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.

The trouble with memorial trees

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Memorial trees

Planting memorial trees is a natural reaction from people who lose their loved ones or pets. But there is added stress because when you plant a tree as a memorial, you need it to survive. There is a lot riding on this planting. Not only do you need the tree to live and thrive, many times ashes are scattered in the planting hole or on the surface.

I didn’t really think much about memorial trees until my sister and her partner lost their young daughter in a car crash. My sister called me, slightly panicked, because the memorial tree they planted at their ranch wasn’t doing well. Now, normally I would take one weekend and drive over to help out with the planting but it wasn’t that easy.

The provincial government had, at the time, issued advisories asking people not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary. And, there was the business of protecting the in-laws from COVID; I wasn’t even close to their “bubble”.

So, the tree got planted, in a beautiful heart-shaped bed. I didn’t care for annuals planted around the tree; I’m convinced it’s better to wait until the tree is established. Surficial tree roots and annual plants must compete in that tight space. Of course, the mother-in-law is an experienced home gardener so that’s how it went down.

Ponderosa pines on my sister’s ranch.

2021 check-in

I finally made it to the ranch in the summer of 2021, taking advantage of my son’s away soccer match. It took a few minutes to realize that the tree was planted a bit low. As I ran my fingers in the soil around the tree trunk, I noticed the partner’s pained facial expression which could mean that they had scattered ashes at the base of the tree. It’s not a bad idea to ask for permission before you start digging around memorial trees.

This is my pro-tip: always find the root flare where the stem becomes root and plant the tree at this level, flush with the ground. Planting too deep means that stem tissues will get wet and they could rot, inviting disease in.

I got my sister to excavate around the tree until there was an obvious tree well. Sticking my fingers in there again wouldn’t have been a great idea.

Other considerations

Obviously, the tree species should make sense for your home area. My sister lives in the BC Interior on a ranch without great layers of soil and the summers are hot and dry. If I recall correctly, they picked a flowering dogwood that won’t overwhelm the space it’s in.

You can do it!

I love the idea of tree planting; the more trees we have, the better. Planting memorial trees is a great idea but beware of the extra stress. Because the tree is planted in someone’s memory and the planting might include the deceased ashes, there is a lot riding on the tree’s proper planting and survival.

When my sister’s memorial tree wasn’t doing well, I could tell from her voice that she was stressed. Unfortunately, the raging pandemic prevented me from driving over to help.

If you’re thinking about planting a memorial tree, you can do it! If you need help, call me.

How to plant Styrax japonicus

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Planting with Vas

My last blog post from March 30 showed my small tree removal and encouraged home owners to give it a shot, if they got a chance. Today’s blog post shows my tree planting using the same hole.

Recall that I removed a dead Amur maple (Acer ginnala) and, while I advised people to cover up the hole to avoid accidents, I did no such thing. I got in my work truck and I drove to Golden Spruce nursery. There, I picked up a Styrax japonicus (Japanese snowbell) specimen. I note the botanical name first on purpose; that’s how you buy trees at a nursery. Common names are useless.


Since I worked solo, I had to improvise. I parked my truck over a curb to make off-loading the tree easier. I then gently lowered it onto my wheelbarrow.

Since the backyard was accessed by a slight incline, I had to struggle to get the tree up there. It’s only at times like these that I wish I was more than a chess player with weak arms.

Now I had to make a critical decision.

Yes or no to wire and burlap?

Do you keep the wire cage and burlap or do you remove them before planting? This question used to have a straight answer. My mentor, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott says remove everything; only the tree goes in the planting hole.

But then I opened up my October, 2022 issue of Arborist News. The article, good for one education credit, says that the answer depends on personal preferences or client wishes.

Now, since I had zero input from the clients, I did what I always do. I removed everything, wire cage and burlap before planting. One argument against this removal is that it disrupts the root ball. So, I dropped it in the hole very gently, keeping the clay root ball intact as much as possible.

