our landscape in late January and this morning it snowed!? Now the landscape is all white but trust me, there is color out there. Let’s see what will emerge once the snow melts.
Snowdrops look awesome, especially when mass-planted. Every time I open my UK gardening magazines and see masses of snowdrops under trees, I freeze and stare. What a show! I wish I had a huge garden to do the same thing.
Sweetbox adds white flowers and fragrance to our winter landscapes. When it’s planted along walkways, the fragrance will hit your senses before you even notice the small white flowers. With the winter landscape quiet, it’s nice to have sweetbox. Like Galanthus, it’s best to mass-plant Sarcococcas.
When I see obvious spikes pop-up, I snip them off by hand. Larger sections can be lightly power sheared.
Hellebores are also flowering now and bringing some welcome color to our landscapes. Once the new flowers and foliage start popping up, I snip off the old leaves hugging the soil. Some of them can look a bit beat up anyway so snip them off and enjoy the new growth. This is the only action you have to take.
I love these purple berries on shrubby honeysuckles (Lonicera nitida). They pop right out when I cultivate the soil around them. Shrubby honeysuckle is a perfect plant for low level hedging. This specimen is planted just behind a parking curb where it creates a nice border but never grows too high as to interfere with site lines.
This honeysuckle will get power sheared periodically to keep it inside the bed.
By next week these spider-looking flowers will be fully extended and they will brighten up the entrance area of this residential high-rise tower in Burnaby’s MetroTown area. They will also improve my mood as I work around them.
If the shrub is getting out of hand, feel free to clip it lightly after its done flowering.
Today, January 31, 2023, we have snow on the ground but spring is coming. Once today’s snowfall melts away, look for the plants above in our landscapes. They might lift your spirits.
I really enjoyed the two native plant seminars I attended last summer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) botanical garden. Sadly, I missed the first one because I had side-hustle clients to keep happy.
Everything came together nicely for me. First, I stumbled upon the seminar ads online purely by chance and at $40 per session it was a steal. I signed up online right away. Keep reading if you want to know why. Second, my wife and kids were away visiting the in-laws in Western Japan. This meant that I could drive over to UBC after work without having to make special soccer and sleepover arrangements; or think about chores.
As a landscape pro I love most gardens, especially botanical gardens. If you’ve never been to UBC’s botanical garden, correct your oversight in 2023. When our native plant walk started, the gardens were officially closed to the public. Yeah! It was all for us to enjoy.
With the garden closing to the public, I didn’t pay the parking fee. I’m not great at math but I knew that closed gates would make it hard for by-law to show up. Twice I didn’t pay and it worked out fine; but I did get long looks from the other well-heeled attendees. Your choice.
It was sunny and warm on both days and the plants looked awesome.
Allison Luke, the instructor, is extremely likeable. When she first walked over to meet me, smiling, I had assumed she was one of the attendees. I was wrong.
Whoever hired Allison to run the horticulture program at UBC is an HR professional. She knows her plants and obviously enjoys talking about them. Incidentally, she replaced my mentor Egan Davis, who moved on to work for the City of Surrey. Egan was also the guy who taught my one day Red Seal challenge preparation course. Without him I wouldn’t be the high-priced Red Seal journeyman I am today and I will be forever grateful to him.
I was impressed with the seminar logistics, too. Like washrooms being open, insect repellant patches and sunscreen ready for the attendees to use. We were also promised a full plant list at the end of the seminar series and it did arrive in my inbox. I don’t recall receiving any junk mail so don’t be afraid to leave your email address in future seminars.
A nice touch
Some time into my first walk (seminar number 2) we sat down under a massive Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and proceeded to read passages from the excellent bestseller “Braiding sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I thought this was a nice, unexpected touch. Then, out of nowhere, one of the male attendees ruined the vibe by informing the group that any contact with Western Red Cedars can leave his skin looking worse than a leper’s. Why he picked this moment to disclose his medical history I will never understand.
The plants at the UBC botanical garden are beautiful. I won’t reveal too much here but I will give you a hint in a future blog. Come see for yourself. And if UBC offers these summer seminars again in 2023, jump right in. I really enjoyed the sessions and I’m sure you will, too. Bring a notebook and make sure your iPhone is charged.
Speaking of plants, eat before you come over to UBC. I never sample wild plants because I’ve read “Into the wild“, the story of Christopher McCandless. Christopher gave away his money and possessions and walked alone into Alaska’s wilderness. Eventually he camped out in an old school bus and he died in it after eating the wrong wild plants. Thus my own reluctance to sample wild plants.
Of course, at UBC I watched Allison and the other attendees sample the wild plants first, before joining them. Facing your fears can be fun.
