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
All over Red Deer and other Alberta towns and cities, the big mature birch trees are dying. Why?
There are a number of factors that contribute to the decline of a weeping or paper birch. First, the majority of our soils in the Red Deer area are clay-based, alkaline grassland soils, which are not particularly well suited for birch trees that prefer moist, acidic forest soils. So they can be expected to live an abbreviated existence by that fact alone.
Dead top due to bronze birch borer infestataion.
Birches also prefer moist, well drained soils, and aren’t exceptionally tolerant to drought conditions. Stressed trees are prone to insect attack by birch leafminer wasps, and bronze birch borer, both of which heavily infest Red Deer trees. Birch leafminer is very common. If your birch leaves are brown and crispy by late June, and the leave look like skeletonized, that’s leafminer. There are several species with up to many generations of attack per growing season. Birch leafminer doesn’t kill the tree directly, but it does add stress to already troubled trees, opening it up to attack by the more serious boring insects. Leafminer attack tends to stunt the growth of trees by limiting sugar production in the leaves through photosynthesis. The presence of bronze birch borer indicates that your tree is in decline and most likely won’t recover, unless you can catch it in the very early stages, which is tough to do. The first sign of attack is yellow, sparse, or stunted growth in the upper part of the crown. This leads to twig and branch dieback (see picture). Trees often decline for several years before dying, although if conditions are right, they can die quickly. I’ve pruned trees that seemed okay in late summer, only to have them die over the winter.
So what can we do about bronze birch borer?
Every spring, as soon as your birch tree “leafs-out”, inspect the canopy. Look at the ends of the branches for deadwood. I always take tip-dieback in the crown more seriously than dead branches within the crown. Tip-dieback can be a sign of serious problems, such as root dysfuntion or boring insects. If you see tip-dieback, chances are it is out of your reach and you will need to contact a professional arborist. I’m not telling this to make you spend money. I’m telling you this because if you want to save your tree, now is the time and you will need someone who can: 1) access the tips, and 2) knows what and where to prune the branches once he gets there. So if you remove the die-back early enough, the arborist may be able to remove the borer infestation as well.
Inspect the tree in summer. If there are branches that have flagging leaves (yellow/orange leaves that are dying but not falling off the branch), that is an indication of borer attack. Now is also the time to call the arborist for the same reasons mentioned above.
There are chemical controls for bronze birch borer, but there effectiveness is limited. I believe they slow the insect down but the trees continues to slowly decline.
What can we do about birch leafminer?
Birch leafminer is becoming so common that almost every weeping birch I see in Red Deer is affected by mid- to late June. Some trees look so bad I wonder how they survive. There are a number of controls. Some work and some do not. Many people are finding live nematode treatments from local garden centres. They are costly and the feedback I’ve continue to receive is that they don’t work.
Leafminer infested trees in Westpark neighbourhood, Red Deer. S.LePage photo 2014.
There are two chemicals that I use that offer good control: TreeAzin (derived from neem kernel oil), and Orthene (a convention system insecticide). I will also mention the chemicals Cygon and Lagon (same thing, and dimethoate is the active ingredient). Cygon and Lagon are banned for use in residential areas, because they were found to leach into groundwater to enter our streams and rivers. They offered excellent control (almost 100%) and I haven’t found anything that offers as good of control since. That said, the other two systemics I use are very good and offer 85+% control.
TreeAzin: as close to “organic” as you can get. Very safe for the applicator, homeowners, kids, and pets. Applied by trunk injection and taken up into the trunk and into the leaves within 48 hours. It is a feeding suppressant and the leafminer larvae starves inside the leaves. This is a safe and effective chemical that will be the dominant treatment we use for this insect in the coming years.
Orthene: a system chemical applied to the foliage by spraying. Orthene works very well, but it is also a very toxic chemical for humans, pets, birds, fish, and pretty much everything. I use it in areas where spray drift can either be controlled, or is not a factor. If there is any chance the drift will contaminate a neighbouring property, or there is any evidence of children or pets, I will not spray this chemical. Thanks to TreeAzin, Orthene use is becoming obsolete for use on birch.
Chemical controls are best administered as a preventative treatment in late May. Some people like to wait until they see damage, but by that time a large portion of the tree can be affected. If your tree is normally infested each year by leafminer, there is an excellent chance that it will be infested next year too, as the larvae overwinter in the soil beneath the tree. Preventative control works. Systemic chemicals must be applied annually.
