Pruning: don’t be so formal

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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!

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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.

When shrub pruning goes wrong

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It’s rare for me to see a shrub pruning job where I didn’t like the cuts and the strategy. But I found one last week along a chain link fence. Now, before I dissect the whole thing, let’s remember that the world didn’t end; the Mahonia shrubs will grow out again. Nobody died but the lessons are there for you to take away.

The cuts

First, let’s consider the pruning cuts. Clearly, judging from the shredded tissues, they were made by power shears, the go-to machine for landscapers. It’s quick and it packs lots of power. However, considering the size of the stems, hand snips or loppers might have been better. Not faster mind you but they would have made nicer, cleaner cuts. I shot a YouTube short to show you how to fix the damage.

Additionally, making hand cuts allows you to stagger the cuts for a more natural look. The power shears run over the top at one level.

Shredded Mahonia stems

The big picture

Before you start pruning, always ask yourself why. I’m already assuming you know how to make your cuts. Now I need to know why you are pruning. The Mahonia “balls” look fine but zoom out at the big picture. The chain-link fence should alert you right away: originally, the Mahonias were installed so they could provide a screen between the two properties. Who wants to see cars coming and going and listen to the noise? If you let the Mahonias grow up they will form a nice buffer that filters out noise and possibly even air pollution.

This is another reason why I hate rushed pruning jobs. Before you prune look around and make sure everything makes sense. Don’t rush in with your tools. Zoom out and look at the big picture. Then start pruning.

The Mahonias will be left alone from now on. If they start flopping over, we’ll tie them to the fence. We need them to form a natural green barrier.

Let these Mahonias grow up to form a barrier

Kids on a rampage!

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Playground in flames

Well, not literally in flames, because there is a fire ban in British Columbia. But we did find damaged cedars in a playground enclosure. And that’s to be expected. Kids play and sometimes, without adult supervision, plants suffer. Like the cedars (Thuja occidentalis) inside the playground. Or trees sporting carved initials or broken branches. Take a look. This was no accident.

It’s unlikely this damage is left over from winter, nor was it likely done by large predatory animals roaming through Langley. I suspect kids did this and only video footage can confirm this. However, I couldn’t just knock on the door and ask for the security footage. I’m not a detective. I’m a landscaper so I do it my way.

The fix

Now, we normally shear cedar hedges from the fall as the weather cools. Assuming it does, of course. It’s already been a crazy hot summer. Not just in British Columbia but globally. So I wasn’t about to shear these poor damaged plants. That would just stress them out considering the 30 degree July heat. Plus we had time.

Out came hand snips and we lopped off the cedar tops just below the damaged stems. It was easy work without noise or air pollution.

Since the far left cedar wasn’t damaged, we had a decision to make. Do we leave it taller than the others or do we take it down to keep the hedge even? The final picture shows that we decided to level it as well to keep the hedge even.

Damage controlled, for now!

A younger landscape pro Vas would try to hunt down the little bastards responsible but a slightly older Red Seal Vas is super mellow. I believe the kids still learned something from their interaction with cedar tree tissues. The damage is fixed and this fall we’ll shear the hedge nicely, including the top. It will push out and, assuming there won’t be anymore insults, recover nicely.

Now I just wish the kids would water the plants.

Don’t wait, take action!

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning | No Comments

Lists, really?

I like lists. I make them because I have lots to do in my personal life but I dislike them at work. I prefer to take action immediately or as soon as possible. Big tasks that require approval from bosses and strata people must be recorded but small tasks, not so much.

It happens more than I like to admit. When I show up on a site and the foreman or landscape worker tells me about simple tasks they have been thinking about doing, I cringe. Why wait? Take action!

Just last week, while filling in for a dude on vacation, his regular helper told me about a dead cedar they’ve been thinking about pruning out. It was brown, dead and (horror!) visible from the road so yes, let’s prune it out. I picked up a hand saw and made literally two cuts. That’s not even a warm-up for a certified arborist.

One part of the native cedar (Thuja plicata) was still green and healthy so I left it alone; I hauled away the other two dead parts. Done! In minutes! No lists.

After pruning, only the green healthy cedar remains.

Classic obstruction

This second example was even easier. Again, while I was filling in for the regular foreman, I discovered cherry tree branches touching the wall of one unit. This makes insurance agents upset; and homeowners often wonder what the noise outside is when winds kick up at night and branches slam into their unit.

So, I carefully jumped on the wall and used my snips (always on my hip!) to make three to four cuts in like one minute. Problem solved! No emails from owners to strata to bosses; no lists, no time wasted. Just quick action, the way I like it. Be like Red Seal Vas. Take action.

Before pruning, cherry tree branches on the building.

Lawn jockey meets Berberis

By | Plants, Pruning | No Comments

Plant ID

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.

Pruning 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.

Winter time is perfect for training

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Slow winter

Winter time is perfect for training your employees and for practicing in your own gardens. Since there is very little happening in the landscape, you might as well invest some time into training. It helps that trees are dormant and their crown structures are clearly visible.

One prominent landscape maintenance company posted pictures on LinkedIn recently, showing small groups of workers in safety vests, attending training seminars in the field. While I consider this company to be the ultimate sweatshop, I must admit they’re doing it right. It’s smart to invest in your employees with training time. For one, they go home excited and more confident; and two, they will likely make fewer mistakes during the season. Training never really stops, even for the trainers. Personally, I have to learn new things every year to stay happy.

