Strata Maintenance

How to train a Turk

By | Strata Maintenance, Training | No Comments

Always training

I really enjoy training new landscapers. New immigrants are even more challenging because their English skills aren’t that great. Luckily, my new coworker from Turkey is an university-trained forestry engineer with decent English.

After the current Turkish leader survived a coup attempt some years ago, he cleaned-up and jailed many people, including my coworker’s sister. So my Turkish friend had to move to Canada to avoid problems, but his family stayed behind. Not seeing them must be a constant source of stress. Now, back to landscaping.

Landscape eye

Landscape eye is a critical skill you develop over time as you work in the landscape. Here my Turkish apprentice passed with flying colors by identifying the prickly bramble sticking out of a hydrangea. Then he removed it with his snips.

You must be able to spot blemishes in the landscape and correct them. Moving through the day like a robot doesn’t work. We must constantly scan the landscape to make sure it’s beautiful and healthy.

Plant ID

As a forestry engineer, my Turkish friend isn’t new to plant identification. Just our landscape plants are new to him. Here the prickly shrub looks like a holly (Ilex) but it’s actually Osmanthus.

Broken branches

I believe it was my Turkish friend who looked up first and spotted the broken branch. He couldn’t remember the full botanical name of the tree but he tried. It’s a sweetgum or Liquidambar styraciflua. We have lots of them in the landscape because they’re an excellent alternative to maples (Acer spp.)

Broken branch on a Sweetgum.

Learning by doing next to me is the best way to train new apprentices. So, I sent my Turkish helper back to the truck to get two pole pruners with a saw attachment. He was able to just reach the branch without a ladder.

When we got the branch safely on the ground, I had to remind my apprentice to remove the remaining stub. Not only is it ugly, it can also allow diseases to get into the tree. Later, when he tried to tell me about his burning arms, I knew what he meant. I’ve taken down enough tree branches to know it requires physical strength. An apprentices with burning arms is music to my ears.

Red Seal effect

Now, I know some people laugh at the idea of Red Seal effect. The effect of me training new hires to become great landscapers. Incredibly, I have my share of haters and I’ve made fun of them in a recent blog. Having haters is actually a great sign, so just ignore them and keep doing the same great work.

Simply put, it works. Apprentices spend the day working with me so we get to work and talk together. When I see mistakes, I correct them immediately; and I answer all questions to the best of my ability. I suspect my Turkish helper will never again walk away from a branch stub. He’ll remove it like a pro. Thanks to the Red Seal effect.

Make work on snow days

By | Seasonal, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

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.

Landscape pro becomes a snow subcontractor

By | Seasonal, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

The worst case

It’s possible to go through the entire winter season without much work stoppage on the West Coast. But what do you do when the worst happens? And by worst, I mean no work, because there is snow on the ground. Now what?

This used to stress me out when I lived in pricey North Vancouver, British Columbia, with my wife and two little kids. Now, years later, life is better and I firmly believe in multiple income streams. Having one job and income sucks.

It’s official. Red Seal Vas hates snow.


To make up for lost winter income, I became a landscape blogger. I blog on my own site and for other landscaping companies. It’s a great learning experience, and it provides some extra income.

But what if you don’t want to write about your green work and you don’t have vacation time to cover your lost income? Well, one great option is to become a snow subcontractor. No, it’s not glamorous but it can generate income. I should know because I’ve done it. You can, too.

There are landscape companies with lucrative snow contracts and they usually need help. All you have to do is line up a few and wait for snow to fall.

Now, shoveling snow off sidewalks is heavy labor but a few years ago I pulled off two consecutive twelve hour days. It was long and strenuous, and it covered the two missed days from my regular landscaping job.

I carpooled with two young girls and the area we covered looked beautiful covered in snow. We hit multiple sites and shoveled all sidewalks. Note that strata properties (multi-family complexes) may be liable for any accidents on their unmaintained sidewalks. The snow must go. That’s where you come in.

Worse still are residents who can’t drive out with their BMWs to get their morning coffee. God help you if your run into this type of human.


Becoming a subcontractor makes it easy for the employer. You get paid for your time, without any deductions. It’s up to you to report your income with the CRA when you do your taxes.

No more winter stress

There are work options for landscapers when they get shut out of work by snow. You can become a blogger and a snow subcontractor. Push some snow and when you get home, blog about your experiences. If you have any energy left.

Pushing snow isn’t easy but knowing you can make some cash does reduce your stress. Especially if you don’t have banked vacation hours, savings or other income sources.

Never rely on one job and one paycheck. That’s nuts. Become a snow subcontractor.

Enemies on strata council

By | Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Planting cedars

When you look at the picture below, you know something isn’t right. You have cedars in plastic pots sitting in a raised bed; and it looks like the work is still in progress.