The article says there is no conclusive evidence showing harm to the tree by keeping the wire cage and burlap. So, it’s up to you. If you’re planting trees with me, we take everything off. If you’re planting at home, you decide.

Pro tip: make sure the strings are cut no matter what.

Planting hole

The planting hole should be wide and deep enough so the root flare is at grade. The root flare is where the trunk turns into roots and it’s visible once you remove the burlap and peel off the clay.

You can’t plant the root flare too deep or too high. Once you identify the zone, drop the root ball in the hole and put a shovel handle over top: the shovel should be straight across so the root flare and planting hole edges are in line.

My tree was planted slightly higher because I expect some settling to happen with watering.


Always backfill your planting hole with the native soil. You can amend it a little bit with better soil but don’t try to substitute it. That’s because water will find it easier to penetrate new fluffy soil and your tree could “joystick” on you.

I used new soil only to top-dress the planted tree.


New trees need water. Obviously, don’t suffocate them by overwatering. But add some water regularly, even in winter. If everything goes well, the roots will push out into the surrounding soil and the tree will get established in its new environment.

Sometimes I stress about the trees I plant.

All done!

Winter time adjustments to your landscape tress

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Minor adjustments

Winter is a great time to make little adjustments to your landscape trees. Since the foliage is long gone, we can see exactly what’s going on. So, check your landscape trees before spring hits. Like I did this winter.

A weird branch

Once or twice a year I walk past this boulevard tree to buy unhealthy stuff at a nearby 7-11, and I’m surprised this lower branch is still growing. It looks weird and should be removed so the tree crown looks natural. We don’t really want branches growing this low on the trunk. Plus, it makes lawn care awkward.

A new baby tree

I love trees and I love planting them. The more the better. But, this specimen just popped up in a boulevard lawn, like one of those trees you get for free on Earth Day. And I’m worried about it because it doesn’t have a clearly defined tree well.

I would bet my after-tax dollars that it will eventually be involved in a nasty collision with a lawn care machine; and the machine will win. Unless we build a tree well to give the machines space to operate.

We also know that lawn grasses are tough competitors, so this evergreen isn’t likely to take off.

A broken branch

Broken branches must be removed as soon as you notice them because they can allow diseases to enter the tree; and they look awful. I cut out this snake bark maple branch soon after I took the photo. Be like me. Don’t tolerate broken branches.

A dead branch

This close up shows the spot where a dead branch went missing. It’s important to note that a third year apprentice in landscape horticulture made the cut. Sadly, he isn’t continuing with his studies after struggling in level three.

But the cut looks fine. There is no stub poking out, waiting to die off and potentially allow disease into the tree. Also, the cut isn’t too close to the bark branch collar. When this zone is damaged, the tree struggles to close up the wound.

When you remove branches, get it just right.


Winter is very slow compared to spring, so take advantage of it by checking your landscape trees. It’s easy to spot and make adjustments when you can see the crowns; and there is plenty of time.

Take good care of your landscape trees. Ask for help, if you need it.

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.

Are stake pounders dangerous?

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Intimate knowledge

I got to know stake pounders intimately when I went through the Landscape Industry Certified program. Recall that stake pounders are metal pipes with handles, closed at one end. Just pop the end of your wooden stake in and start pounding it in.

One version of a stake pounder.

Station master

I had to do the planting and staking practical station test three times! Years later I can joke about it but at the time, failing meant waiting for six months until the next test day.

Note that the practical exams are now scored from video footage captured by your employer. The twice a year testing days are long gone. Visit the Canadian Landscape Nursery Association for details.

One of my fails resulted from not wearing ear protection. Ouch. I was so nervous and caught up in procedures and time limits, I didn’t even notice the pounding noise. Ear protection during staking is mandatory. It is loud.

The other critical issue is the height of the stake pounder. The rule is that it can’t ever reach over your head. Even if you have a hard hat. But this wasn’t a problem for me until I became a judge.

