Ox-days: notes from winter landscapes

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I’m not a fan of winter, which probably shows my advancing age. My Swedish ultra-trail runner friend calls her winter days “ox-days”. It’s dark and cold outside but training doesn’t stop. You just put your head down and work until spring arrives. Now that’s how I approach things: I do my best in the landscape and count the days towards spring and warmer days.

I’ve assembled some notes from my ox-days for you. What did you observe in your own gardens?


I left my Hellebores alone until new flowers and foliage started showing. Then I clipped off the old leaves hugging the soil. I just hope we don’t get any more crushing cold temperatures.

Trees at work

Trees work hard at closing pruning wounds. Otherwise, they risk inviting decay and deadly fungi.

It can take a few years for the tree to cover up a wound.
All covered up!

Thin mulch

Thin mulch application.

I’m not a fan of thin mulch applications. In the above photo the red and black colors clash. A better approach would be to either give up and keep the original dark soil, or, apply a nice two-inch layer uniformly across the bed.

It’s important to remember why thin mulch applications are bad. They don’t keep weeds down because light can still reach them; and they still trap moisture, which then allows the weeds to thrive. Put down at least two inches or give up.

Give up on cedars?

It’s fairly common now with drier summers to forget replacing cedars (Thuja occidentalis) with more cedars. Some people are stubborn and still do it; others give up and plant laurels or yews which seem to do better.

You can see one example above. The cedars didn’t do well under mature Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees and the site managers weren’t brave enough to plant more cedars. Instead, they opted for English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus). I would do the same considering our recent dry summers.


Get through your winter ox-days and your reward will be warm spring.

When January blooms all turn to white

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Can’t stop me!

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.

Galanthus by Coquitlam City Hall


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.

New flowers and leaves

Shrubby honeysuckle

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.

Witch hazel

Hamamelis mollis

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.

Give “unskilled” snow labourers some love

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LinkedIn post

One landscape contractor mentioned on LinkedIn this week how all emergency, oil rig workers, and others are, correctly, called heroes. Through their hard work under difficult winter storm conditions they make society function properly. But what about his landscape workers? Good question.

His dudes were out there in serious cold, blowing away snow powder in a group of five. Which also means they were sucking a lot of exhaust but, at the moment, there aren’t any other blowers that can handle -35 C temperatures. We’ll leave that for another blog post.

Now, our temperatures during the recent winter storm didn’t go past -15 C but it was still unpleasant. I can’t imagine working in – 35 C. Of course the crew deserves praise. They made money and kept the residents safe.

Also, I’m sure the owner made good coin for the work they did. He can get all the contracts he wants but somebody has to show up to fulfill the terms of his contracts. In BC, people are responsible for clearing their sidewalks. They could be liable for any accidental falls.

I know for a fact that some BC landscape companies need snow work to generate good annual profits and stay in business.

Sub-contractor Vas

I find snow in town extremely tiresome. It prevents me from doing side-work on winter weekends. Now, I used to stay at home and cry into my pillow. Then I found companies that move snow and solved my problem. I still find snow tiresome but now I go out and make money as a sub-contractor. I get paid a straight hourly amount without any deductions. So I get paid and the employer saves money because I’m not a regular employee.

Unlike the dudes above, I used small snow blowers. They’re not self-propelled but they would have moved the powder snow easily. Even in – 35 degrees Celsius.

To be fair, some passersby did thank me for my work as they struggled home from the bus stop. Still, snow removal can be brutal. Some people start very early in the morning so Mrs. Albert can drive out and get her latte; and the long snow days can pile up and leave you exhausted.

When it snows next, be sure to thank anyone outside clearing snow.

When leaf blower isn’t the answer

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Seniors raking

This past Saturday I was at Rocky Point in Port Moody, visiting a used car dealership because our family van started breaking down with alarming frequency. It was time to upgrade.

Just as I was getting back into my car, I noticed a lady next door vigorously raking up leaves under a mature tree. She was obviously a senior but I suspect she could easily pivot into a new landscaper position. She was moving and piling up the debris against the tree, presumably for later pick up.

No blowers for this senior.