Except, this particular unit is occupied by an accomplished home gardener. You know the type. They do their own planting and maintenance and, if you’re lucky, they let you make a pass through with a backpack blower.

Now, the proper planting technique would be to remove the trees from their pots and plant them in the raised bed. This allows the roots to establish in the soil, whereas in the pots the roots would likely circle and eventually girdle the tree.

So, I bravely knocked on the door to find out what’s going on. Perhaps the owners needed help with planting the cedars. I would be happy to help.

Council bomb

It turns out that the owners had removed the pots and-correctly- planted the trees in the raised bed. Then there was a twist. A letter from their strata council arrived shortly thereafter, advising the owners to put the trees back in the plastic pots and plant them like that!? What? That’s ridiculous.

This is what happens when the enemies you make in your complex volunteer for strata council. Now you’re facing a monthly $200 fine if you fail to comply with the order. And we know that the order doesn’t make any sense. The best planting for long-term health is to remove the pots and plant the trees in soil. The way the owners had it in the first place.

Of course, you can go to council and make your case. Not every strata council has the same bylaws. You have to check with your own strata council. I think your unit comes with access to the bylaws.

The owner I spoke to didn’t sound motivated enough to fight. That’s obvious because the trees are now sitting in their plastic pots.

One trick would be to remove the plastic pot bottom so the roots could escape.


Avoid making enemies in your strata complex because you never know who will get on council later. Your enemies could cause lots of headaches for you down the line.

This is how Red Seal Vas rocks bedwork

By | gardening, Strata Maintenance, weeds | No Comments

Great bedwork gives your garden and landscape a beautiful edge but it’s not a popular task. So let me show you how it’s done properly.


Busy with pruning, I could only observe a new employee performing finesse work with her hands and a rake. Since she wasn’t given any time parameters it took her a long while to complete a small bed area. She raked and hand picked weeds as best as she could. Then she finally moved on, leaving a nearby weedy tree well untouched.

And I don’t blame her. She wasn’t set up to win. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Bedwork is simple. You just need to bring a good attitude to it. Let’s get sweaty.

No more struggles

Unless you’re hand picking huge trophy weeds, stop using your fingers for weeding. Professionals use tools and they stay on their feet. Sit down to enjoy your break, not to weed.

(Warning: if your company insists on hand weeding, use a small hand tool to save your fingers from abuse. )


Use a cultivator to uproot the weeds and fluff-up the soil. Concentrate on edges because that’s where weed seeds get blown; and where people miss them.



Run your cultivator along the edge and uproot all of the weeds. Don’t hand pick tiny weeds.


The cultivator uproots the weeds and then we rake them up. Hand-picking many tiny weeds is time consuming and it’s unlikely you’ll pick the entire weed. This is why weedy hand-picked beds quickly return to weedy mess.

I also find that my fingers hurt after hours of slow weeding by hand. Don’t do it, unless you’re picking big trophy weeds.

Rake up

Next, gently rake up the mess you just made and be careful not to remove too much soil. If you do remove some soil-and you will!-remember the time you just saved. Your hand-picking colleagues are probably still hand-picking tiny weeds somewhere.

Place your debris into a tarp.

Remember to always keep your debris piles in bed edges, not outside on pavement or lawn. This eliminates unnecessary blowing later on.



Note that the debris pile is raked to the edge, not on the stones.


Final step

The real final step is a clean-up blow but that’s done at the end of the day. Before you move on, rake any soil away from the edges.



Note that I raked soil away from the bed edge to keep it sharp looking.


Bonus effect

One huge bonus is that cultivation leaves your beds fluffy and fresh looking. Hand-weeded beds still look tired afterwards. Shame. So what if it costs you a bit of sweat. Your beds will look great longer.

Bedwork is a critical component of landscape maintenance and yet it’s often labelled as “bitch work”. This is wrong. Follow my steps outlined in this blog post and you’ll be a gold star in no time.

Do you know how to handle installs with soil amender?

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

It’s always a great idea to top-dress any new plant installs with fresh and fluffy soil amender. The newly planted beds get an instant dark look and the plants benefit from having new soil amender close by. At roughly $30 per yard it’s money well spent.

Key idea

When you install fresh soil amender your bed looks nice and fluffy. Congratulations! But you must not forget that the soil amender will settle. I got a reminder of this recently when I had to re-do a bed where many plants were planted too high. What really happened was that the soil amender came in first before the plants; and the young dudes doing the plant install failed to properly account for settling.



This Spirea japonica is clearly sitting too high after the amender settled.



This is better.


When you bring the amender in from your local supplier it’s dark, fluffy and beautiful but eventually it settles as it loses it’s fluffiness. So if you’re planting in this kind of situation, remember to adjust for settling. Otherwise, you will be like me replanting several specimens that are clearly sticking up and showing their roots.