My favorite tree at UBC
Barely a minute into your botanical garden walk, there is a spectacular tree tucked away on the left, slightly off the main walk. It’s called the monkey tail hornbeam (Carpinus fangiana). Our streets are populated by the smaller Carpinus betulus, which nicely hint at its birch family, Betulaceae. The leaves look like birch leaves.
The long catkins or flower clusters give the Fang hornbeam its monkey tail name. If you look carefully, both tree species have seeds partially covered by bracts which form what botanists call involucres.
I really enjoyed UBC’s summer native plant seminars in 2022. If you get a chance to attend one in 2023, do it. I will. Even if it’s a bit of a drive after work and I arrive hungry, desperate to try any wild plants on offer.
It’s good value at $40 per session, the instructor is extremely knowledgeable and so are many of the attendees. Just bring your notebook and be ready to learn. But, please, keep your health problems to yourself.
I love going back to sites and seeing how my plant installs are doing. We know it’s not always good news, like the case of my yew screen. I always feel responsible for the plants, as if they were my dependents.
The line of Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica) shown below is doing well. We didn’t lose a single specimen, which is fantastic. We’re finding that Portuguese laurels do much better in heat than cedars (Thuja occidentalis). Also, note that the heights are mostly uniform because the light levels are fairly even.
Now let’s walk away from the Portuguese laurels, around the corner to the back, and see a line of English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus).
What do you notice here? The plants are doing fine; they’re clearly receiving water from nearby sprinklers. However, you will notice how slanted they are. The left side is doing extremely well, while the right side looks like the youngest sibling. I planted them all at the same time. The big difference is the nearby Japanese snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus). It clearly shades out the laurels on the right and competes with them for resources.
That’s basic plant biology. Plants need access to light so they can produce food in their leaves through photosynthesis. Less light means less food. The effect of shading is nicely visible here. Not as obvious is plant competition where the roots compete for resources.
You can leave it as is, or, you can prune the laurel hedge to even it out. Another option is pruning the trees around the hedge, mainly the Japanese snowbell nearby. If the unit owners are worried about privacy, you can just thin out the trees by removing selected branches. Raising the crown by eliminating the lowest branches is more obvious. Both pruning procedures would allow more light in.
Always check with the owners before making significant changes.
I have a weakness for ornamental grasses. They look awesome when the wind sets them in motion, they flower in the fall, and they look fantastic when frost covers them. We cut them back in early spring and then leave them on autopilot for the rest of the season.
If the clumps get too big, you can dig them up and divide them in late spring.
This past Friday, one of my co-workers kept referring to Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) all day when, I was hundred percent sure, we were looking at Chinese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis). I quietly ignored the directions to cut them back because it’s too early. Miscanthus holds its structure nicely and looks great all winter. I say let it be and come back in early spring.
I found other work nearby.
I still had Pampas grass on my mind after work, when I picked up the November copy of Gardens Illustrated. (It comes from the UK so it’s slightly behind). And there it was on pages 70-75, saying that Pampas grasses were back in style. I’m not sure why people stopped loving them but fans of dried flowers are partly responsible for its comeback. They look good to me. I just don’t see them that much.
Early spring is the only time you have to touch them. Cutback the old stems and remove one third of the foliage. Just remember that the foliage can cut your fingers, so use gloves. That’s it, you’re done for another year. Low-maintenance and great look!
If you like Pampas grasses but hate waiting until September to see the flowers, there is a ‘Patagonia’ variety available, according to the article in Gardens Illustrated. It flowers in June. Check with your local nursery.
Ornamental grasses look fantastic in the landscape because, unlike shrubs, they move with the wind. They flower in the fall and, if you don’t cut them back too early, they look beautiful covered with frost.
Cut them back in early spring.
If you like the look of Pampas grass, get some for your garden. It’s now back in style.
Do you struggle with botanical names? I know I do. Remembering botanical names is always a fight. As soon as I learn a few new ones, I see a plant I know and it takes me several minutes to recall Liatris spicata. So, this blog post is a kind of trick. While it introduces you to an evergreen fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, it also builds my memory and yours. I hope.
Asplenium scolopendrium stands out in our gardens because its fronds are solid and evergreen. I love the way it looks.
When my residential clients asked me about plants for their shady sidewalk bed, I mentioned the Hart’s tongue fern and they bought some. Of course, after learning the botanical name Asplenium scolopendrium I picked up the plastic pot and the tag said Phyllitis scolopendrium. I shouldn’t have panicked because my Google search would soon reveal that it was just a synonym, not a different species.
Asplenium has a connection to “spleen” and scolopendrium refers to “centipedes”, presumably because the sori (spores) on the frond undersides are arranged in rows, thus resembling centipedes.
