Mistake revisited!

By | Mistakes, Pruning | No Comments


Today, when I dropped off my wife at her friend’s place, I couldn’t help myself. I opened up the back gate and checked on her rhododendrons, making steps in the snow like a criminal. Three seasons ago the lady had asked me to prune her rhododendrons. No problem. They were getting out of hand.

I reduced three of her rhododendrons gently and they came back nicely. They are covered in buds, set for next year’s bloom time. I can’t complain because everything worked out well.

Giant spider

Unfortunately, there was a fourth rhododendron where there weren’t any obvious cuts to make. It was a huge, spider-like specimen. Here’s where I made two mistakes. One mistake was reducing this shrub too hard. I should have accepted a spider-like look and left it at that. Alas, I went harder.

Now, the cuts I made were good. Rhododendron shrub reduction relies on dormant buds hiding under the bark. After pruning they push out and develop into new growth. However, you need patience. Your rhododendron should come back with time. I have seen some branches without any buds on them; and I’ve seen some branches covered in brown, desiccated buds.

Mistake number two was not warning the owner about the size reduction. She was used to seeing this specimen cover a huge portion of the bed. When she came home that was no longer the case and she wasn’t happy about it.

I found this out from her husband months later. Right after pruning she thanked me and paid me well. She was too polite to tell me how she really felt. Now every time I visit her neighbourhood, I peak in to see if the rhododendron is recovering.

Sadly, this one specimen is slow, just when I need it to perk up. See my picture below from today, January 12, 2024. Still, it looks better than last year.

It’s slowly coming back. The two bare branches on the left will have to go.


We can learn a few lessons from this blog post. Things will go wrong, whatever you do but it’s important to let the client know about the after look. This especially applies to trees and shrubs. I failed to tell my client because I wasn’t completely sure what would happen.

While the client’s disappointment bothers me-haunts me, even!- it’s a good lesson for me and others. I learned from it and moved on.

Easy winter tasks you can do

By | gardening, Grasses, Pruning, Trees | No Comments

Easy stuff

As I write British Columbia is very cold. It’s minus twelve degrees Celsius and it feels way worse when you’re actually outside. But, once it warms up, you can attend to some easy garden tasks.


Broken branches can’t wait. They look awful, they could create a hazard and the last thing we need is diseases getting inside our tree through open wounds.

Stewartia pseudocamellia

Use a sharp pole pruner and take it out nicely.


Japanese forest grasses (Hakonechloa) can also be snipped because they’re on their way out. Use sharp hand snips and flush cut them at ground level. Just watch your fingers.

Hakonechloa nicely flush cut.

Plant separation

As plants grow and mature, they collide and then require separation when it gets out of hand. One example is the common snowberry being invaded by a mahonia.

When the snowberry is in leaf, this isn’t so obvious. And landscapers also have other, slightly more important, tasks to attend to during the busy season. In winter there is time for separation pruning.

So, one plant has to go. Since the mahonia creeped in and it’s smaller, I elected to cut it completely. This leaves the snowberry alone to do it’s thing. It’s a native plant which produces clusters of white berries, thus the common name snowberry. The botanical name is Symphoricarpos albus and I encourage you to Google it and get one for your garden.

It’s a good native plant. I rescued two specimens a few years ago and planted them at my commercial site. One has white berries and the other has pinkish ones. They’re doing well in their new home.

Enjoy your grasses


This Port Moody homeowner gets a gold star for leaving her Miscanthus ornamental grass standing so it can ornament the neighbourhood. I drove by today and it looked awesome moving in the breeze with fresh snow on the ground. Cut it back in roughly two months before the new growth starts appearing.

Take a good look at your garden in winter and do some easy maintenance when you get a chance. Spring is coming!

Plant separation: Callicarpa rescue

By | Pruning | No Comments


I love Callicarpas. Every year I do final fall clean-ups for a client in Coquitlam, BC, and she has a beautiful Callicarpa shrub in her front garden. And every year the purple berries look awesome; at a time when the rest of her garden looks like it’s ready for a break.