Native soil

It just so happened that I was installing new plants next door to this area and on this day the plants came first; then we brought in soil amender for top-dressing. This approach has obvious advantages. One, the plants are planted in native site soil, not in fresh soil amender; and two, the planting level is obvious so we don’t have to guess at future amender settling.

Once you’re done top-dressing, it’s always a good idea to water in your new plants. Also, if the soil amender is still warm, try not to pack it directly around the plant stems. Instead, leave a bit of space between the plant stems and soil amender.



Finished plant install in native soil, before soil amender application.



After soil amender and watering. This frequently used staircase area now looks much better.




Soil amender settles over time so try to plant in native soil and then top-dressing. Planting directly in soil amender means that your plants could be sticking out too much once the amender settles.

Always top dress your newly planted beds with soil amender because they look better and it benefits the plants. Water your new plants in.

Why landscape professionals lose sleep

By | Landscaping, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Sometimes I see craziness in the landscape and it stays on my mind for so long, I lose sleep. Below are some examples of cases which could have been prevented by a bit of extra care. Yes, I know, the world didn’t end but still I want to see beautiful, healthy landscapes that have the ability to uplift people.


Spring show


IMG_5012 (1)ed


Not much of a show, is it? This is a recently taken over site and a high-profile access spot. Considering the poor tulip show I am almost certain this bulb install is more than one season old. If it isn’t then the bulbs must have been planted at varying depths which would cause them to come up at different times.

Unlike daffodils, which come back every year nicely and can therefore be naturalized, tulips aren’t as reliable after one season. It’s best to pull them and re-do the design. That’s my plan for this fall.


Sidewalk edging


IMG_5024 (1)


This is horrific lawn care work. Obviously, this boulevard hasn’t been bladed in a long time and I wonder why. All it takes is one machine and a new blade to fix. This is a high-profile boulevard and the edging should be sharp. Perhaps the contractor considered it to be city responsibility. Pictures like this transform into nightmares while I sleep.




IMG_4844 (1)


Whenever I install new plants I feel responsible for their well-being. Here, I installed Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica) as replacement for cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’). The owners were advised to water frequently so the shrubs could establish well. Overall they are doing well but this poor specimen isn’t.


Butchered trees


IMG_4682 (1)


Many landscape maintenance contracts run twelve months but some only ten. When the contractor is gone for two months some owners take liberties with strata property. We found this stump when our maintenance contract resumed.

This is very wrong. The cuts are so severe the tree is bound to notice and send out many shoots to compensate, assuming it has enough resources to do it. Also, cuts over 4″ in diameter heal badly and are likely to invite diseases into the tree. Lastly, this sort of ‘pruning’ destroys the tree’s natural shape and beauty.

You can either prune it properly or remove it completely. This work is horrendous.


Poor drainage



Lots of clay.


Our West Coast soils have lots of clay in them which means they drain poorly. I know of one site which is very bad for drainage. The strata council spent thousands on French drains and sand top-dressing.

But as I learned at a recent VanDusen Botanical Garden seminar, sand just sits on top of the clay. It has no effect on it. Much better approach would be to top-dress the lawns with organic material which could potentially break up or loosen the clay. I’m hoping next year this is what the strata council tries instead of more sand.

Top dressing with sand is expensive, labour intensive and it doesn’t work.


There you have it. I’m hoping that by posting this blog I will be able to let go and thus sleep better at night. I want to dream about spring and all of its glory.



Space considerations on BC strata landscapes

By | Company News, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

There is only so much space available for plants on strata properties. When the complexes are first built they look great but over time, as plants mature, we start to run into problems. This blog post explores some common examples from my work sites.



Some driveways are way too tight. Of course, this isn’t obvious at first because we landscapers don’t live on site. In the picture below there are two Berberis thunbergii specimens planted in front of boxwood (Buxus). Dead space just gets invaded by weeds and landscapers hate dead space. So we plant it up.

And then the owners come home……There is very little sense in replanting because the owners are bound to reoffend.



Berberis thunbergii crushed by a car.






It’s not clear whether this holly was planted by the owners or just simply invaded the space. Whatever the case, it’s way too close to the building. And that gets insurance companies very excited.

The holly could be pruned but that wouldn’t solve the problem. There simply isn’t enough space for this plant. My suggestion was complete removal and replanting with something smaller. There are many shrubs available that won’t overwhelm this space.


Plant separation




I really like this one corner. The Hamamelis mollis shrub is blooming right under a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). The only blemish is the Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) shrub that’s growing into the witch hazel and through the fencing. So I gave it a little hand-pruning to achieve a bit of separation.

As the landscape matures, there is more and more of this type of work. Sometimes, it’s necessary to edit out plants completely.




The idea that trees need room to grow seems obvious but people often forget to look into the future. Do you know the mature size of your landscape trees? Sure they look beautiful when they’re installed but without room to grow they inevitably get abused. Mainly by harsh pruning.