Now, I’m hoping this information will jog my memory when I walk by a specimen of Asplenium scolopendrium. If it doesn’t, I will have to Google my own blog post. But, I feel like this is a good start. Spleen and centipedes.
Caring for Asplenium scolopendrium
I could list everything here but you might as well read the tag I photographed. One key is good drainage because this fern can suffer from root rot. Otherwise, it’s disease and pest free.
Good clients listen and learn from you. When I suggested a few of my favourite shade plants, they bought them without hesitation and at hefty retail prices.
We put Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) in front and two fern species in the back: Asplenium scolopendrium and the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). They all looked fine a year later when I visited the home recently; there is adequate shade but I do wonder about road salts spilling over.
Remembering botanical names isn’t easy but it’s important. I struggled to remember Asplenium scolopendrium but typing it out in this blog post 35 times might help. You can also think Asplenium (spleen) and scolopendrium (centipedes). That might hep jog your memory.
Another important step in remembering botanical names is actually planting the specimens in the ground. I keep plant tags whenever possible; and sometimes my wife finds them laundered and shredded at the bottom of our washing machine.
Now, when I go back to my client’s place to do bed clean-up, I should be able to blurt out Asplenium scolopendrium. I might even remember Phyllitis.
It all started with a tattoo I saw on a young summer helper’s arm. You don’t often see flowers on young men’s arms so I asked a few questions, like any other plant geek. The flower in question was the Flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi). The genus Actinotus means “furnished with rays”.
Why put it on your arm? What’s so special about it? I did some research on Google to find out because the dude is no longer employed with us and I don’t recall what exactly made him choose the Flannel flower. I just remember that his father was from Australia and when they visited the country, the dude must have noticed the flowers around Sydney.
The Flannel flower is a symbol of purity used in festivals and religious ceremonies.
It’s also adaptable and enduring which is why it’s able to survive in the bushland around Sydney.
The daisy-shaped flower is also beautiful and strong which is why it’s Australia’s national symbol for the promotion of mental health awareness. The dude’s tattoo was OK but I didn’t see the beauty until I saw pictures on Pinterest. Now I understand.
The Flannel flower is actually very interesting because its stems, flowers and leaves are all grey in colour; and they’re all covered in soft downy hairs. Thus the flannel name.
We know that hairs are an adaptation for avoiding water loss. That’s why the flower can survive in the bushland; and why it’s a good plant for a rock garden.
The flowers appear in spring; you can grow them from seed or cuttings and plant them in well-drained, sunny locations.
I think every plant on Earth is interesting and the Flannel flower definitely fits. I’m glad I asked my co-worker about his tattoo because it inspired this blog post. If you ever find yourself in Sydney, you will be ready to explore thanks to my blog post.
The older I get, the more I hate winter and cold weather. So, to cheer myself up I’ve put together a little late winter photo essay. Most of the plants are well-known in our landscapes. Only one was new to me, the fourth picture down.
Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) emerges before crocuses with bright yellow flowers, then come green, lobed leaves.
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.
Also fragrant is the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) which also looks stunning with its spider-like flowers. It never gets old.
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.
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.
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.
I love this! It took me less than a minute to reply to a message on WhatsApp asking what the tree species name was. Take a look. Do you know it?
The answer is Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Now, I know this site really well and it also happens to be the only site in our portfolio planted with Sourwood. That’s why it’s easy to remember.
Of course, the fall colors are also stunning.
And while it looks good to answer the question quickly, it’s not a contest with prizes. Plant identification skills are important because to properly care for our landscape plants, we first have to know what they are. It’s our starting point.
Imagine how stunned I was when a fourth level apprentice in landscape horticulture told me he didn’t care about the plants I named nearby. It didn’t do anything for him. What? Horticulture is about plants. I would love it if someone would show me all of the plant species on site. Sadly, I’m the go-to guy and, as it turns out, it’s not really appreciated. It pains to write these lines.
I remember my first encounter with Sourwood as if it was yesterday. It actually happened in 2014, when I worked for the City of Coquitlam parks department. My city gardener boss pulled up to a small city park and the only tree in the parking lot was a huge Sourwood specimen.
As was her habit, my boss quizzed me immediately, but I drew a blank. Now I have the city gardener boss-failure-Sourwood association burned into my brain. And that also frees me to learn other plant names; and there are many more to learn about. Recall that gardening starts with plants!
To have success in horticulture and gardening, you will have to learn about plants. That’s obvious. If you’re interested in one or both, it’s probably because you love plants. So, keep going and feel free to share your discoveries in the comments section.
My goal is to ace every plant ID inquiry on WhatsApp in under a minute!