So, of course, I leave it alone. I snap a few photos for my files and maybe make a few cuts in the back where the shrub is touching the fence. That’s it. You don’t have to do much in late fall. Just enjoy the show.

Pro tip: be careful in summer when the shrub sends shoots out. The flower clusters look small. Much smaller than the berries so don’t snip them off.

January 2024

Now, just this past week I was doing bedwork in White Rock when a crew member asked me to rescue a Callicarpa shrub from under a cedar tree. Since I was looking down, I hadn’t even noticed the shrub.

Our native cedars (Thuja plicata) are fast-growing trees. They don’t need much time to swallow up a small shrub. Really all I could see was a few purple berry clusters.


Now, lifting the cedar off the shrub is fairly easy but we need to do it discreetly. We can’t just hack up the cedar to make some room for the shrub. So, I carefully reached in and followed the lowest cedar branches far inside the tree. Then I made my cut there, eliminating the whole branch so it looked natural. As opposed making heading cuts on the cedar tree and leaving the cuts to show.

Don’t rush this work! Make a cut and step away to see how much lift you’ve achieved. It should look natural: just enough opening for the shrub and not too much lift for the cedar.

Good enough?

Take a look at my work: is it good enough?

Note how the Callicarpa is reaching out, stretching for light. That’s why there are only a flower clusters showing. All plants need light to feed themselves and to thrive. I’m hoping this Callicarpa will appreciate having more light. I suspect we’ll have to do this again in a season or two but that’s ok. If I remember, I will check back to see if there are more flower clusters present eleven months from now.

Plant separation is an important issue as gardens mature and evolve. You can make room for some plants; and some you have to move. Some that didn’t make it will get removed.

Tough love for landscape apprentices

By | Pruning, Training | No Comments

Nice try!

Picture an entrance area flanked by cedar hedges on the left and right. We got down to cedar pruning as temperatures dipped and light flurries started coming down. I worked on my hedge and then moved on. That’s when my apprentice saw me and motioned to me to come top his hedge.

Nice try! Now way! Apprentices training under Red Seal Vas do everything hands on. They learn by doing and by facing their fears. When I can, I give some background information but mostly it’s hands on in the field.

Since this hedge is in a high-profile spot, there’s extra pressure to make it look good. And when you succeed, you will do it well again somewhere else. That’s how we get good, confident workers. You have to face your fears. I still do.

Easy does it!

Notice that I didn’t crack any jokes. It’s important for the apprentice to know that we have confidence in him. I did stop him to remind him to slow down with the cedar tops. This is a common mistake: people rush the tops. They make two passes over the top and leave. That’s wrong, unless you’re trying to get the top to grow higher.

Cedar hedge sides are clipped much lighter than the tops. The tops should be tight and that requires making several passes over them with the blades. (It helps if your shears are sharp!) Don’t rush this step.

If you must check the level, by all means, walk away and take a look. In this case we already know that the top line is there from last year. We just have to find it under the new growth.

Journeyman: nice tight cedar tops (Note that the grasses are still standing!!)

Apprentice: not bad at all. Keep doing it!

Having fun

I like winter because it’s slower without lawn care. This gives me a chance to notice how the crew members are working. When I can, I gently instruct and correct them. To put in world-class work we need skilled workers.

What it’s like to work with landscape apprentices

By | Education, Pruning, Training | No Comments

The idea

Apprentices in landscape horticulture attend classes for six weeks, usually in winter, when it’s slow. Then for the rest of the year they work under a journeyman in the field. That’s where I come in. I work with them in the field as they learn hands-on skills and more. The set-up is sound and it gets results when the journeyman wants to teach and the apprentices wants to learn.

Dogwood lesson

Today my apprentice started thinning out a mature Red-twig dogwood shrub and he did a good job. However, we still had the same problem. Only the top section was showing the classic red twigs, which is why this shrub is planted. Normally the red twigs show really well in the winter landscape. Not this specimen.

Because there were some concerns about privacy on the patio, I knocked on the door to check with the owner. And she didn’t care: whatever I wanted to do was fine by her. Sadly, because I joke around a lot, my apprentice didn’t believe me when I relayed the owner’s message. There should be complete trust between the teacher and apprentice!

