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.

Rebel Rhododendron rehab

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Sheared rhododendrons

This isn’t the first time I have written about power-sheared rhododendrons. Please see my blog post on a Rhododendron massacre.

In large scale commercial landscaping work, there isn’t enough time for hand snipping. So, when several larger specimens need to be pruned, out come the power shears. Unfortunately, the result isn’t pretty. A woody plant like a rhododendron isn’t really made for power-shearing. It makes me cringe every time.

Recently, I found one of these abused rhododendrons in a corner; it was easily accessible and I had time to do some corrections by hand. That’s what rhododendron rebels do when they’re working alone. It felt like a rescue and therapy all in one.

Note stubs and spent flowers.

Bonus if you recognized the Alder (Alnus) cones.

The tall stubs and shredded leaf margins are clear evidence of past power shearing and they don’t look great.

Much better after hand snipping


I hand snipped out the tall stubs carefully so as not to damage any buds. I also pinched off the spent flowers, which is another task there often isn’t enough time for. This is especially true with bigger specimens.

Note that pinching off the flowers means the plant won’t waste energy on seed production.

I couldn’t do much about the shredded leaves.


Finally looking like a regular rhodo

This is much better. All of the stubs and spent flowers are gone and it didn’t take very long. You can easily get away with work like this in late winter, before lawn care starts. Especially on a smaller and easily accessible specimen like this.

Judging from the spent flowers I found, this rhododendron flowers nicely.


If you can, avoid power-shearing rhododendrons. It leaves behind shredded stems and foliage, which look awful. Instead use your hand snips and enjoy your time in the garden. You’ll be rewarded when your rhododendron flowers nicely.

Beware of frugal husbands

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Quote accepted?

Frugal husbands can cut into your landscape company’s revenue. Take this example from last week.

I knew something was up when I tried to schedule pruning work with a residential client recently and there was no reply. Last year we settled on a quote and agreed to do the work when it got warmer in 2022. Now I was ready to go.

So, this week I stopped by to aerate the lawns and the pruning work had obviously been done by someone else. No wonder my kids often go hungry…..

Aeration first

If you don’t do anything to your lawns all year, at least aerate them in spring. This allows more water and oxygen into the root zone and should lead to a healthier lawn. Since this residential client is a referral from a friend, I did the aeration for $50, which includes a courtesy clean up blow. I also blade edged the front lawn edge to give the lawn a sharp look.

Then, when the lady came out to talk to me, she quietly mentioned that her husband brought a friend over and they did the pruning themselves. To save some money.

Beware of the frugal husband!

As an aside, she mentioned that the men were a bit shy about pruning the evergreen cones because of their phallic shape. I smiled politely. I’ve seen worse.

The frugal husband’s pruning work.

A lesson for homeowners

Homeowners can do great work. Yes, Red Seal Vas is a proud professional but I’ve seen homeowners plant and install mulch quite well. It’s nice to see them outside, doing physical work and saving a bit of cash.

That’s why I love to work with clients because you can teach them something and develop a long-term relationship. Customers only care about pricing and will drop you for anybody who is slightly cheaper. I try to stay away from them.

Allegedly, our frugal husband did some of the pruning from his roof, which I don’t recommend. But let’s be honest, he did a decent job and he saved himself a bit of cash. I told his wife, “we’ll keep him”.

A lesson for landscapers

There is a good reason landscape contractors love multi-family (strata) complexes and commercial properties that go all year and come with set contracts: they get paid monthly. Residential clients on the other hand, can decide they don’t need you one week or they save money by doing some of the work themselves.

All good!

I did lose a bit of cash on this pruning job but, at the moment, there is no shortage of work. I did squeeze the lady for aeration and it gave me a great blog post idea.

Homeowners can do decent work on their properties. It’s all good.

Leave frosty Escallonia shrubs alone

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Late January isn’t the best time for shrub pruning. Especially when those shrubs are covered in frost. The season and presence of frost should feel like a stop sign. I don’t recall ever hand pruning shrubs in late January.

