Hiring an Arborist – Expectations
We all look at trees differently whether we realize it or not. One of the most challenging things to do for a customer is to paint a picture in their minds of what a tree will look like after it is pruned, or many years after. The best relationships I have with customers involve trust. That is, my customers trust my experience and professional judgement when working on their tree, and over the years, that trust is affirmed by the tree responding to my maintenance and appearing much as I said it would.
Prune Trees Early to Cut Maintenance Costs Later
Ideally, a tree should be pruned the first season after it is planted, as soon as the roots become somewhat established. The rationale is that the younger the tree, the better we can train the branch structure, and as a result, the stronger and more balanced the tree will be as it matures. Pruning a young tree properly is relatively quick and easy for an experienced arborist, and affordable for the homeowner. A few well-placed cuts a year is all that is required for many years, and depending on the species, the mature tree may require little or no maintenance as a result of proper structural pruning when it is young.
Pruning a mayday in Red Deer. S.LePage photo.
The Most Common Scenario (Less than Ideal)
Most often, I get called to look at trees when they are mature, or over-mature, and have been neglected for many years, or even decades. At that point, there is little I can do the tree’s branch structure. Instead, I can improve the appearance and health of the tree by removing dead and diseased wood, repairing storm damaged areas, and improving the tree’s balance and overall shape.
Old, neglected trees take time and money to improve, and it can take many years and several pruning cycles to get the tree to look its best. Is it worth the time and money? That depends on the homeowner, what they want out of their yard, the length of time they plan to stay in their house, how much they value their trees, etc. I always make it clear how much work a tree will need and why, and what the future maintenance requirements will be.
Tree maintenance is kind of like dental care. We don’t have to go to the dentist for a check-up and cleaning every year, and we don’t have to floss our teeth, but if we keep up with our dental care, our teeth will look better and last longer. It’s the same with trees and tree care.
Pruning with a Purpose
We prune trees with the future in mind. We always look at the past and current growth rate of the tree and make pruning decisions based on that growth rate. I always envision the tree 5 to 10 years beyond the time of pruning. Every single cut we make has a purpose and we are accountable for our decisions. I never make cuts for the sake of making cuts. My customers are welcome to question the decisions I make, and I am always happy to explain my pruning rationale.
Removing an old elm in Red Deer. E.Brennan photo.
Find an arborist you trust. Do your own research to back up his or her claims about your tree. Ask a lot of questions. Young tree maintenance is affordable. Pruning old, neglected specimens the first time can be expensive, depending on your maintenance budget.
It is more affordable to maintain your trees regularly, rather than letting them go for many years. Once again, dental care comes to mind. I’d rather have an annual cleaning and see a smiling hygienist than endure the burden of drills, needles, and crowns.
(c) 2012 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Tree Service, Red Deer, AB (403) 755-5899
I just moved into a 1950′s neighbourhood in Red Deer and the only tree in my yard is an old American mountain ash (Sorbus americana). It, like many or most mountain ash of the same age, is decayed, has very poor structure, and without considerable help, will self-destruct within a few years, or perhaps in the next major windstorm, or late spring blizzard.
Why do mountain ash trees fall apart?
The answer is very simple: poor branch structure. On a mature tree, however, the solution is not so easy. Mature, poorly structured trees can be managed, however, and other steps can be taken to maintain the health of the aging tree. But first, lets look at why the tree is poorly structured in the first place.
Typical mature mountain ash branch structure. R. LePage photo 2013.
The tree in the picture has multiple main stems originating from the same position on the main trunk. This is a structurally inferior arrangment. As the stems become crowded over the years, the branch unions develop what is called “included bark”, and a noticeable split appears. This weak branch attachment is where the tree tends to fail in severe weather, such as windstorms, and under heavy snow load. Poor structure can be prevented early on in the life of a mountain ash, first in the nursery, and then by a pruner knowledgeable in structural pruning techniques. Basically, such pruning produces a tree with a strong central trunk, with evenly distributed main limbs up and around the trunk. Over time, the tree will take on its characteristic mountain ash form, but the framework of the tree will be much stronger, and will resist storm damage. Unfortunately, I rarely, if ever, see a mature mountain ash with strong structure.
So what can we do with our mature tree that has problems? Well, the fun part about being an arborist and a homeowner is that I get to try out all the fancy arboricultural techniques on my own stuff that many homeowners might be reluctant to pay for. In the case of my tree (which is not the one in the picture, but looks similar), I have several large limbs with included bark and weak branch attachments. One in particular is a large limb that, if it fails, will do damage to the corner of my house. So I’m going to give it the following treatment:
1) Full and thorough pruning. I will remove all dead and diseased branches, and reduce the end-weight of heavy, over-extended limbs. This should ease the burden of some of the poorly attached limbs.
