Every winter I find myself longing for spring and for some colour in the garden. January seems to drag on and on. And today, with the first real cold and snow hitting the entire province, it was easy to notice the colour red. Let’s take a look.
This prickly firethorn shrub (Pyracantha) is a great choice if you’re trying to keep pedophiles from your backyard. But I noticed it because it was full of birds helping themselves to berries. And those berries were more and more noticeable as light snow fell.
Look closely and you will notice the sharp thorns.
Berberis is also prickly but not as harsh as Pyracanthas. It has nice fall colours and when the leaves drop we really notice the red berries. Especially when the ground is covered with a bit of snow.
Cotoneasters are very popular shrubs. And like the Pyracantha, birds enjoy their fruits. Cotoneasters are cool because they have two kinds of shoots: long ones for structure and short one for flower clusters.
My eyes automatically shifted to Nandinas because of their red berries. Planted in a group, they made an island of red.
Red twig dogwoods
Red-twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) have attractive red twigs and as snow fell they stood out even more. Just remember that it’s the new canes that look red. If you allow your shrub to mature, it will lose this red color except for the very top where new growth pushes out. See the picture below.
You can correct it by taking out the old wood. Don’t be shy.
I’m trying to enjoy winters more, now that I’ve accepted that I can’t do anything about them. Today, for example, was a beautiful January day but with -13C temperatures I couldn’t really work outside. But the cold didn’t stop me from taking winter photos and video shorts for YouTube. Spring will come, I know. And until then, try to find some colour in your neighbourhood.
Over the Christmas holiday I took a walk through Shoreline park in Port Moody, BC. There I discovered an active planting site with native plants set out in pots but not yet planted. Since most of the plants had tags on them this gave me a chance to test my plant identification skills.
And I aced the test, except for one plant. I guessed correctly that it was wild ginger but I had no idea that it was Asarum caudatum (Western Wild Ginger). So I took one plant tag home and did some digging online.
Why plant it?
I had only one question: why would the City of Port Moody plant Western Wild Ginger in the park close to a trail? It was obviously a groundcover plant so it was planted closest to the trail. But what about the rest of it? Well, let’s see.
Asarum caudatum is a herbaceous perennial which means it works the soil nicely. It’s a shade plant which makes sense; it’s planted in the woods because it’s an understory plant. It grows from rhizomes and spreads slowly. I believe it’s the rhizome that smells like ginger. The plant isn’t invasive.
The leaves are round and heart-shaped; and the plant blooms in spring. I don’t recall seeing flowers on wild gingers so I will go back in spring to see them. Allegedly the flowers are small and hidden in the foliage. We’ll see about that.
Asarum caudatum is slug and deer resistant which is another good reason to plant it in a woodland park. It’s also more drought tolerant than other species. That might be another huge reason why the city would plant it, now that our summers are getting hotter.
A great choice
My original plan at Christmas time was to have a nice walk to clear my head and think about the new year ahead. I didn’t expect to learn a new plant: Asarum caudatum or Western Wild Ginger. It’s a great choice for the trail side at Shoreline park.
As I write this, there are colder temperatures in the forecast. And I have no idea what the weather will be like outside by the time you read this. All I know is that I love mild winters: I don’t ski much and I have side-gigs to do that bring in much needed winter revenues. Snow is my enemy. A mild start to the new year is absolutely brilliant.
Mild winters mean that there aren’t any work stoppages and I can do my side-gigs. But there is also another benefit: we can go out and enjoy whatever colour we can find. Let’s take a look. Seeing some colour on this page might inspire you to head out and find some more in your neighbourhood.
I love seeing a bit of colour in winter.
Hamamelis mollis is my favourite winter shrub. I find the yellow very warm.
Hamamelis x intermedia is also nice. It’s as if the landscape designer couldn’t pick a colour so he put one each at this entrance.
Rhododendron flowers are always great to look at but most of them will pop next summer. As long as you don’t touch the buds. They are set for next season already which means no pruning!