But for some dudes it feels fine because they look for an easy shift at work, away from finesse work. It’s super relaxing to stand there, talk non-stop with a cigarette in your mouth and snip away while others weeds and rake up debris.

In this case it was an Escallonia, covered in frost and already looking rough after getting hammered by Christmas time snow events. It’s a terrible candidate for hand pruning.

This is a terrible candidate for hand pruning.

When to prune Escallonias

The best time to prune Escallonias is after flowering in summer. This is a good general rule for most shrubs. Enjoy the show and then get your snips out.

Now, if you want to renovate an Escallonia, the best time to do that is in late spring. That’s when temperatures go up and the shrubs hasn’t fully developed yet.

You might want to do that if your shrub is too big for its space or, like I have to do once in a while, when winter-killed branches have to be removed. This is what should have happened to the shrub pictured above. Wait until it warms up and then renovate it so it’s ready for the new season.

In late January, there is less water and oxygen in the tissues so it’s easier to cause damage. Plus, until the shrub starts to push out leaves, it’s hard to tell how much we’ll have to remove.

One example

Three to four years ago, this Escallonia got hit hard by snow and I had to remove the top half. Note that I did it in early spring, like a pro. This picture is from last week (early February 2022) and the shrub is back to its original size, if not bigger. We’ll see if it comes back fully this spring.


Remember the rule for pruning Escallonia shrubs. Prune them after flowering in summer or renovate-prune in spring. Pruning in late January, when they’re covered in frost isn’t recommended. It’s my humble opinion that you’re just causing more harm.

How to reduce a Burning bush

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Alright then.

Late winter is a good time to reduce the size of your burning bush (Euonymus alatus). I got to do it last after a resident sent in a request and posted a note on her fence. She’s right, now in late winter is a good time to reduce the burning bush; and the buds were obviously there. The goal is to do the pruning before bud-break.

I quite like getting pulled from regular maintenance to do a pruning request; especially one that makes sense. I did my best conceal my smile after the site foreman left me there to do my thing.

The reduction was easy to gauge because the owner couldn’t see from her window and wanted the shrub at window height. As for the cuts, I only had my Felco 2 hand snips and I made do. But, it’s always nice to have a pair of loppers for the biggest cuts. That way you eliminate the risk of blowing your wrist.



Aside from reducing the height, I also pruned the shrub off the metal grate. And all green debris went straight onto two tarps which I then hauled out to the road for truck pick up. Note that this is a common procedure: get your own tarps out to where they can easily be seen and picked up. The last thing we want is to forget them and get called back to retrieve them.

Clean-up also included a quick rake so small debris doesn’t show. It was at this point that the owner came out, visibly happy. Now, I’m used to happy clients but I can’t say it like that, because I’m incredibly humble. I also can’t say no to gifts of chocolate so I grabbed both chocolates and happily risked coming into contact with Omicron.


The last step

A final blow with a leaf blower completed the request; and this loud task is best delegated to junior crew members in need of machine practice time. Get this done quickly and always blow away from doorways.

Close the gate behind you gently and look forward to your next pruning request. This one was quick and easy.

If your burning bush is outgrowing its space, late winter is a great time to prune it.

Burning bush, literally burning in autumn.

Bedroom privacy

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Obey the signs

I knew right away the strata yard I had just stepped into was special. It was littered with signs asking me not to prune anything. Willows, hydrangeas and Japanese maples, all off-limits.

And it was fine because I was there to do finesse work. My job was to rake up the leaves and maybe cultivate the beds so the place looked decent come spring. But then I had to go see the old man in the woods before my coffee-soaked bladder burst.

I discreetly snuck away through the back patio and rushed into the woods. But on the way back I missed another sign asking me to go around. Oops.

Then the old lady came out so I asked her about the signs. Was she a hard-core home gardener who preferred to prune everything herself? Did people make mistakes in her yard?