2) I must install 3, 1/2″ bolts to stabilize the unions of 3 main trunks.
3) On the bolted limbs I will install a synthetic tree cable (TreeSaver), at about 2/3 the height of the tree, for additional support. The cable is rated for 10,000lbs, so wind and storms shouldn’t be a problem.
4) To further suppor the health of the tree I’m going to eliminate the competition with the turf within the dripzone of the tree. That means I will kill the turf from the trunk out to the edge of the crown, all the way around the tree. I’m not going to strip the sod, but instead will either kill the turf with Roundup, or suffocate it with a temporary layer of black plastic. Alternatively, I could use stacked newspapers but that’s not my style. Once the turf is dead, I will add a thin layer of good wood chip mulch, 2-3 inches max. This will effectively reduce much of the competition this old tree has with the surrounding lawn.
I have to admit that mountain ash was not one of my favourite tree species until recently. However, now that it is the only tree in my front yard, directly outside my livingroom window, I’ve had a couple weeks to have a good look at this tree and I see it in a new light. The red berries contrast beautifully with the snowy lansdcape, and I’m looking forward to Spring when I can, for the first time, see this tree in full leaf. My first impulse was to remove this tree and replace with something new, but now I feel inclined to do all that I can to preserve its life for as many years as possible. It is also on the south side of my house and will provide much needed shade to the livingroom.
Those are some tips for working with a moutain ash with poor structure. If you are thinking of planting a new tree, or have planted one within that last few years, I highly recommend that it be pruned properly to start the process of developing a strong framework. It will contribute to the longevity of the tree and reduce maintenance costs years later.
(c) 2013 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB.
One of the most frequent comments I hear from customers is that they want a “low-maintenance” yard. But they also say they want a nice yard. In my experience, there are three ways to have a low-maintenance yard:
1) Move to a condo
2) Pave over your entire yard
3) Get used to ugly, also called “natural.”
Folks, natural is the Rocky Mountains, which are beautiful. “Natural” in a yard is a homeowner convincing himself that his neglect is somehow pretty. Natural = neglect. And neglect = invasive weeds, runaway perennials, unruly shrubs, and trees that self-destruct, over time, from poor branch structure.
Unless your yard looks like this, it will need work! R.LePage photo.
Beautiful urban landscapes take time, effort, and money. Unfortunately, there are a lot of landscapers out there that are selling lies, convincing people that they can install a low-maintenance yard full of beautiful plants. This just isn’t true.
All that said, there are ways to minimize the amount of required maintenance. But if you have a yard, you will have to work on it, or hire someone else to do it. I think the term “low-maintenance” is often heard as “no-maintenance.” Once again, if this is what you want, move to a condo.
So how does one reduce the amount of maintenance in their yard? There are a few ways:
1) Plant drought-tolerant species from good nursery stock
More and more, I’m moving toward the native species and those that have proven drought tolerance. Pine, trembling aspen, dogwood, wild rose, dwarf birch, various willow shrubs, and others, may not be the most showy plants, but thoughtfully planned, you can design a great yard from these trees and shrubs.
Avoid species of trees that are prone to disease, such as mayday, ‘Schubert’ chokecherry (black knot), and mountain ash (fireblight). Also avoid trees that have annual insect problems, such as birch (leafminers, aphids, bronze birch borer.)
2) Plant trees and shrubs in the right place
Very few, if any, people seem to read the labels on the plants they buy. If they did, they would be able to determine the mature height and spread of the tree or shrub, thus saving themselves a lot of pruning later on, trying to make their tree fit their yard.
Properly planted crabapple. S.LePage photo.
Pick the right tree for the right place, and you will have very little future maintenance. I recently drove through the new Vanier neighbourhood in Red Deer to have a look at what new homeowners were planting in their tiny, postage-stamp yards. What I saw was a disaster. Almost every yard had the wrong tree species planted in the wrong place. In 5 to 10 years, those trees will have over-grown their spot and will become a problem. In 20, most trees planted in their current locations will be gone, removed as nuisance trees. I suspect these new neighbourhoods won’t look like much in 20 years, which is too bad, because gone are the days of the big yards, with all those big shade trees, which make up what we call the urban forest. Careful planning is a must.
The rosybloom crabapple in the centre of the above picture was planted such that when it is mature, its spread will only reach as far as the fences that surround it. It will not encroach on the neighbour’s yard, or the parking area behind the fence. It will need structural pruning each year for a few years, but essentially, it is a low-maintenance tree.