TreeAzin applied by trunk injection. S. LePage photo 2014.
If I remove my infested and declining tree, should I plant another birch?
Maybe. That depends on how much you like birch. When someone asks us to remove a sick birch, I normally recommend 4 or 5 different species to use as a substitute for the next planting. I don’t plant very many birch trees anymore, but if I do, it is only because the homeowner insists on having birch and is prepared for the annual preventative maintenance of controlling the pests. Leafminer species attack all species of birch, including river birch, dwarf birch, actic birch, and hybrids.
What are some suitable species to use instead of birch if I want a nice shade tree?
We like ‘Prairie Cascade’ weeping willow, Silver-leaf willow, ‘Silver Cloud’ maple, ‘Patmore’ elm, ‘Sienna Glen’ maple, bur oak, trembling aspen, and others, depending on the exposure and the site.
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
Philadelphus lewisii (common mockorange)
Philadelphus lewisii ‘Blizzard’
A trio of ‘Blizzard’ mockorange thriving in a north exposure. S. LePage photo.
Mockorange is a common native shrub in Alberta gardens. It is extremely tough and has an excellent fragrant floral display in late June to early July. We rarely use the common mockorange because it is a big, messy-looking shrub that doesn’t fit most small yards, and it best suited for larger spaces such as parks, burms, and acreages, where it can grow to to maturity unhindered by the power hedger.
One of my favourite shrubs, and one of the top 5 shrubs we use in landscape design, is the ‘Blizzard’ cultivar, which is considerably smaller at maturity, but has the same great hardiness and flower display. ‘Blizzard’ is one of the first shrubs to leaf-out in the spring, suffers little or no die-back, and will grow well in shadier spots.
Full sun to mostly shade.
Anytime; minimal pruning required.
Simply shorten wayward branches to balance the overall form.
Crown Reduction and Shaping
Not recommended. Mockorange responds vigorously to shearing, and will quickly grow back to whatever height you started with before you shaped the shrub. Unless you want to be a slave to this shrub, keep pruning to a minimum and do not shear. Overgrown, messy specimens can be cut back hard to within a few inches of the ground and will regenerate a new shrub from the existing root systems.
(c) Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
Barberry is a very commonly planted shrub in Prairie landscapes. A healthy specimen could be a very nice addition to the garden, as there are plenty of great-looking varieties. The problem with barberry is that is doesn’t over-winter well, and often looks ragged and shabby. For this reason, we don’t use them in our landscape designs, and we recommend that people remove unsightly specimens and replace with hardier, lower maintenance shrubs. In my career, I have found that specimens in Edmonton generally look better than those in more southerly locations, but winter die-back is still a problem.
To improve your chances of having a nice-looking barberry in your yard, choose healthy plants from the garden centre, plant in moist, well-drained soil with a mulch cover, and plant in a sunny spot that offers a bit of protection from the harshness of winter.
Full to part sun
The best time to prune is after the shrub is in full leaf, so you can easily identify the dead branches and tips.
Remove dead branches each in late spring. Shorten wayward branches to balance the form.
Shaping & Crown Reduction
Most of the barberries I see in the landscape have been massacred by power hedgers. This is unsightly. I do not recommend shaping barberries. They look much better in their natural form.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
Apples are among my favourite trees. Besides being great for fruit, they have a great deal of ornamental value in the landscape. They are extremely hardy, and can tolerate the worst abuse and neglect and still thrive. Apples are resilient and adaptable, and can be properly pruned in many ways, from espalier training along a wall or fence, to a variety of maintained shapes and sizes, or minimally pruned to enhance their beautiful, natural round form. They offer a stunning spring flower display and are a compact tree, making them a good choice as a specimen in a small garden. Many fruiting varieties are available for prairie gardeners, but if you don’t pick the fruit, and don’t appreciate the mess of fermenting applesauce in your yard in fall, you’ll be better off choosing a sterile flowering crabapple over these trees. The other caveat I offer is that apples need proper and regular maintenance to look their best.
Shaping a small apple in April in Red Deer. R. LePage photo.
Full Sun but preferably not south-facing where they get full exposure all day. Their thin-barked trunks have a tendency to develop sun-scorch. I place them where I know the trunk will get either filtered sun or a bit of shade from a neighbouring plant.
Time to Prune
Dormancy, from late Fall to mid-April is best. I only prune apples in summer to repair broken branches.
There are many ways to prune an apple, depending on the location of the tree, the desire for fruit, and whether or not a formal shape or a natural form is preferred. Since the majority of people I speak to want “low-maintenance,” I will describe the maintenance for a natural form.
