Let the monkey puzzle tree surprise you

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Living fossil

The monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) is a living fossil. Because it’s a tree adapted to a different earth, seeing it in our landscapes is a memorable experience. Now, I’ve seen the trees before and I knew they had a bizarre look to them; but I never really looked them up, until now. The trees we see in our landscapes are native to Chile.

Young specimens are spindly and their foliage is made up of spiky triangular leaves that openly advertise to every passerby and animal to stay away. Even the stems are covered in spiky leaves which makes me wonder how people plant the trees. I’m sure you need heavy duty gloves and goggles.

A young specimen of Auracaria araucana.

Branch tip


The young monkey puzzle tree above is well planted because there is ample space for it to develop. It will grow to 30-40 m and it will also get the full sun it likes in this spot. Remember to always consider the mature size of the trees you are planting to avoid future problems.

The monkey puzzle tree is slow-growing. It takes years for cones to develop so until then, it’s difficult to say if this tree is male or female. The cones will tell us.


Mature monkey puzzle trees lose their lower branches and flatten out on top, which gives them an umbrella shape. Self-pruning is common as lower branches are shed. I didn’t know what the tree looked like at maturity until one of my Facebook friends posted a series of photos online.

A mature monkey puzzle tree.

I was also surprised to learn that the trees produce edible nuts. I would love to try one. Allegedly they taste like a cross between cashews and pine nuts but I have no idea what pine nuts taste like. If indigenous people in South America harvest them, they must be good to eat.

Monkey puzzle trees, like ginkgos, are living fossils and I enjoy seeing both species in our parks and gardens. The monkey puzzle tree has a bizarre look with its spiky triangular leaves. Interestingly, it transforms into an umbrella shape as it sheds its lower branches with maturity.

If you have space and time, you can plant one in your garden and give your visitors a memorable experience.

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.

A new weapon to help you become an expert on Pacific Northwest conifers

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Testing, testing

I openly admit to struggling with conifer plant identification. For example, just last week I was on a large strata site in White Rock. My co-worker kept on calling the conifer in his hand Japanese cedar and I looked at him suspiciously. I knew that the botanical name for Japanese cedar -always try to use botanical names- was Cryptomeria japonica; and there were several mature specimens on this site. The conifer he had to remove didn’t look like Japanese cedar but at that moment, its name escaped me. Alas, that’s usually what happens to people who desperately try to learn botanical names. You learn five, and forget three. Sometimes I have to blog about a plant just to remember its name. So, don’t be alarmed, keep at it.

Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar)

A new weapon

I stopped thinking about my work day until I visited my local Chapter’s book store after work. There, in the nature section, I found a copy of a new weapon that will help me and you become an expert on Pacific Northwest conifers.

The book is well-designed, and full of color photos and charts. It’s called “Native and ornamental conifers of the Pacific Northwest” by Elizabeth A. Price (Oregon State University Press, 2022). Did you notice the twist? This guide covers native conifers found in the wild AND ornamental conifers found in people’s gardens. I couldn’t find the book price anywhere but I bought it anyway. As an arborist and professional landscaper, I knew I could use this guide.

And that’s exactly what I did. I knew that the conifer we removed wasn’t a Japanese cedar. I recognized its foliage and cones but the name escaped me until I opened up my new, shiny guide. We removed Hinoki cypress or Chamaecyparis obtusa. No wonder I had trouble remembering the botanical name. Even today I struggle to pronounce it properly.

The brown cones on Hinoki cypress have moderate horns and straight scale edges. Sadly, nobody bothered to salvage the Hinoki cypress. We ruthlessly flush cut it and dumped it on the back of the truck.

I look forward to consulting my new conifer guide at work and at home. When you visit your favorite book store, check it out.

Why linden trees can put a smile on your face

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No time to stop

Landscaping work in the private sector is driven by profit, and it’s very difficult to generate profits if your workers stop to notice details in the landscape. It’s go, go, go all the time.

This past summer I was helping at an older site, predictably populated by mature trees. And right at the entrance to an inside planted courtyard stand three mature small-leaved linden trees (Tilia cordata).

Now, as I made passes through the entrance, I noticed something different in the air, but I pressed on with my regular lawn care duties. Lawn care is always done first.

Asian mommy

Just as I passed under the lindens, a lovely Asian mommy walked up with a baby stroller, and she had a huge grin on her face. I also noticed, in passing, that she could have been a model for Lululemon tights. That’s all can say in a family blog.

So, why the grin? The fragrance, of course! The lindens easily overpowered the smell of my gas-powered machines. Then the lady stopped her baby-stroller and asked me if I had noticed the smell. Of course, I had. Vaccinated against COVID, my sense of smell was totally fine. I just couldn’t describe the smell.

Tilia flowers

The small Tilia cordata yellow-green flowers come out in early summer. You can easily identify the tree species because under the flowers is a bract. The flower scent is rich and heavy, says Wikipedia. And it really is. It can put a smile on your face.

The fruit is a dry, nut-like drupe.

Lindens are native to Europe, and they’re deciduous trees growing to 20-40m. The specific epithet “cordata” means heart-shaped and refers to the leaves.