Also, plant your trees and shrubs properly. Do some reading beforehand to make sure you’re doing it correctly. A lot of my maintenance work is a result of improperly planted trees.
3) Don’t over-prune & stop “shaping”
Professional high-maintenance pruning in White Rock, BC. S. LePage photo.
There is a disease in the urban landscape that I call “Old Man Syndrome.” It’s everywhere and I pray I never get it. This is where older, retired guys get really bored and continuously, and indescriminately, cut and shape their trees and shrubs, such that everything is short and round. Ironically, these are the same people that want a low-maintenance yard the most. No wonder! They are slaves to what they’ve done!
Trees and shrubs respond to hard pruning by putting on a new flush of growth to replace what has been cut. In a low-maintenance yard, with good nursery stock planted in the right place, little pruning is needed, except to remove diseased or deadwood every several years. As soon as trees and shrubs are shaped, they will need to be re-shaped, and re-shaped, and it never ends. Hard pruning, without understanding the nature of the plant, can also ruin the structure and natural beauty of that particular species.
4) Create mulched areas, or beds, around all your trees and shrubs
Mulch is so important. It holds in soil moisture and greatly reduces watering requirements, prevents competition between the lawn and the trees, and breaks down slowly to provide nutrients to the plants. It will also slow down weeds, and make the weeds that do grow through it easier to pull. Simply, mulched trees are healthier and “low-stress”, and that’s what you want.
Don’t waste your money on expensive landscape fabric. It doesn’t work, and its a nuisance to deal with if you have to pull out plants later on. And it’s plastic! Do you really want to bury a bunch of plastic in your yard?
5) Perennials and annuals are high-maintenance
If you don’t want to work in your yard, don’t plant a bunch of flowers, or, plant them in pots and place them in your yard.
6) Don’t go after the “perfect” lawn
I’ve seen a lot of yards. The nicest lawns are meticulously cared for by people who have the time to devote to it. They need constant water, fertilizer, and weed control. For low-maintenance types, that’s insane.
Minimize the amount of grass in your yard by expanding the mulched tree and shrub areas. Trees are far less maintenance than lawn. If you are putting in a new lawn, I recommend using low-maintenance grass species: fescues as opposed to Kentucky bluegrass.
Taller grass is lower maintenance than short, constantly mowed grass. Reduce the amount of irrigation and fertilizer. Last year, in Sylvan Lake, I only watered my lawn once. By summer, it was just as green as my neighbour who had a fertilizer company come out every 3 weeks.
These are some helpful hints to lower the cost of your yard maintenance. If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start with your yard, it is best to call a professional arborist or hoticulturist for a consultation. A couple of hundred spent on an assessment and some advice can save thousands later on.
(c) 2012 Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service
I live in Red Deer, which is home to a number of unsavory tree “service” companies. I’m talking about guys who don’t understand tree biology, tree health, or horticulture. They know how to cut trees with chainsaws and that’s where it ends. They get their work by perpetuating old wives tales and myths, and by taking advantage of people’s fears, by selling them on the “hazards” of their landscape trees. After many decades of such abusive business practices, our city is left with hundreds, if not thousands, of mutilated and decaying trees. Many of these trees are now hazards, inadvertently created by tree-cutters who were unaware of the harmful effects of poor pruning practices.
On the positive side of things, I spend a good portion of my year restoring “topped” landscape trees for my clients. Some are very rotten and are best removed and replaced, but many are salvageable over a period of several years, providing that they are still growing vigorously and are not extensively decayed.
A year ago, I started restoration on two Siberian Elms in the Woodlea neighbourhood. I have these trees on a two-year pruning cycle, at which time I will selectively thin each “knuckle” (or old topping site), retrain new leading branches, and redirect lateral branches to form the main scaffolding of the tree canopies.
This picture shows the elms before I started the restoration process. The south tree is the one closest to us in the picture and is the better of the two. Both trees were severely wounded, the topping cuts exceeding 6″ in diameter. As a result, decay has entered the trunks.
My hope is that the root systems are healthy, and that the new vigorous growth is able to outgrow the rot that is developing in the trunks. The trees were topped 4-5 years ago and the resulting growth had not been touched. The branches were messy, tangled, lacked structure, and many of them had to be removed.
I was as pleased with the result as I could be, considering what I had to work with. With all the dead and diseased wood removed, as well as all the redundant growth, the trees took on a much cleaner and more structured look. One of my goals was to restore some dignity to the trees.