I rarely get the call from people to prune their apple trees until they’ve been in the ground for 10-15 years, minimum. By then, they have developed very poor structure, and radical pruning is sometimes necessary. Even then, I’m usually unable to restore a good structure without seriously disfiguring the crown. So on a mature tree that hasn’t had any proper maintenance in the past, you simply remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood, remove redundant or severely crossing and rubbing branches, and manage the overall shape of the tree by pruning back over-extended branches from time to time to make things appear balanced. As with most trees, the goal of pruning should be to have a flow of branches “up and out” from the main trunk. The tree in the picture above has pretty good structure, which was a bit lucky since it hadn’t had any proper maintenance until I pruned it.
The most common thing I see is poor structure like that shown in the apple below, where many or all the of main branches originate from the same point on the trunk. This can be corrected at planting, either by proper structural pruning, or by simply selecting a better plant from the garden centre. A tree like this should have been pruned each year over the first 5 or so years of its life and it would be a much different tree today. It is healthy, but will eventually have problems as the 5 or 6 main limbs crowd each other, create what is knows as included bark, and open the tree up to failure in severe weather. Since that photo was taken, we’ve reduced the height of the crown by about 6′, given it an umbrella-like shape much like an orchard-style tree, and we now prune it annually, favouring flower buds and developing fruiting spurs. The owners preferred a tree that wasn’t any higher than they could safely pick apples off their ladder.
Poorly-structured apple growing under the shade of a large old willow in Red Deer. R. LePage photo.
If you have an opportunity to start training a natural-form apple from planting, do the following. Most importantly, select a tree that has a single-stem trunk (called a central leader standard), with well spaced lateral branches. If there are two or more main branches originating from one point, reject the tree. Plant the tree in spot in the yard where it will fit in its mature form without clearance pruning. Most apples mature at about 15-20′ height and width. That means don’t plant the tree any closer to than 8-10′ in all directions from the fence, house, or garage. Trust me on this and you’ll thank me later. When a tree has its space, it is a lot easier to maintain and looks a lot better without regular intervention from the restless husband or the over-zealous neighbour. In the first year, you may not have to make any cuts if you select a good tree. In the second and subsequent years, remove dead, diseased, or broken limbs, and remove branches that are growing back toward the trunk, and branches that are crossing and rubbing, and might appear to be a problem as the tree matures. One common mistake people make is that they prune off every bud on every branch as high as they can reach. Buds and small twigs and spurs are important. They shade the stems and feed the growing fruit. And without fruiting spurs, you won’t have any fruit. So leave the little branches and sprus alone as they are valuable for the tree and for its appearance.
Apples are one of the most suitable trees for shaping and crown reduction. As with all trees and shrubs that are cut from the “top-down,” however, be warned that formally shaping an apple tree is a high-maintenance procedure that requires skill and experience to pull off correctly. Improperly pruned, you will be left with a topped tree that will quickly (a year or two) turn into a mess that will require restoration pruning in order to resolve. Unless you are an experienced pruner and appreciate high-maintenance, avoid crowd reduction and shaping. A shaped apple in the Red Deer area will require annual re-shaping to look its best. In the Calgary area, you could probably get by with 2 or 3 years between prunings.
In a later post, I will thoroughly explain the process of properly shaping an apple or crabapple tree. The photo below shows a crabapple tree that we’ve shaped for four consecutive years. We set the shape the first year, and now, each April, we reshape the tree by removing all of last year’s growth back to the first flower bud or point of origin of the new growth. We also properly thin the crown to avoid congestion and to have a well-balanced, full canopy. There are no indiscriminate cuts. Every cut is made to either a bud or a lateral branch.
Crown-reduced crabapple and spruce in St. Albert. S. LePage photo.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB
Sambucus racemosa (Red Elderberry)
Sambusus canadensis ‘Aurea’ (Golden Elder)
Foliage and berries of the red elderberry.
I grew up with this plant on the north coast of BC, where it grew wild in open areas along roadsides, stream banks, and moist clearings. I like it best in its native habitat, perfectly placed by nature and without the need for human intervention. It has interesting compound foliage, a nice flower display in the spring, and a great show of berries in summer. As an ornamental, I’m usually not a fan of elder. It is quick growing with a messy growth habit, and turns leggy and unsightly with age and neglect. I think this might be best planted on an acreage, in a large un-manicured bed with other native plants, left to do its own thing, similar to how we’d find it in nature. It is a short-lived shrub. Many varieties of elder have highly medicinal parts, and the old settlers considered it lucky to cultivate, and unlucky to destroy.