Old wood goes

Now that privacy issues didn’t matter, I got the apprentice to remove all of the mature wood which look gray or brown, not red. He used a hand saw and loppers to do this work.

Once the old wood was gone, all we had left were the young, red canes. And we should get more next season. Assuming the coming blast of cold doesn’t kill the shrub. (Disclaimer: another manager approved the work; I wouldn’t prune dogwoods with -17C temperatures coming later in the week.)


Mature dogwood with red twigs up top.


Old wood is gone and my apprentice is smiling!


I love working alongside apprentices in the field but, sadly, I don’t get to all of them. The hands-on work they do is priceless, plus I add extra knowledge when it applies. Then the rest depends on their own work and six weeks of study.

When they come back from school they are more knowledgeable and confident. And that makes me and every landscape boss extremely happy.

Rhododendron reduction follow-up

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Rhododendron reduction

What do you do when your rhododendrons get too big? You can reduce them with your hand saw and hope the shrubs recover. That’s what happened at one strata (multi-family) site where the residents wanted their rhododendron significantly reduced.

So grab a sharp hand saw and get to work. But before you do, remember one rule: rough-barked specimens recover better than smooth-barked specimens. Luckily, in my case, the shrubs were rough-barked.

Latent buds

Rhododendron reduction works because the shrubs have latent buds hiding under the bark. Once you reduce your shrub these buds start emerging and popping. You just have to be patient. Once, I reduced a client’s rhododendron so hard, the lady wasn’t exactly happy. I told her the shrub would recover nicely and I was right. It just took way longer than I expected.

Now back to our strata example.

Follow-up visit

Months later I showed up on site and went to see the rhododendrons just as daylight was fading fast. Clearly the latent buds I had seen popping months earlier were now fully grown and showing buds. Those buds are set for next summer so don’t touch them in December.

One problem

I did notice one problem. There were several large stems without any buds or growth. It’s as if there were no latent buds anywhere, which is weird. I have no idea why the odd stem is bare, looking like a stick.

The fix is obvious: follow the bare stem to the next green growth and remove it just above it so the “stick” doesn’t show anymore. If the entire branch is bare then we’ll remove right at the base. As if we were coppicing it.

This will give us the look we want: a green rhododendron shrub, nicely reduced by more than half. Now to keep it at that height, we’ll diligently remove each season’s new growth.

Remove sections highlighted in black

Remove entire branch, if bare.


Yes, you can reduce your rhododendrons significantly thanks to latent buds hiding under the bark. Just remember that rough-barked specimens recover better than smooth-barked specimens. If you get branch sections totally devoid of any growth and poking out like “sticks”, just remove them with a sharp hand saw.

Fountain grass rebel

By | Plants, Pruning | No Comments

Red Seal Vas rebellion

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.

Lightly sheared sides to shut up fussy car owners.


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.

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Pruning: don’t be so formal

By | gardening, Pruning | No Comments

Check before pruning

Before you start pruning, stop to assess everything. Ask yourself why you are pruning and then decide how you will do it. In my nightmares, dudes indiscriminately gun down every shrub in sight with power shears.

It also helps when the clients give you a hint, like this past weekend in White Rock. The lady took me for a walk around her back garden and showed me what work she wanted me to get done soon. One obvious target was a shaggy Euonymus.

Gardens vs Strata complexes

Now, I know that most strata landscapers would grab power shears and prune it into a ball, leaving behind tons of debris on the ground and on top of the shrub. It looks fast but it’s a mirage. We’ll get to that soon.

Luckily, I knew the lady’s garden well and nothing in her garden is sheared into formal shapes: balls, squares, rectangles, etc. She has a nice garden and my monthly visits involve a lot of bitch work. I weed, remove leafiness and cultivate the beds. And I also prune so let’s get back to our euonymus shrub. I grabbed my Felco hand snips and, always minding the location of my pretty fingers, carefully grabbed a few stems before snipping them off. And I held on to the debris which was then disposed of in my garden bag. Power shears seem to be faster but not if you include clean-up time. I had almost zero debris on the ground and on top of the shrub.