Elms in the summer following initial restoration pruning
While the process involves patience, and some financial input, it is possible to improve the health and look of previously mutilated trees in the landscape, and enjoy the benefits they produce (shade, privacy, dust and noise barriers), without having to wait the many years that it would take to grow new trees. That said, topping has reduced the life expectancy of the trees, and eventually, a new planting plan will have to be considered to replace the elms.
(c) 2012 Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB
A rose in July in Calgary
One of the first books I bought and read when I became a Prairie arborist was Lois Hole’s Favourite Trees & Shrubs. I still use it from time to time. It became the bible for woody plant selection and information in the early days of my career, before I had many seasons of experience and observations with hardy trees and shrubs. I’ve learned a lot since then, and my ideas have changed. In fact, they continue to change each year.
Simply, many shrubs that are commonly planted here in Alberta don’t really work. Sure, technically they are hardy, but what does that really mean? It means they’ll “survive” our winters. But do we want our shrubs to merely survive, or do we want them to thrive? The past two long, cold winters have changed the way I think about some of the toughest shrubs, leaving a few champions, and a lot of losers.
Many garden centres, especially the seasonal ones that are set up at grocery stores and wholesale outlets, carry a host of plants that will not survive in Central Alberta, which is Zone 2b to 3a. They commonly carry zone 4 and 5 (ie. Okanagan), and sometimes you’ll even see zone 7 plants (ie. Vancouver Island.) Unless you have an indoor solarium, forget it. These won’t make it.
Here are 10 hardy shrubs to AVOID planting and why
1) Boxwood – very finicky and slow growing. Needs a protected site, and even then, it is unreliable. If you’re moving to Victoria, great, plant boxwood. If you’re staying here, don’t bother.
2) Forsythia – These plants seem to make it through the winter very well, but the flower displays in the Spring are often forgettable and disappointing, unless the plant experiences a lot of sun and heat on a south facing wall. Otherwise, the flowers tend to emerge near the lower part of the shrub only. Recently, I have thought that Forsythia would make an interesting hedge, if kept short, but otherwise, it’s a no-go for me.
3) Ninebark – I used to think Ninebarks were bomb-proof. After the winter of 2009 and 2010, I now know they’re not. In fact, I would no longer consider planting one in my own yard. They suffer horrendous die-back under extreme conditions. They do seem to come back well if renovated to within a few inches of the ground in late winter. Also, avoid some of the newer culitivars, especially ‘Coppertina.’ It is prone to powdery mildew. I planted two in my yard and they died within a few weeks, caked in mildew. One of the most interesting hedges that I’ve seen was a golden ninebark hedge in Calgary. After last winter, it is one of the sorriest looking things I’ve seen in an ornamental landscape. After many years of of maintenance and waiting for that perfect hedge, it now needs to be cut back to grade!
‘Diabolo’ Ninebark in Calgary
4) Potentilla – I also used to think potentillas were among the best shrubs for hardiness. Not anymore. This is the number one shrub that I’ve been removing over the past two seasons. Most look rough at best, shabby at worst, especially those plants in non-irrigated commercial areas. I have three in my yard that are very young and of excellent plant stock, grown from seed at Bow Point Nursery in Calgary. But I’m not re-sold yet. Those three shrubs are definitely on probation in my yard. I have found that they don’t renovate well, either, getting floppy and misshapen as they grow back. I’m currently experimenting with new pruning techniques for this species.
5) Roses (except native shrub roses)
Potentilla at its best
- Most of the roses I look after in customers’ yards are either dead, dying, or in very rough shape. That surprised me, but there it is. If you love roses, be prepared for a lot of maintenance. On the other hand, my prickly rose bushes (Rosa acicularis
) truly are amazing, and among the hardiest and most reliable plants I’ve encountered. That’s why I named my company after them. That being said, they are invasive and I’m forever chasing after them.
6) Purple-leaf Sandcherry – Forget it. These are garbage and have no place in Alberta. My Dad grows excellent specimens on his property in Vernon, but they are a disaster in Alberta. For every nice specimen, I see 10 that are near death. These shrubs die-back every year and once the deadwood is removed, it is difficult to rebalance what is left of the shrub. They persist, but they do not thrive. Please avoid. In the meantime, I am experimenting with new pruning techniques that I think may be of assistance for this plant.
7) European Cranberry (V. opulus) – Those cute little round cranberry bushes are messy-looking things in winter, sensitve to shaping, and prone to powdery mildew in mid-summer. One of my least favourite shrubs.
8) Spiraea – I have no landscape use for these plants. They grow great on the Coast, but here, expect annual dieback and unsightly plants. Many of the specimens that I’ve encountered this year need to be removed and replaced. High maintenance and barely hardy. Try something else. Once again, there are definitely exceptions, and many people will tell me that I’m full of it. Anyway, I warned you.