Hellebores are another winter flowering plant we see lots and I don’t mind them, even if many of the flowers look down and are harder to enjoy.
This Camellia is very nice. The shrub is probably in a sheltered spot where it’s warmer.
Viburnum bodnantense is another winter all star. I still remember seeing it for the first time and thinking it was a mistake. But it wasn’t. They flower in winter and the flowers are extra showy on bare branches.
Even this Vinca is a welcome sight. Yes, I know, it’s labelled as invasive in British Columbia but it’s hard to miss in the winter landscape.
Spring is coming but for now enjoy whatever colour you can find in your garden and neighbourhood.
Yesterday I happened to scroll through my Facebook feed and I found a gem in a lawn care group. A professional lawn care dude, presumably running his own company, posted the picture below with a question: “What the shit?”
It’s almost comical. A lawn care professional shocked by seeing local organic dandelion greens for sale. That’s because the chemical industry has done a great job picking on the plant. Unfairly. That’s it, that’s the main point of this blog post. Landscapers have become so brainwashed by the chemical industry, they can’t believe the plant they fight and poison is available for sale. And marked as organic.
Lawn care professionals usually try to get rid of dandelions by mowing them down weekly; and by poisoning them with chemicals. In your own garden you might be able to just pick them out with a hand tool. I once spent a day doing exactly that. You can read about it here.
Or your kids can run around in the “weeds” and make wreaths. I remember playing with dandelions as a kid in Europe. I especially remember one open field like it was yesterday because I would walk it between my grandpa’s villa and my father’s office.
Great plant, great benefits
My other point is that dandelions (Taraxacum oficinale) are amazing plants. I love the way they look but I understand why some multi-family complex clients don’t appreciate the wild look.
Dandelions are so widespread because they don’t need sex to reproduce. And every single part of the plant is edible! Like the greens pictured above and the roasted roots turned into organic, USDA-approved, tea. I buy it occasionally just to create some demand for dandelions.
You can Google the many health benefits of dandelions. And this is just one plant. How many others are we “nuking” because the chemical industry wants us to have a perfect lawn? It’s just that the dandelion is a poster child for the chemical industry; that’s how good they are at selling their chemical products.
Go ahead, try it!
I openly admit to looking at dandelion tea with some reservations. USDA-approved, organic dandelion root tea for C$6? But I gave it a shot and everything was fine. You can too. So next time you see dandelion greens for sale, buy some and enjoy them. The dandelion got picked on by the chemical industry unfairly. It’s an amazing plant.
That was my reply to the post mentioned above. Greens? That’s nothing. The whole plant is edible.
This afternoon I went for a walk while my son refereed a soccer game; and on the way back I noticed a number of pots by the trail. They were set out and ready for planting. Aha. Here was a perfect chance to see what the city is planting and to test my plant identification skills.
As soon as I saw the pots and tags I knew this was a native planting scheme. All of the plants are native and they will quickly cover up the unsightly construction zone. Most of the plants are already growing in the nearby park areas; this would be a terrible place to introduce non-native plant species.
So let’s take a look. See how many of the plants you already know. I openly admit to not knowing the botanical name of the last plant.
Vine maples (Acer circinatum) are well-known native trees in BC and they have nice fall colors.
Both the vine maple and the Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) trees are correctly positioned farthest from the newly rebuilt trail so they don’t interfere with trail users.
I love Ribes sanguineum because they flower in early spring and lift up the landscape with their flower clusters.
Indian plums (Oemlaria cerasiformis) take abuse from some people for being boring after flowering but I disagree. The white flowers are nice and so are the edible berries.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) berries are enjoyed by both people and animals. Black bears love them. But when my kids were little they didn’t believe me when I told them they were edible. I had to consume several berries before they tried them.
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) berries are also edible but don’t take my word for it. Google it before you raid the woods next summer.
The Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana) will grow fast in its new home and its flowers should be nicely visible from the trail.
Our forests are full of Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). See the next picture for a mature specimen.