Small jobs

Strata properties like the ones Proper Landscaping dudes maintain are too large to clean up with just rakes. Backpack blowers are mandatory evil. Yes, they’re loud and cause air pollution but they’re indispensable.

Now, smaller sites can easily be cleaned-up with rakes and some time. It’s a perfect job for seniors: they need to move to stay healthy and they have time. The lady I photographed -without permission!- was doing a great job. I thought it was really nice to not face a blower on the weekend after using one all week at work.

Globe article

The sweaty senior also reminded me of a Globe and Mail newspaper story. The author, facing leafy debris on his small back patio- somewhere in Toronto- rushed out to a big box store and purchased a blower. Like everyone else in his neighborhood.

It took him a few tries to assemble the machine properly and after a few leaf blowing sessions he realized something. Using a power blower on his small back patio didn’t make any sense. It was ridiculous. He could easily rake everything up in thirty minutes. There was absolutely no need to create noise and air pollution. He could save money by investing some of his own time and energy.

So, he returned the blower and life has been good ever since. He rakes up the leaves every fall and gets much-needed exercise. Just like our Port Moody senior.

How to make the most of your first snow workday

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I hate snow but there’s no point crying about it because I can’t control the weather. You just have to make the most of it, like I did today. It’s still November and regular landscape maintenance work got obliterated by snow. So, I made a few phone calls and got ready for work.

I got picked up by snow mercenaries like me at 8 am and we pushed snow off sidewalks and mailbox areas. Since we didn’t have a snowblower, we just shoveled the useless white stuff out of the way. Yes, it can be tiring, especially when people compact the snow. But, hey, it’s good exercise and we’re making money. We’re also making sure kids and the elderly are safe.

One of my crew members dropped her shovel at 9:30 and declared, ” I need a drink”. She meant juice, not alcohol, so we drove to a nearby mall for Starbucks and a washroom break. Always stay hydrated.

Once the snow was gone, we put down ice-melter which will make it easier the next day should more snow fall.

Observe and enjoy

You can also take in the snowy landscape and enjoy it. It was a nice sunny day and I got to see the bright berries on a Pyracantha shrub.


I also got to see winter annuals I planted in fall, covered in snow. Hidden a few inches below the surface are spring bulbs, patiently waiting for spring temperatures to signal a new season. The bulbs need to feel the cold.

Snow covering ornamental kale.

If you look closely, you can also find stuff that doesn’t work well. Like the water bag (not cheap!) covering a tree stump on a municipal boulevard. I mean, it’s winter, so the water bag is useless. Considering how much it retails for, it should be removed and re-deployed next year.

This isn’t working well.

This picture also shows how tough life can be for city trees. If it’s not drought that kills them, it’s bad drivers.


Just as much fun, if not more, is observing the people on your crew. Some are snow mercenaries like me, ready to shovel snow for cash. Some work for other landscape companies and are now laid-off. One mother of three kept talking about her kids ad nauseam; and the driver showed up on very little sleep because she got stuck in last night’s snow fall.

Once I got home, I texted the office lady with my hours so I could get paid by e-transfer. It was a good day, and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Scanning for late winter details

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Scanning your sites

Whenever I’m sent to a site after several months, I like to take a walk around and catalog any blemishes I see. This is especially easy to do in late winter when it’s already nice out but lawn care hasn’t started yet. I did this recently and this blog post will show you some of the details I found.

Broken branches

I detest having broken branches on shrubs or trees. It can invite disease into the plants, and it looks awful. One broken Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) branch was right in the middle of a high-profile corridor between two buildings.

Since the cut was too large for my hand snips, I waited until I was able to retrieve a hand saw from the my car. I could have tried it with my hand snips, but blowing my wrist is a bad idea. It wasn’t an emergency; safety first.

Groundcover in check

Groundcover plants do what they’re supposed to: they cover the ground so weeds don’t move in. Left untouched, some groundcovers grow out of bounce. That’s what happened with Rubus climbing into Rhododendrons.

Rubus climbing into a Rhodendron
Much better!

It took only a few minutes and it looks better. The Rubus is cut back down to its grouncover function and the Rhododendron is left unmolested.

Missing ivy

This third example makes me mad because it could have been prevented. Last year, someone made the strange decision to remove ivy (Hedera helix) from this power box. I wrongly assumed that something else would replace the ivy.