9) Weigela – I have yet to see a really nice specimen. Too bad, because the flowers are really beautiful.
10) False Spirea – You might just as well plant Canada thistle and quack grass in your yard. Terrible, invasive, unattractive plants. If you decide you need these in your yard, make sure they are well contained and that their roots won’t spread. They are tough to get rid of once they’re established. They burn well when dry and that is my favourite use for them. This is the plant you give your in-laws for their gardens!
And now, the CHAMPIONS of the shrub bed
1) Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) - My favourite pick for 2011. I love this plant. The flowers have an intoxicating fragrance and the leaves make this plant my favourite for topiary and formal hedging. Also makes a great specimen planting. Beware, they can get much bigger than they’ll tell you at the garden centre.
2) Common Lilac & French Hybrids (Syringa vulgaris) - The good ‘ol standby. Bomb-proof. Nice flowers. No frills. And lilac produces what is arguably the most impressive-looking, formally sheared hedge.
Lilac hedge in Ponoka
3) Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa) - After a long, drab winter, the early blooming pink blossoms of the Nanking are a welcome relief. These shrubs are not low maintenance, but properly groomed specimens are an excellent addition to the garden or shrub bed. I love picking the berries when I’m pruning on a hot summer day.
4) American Highbush Cranberry – Get the species, Viburnum americanum. Some of the cultivars are prone to aphids. The species is better. Cranberry has beautiful foliage, nice form, excellent flower and berry display, and fantastic fall colour. It’s a four season plant and one of my favourites. I’m also one of the few people that likes the smell of cranberry in the fall. It reminds me of growing up in the woods when I was a kid.
5) Currants (red, pink, alpine, golden, gooseberry – Ribes spp.) - These are not showy plants, by any means, but they are very tough and produce nice fruit. Their interesting foliage has a place in a mixed-texture garden, and they lend themselves to intensive pruning and interesting forms. If you are growing gooseberries or currants for their fruit, beware the currant fruit fly, and make sure you apply an insecticide at the right time, normally when the flowers begin to wilt. If you miss the timing, every single fruit will have a little hole, with a nice little fly larva. My favourite plant in my garden is a red currant.
Red Currant in Sylvan Lake
6) Sour Cherry - Definitely among my favourite shrubs. Awesome spring flowers and beautiful fruit. Very little die-back in winter. A versatile shrub.
7) Red Osier Dogwood – The species, Cornus sericea is best. I avoid the variegated variety and some of the other cultivars, which tend to get a lot of tip die-back and aphid problems. Red osier dogwood is native and it’s everywhere. Very, very tough. They are easy to maintain and have beautiful stems, great leaves and flowers, interesting berries, and excellent fall colour. An great choice for any prairie yard, they will also tolerate shady spots and still look good.
8) Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo) - A reliable standby. Most specimens I encounter, while neglected, are healthy. Planted in good soil with occasional maintenance, these plants are bomb-proof, versatile, and lend themselves to very creative pruning styles.
9) Dwarf Birch (Betula glandulosa) – This is a great looking shrub and very, very tough. It has interesting-looking catkins and nice waxy, roundish leaves. It is slow-growing, low-maintenance, and makes an nice informal hedge. My only qualm with this, and every birch, is that it is very susceptible to a number of birch leaf-miner insects, which can devastate the foliage. If you plant this shrub, you will most likely have to use a systemic pesticide to control the insects.
10) Powderface Willow (Salix commutata ‘Powderface’) – Available at Bow Point Nursery in Calgary, this is fast becoming one of my favourite shrubs. It has incredible blue-grey foliage that really stands out in the shrub bed. It is extremely tolerant of dry, hot places, and it thrives in the worst possible growing location in my yard. It needs sun, however, so don’t put this plant in the shade.
(c) 2012 Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, Alberta
No kidding! You know, this is one of the top 5 comments I hear all year, from various would-be clients. It seems that most people have at least one big spruce tree in their yard, and more often than not, people try to do the impossible. They attempt to grow beautiful Kentucky bluegrass under the canopy of the spruce tree. Please stop it. It’s an act of insanity and futility. That cute little tree the kids brought home in grade 2 is now 30-40′ tall, they kids are gone, and it’s time for a change. And no, it isn’t the acidity that is killing the grass. It’s the dense shade and the drought (ie. the tree is out-competing the grass for water, nutrients, and light.)
Typical 20+ year old blue spruce with declining grass beneath. R.LePage photo.