ISA certified arborist Vas

Columnar beech

While doing bedwork last week, my apprentice and I noticed a columnar beech (Fagus) that wasn’t looking columnar anymore. So, I guided my apprentice in making several heading cuts that brought the tree back into shape. It also served as a nice break from garden work.

It’s important to make the cuts above a branchlet, not in the middle of a branch, which would leave a stub. See one example below on a Pin oak branch (Quercus palustris). The best cut is made above the branchlet.

Make the cut above a branchlet.

After picture.

Much better! This beech tree looks like a column again.

After making the columnar beech columnar again, we turned our attention to a large Pin oak (Quercus palustris), which is how I got the pictures shown above. The lower branches were interfering with shrubs and even growing into our beech tree. So, we gave it a nice gentle lift with heading cuts like the ones shown above. One upside of this work is allowing more light to reach the cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis) below the Pin oak.

Another company I know is sending an arborist over the next six weeks to show each landscape crew how to prune trees. This way, when small things come up, the foremen can take care of it well. We know that branches will break or be broken by delivery trucks. We also know that branches will interfere with unit access and views; and sometimes we have to make corrections after homeowners hack up their trees.


The landscape is quiet in winter and the trees are dormant so use your winter time to train your crews or friends how to prune correctly. I spent maybe an hour with my apprentice last week and his confidence is growing.

Fall drought decimates yew hedge

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Last summer visit

It’s a lot of fun checking in on old projects to see how they are evolving. At one site we have a long yew hedge to provide privacy for windows.

Originally, the line was planted with cedars (Thuja occidentalis), but they kept on dying and had to be replaced. And as often happens, people get tired of planting the same cedars over and over, only to see them die.

Yew switch

So, we switched to yews (Taxus) because they do better than cedars, especially in hot summers. They also produce red cones (not berries!) which give us something to look at.

I did the switch personally, so I know how much labor was involved.

First, I had to dig up and remove the cedars. Then I had to go pick up the yews and install them. I believe the project cost something like $1,600.

We lost one or two specimens over the last few seasons, which is manageable. When I visited this past summer- remember, I float around as a working manager at my day job- the yew hedge looked great. It was green, healthy, and did the job of providing privacy for a row of windows directly behind it.

When I walked by, I told myself that Red Seal Vas does great work. (Never blow your own horn out loud.)

Fall drought

Fall drought: the lawn will recover, the yews won’t.

When I went over to help out this past fall, I nearly cried. Most of the yew hedge was brown and dead! What happened?

This fall we had drought conditions on the West Coast. There was so little rain, many dormant lawns didn’t fully recover before cold temperatures hit and mowing stopped. I had never seen that before.

Now, people are busy working and paying for their overpriced housing. Since they’re used to automatic fall rains, nobody bothered to water the plants. Including my prized yew hedge. Sadly.

And it gets worse. The manager had asked our foreman to clip the top of the hedge even though power shearing in drought conditions is a bad idea; you’re just adding stress. Instead, water the hedge frequently and prune it in fall, when it’s cooler and wetter.


I have no idea what will happen to this yew hedge next year. Now that this blog post is finished, I fully intend to push this hedge out of my mind. The waste of labor and money is stunning. It might be time for people to start getting used to changes brought on by the Global Climate Emergency.

Put your garden to bed with these late season tasks

By | gardening, Lawn Care, Pruning | No Comments

Steps to take

I have a great residential client in Port Coquitlam, BC, and his main concern is tidiness. So, when the pin oaks (Quercus palustris) from a neighboring high school drop leaves on his property, he usually calls me in a panic.

Let’s see what I did at this house to put it to bed for the winter.


Mowing in late November isn’t ideal but it had to be done. So, I pre-blew the oak leaf drop onto the lawn, raked up the bulk of it and then mowed over the rest. Done! Now we leave the lawns alone until spring.

The front lawn also got a final blade edge which should keep it nice and sharp until spring.


Obviously, annuals are toast by late November. I took out the petunias from the curb pot; and I removed annuals from the front bed. I will most likely plant bulbs in the pot so we can surprise the wife: she loves pretty flowers!

The show is over.


I have never winterized blueberries, so I Googled it and did it anyway. I pruned back most of the canes and moved the pots into a sheltered spot between the fence and shed. Then I put a tarp over the pots.

It might be better to park the pots in the garden shed but that’s not what the owners wanted. And it makes sense. They have two spotless Lexus cars in the garage, and when I forget to blow off their front door seat cushions, they text me about it!


Again, it’s all about the look. The hydrangea was fine; just the leaves were still hanging on and the owners were creeped out every time they used the front entrance. So, I pruned the hydrangea back by a few bud sections and manually removed the spent leaves. If I cut it back too much, into old wood, you won’t get any flowers next year.

Eventually I will remove the canes that are close to the ground but for now it will do.

New planted bed

The new planted bed in the back got a quick cultivate to freshen it up a bit and to uproot any weeds. I deadheaded lavenders and cutback Liatris spicatas. Note that I left the Rudbeckia stems alone. The birds can enjoy the seeds and I can cutback the stems later, closer to spring. When you do this, cut the stem off close to the ground so you don’t leave a stub.

Final blow

As always, everything ends with one final blow, so the property is nice and clean. Since the front lawn is shared with the neighbors, I’m not ashamed to admit that I blasted some of the remaining leaves on the lawn into their groundcover.

There you have it. One last service in late November seals the deal. The garden should hold nicely into spring. I might stop by to blow the stubborn pin oak leaves; and to install the bulbs, secretly.

When I got home, it was dark. So, I made some coffee and sent off my hefty invoice.

Nice and clean.