That’s why I shook my head last week when I had to weed the now bare ground. I knew it would come to this: nature hates bare spots. Weeds move in and have a great time with plenty of sunlight reaching them. It wasn’t that easy for them when ivy still covered the ground. Groundcover plants cover ground; they look good and they prevent unwanted plants from moving in.

The power box looked much better surrounded by ivy. Only remove it if you have a good plan for the spot. Bare ground is the worst option.

You can see weeds creeping in.
Cultivated by Vas but ivy did the job well before.

Late winter details

Late winter is a great time to scan your gardens for blemishes like the three mentioned above. It’s already nice out but lawn care hasn’t started yet. So, take the time to identify and eliminate little blemishes from your gardens.

Trees: late winter tweaks you can do

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After getting some decent weather, I was annoyed with -4 degree Celsius weather at 8am with a cool breeze. Yes, the white peaks in the distance looked great but I suffered for the first hour on site. Such is the life a landscaper: outside all year, in all kinds of weather.

Since the site looked a bit stiff and frosty, I went for a walk so I could assess it and make a plan. I definitely noted enough leaf debris to keep me busy all day and that’s what I did. But there was more.

Tree adjustments

And by more, I mean easy tree work. Late winter is still a great time for tree work because the trees haven’t broken their buds yet. Once buds break in spring and the trees start to actively grow, it’s a bad time to prune them. However, on a frosty late February morning, it’s a great time to do some minor adjustments.


I don’t like to see branches growing back into the crown and rubbing with other branches. It’s disturbing. I like to see a nice crown with branches nicely growing out. Take a look at the picture.

This rogue branch caught my attention right away.

This is the after picture.

This looks much better. Most of the branches are radiating outwards and we don’t have any big branches rubbing together. And all it took was one quick cut with a hand saw.

Japanese maple

Japanese maples often have dead branches on the inside. They’re the shaded out, unproductive branches; and, lighter in color, they can sometimes be removed with your hands.

I used my snips to take out the dead from this specimen.

Remove the lighter, dead branches.

It was a nice, easy task on a frosty morning. You can almost feel the stiff, cold soil. So, I took my time and cleaned it up nicely.

The dead branches are gone, the maple still has it weeping form and Vas put in some time into his day in unpleasant, -4 degrees Celsius, conditions.


There is still time in late winter to check on your landscape and take care of little details. Like misbehaving or dead branches on your trees. Once the foliage comes out, it will be difficult to see the blemishes.

So, take a look around your gardens for little adjustments you can make. Start with your trees.

Snowblower 101 for beginners

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Making the best of it

Nobody suffers more from January blahs than I do. I hate January because the landscape is very quiet and snow interrupts my work. I’m also terrified of driving on snow; so terrified, some have started calling me a “snow pussy”, but that’s off-topic.

When it snows, I’m usually stuck at home, creating new blog posts. But I also can’t say no. So, when people are short of laborers and they call me to come help, I do it. I have my daughter’s braces to pay off!


Using a snowblower is surprisingly fun. First fill up your gas tank. Then, put the key in, hit the primer button a few times, engage the choke and pull the cord. Once the machine is running and warmed-up, pull it out by selecting the speed or reverse. The left handle lever drives the unit; the right hand lever engages the blades.

When you’re ready to clear your sidewalk or driveway select the proper speed; 3-4 was ideal for me, 5 was great for moving from one area to the next, 1-2 are very slow and recommended for loading and unloading the machine.

Nozzle fun

The biggest question is where to direct the stream of snow. Slow down and think about it. Burying a public roadway is not a bright idea. Adjust the nozzle as you go. For example, I switched the nozzle stream from right to left when I got close to a bus stop bench.

Warning: there is a warning sticker on top of the nozzle, reminding you that sticking your hands in there can lead to amputations. Once, when an icy column fell out of the nozzle, it dislodged a brush resting on top of the drum, and shredded it into five pieces. You’ve been warned.

A note for prospective fathers

If you hope to father children in the future, watch for sidewalk imperfections. Sidewalks tend to lift around large landscape trees so use that as a hint.