Nevertheless, the crafty do-it-yourselfer tries a number of different strategies to grow that ever-important, flawless lawn. They raise up the canopy of the spruce tree. They fertilize, water, rake up countless bags of spruce cones and needles, pray, or whatever. Most of the time, these things don’t work, and you’re left with either a mutilated tree, or patchy, weak turfgrass, or both.
My recommendation is always the same. First I try to help people understand why the grass isn’t growing properly and why it isn’t likely to. Next I offer the solution: the mulched tree well, an attractive accent to the landscape that not only helps both the trees and the lawn, but showcases the spruce tree and adds interest to the yard.
So we start by gently stripping out the old, declining sod, from the tree trunk out toward the dripline (the outer edge of the tree canopy.) Spruce roots are shallow, so we take care to do as little damage to the tree as possible, knowing that it will recover and benefit from our efforts in the long-term. I used a sod stripper to assist with this job where it was practical to do so. Removing old sod is grunt work, and the machinery eases the burden somewhat. At this point, we’re left with a bare tree well. We chose a peanut-shaped well that started at the house, linking up an existing shrub bed, and returning to the house near the downspout of the eavestrough.
Sod removed and a clean edge cut. R. LePage photo.
So now, all that was left to do was to select and apply a suitable mulch. This is largely a decision of the homeowner, the possibilities range from natural wood chip mulch, various bark mulches, and a myriad of stones, pebbles, or lava rocks. Personally, I prefer a medium grind (1″ chip) natural wood chip mulch. Why? Because it looks beautiful, retains a nice colour as it ages, and breaks down over time, which feeds the tree and improves the soil condition. It is low maintenance and only requires “topping up” every few years.
I avoid rock mulches because, as a maintenance professional, I know that these mulches are high maintenance, and you’ll spend countless hours trying to keep them clean and free of falling debris from the spruce tree. Don’t waste your time.
Now, a lot of people, conditioned by the drone of endless landscape “professionals”, are wondering why I haven’t suggested that you install landscape fabric to control weeds. Two main reasons. It doesn’t stop weeds. And second, because it inhibits the natural process of mulch breakdown, which improves the soil. You effectively start to create a “soil” on top of a soil. I promise you, the weeds will come. You may have to hand pull a few weeds, or you may have to spot spray a couple of times per season with a bit of Roundup or horticultural vinegar. That’s life in the ornamental landscape.
Apply your wood chip mulch about 2-3 inches deep and avoid mounding it up against the trunk of the tree. The mulch should not contact the tree trunk.
Finished mulched tree well. R. LePage photo.
One last note about edging. I prefer a natural edge with no artificial borders (ie. plastic, concrete, bricks, etc.), but a lot of people like formal edging material, and that is fine. But please keep in mind that the tree will continue to grow and expand the diameter of its canopy. A natural edge allows you to simply extend the well as the tree grows. Permanent edging doesn’t, and over time, you might run into a similar problem of your lawn dying back in spots or becoming patchy.
I love grass and the trees, but I give them their space, so they can perform their best in the landscape. It is also a lot less frustrating to maintain, which means you can spend more time on the deck enjoying your trees, and less time toiling beneath them.
(c) 2011 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB, (403) 755-5899
Cutting back the old hedge to 6" above grade
Ready to grow!
A perfectly trimmed cotoneaster hedge can be a great addition to an ornamental landscape in Alberta. Over the years, however, many hedges become overgrown, too big to manage, or infested with insect or disease problems. When this occurs, it may be time for a drastic renovation to ground level.
In recent years, scale insects have ravaged cotoneaster hedges. In Calgary, the pest is oystershell scale; in Edmonton, it is mainly scurfy scale. From my experience, I would say that oystershell scale is more serious, but both insects eventually take their toll on the hedge, by leaving dead, patchy areas in the canopy. Uncontrolled, the insects will kill the hedge. With a regimen of drastic renovation, combined with properly times insecticidal sprays, scale insects can be controlled, and your hedge can cotinue to look great.
Renovation is a dirty, dusty job, but is very straightforward. Begin at the end of the hedge, and cut all stems to about 6″ above ground level. Remove dead stems, leaving only fresh, healthy stubs. New growth will occur from the cut ends, and also from new suckering growth from the exisiting root system.
If your hedge was infested with scale insects, be sure to treat the stumps with a contact insecticide around mid-June, when the immature scale insects are crawling. New, healthy stems should reach a height of about 2′ the first season. Hedge training may being as early as the second season after renovation.
For more information on hedge renovation, please call Wild Rose Tree Service at (403) 755-2443.
(c) Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB
Unsightly cedars are a pretty common sight this spring, thanks to many snowfalls throughout the winter. But don’t despair, because they can be repaired.