Full sun to part shade
Time to Prune
Dormancy; late fall to mid-April, prior to bud-break
Elderberry is one of those shrubs that needs care and pruning from an early age. Because it grows quickly, it can look disorderly and unkempt within a couple years. I prune this shrub similar to how I would a lilac or tatarian honeysuckle, as a tall, multi-stemmed bush. Remove basal suckers each year to maintain a clean looking base. I retain a few suckers that I feel will eventually replace older stems. Remove all fine deadwood in the crown to as high and as close to the tips as your patience will allow. For the sake of affordability, I normally stop around eye-level when working on a client’s shrub, but if I had one of these in my own yard, I would put more time into them. Remove redundant or badly crossing and rubbing stems. I like to have the main stems evenly spaced within the crown. It makes an otherwise unruly shrub look thoughtfully maintained.
Elderberry shrubs tolerates very hard pruning and renovation (cut to within a few inches of the ground). They regenerate readily from the root system. Hard pruning like this must be done during the dormant period, between late Fall and mid-Spring.
Crown Reduction and Shaping
Alternative to the method above, elderberries are suitable for shearing and shaping. I would start by renovating an old specimen to grade in winter or spring. After the growth flush in June, I would carefully shape the shrub using sharp hand shears into an upright oval shape. I would probably take 8-12″ off the top and sides. A follow up shearing in mid-summer will tweak any new shoots that have grown out of the shape. In the second year, re-shape the shrub in mid-June (during the growth flush) and again in mid- to late summer to tighten up the form. In the second year onward, less is more when removing height. Allow the shrub to grow a few inches each year in height and girth.
One caution is that elderberry sometimes suffers bad winterkill, and half the shrub may be dead after a tough winter. If that happens, renovate the shrub to grade and start over. If the shrub has sufficient energy, you can re-start the shaping process. If the growth is weak, the shrub would best be replaced.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB.
Siberian apricot (Prunus sibirca)
‘Westcot’, ‘Capilano #1′, ‘M604′
Apricot is very uncommonlly planted on the prairies. I have seen only a few older specimens, and have only pruned a handful in the past 12 years. That said, they are an interesting small tree, with stunning pink blossoms in the spring, and rarely, small, sour apricots in mid-summer. The most impressive specimen I saw was in a 30 year old neighbourhood in Red Deer, and the tree was cascading over a small pond, bordered by an attractive stone pathway. I can’t think of a better place for a tree like this. For a moment, I forgot I was in Red Deer.
Apricot buds and flowers are easily damaged by spring frosts, and you may only see fruit on a prairie-grown apricot once every 5 years.
When to Prune
In dormancy, from late fall to mid-Spring (preferred).
Since fruit production is not an issue, treat this tree as you would an apple or chokecherry. Train as a central leader standard with well-spaced main branches. Subordinate co-dominant leaders, and remove dead, diseased, and damaged branches.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB.
‘Annabelle’, ‘Little Lamb’, ‘Vanilla Strawberry’, ‘Pinky Winky’
Four varieties of hardy hydrangea at my house in Red Deer. S. LePage photo.
I never paid much attention to hydrangea until the last couple of years. It isn’t commonly planted and I don’t often see really nice specimens in the yards I work in. All that changed a few years ago when I saw the most incredible ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas growing in a protected back yard picking up filtered late day south and west exposure. The white blooms were as big as I’ve ever seen and the plant made a stunning addition to the small patio garden. Since then, I’ve been planting them in a variety of situations and exposures, using a number of cultivars. We like ‘Pinky Winky’ and frequently use it in our designs, as it seems to be the most durable cultivar, and has unusual, pinkish, lilac-like blossoms. My 4-year old daughter thinks they’re all nice. Just make sure when you are selecting a cultivar at the garden centre, that the plant is Zone 3. I’ve seen many Zone 4 varieties sold locally, and these will not make it.
East seems best. If planted on the south or west sides, they will need to be protected by the shade of other plants or structures.
When to Prune
Late fall to mid-Spring (preferred)
Planting and Pruning
I have consistently noticed that hydrangea suffers transplant shock, especially the ‘Annabelle’ cultivar. They wilt shortly after planting and will require frequent watering until the roots establish. Even covered with a fine wood chip mulch, I had to water my new hydrangeas (see photo) almost every day. I’ve also received panicked phone calls from customers after we plant their hydrangeas, and I assure them if they water them well, they will be ok. Plant in moist, well-drained soil.