I suspect I will not be having any more children and God gave me very average equipment, but still, not one of my collisions with the machine was pleasant.

Face your fears

Once you get used to the machine, it becomes a fun way to make money and lose weight. And it saves your back and arms from a beating. Normally, I don’t care for machines but this beast of a snowblower gave me hours of fun. And my daughter is happy to finally have her braces.

If you’re in the market for a snowblower, please visit one of the Foreshore Equipment dealerships. Tell them Red Seal Vas sent you!

Make work on snow days

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Vas hates snowflakes

I hate snow. Every time it snows I can’t work or I have to search my snowy sites and make some work. It’s a bit tedious but, hey, at least the kids will get to eat and enjoy high-speed wi-fi.

Let’s start with the obvious: gently get snow off shrubs and trees so they don’t break up under the snow load. Just do it gently so you’re not the source of the damage.

Once the snow is cleared off your shrubs, you can attend to your trees. Some might have broken branches which require immediate pruning and removal. Broken branches already on the ground must be removed as well.

Broken Sweetgum tree branch.

It’s also very common for snow loads to push over cedar hedging so take a good look and correct it, if you can. You can use arbor tie or wires to keep the hedge together.

Snow damaged Thuja occidentalis

We don’t really want the homeowner to look at this all winter. Make corrections as soon as you can.

Small jobs

When you finish your site snow check, you can search for other small jobs. For example, I found a few Bergenia specimens on the boulevard with their flower stalks still attached. Removing them was a breeze.

Remove all Bergenia flower stalks.

Deadheading Hydrangeas is also a good task but some people make the case for keeping the flowers on until spring. They protect the buds and look fantastic when they are covered in frost. Your call. I can look the other way when you are looking for some work on a snow day.

As you make your way through the site, take it all in and just accept it. Some sites are beautiful when they are covered in white snow. You might as well enjoy it and assess the site for future winter work.

Also, do not forget about safety meetings. It is perfectly acceptable to discuss safety issues on slower, snowy days. As long as you are discussing work issues, I do not see any problems with it. Fill out your day and go home.

Bittersweet max leaf drop

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The first time I noticed the word bittersweet used in reference to trees was in Japan. There, the famous cherry blossoms make people delirious; some follow the blossoms from south to north, like junkies craving their next fix.

Why bittersweet? Because like life, the cherry blossoms are beautiful but they don’t last long. Cheery blossoms in Japan are a must-see item for your live it bucket list. Especially if you go to ancient Kyoto in spring.


When it comes to fall leaf clean-up, bittersweet refers to that moment when you get maximum leaf drop and you know you are about to suffer for one more day. It’s also one of those moments when hearing about attempts to ban leaf blowers seems like a cruel joke.

This past fall has been the most difficult of my twenty-plus landscaping career. It rained heavily for months; it was so bad, I don’t even remember blowing any dry leaves. I would call it a suffer-fest.

All at once

When the weather network announced high winds for one of our fall weekends, some of my co-workers lit up the company WhatsApp, excited about all of the leaves falling in one weekend. And they did! Except, it also rained and the resulting Monday morning mess almost broke us.

I had two helpers for mountains of soggy leaves and it was hard. We cleaned-up leaves from 8-6pm and, because my son had soccer practice at 7, I had to leave at 6. Soccer or no, I would have left anyway.

Soggy Katsura leaves covering the entire site after a storm.


Knowing that this was our last big day was little consolation. And we used Stihl’s bad boy 800 model leaf blowers which have high air volume and air pressure. They blow away insects and garden gnomes like nothing but on this day, they too struggled.

And right here is the key point: current battery-operated technology isn’t good enough to handle this kind of leafy mess. It would have taken hours longer and I don’t even know how many battery packs we would have gone through.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals recently made this point to the State of California, which is considering a full ban on gas-powered small engines.

Nasty fall

Leaf clean-up on strata properties is hard work and when the weather turns bad, it can get even harder. For now we use gas-powered leaf blowers because they can handle the load. Once the battery operated technology improves, I will be the first one to test it in the field.

As I write, Christmas is one week away and I’m looking forward to some much-needed down time. It was a long, strange year. When this blog post is published in February, 2022, we’ll be closer to spring. Spring! I can’t wait.