The example below is in south Edmonton. The snow loaded down the branches on this tree so much that the owners had a hard time getting in and out of their front door.
The first thing I had to do with this tree was to tie back all the wayward branches, in order to restore its true form. I accomplished this using 3′ long snap-ties.
Once I had the tree looking more presentable, I started the shearing process to give it a more ornamental shape. When shaping cedar, it is best to use a good, sharp pair of long-handled hedging shears, not power trimmers. Hand shears give a much cleaner cut, which prevent browning of the cut ends later on. It is best to start the shape at the top of the tree, and work toward the base. I always make sure to trim around the eavestroughs, and trim for clearance off the house.
The final product looks a bit more appealing. Routinely sheared cedars will resist further storm damage, as shearing reduces the end weight on the branches, and encourages lateral growth, making a thicker, fuller canopy.
(c) 2011 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB, (403) 755-2443
Dogwood is truly one of the most reliable garden shrubs for Alberta. Native to parkland forest understories, it is also one of the only plants that will grow well in shady areas of the yard. I consider dogwoods a four season ornamental, with interesting flowers in the spring, nice berries in the summer, great fall colour, and beautiful bright stems to provide winter interest.
There are many cultivars of dogwood available at nurseries. Personally, I prefer the species, Cornus stolonifera, as it is most hardy. That being said, all of those rated zone 3 or less should work fine, provided they are planted and maintained properly.
Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)
Red-Osier Dogwood near Sylvan Lake, AB. Shane LePage photo.
This species is my favourite dogwood. One of its best assets is that it will grow well in shadier sites, which is common in mature Alberta neighbourhoods that are clustered with shade-throwing spruce trees. In Red Deer, I often recommend dogwood or cedar for less-than-ideal light conditions.
Lately, I’ve taken an interest in Niwaki, the japanese art of pruning, and am experimenting with some mature dogwood plants in Red Deer. Given enough space, dogwoods need little pruning. But if it’s a dramatic display of bright new stems, or if the shrubs are included in a dense, mixed planting, where spacing is not desired, pruning is a definite must. Also, old, overgrown dogwoods tend to benefit from reinvigoration, every few years.
Pruning to Encourage Decorative Stems
This technique is most suitable once the specimen has an established root system. I don’t recommend the following technique on newly planted shrubs. In late winter to early spring, cut back all dogwood stems to about 4″ above ground level to form a tidy “stool.” Don’t be alarmed if the plant doesn’t respond with new growth early in the growing season. In the Red Deer area, I find that it takes well into July to get a nice looking, regenerated shrub. It is worth the wait. The new foliage seems to glow with vigour and rich, healthy colour. This process can be done annually, but I find that it’s a nice idea to rotate this type of hard pruning between various dogwoods in the garden, alternating years, or perhaps pruning this way every three years, or until they start to encroach on neighbouring plants. All dogwood cultivars can be pruned similarly. Yellow-twig dogwood is particularly suited to this technique.
Reinvigoration of Overgrown Specimens
Most often, I am called in to look at messy, overgrown specimens dominating some corner of a back yard. I prefer to prune dogwood in the dormant season, late fall to early spring, so I can see what I’m working with. I remove as much deadwood as is necessary for the specimen, but usually dead stems down to 1/8″ diameter or smaller. The shrub should look neat and clean, for starters. Next, I remove conflicting stems; those that intertwine, saving those that best contribute to the overall form of the shrub. I like all remaining stems to have a bit of space, especially if it will be several years before the shrub is pruned again. Lastly, I reduce the height and width, only as much as necessary, and using reduction-type pruning cuts, in order to balance and contain the shrub. The end result is a tidy, attractive, balanced, and healthy looking specimen.
Irrigation & Fertilization
As with most woody plants, dogwoods prefer a moist, well-drained soil, with a wood-chip mulch cover. Planted and maintained in this manner, these plants should not require irrigation or fertilization. I would consider watering only after prolonged hot, dry weather in summer.
Dogwood is insect and disease resistant. I have, however, encountered some problems, namely aphids and oystershell scale. Aphids are messy and unattractive, buy they aren’t that serious. Hose them off of try some relatively non-toxic spray, such as an insecticidal soap. Other contact insecticides work well, such as Malathion, but please use caution when using chemicals. Oystershell scale is more serious, and must be controlled when the scale “crawlers” are active, in early to mid-June. Use any contact insecticide. In my practice, I have used Orthene with excellent success and it offers systemic control as well. Timing is everything.