Lindens are disease-resistant trees and they’re used as ornamental trees. Thus, their placement inside a high-profile corridor. I wonder how many more residents had noticed the fragrance.

Watch out for linden trees in your neighborhood early this summer. See if you notice their amazing fragrance. If you’re lucky, your neighbors will alert you.

Early 2023 fine-tuning tasks for your garden

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New season

The new year is here and the garden is very quiet. But if you look closely, there is some fine-tuning you can do now. Assuming you feel motivated to go out into your garden in January. Let’s take a look at some of my work.

Black eyed Susans

I’m not a fan of stubs. On trees they die and create a pathway for diseases to enter. On perennials like Rudbeckias, they create homes for bugs to move into and sharp sticks for gardeners to get stabbed with.

I hate this look. If you must cutback your Rudbeckias early, use hand snips and enjoy the work. Remove the entire flower stalk so only the basal leaves remain. It will look much better. These long stubs look weird.

Clean up tree damage

If you don’t manage to knock off snow from your trees before damage occurs, then just make sure the break points are cleaned up. I found one small evergreen with a broken top so I cut it to make it look decent. Always use sharp hand saws.

Rubbing branches on trees should also be eliminated. See the white arrow.

Perennial cutback

January is a good time for perennial cutback but it’s not critical. Just get it done before spring hits. Personally, when I see the bed below, I don’t want to wait any longer.

This deserves a clean up.

Once Hellebores start pushing out new foliage, you can clip back the old leaves. Flowers follow. I don’t like to rush this. The old leaves at least give us something green to look at.

Now you can cutback the old leaves at the base.


Take a good look at your winter garden to see if you can fine-tune it a little bit before spring. There is always something to do.

Why I love Japanese Stewartia trees

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Multi-season interest

There you have it in the headline, I love Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) trees because they offer multi-season interest. But I didn’t really put it all together until one of my Facebook friends posted pictures of the tree in all of its fall glory. Because I float around as a working manager at my day-job, I don’t always get to see the same landscape in every season. And my friend was absolutely right: Stewartia pseudocammellia is a beautiful, smaller tree with multi-season interest. Take a look first and see if you agree.

Cup-shaped flowers, like Camellias

Fall colors

Beautiful peeling bark


Stewartia pseudocamellia is native to Japan and Korea where it lives in mountain forests. Sadly, when I lived in Japan, I didn’t know the tree by name.

The cup-shaped Camellia-like flowers are fine to look at and show up in summer. The seeds are hidden in hard capsules, and I would always pick and open a few. I never did try to germinate the seeds. Usually, I forget them in my pockets for my wife to discover at the bottom of the washing machine.

You can expect it to grow anywhere from 12-40 feet high. I know it from strata complexes where it fits in lawns shared by two units. Since it’s a slow-growing tree species, this location is totally fine. I don’t even recall pruning it, other than taking off some out-of-control shoots to keep it shaped properly but not harshly.

Stewartia pseudocamellia is also drought-tolerant which is a big deal as our West Coast summers heat up. This year we experienced a fall drought as the rains didn’t return in early fall. It was bizarre seeing people watering their pots but not their trees. I think that’s backward because your trees are way more valuable.

My Facebook friend was clearly blown-away by the fall colors and rightly so. I like the look myself. The bright, peeling bark is a bonus feature. I always have to resist the urge to peel the bark off, which is strange because I have immediate use for it.

Want one?

If you want a multi-season interest beautiful tree that won’t get too big, the slow-growing and drought tolerant Stewartia pseudocamellia might be a good choice.

So help me Vas: pollarding

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Why pollarding?

There are three mature London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) trees at a multi-family site (called strata in British Columbia) I know. One of those trees is fairly close to the building so it’s pollarded annually to keep it from getting too big. When people lose their views, they get upset; when gutters get full of leaves, it costs money to clean them up. It’s much easier to pollard the trees every winter.

Pollarding means removing all of the branches and letting the tree resprout. My 2018 blog post on this topic mentioned my distaste for the look of pollarded trees. I naively thought people pollarded trees because they couldn’t prune them properly. How wrong I was.

Vas was wrong

Then, in 2019, William Bryant Logan released his amazing book “Sprout lands: Tending the endless gift of trees“. It turns out that our civilization was able to thrive thanks to pollarding.

Done correctly, the pollarded wood was used for ships, baskets, wood to heat homes, and food for animals. Pruned trees resprouted new wood and kept on giving, thus the endless gift of trees book subtitle.

I had no idea.

London planes

Now back to our London planes. The three specimens are mature but not as mature as the trees on the boulevard. One, you will recall, is close to the building and the other two are not too far from a pool.

Pollarding involves removing all branches, leaving the funny-looking “knuckles”. It doesn’t look great after it’s done but the tree will never get bigger than this. Assuming you pollard it every year.

The green waste is hauled away but ages ago, it would have been used for firewood or to make baskets.

If your tree is mature, hire an arborist. If it’s smaller, you can easily do it yourself. Just pollard at a height you like. But, always, always, use sharp hand saws and proper safety gear. Tree work can be dangerous.