Good result

Hand snipping gives the shrub a more natural look since the pruning cuts are slightly staggered. And in this garden setting it totally fits. Tight round balls would only make sense if we had some formal shapes in the garden already, either plants or fixed elements. That isn’t the case in this garden and I love it! I openly confess to happily leaving loud, polluting power shears in the truck and enjoying quiet hand snipping on a sunny day in a quiet-and also white and rich-neighbourhood. It feels like therapy.



My best-ever LinkedIn post!

By | Pruning | No Comments


It’s always nice to get a lot of impressions on my LinkedIn posts. It’s hardly the norm; it happens very occasionally. My best post from 2023 so far is close to getting 1300 impressions. That’s basically viral territory for Red Seal Vas. That got me thinking: why was it so interesting? Let’s see.

First, the key picture.

What’s wrong here?

What do you notice about this picture? Obviously, only the right side of this rhododendron is covered in blooms in 2023. That’s weird, so we have to back up to late summer 2022. That’s when we had a worker on staff eager to show off her pruning skills. She came to us from a job where she pruned full-time and she clearly needed a break from lawn care and finesse work.

She made it to half way before we stopped her. Why stop her? So we can give some respect to a rhododendron pruning rule:

Prune rhododendrons soon after flowering, before new buds set for next season.

Our eager apprentice was pruning months after flowering. This didn’t register much until the early part of the season in 2023. That’s when I took the above picture. Now it was clear. The buds on the right had a chance to set for next year and flowered nicely; the ones on the left got sheared off and now that part was bare.

Nice and neat

I think my post works because it clearly states an important rule about rhododendron pruning and proves it with one picture. It’s nice and neat; it’s correct and we see proof. The eager apprentice is long gone but this pruning job wasn’t the reason for her departure. Sadly, she may not even be aware of this post. In any case, this is a great teaching moment, not a reason to let someone go.

This is why landscaping is such a great career. You are constantly learning and this post clearly illustrates the importance of knowing how and when to prune. It’s an art so keep learning. I know I am. I could pack it in and relax with my Red Seal status but that’s not me. I want to know it all, including rhododendron pruning rules.

Danger in the landscape: wasps!

By | health and safety, Pruning | No Comments


It’s too bad we see conflicts between landscapers and wasps every summer. The poor landscaper needs to earn his keep and the wasps have nests to build. I have nothing against wasps because they have their own part to play in the ecosystem. I’m happy to leave them alone. Until they start interfering with my work that is. Safety is no laughing matter. Some people are allergic to stings; and when you’re attacked high up in a ladder it can lead to falls.

Now this season I’ve been very lucky personally. I’ve had some close calls with small nests early in the season but I didn’t get stung. I haven’t always been this lucky. Some seasons are so bad, as soon as you see a moving insect you tense up.

Eyes have it

We normally don’t start power shearing cedars until late August and, with draught conditions extending into fall, I could see the start time pushed way past the end of August. So how are the wasps supposed to know that a maniac landscaper would be up on his ladder shearing a cedar globe in July? Of course they reacted and the poor dude got stung in his eye. Ouch. Later that day he didn’t look great but he lived. Now he has a story to tell.

Sufficiently recovered from the shock, he did what most landscapers are trained to do. He reached for his Bug Bomb spray and bravely emptied the chemical contents into the hedge. That usually takes care of the insects. It’s been such a problem that all work trucks now carry one or two spray bottles.


Landscapers face various dangers and insults during the year. I’ve always said that it’s a long year in the field. And summers come with oppressive heat and stinging insects, so be careful. We normally run into insect nests while shearing because the nests are beautifully camouflaged in the foliage. Some veteran landscapers know to look for groups of flying insects but nobody stops to examine the full hedge before shearing. Perhaps we should.

Always carry an insect spray so you can destroy the nest, unless it’s built into a tiny crack in a retaining wall. If you do get stung, take a break and get some first aid. We know that it will happen again next season.