(c) Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB, (403) 755-5899
Of all the pests that I work with in Calgary and Red Deer, the scale insects are doing the most damage. And while European Elm Scale is now familiar to homeowners and tree professionals, oystershell scale is largely unknown to people, and its potential for damage grossly underestimated by arborists and landscapers. It attacks 120 species of ornamental trees and shrubs, many of which are commonly planted on the Prairies. Without proper recognition, this pest will destroy countless plant materials in Alberta.
Oystershell scale on cotoneaster twig. Biterroot Restoration photo.
A fellow arborist first called my attention to oystershell scale in Calgary in 2006. He had a number of clients in the Inglewood neighbourhood, with dying cotoneaster hedges. We didn’t know what it was at that time. I looked at the hedges, took a sample, and soon identified it. Since then, oystershell has spread throughout the city, particularly severe in some neighbourhoods, such as Riverview and Douglasdale, and just getting started in others, such as Acadia, Lake Bonavista, and Britannia. Cotoneaster is the preferred host, but we have now seen it infesting common lilac, crabapples, edible apples, hawthorn, and green ash trees. Entire streets have lost their cotoneaster hedges in at least one southeast neighbourhood.
Infested cotoneaster hedges die-back in patches, leaving large voids in the hedge. Close inspection of the twigs reveals thousands of adult oyster-shaped insects encrusting the stems. In early to mid June, if an infestation is not obvious, take a piece of black paper or similar sized piece of black leather (I use a leather folder), and shake the branches over it. Look closely. If scale is present, you will see many tiny orange or reddish “crawlers”, which is the immature stage of the insect. A few crawlers might not warrant control measures. A heavy infestation will require a spray.
Oystershell scale insects are easy to control. They appear to have one generation per season in Calgary. The crawler form is active in early to mid June, depending on weather conditions. Inspect the leaves as described above. If the infestation level is moderate to high, you can spray the entire canopy, thoroughly, with any contact insecticide. I recommend hiring a licensed pesticide applicator, as they have an arsenal of different chemicals, as well as appropriate spray and safety equipment. I have successfully used permethrin, malathion, and acephate to control these pests. I prefer acephate as it gives systemic control for up to several weeks, should my timing be off slightly. Dormant oils in late winter, before bud break, may offer control as well, although I haven’t used this method . Spray all other infested trees in the same manner.
Renovation of Infested Hedges
Heavily infested, or patchy hedges, are unsightly and will never recover as well as homeowners would like. In this case, the best thing to do is 1) cut the hedge back to about 8″ above grade in late winter, before bud-break. You may get away with cutting back sections of the hedge only; 2) in June, spray the sprouting stumps with a contact insecticide (oystershell will attack stems right to the base of the plant); and 3) as your new hedge grows, monitor pest populations in early June and spray with a contact insecticide, if necessary. Through careful monitoring and appropriate spray treatments, this insect is easily controlled. Exception: If you hedge is “nearly-dead” or devoid of vigour, you would best remove, grind the stumps, and replace the plants.
For further information, please call Shane at Wild Rose Tree Service at (403) 770-2974.
(c) 2011, Wild Rose Tree Service & Pest Control, Red Deer, AB
For information on the biology and control of this pest, please refer to the following link to the City of Red Deer Fact Sheet:
Red Deer Experience
This pest has been tough to control. Most Black and Manchurian Ash in Red Deer in 2009 were in decline or nearly dead. In 2010, likely due to a cold, wet spring and early summer, pest populations appeared to be much lower and many trees appeared to be “bouncing back.” Since 2011, most trees have continued to decline, and in 2013 these were the most common trees that we removed and replaced. Calgary has very few of these trees left, and no sensible arborist would recommend that any client plant a new one. My feelings are the same. I reccomend planting something that is insect and disease resistant. Please call or email me for suggestions.
There are two generations per season for this insect. Over the past four seasons, I have been injecting the trunks of infested trees, in the first week of June, with Confidor (imidacloprid). So far, I’ve found that the chemical is keeping most of these trees alive, but that’s it. Injected trees have not returned to a vigorous state. I also have found that the chemical is only effective with established trees. Confidor does not seem to control psyllid on newer trees, with poorly established root systems. For these trees, I recommend removal. For larger, established trees, I recommend chemical control, followed by pruning to remove the unsightly, dead branches. We are likely fighting a losing battle with this pest, and unless you are prepared to spend some money to control the insects, I suggest you plant something else.
UPDATE 2013: The past three seasons, I also tried spraying the leaves with systemic insecticides at different intervals, with little success. Some people tell me that they’ve read on the internet that you can control this pest with chemicals. Well, this blog is on the internet too, and I can tell you from experience that the controls don’t work. You’re better off with a healthy, new tree.