This is the other fern species being planted. Blechnum spicant (Garden fern).
Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is a common groundcover in our forests and wild areas,
One species I didn’t know!?
The last species I had to guess at and I definitely didn’t know its botanical name. That made the whole walk into a fun learning experience. Do you know it? Since it’s the lowest growing species it’s being planted near the trail.
Running into a native plant planting zone on my walk made my day. I tested myself on plant identification and I learned a new botanical name: Asarum caudatum (Wild ginger). So get out into nature over the holidays and see which native plants you can identify.
I love fountain grasses. I especially like Pennisetum alopecuroides which is described as a graceful ornamental grass with foliage that rustles in the wind. It also provides non-stop drama, like many of my crew members. And best of all, it requires very little care and this is the main topic of this blog.
Now, I know one site which signs on for ten or eleven months so there is always rush to get everything done before Christmas. Pruning must be completed, weeds removed, and one final blade put in on hard lawn edges. Inevitably, one suspicious landscape manager asks the crew to shave the fountain grasses into tiny mounds. Except the timing is wrong!
Remember how fountain grasses provide drama and rustle in the wind? Well, they can’t when they get obliterated into almost nothing. So let me repeat this: the timing is wrong. Fountain grasses should be sheared in late winter just as the grasses start to grow. Late winter, not early December, which is technically still fall.
With the weak landscape manager mentioned above out of the picture, I instructed the crew to leave the fountain grasses alone until late winter. And to seal the rebellion I also informed the strata council about the change. As soon as I mentioned fountain grasses covered in light frost, the female strata council member was sold. I know she will thank me later.
I won’t lie, there was some grumbling from homeowners about their cars brushing against the grasses. I know that nothing happened to their cars; the paint is still attached to their car bodies. But I did lightly shear the sides where the foliage looks like beige straw. This was one easy compromise to make.
What lessons can we derive from my rebellion? One, make sure you get your timing right. Look up your target plant and prune it when it’s best for the plant, not when some landscape manager thinks it should be done.
Two, don’t be afraid to change things up. We’re not AI bots. If the fountain grasses get obliterated every fall, leave them alone one year. Enjoy them and cut them back in late winter. That’s all you have to do to them all year.
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.
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!
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.
As often happens, full-time lawn care dudes get asked to do extras, such as pruning. They like the extra cash but it’s a bit scary when you don’t even know what the shrub is. Identification is the first step. In step two you can Google it or go on Facebook to ask your lawn care buddies. That’s what the dude who snapped the picture did. And good for him, he isn’t afraid to ask for help. So let’s help him.
In our BC landscapes we often plant Berberis thunbergii which has the same burgundy color and sports light prickles. They are sharp enough to remind you that peeping into people’s windows is wrong but not stiff enough to draw blood and cause swelling. For that we have Pyracantha.
They also do well in hot weather which is important as July 2023 marks the hottest year on record globally since record keeping started. And they also flower which is a nice bonus; and the fall colors are fine, too. There’s lots to love about Berberis.
The specimen in the picture doesn’t look like it requires pruning. It’s doing its thing sending out shoots and splashing them on all sides. Now if the owners insists on clipping it, do it lightly, especially in summer. I don’t like hot weather pruning because it just increases the stress on plants.
Of course, Berberis is very forgiving. If your shave it hard into a ball it will recover by sending out new shoots. Personally I prefer to keep Berberis shaggy which gives it a softer look. I’m not a fan of tight formal balls.
Even as a Red Seal journeyman horticulturist with years of experience, I find that there is lots always to learn. I like how the lawn care dude went online to ask his buddies for help. Additionally, it’s a good hint for him to learn more about plants. It looks like it might be good for his bottom line.
Because the dude lives in the United States I didn’t offer him a copy of my e-book on the first 100 landscape plants you should know if you live and work in the Pacific Northwest. Check it out on Amazon Canada.
Berberis is a great plant. Use it in your garden if you get a chance.
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.