Vas arrives

When I became a landscape judge, the CNLA got me to judge the same planting and staking station. Sweet! I was ready for it but not for failing people. Some of the candidates went overboard, raising their stake pounders way too high.

I could see my judge-mentor watching and fuming from a distance. And at the time I thought she was a bit anal. I don’t anymore. She was right. I should have raised my red flag and send them packing.


Last year I heard a nasty story that changed my mind. An experienced landscape company owner had managed to crack his skull with a stake pounder. He survived but he couldn’t work for a long time and who knows how the accident will affect his brain in the future.

Then today I heard about another landscaper breaking his neck with a stake pounder. Ouch.

If I ever meet my cute landscape judge mentor again, I will quietly apologize. Stake pounders are dangerous metal pipes that should never be raised above your head, even if you have a hard hat on.

How to avoid killing landscape trees

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Proper planting

If you want to avoid killing landscape trees, start by planting them properly. Follow the advice of gurus like my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, who recommends that only trees go into planting holes. Get rid of strings, wires, and baskets. If you don’t, your new landscape tree could suffer.

A routine tree removal

It happens all the time in landscape maintenance. Residents notice brown trees and call us in to remove them. But I also like to ask why the tree didn’t make it. Did the June ‘heat dome’ push it over the edge; was it planted incorrectly; was it abused by pet dogs or damaged by love struck teenagers?

We can’t tolerate dead trees on site.

The removal was fairly easy so the tree was definitely dead. A shovel did the trick plus an ax for a few stubborn roots. And my questions were answered even before the tree was completely out.


Girdling is like choking at slow speed. When this tree was planted nobody bothered to cut the root ball strings. So, as the tree got bigger, the string got incorporated into the tree. This leads to girdling where nutrients and water can’t pass through and the top eventually dies.

It’s common for the tree to fail at the girdling zone.

Note the string on the left.


Poor planting technique can kill landscape trees which then leads to extra costs. I’m paid hefty fees to remove the tree and recycle it in green waste. And if the strata council decides to replace the tree, it will cost them at least a few hundred dollars.

We also miss the free ecosystem services the tree used to provide for free. Think oxygen, shade, beauty, and many others.

When you plant trees, only put the tree in your planting hole. Remove all strings, plastic and wires. The death of this tree was preventable; simply cut the string after planting.

Windmill palm magic

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I fell in love with palms when I visited Southern California in 2019. So, it’s nice to know that we also have a palm species growing here in British Columbia: Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei).

I got to see one today, still in its 2 gallon landscape pot, waiting to be planted. While the palm got me excited, I wondered about available space. Take a look at the photo and recall that mature windmill palms reach heights of 15-25 feet, and widths from 6-10 feet. Always consider mature sizes before planting your shrubs and trees.

Note the two windmill palms in the middle.

Considering the mature size of this palm species, I wonder what this planted bed will look like years from now. It could be a disastrous jungle too close to the windows or a beautiful tropical corner unlike anything else on this strata site. Personally, I love the look but I would only plant one of the palms. Not two.

Palm features

  1. The windmill palm is tree-like with hairy brown fibers covering the trunk.
  2. The large fan-like leaves are attractive but the petiole which holds the leaves has sharp points which makes pruning and clean-up tricky.
  3. It’s a good accent or specimen tree
  4. I’ve seen people wrap the top in burlap to protect it from cold temperatures. But the four specimens in the courtyard of my complex do just fine in winter. Remember, palms grow from the tip only. When the tip dies, it’s over.
  5. It looks great near a patio or pool.
  6. $40 retail seems like a bargain. If only I had space.

Strata complex pool deck specimen.

Private residence specimen between outdoor kitchen and pool.


I love palms! If you want one as a specimen by your patio or pool, consider planting the windmill palm. It’s an awesome palm. Just make sure you have enough space for it to reach mature size.