Bedroom privacy

When you walk into the yard, the first window you see is her bedroom window. So, the signs were there so people wouldn’t prune the three Hydrangeas. She wanted them to grow so they could cover the view to her bedroom windows.

Now, for a split second I thought, given the lady’s old age, it was unlikely there would be a line-up of degenerates looking into her bedroom window. But this blog post has a point to it, as all blogs must, because time is precious.

The bedroom window.

The point

It’s important to get to know your client’s gardens. You can’t prune everything indiscriminately and ignore all posted signs as you do it. There are people with special plants and special requests. Make them happy.

Here the fix is obvious: leave the hydrangeas alone for a few seasons. If you must remove the mop head flowers, only remove the flowers. Make the owner happy by leaving the height alone.

Talk to your clients and get to know their needs. And if your crews change a lot, inform them so mistakes don’t happen.

Obstruction pruning 101

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The one rule

There is one hard rule when it comes to obstruction pruning: don’t wait. Obstruction is usually very annoying for your clients, even if, to you, it seems fine. It’s a huge pain point so it’s good to take care of it as soon as possible.

There’s tons of work in landscape maintenance and crews normally follow a plan. However, when your client wants you to take care of an obstruction at his unit, it’s wise to listen and detour. Don’t be afraid to adjust your day plan.

Driveway example

Let’s look at one example. While we ran to complete lawn care and move on to finesse work, an owner tracked us down. His front tree had low hanging branches and now they were interfering with his car. Now, to me it didn’t look like a big deal but to the gentleman it was a huge deal.

Luckily, we had a new tree guy on site so I delegated this fairly easy task to him. It was a nice break for him from regular lawn care duties and he also appreciated it.

This Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is hanging a bit too low over the driveway. It would definitely interfere with me entering my car. So, we just had to raise it up a bit.

This is much better! It didn’t take very long and the client was extremely happy he caught us. Problem solved and it hardly affected our day plan.

This is just one example. There are, of course, many others but the reaction should be the same: do it as soon as possible.

You might have shrubs growing over windows, walkway plants touch ladies’ skirts after rain storms, tree branches smash against the house on windy days. You get the picture. Take care of it on the same day, if you can. Remove your client’s pain point. He’ll appreciate it.

Go easy on your cedar hedges

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Frightening work

Until this season, the work pictured above was by far the most frightening thing inflicted on cedar hedges I had ever seen. The resulting hedge was pencil thin because two workers somehow decided that it would be a great idea to power shear from both sides, simultaneously. It wasn’t a good idea. I think the hedges are still recovering, years later.

The key

Here’s the key to great cedar pruning: make sure the hedge is still nice and green when you finish. Don’t treat it harshly with your power shears. Below I show you an example of my own work, because I’m very humble.

Note that the sides are still green; and the top is tight.

The sides should remain green; and the top should be nice and tight. And level, of course. Remember, the proper motion for your power shears is from bottom to top, every time. That way you shouldn’t make any brown holes in your hedge.

Brown holes

Speaking of brown holes brings me to the worst cedar hedging job I’ve seen to date. Now, I don’t have access to the before pictures but I don’t need them. I know that the hedges in question are older and not very pretty. Some of the stems were protruding from the hedge.

This isn’t good pruning.

Here it would have been better to push the protruding stems back into the hedge and tie them in with arbor tie or wires. Leaving a huge hole like this wouldn’t even occur to me. It may grow back in over time but we’ll have to look at this for a while.

This sort of pruning is too harsh.

Imagine living in this unit and coming home every day to this brown gap. I feel like laughing but that’s not the correct response. We have to train, guide and retrain workers so they can do great, world-class work. This isn’t it. Far from it.

Now you know

Go gently on your cedar hedges. Shear them once a year and make sure the shears move from bottom to top. Leave the sides green and do the top nice and tight.

The clean up should be great, as well.