I have selected two examples from many. The first maple (Acer palmatum) is the saddest maple I know! The other maple is even worse off. So please remember to consider the mature size of your landscape trees. As an arborist I prefer complete removal to annual hacking.

Trees are resilient. They will push out new growth. Except we don’t have the required space for them.



The saddest maple I know. It was planted too close to the unit so it gets hacked up periodically. I would almost prefer complete removal.



This is nuts! A maple tree requires room for growth. Here it’s too close to a narrow pathway. It also shades out the cedars on the right.


Space considerations are a big deal on strata title properties. Remember to give plants room to grow and separate them when you can.

How to rock the first service day of a new contract

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | 2 Comments

It’s always exciting to take on a new strata landscape maintenance contract because the assumption is that your service will improve on the service of whoever did the site before. The fine print in your contract details exactly what will happen during the ten or twelve months to come.

First visit

I love the first visit. You get to walk the entire site and assess the highest priority sections to get hit first. This usually covers main entrances, clubhouses and mailboxes. When the site is especially large, you will have to develop a nice rotation so your service isn’t helter-skelter.

You also get to examine the dirty corners away from the main ‘beauty strip’ areas. Those corners that tend to get skipped or serviced very little. Previous pruning gets examined; and strata member introductions are made. No-go units must also be identified because some home-gardeners don’t want any service in their yards aside from lawn care. This is critical so we can avoid upsetting residents at the very beginning of our contract.

Recent example

Let’s take a look at what I saw on the first day of a new contract in Surrey.






This is an obvious task. Any leafiness from last fall must be cleaned-up. Dead plants are a huge problem so in January we catalogue them so we can deal with them in spring.


Plant separation




It would be nice to get some plant separation by shearing both the Prunus laurocerasus and Euonymus alatus.


Ivy removal





Left unchecked,  ivy (Hedera helix) will overwhelm the Euonymus alatus shrub. So I cut it away from the plant and cleared a circle around it. It will require attention periodically so the ivy doesn’t take too many liberties.






This doesn’t work because Nandina domestica doesn’t regenerate from pruning cuts. This plant requires a flush cut. It should send out shoots from the base, assuming it’s not dead.






One quick hand saw cut will eliminate this unwanted branch. We don’t really want branches developing this low, except on very young trees where the branches protect new bark from sun rays.


No man’s land




This is a classic no man’s land zone between units. It receives less attention so it’s weedy and full of garbage. Unless your landscape maintenance contract spells everything out, you can’t discriminate. You must cover the entire site.






This holly was planted by the owners but long-term it will lead to problems because it’s already touching the building. This gets insurance companies very excited. I suggest complete removal and planting something more appropriate and less prickly.

There you have it. Not a bad first day. This site should be looking great twelve months from now.


How to pimp out your boulevard tree wells

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance, Trees | No Comments

Sometimes you look out on the boulevard at your strata site and the tree wells look a bit tired. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With some tools and a bit of soil amender you can quickly pimp out your tree wells and make them look great before the holiday season hits.



This looks a bit tired.


Step 1

First we grab a nice sharp spade and we deep edge the tree wells. The spade must hit the edge at a ninety degree angle. Nothing else will do.

As for the depth, it should be deep enough to anchor the new soil that’s coming in but not too deep. We’re not building ditches although I have created some ankle-busters in my past. Soil conditions will sometime dictate the appropriate depth.



Acer griseum tree well. You might as well remove the tree guard.


Step 2

I know, most people dread this step but we have to weed the tree wells nicely. Use a good cultivator and when you remove the weeds also grab the chunks from step 1.



Nice and clean. The ground was a bit frozen so weeding was a challenge.


Step 3

Next, install good quality soil amender and pile it on nicely. Remember, it will settle so don’t worry if the tree wells look a bit puffy. This step gives you an instant upgrade because the fresh black soil looks great!

Warning: do you remember what a doughnut looks like? That is exactly what the soil around your tree should look like. Find the root flare and make the new soil level with it. Then build it up and taper it off as you hit your new deep edge.

Why? Because piling soil above the root flare leads to problems. For some reason, people love building soil pyramids at the base of trees. But it’s a common mistake. The bark above the root flare isn’t supposed to be in a dark, damp environment and it can over time rot. This in turn invites disease in.

Another potential problem is adventitious roots developing above the root flare inside your soil pyramid. There the roots start to circle and they can over time girdle the tree.

So remember, don’t create soil pyramids. Think doughnuts!


Step 4

The last step involves clean-up. Especially the grass edges of your new tree wells. Blow them off gently.

That’s it. Now your clients can enjoy beautiful boulevard tree wells on their Christmas holiday walks.



All done! Weeded, edged and top-dressed. This is my kind of tree well.