I must admit that in summer the trees look totally fine. You can’t really see the ugly “knuckles” and we know that the tree will stay roughly this size.

Now I just wish we had some use for the wood we remove.

How trees love me back

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Tree hugger’s good karma

I love trees, and recently I found out that they love me back. Let me explain. When a new residential client contacted me, she specifically mentioned blowing her driveway clean every 2-3 weeks. This didn’t completely make sense until I met her.

Since the lady runs a mobile detailing service and does a lot of work in her driveway, she wants to have it nice and clean. Now, if you stand in her driveway and look up you’ll see giant Douglas fir branches coming over from the neighbouring lot.

Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are native trees in British Columbia and they’re easy to identify because their cones have unique bracts. Many specimens on Vancouver Island are very old. Harvey Rustad’s book “Big lonely Doug” is about a Douglas fir 66m tall and about 1,000 years old. I highly recommend this book.

Pseudotsuga menziesii


Douglas firs drop a lot of needles and branches all the time. Incidentally, you will never catch me calling trees “messy”. Trees do what they do.

What this means is that the lady will need my help all year; and thanks to this tree species’ habit of dropping needles and shedding branches, I will make some spare cash all year. It’s like a constant side-hustle money machine. No, it won’t make me rich but my work does solve someone’s problem. And the lady is really nice. She’s a true client because she’s not afraid to listen to my suggestions and act on them.

Customers only care about price and will drop you for Tom, who is $1 cheaper.

When I drove home that day, I was convinced trees loved me back. Who knew trees could drive a side-hustle operation without getting cut down and turned into toilet paper?

Here we also see one of the benefits of doing side-gigs. You learn new things and meet interesting new clients. It isn’t always about money.

Take care of your trees and who knows, one day they might show you their love!

Horrific UK tree planting

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Lessons from the UK

Tree planting is a science. It’s not just a quick, dig a hole, put plant in, affair. And here’s some proof from the United Kingdom. I got the photo from Dr. Duncan Slater through LinkedIn.

Take a look and see what you think is wrong.


There are three main lessons from this tree planting fail and they transfer nicely from the UK to Canada. Let’s take a look.

Lesson 1: stakes

Having one, extremely tight stake doesn’t work. Clearly the top of the tree snapped off in a wind storm because there is no “play” allowed for the tree trunk. You can solve this problem by installing two stakes with arbor tie which allow for movement and subsequent development of reaction wood. It’s like lifting weights: the more you life, the stronger you get. Held super tight, the tree never develops this reaction wood and snaps in a severe storm.

This is what also happens when stakes are left on for more than the recommended fourteen months.

Lesson 2: tree wells and mulch

The absence of tree wells is very noticeable. Young trees benefit from tree wells and mulch. The tree wells channel water into the root zone and protect the tree from lawn care machines. Inevitably, someone will come along to take care of the shaggy grass near the trunk, and the bark will get slashed. Possibly weekly.

We know that turf is a stiff competitor for new trees. They might live but they won’t thrive. Having an established tree well definitely helps.

The mulch keeps moisture in and benefits the tree as it breaks down.

This is how the City of Burnaby does it. Two stakes and mulch.

Lesson 3: location, location, location

Location matters in tree planting. The puddles visible in the picture mean that there is poor drainage. Since water displaces oxygen, our new trees can struggle and will most likely suffocate.


Tree planting is a science and it should be done with care. That’s the only way we can ensure that the trees will survive and thrive. They’re expensive to buy, install and replace. We need them to live for a long time and provide us with their many free ecosystem services.

Abused by an algorithm

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A rare slip

I always try to post normal, family-friendly stuff online. Especially on the Proper Landscaping website. I’m more like a permanent guest blogger here and this is family-friendly place. Unfortunately, last week I slipped. Luckily, it wasn’t a post on this blog, and I had no idea for a while.

While scrolling through my older posts, I noticed one about Ginkgo trees that was flagged and removed by Google. Presumably by a strict algorithm. What? I admit I was a bit surprised.

But first, take a look to see if you find it offensive.

Now, the botanical facts are, to my knowledge, completely accurate. The female Ginkgo fruits produce a strong odour. You can Google the scent description; I have no idea how to describe it. It’s not pleasant but it’s hardly overwhelming.

I’ve used the fruits in several pranks and to date I don’t recall any hospitalizations. Just hate mail through WhatsApp.

The specimen where I collected the fruits and seeds sits on a private property and the landscape architect deserves credit for fearlessness. Google algorithms are much stronger today.

Male Ginkgo trees dominate on city streets for a good reason. Imagine city sidewalks covered in fruits that produce an unpleasant odour. The seeds themselves are big enough to send senior citizens to hospital with bone fractures.


You’ve been warned. Watch the way you word your online posts because Google algorithms are merciless. My Ginkgo post got flagged and removed for comparing females unfavourably to males. I am no misogynist; I was comparing male and females trees. And I stand by my removed post. There was nothing malicious about it.

A machine algorithm doesn’t know that. And one day it might take revenge on me when I get into a self-driving car on my way to a tree lecture.