Hydrangeas respond well to hard pruning in many climates, but I am reluctant to prune them too aggressively here in Alberta, at least until the roots are well established. After planting the first year, I dead-headed the flowers in fall back to a set of fat, healthy-looking buds and I removed messy crossing and rubbing branches from the interior of the plant. Next year, I will probably be more aggressive and prune the plants back to a strong, woody, framework, making sure all cuts are made to fat buds. With mature plants, remove any weak, thin stems, and one or two of the oldest stems each year. Hard pruning results in fewer, but larger, flower heads.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.
This is a very attractive small tree with multiple seasons of interest. Colourful pinkish to red samaras in summer give way to stunning red fall foliage. Amur maple is an excellent tree for small spaces and as a specimen in a mixed planting with shrubs and perennials. We often use these trees in shrub beds that are close to the house or deck, where we want some height and sense of enclosure, but don’t want to worry about excessive pruning to control size and shape.
Fall colour on amur maple.
When to Prune
Late May to early September, when tree is in full leaf.
Planting and Pruning
Amur maples are sensitive to planting depth. Make sure the root ball is at grade and break up any circling roots before placing the potted specimen in the planting hole. I commonly see deeply planted maples with extensive tip die-back in the crown as a result of root suffocation. This is easy to avoid and a properly planted amur will reward you will excellent growth.
Most plants that I’ve encountered are over-pruned at the nursery and have a messy interior crown with fast-growing, co-dominant leaders. Structural pruning is important for these young trees. Without proper structural training, amur maples often develop a messy, haphazard, and even self-destructive growth habit. Properly trained, they are a very nice, long-lived addition to the garden.
Subordinate co-dominant leaders and remove crossing and rubbing branches at planting. Remove deadwood each year throughout the crown. Subordinate lateral branches that have a diameter that is half or greater the diameter of the main trunk.
Plant in a mulched shrub bed or in a mulched tree well if it is planted alone. Mulch will keep the roots cool and moist and prevent competition with surrounding vegetation, especially turf grass.
Unsuited to crown reduction and not recommended. Do not top.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service, Red Deer, AB
Alberta spruce in a nursery.
Picea glauca ‘Conica’
Alberta spruce is a commonly planted conifer in Alberta. It has an attractive miniature pyramidal form with densely arranged needles. Routinely subject to “winter burn” or “winter kill,” these plants can often look unsightly following an Alberta winter, with half of more of the plant dead and brown. While this plant potentially has many uses as an accent plant in a shrub or perennial planting, we avoid it and do not include it in our landscape designs.
Part sun. A protected spot with north or east exposure preferred.
Pruning & Maintenance
Low maintenance. None required. For a more polished appearance, shear lightly with sharp hand shears once annually after the growth flush. Plant in a mulched shrub bed to prevent competition with grass and to conserve moisture in the root zone.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
Elms at the Church of Jesus Christ, Devon, AB. S.LePage photo 2013.
American Elm – Ulmus Americana
‘Brandon’ Elm – Ulmus Americana ‘Brandon’ (shorter than U. americana and more broad-headed crown)
‘Patmore’ Elm – Ulmus Americana ‘Patmore’ (tall, upright vase-shape. Suitable for smaller sites)
American elm is my favorite shade tree for my region. Rated at zone 2, it is the toughest shade tree that will not only survive, but thrive in our area. American elm has a distinctive vase-shaped crown, very hard, dense wood, and a thick leafy crown. Despite its attractive form, however, it has a few potential problems. In Southern Alberta, European elm scale is a big problem, and has left many elms dead, and thousands are in dire health. Dutch elm disease (DED) has killed countless thousands of trees in North America, and while we haven’t had to deal with it in Alberta, it may be inevitable that it shows up. The scale problem is so bad in Calgary, that when people ask me about the threat of DED, I usually tell them not to worry, because the elm scale will likely finish off our elms before Dutch elm disease even gets here! I have been reluctant to plant new elms for the past few years, but have decided to once again use them in landscaping, for two reasons. First, I love them. Second, we have effective treatments to manage European elm scale and DED, and I’m prepared to use those treatments on a regular basis for the pleasure of having healthy, majestic elms in our urban landscapes.
When to Prune
October 1st to March 31st, to prevent the spread of Dutch elm disease.
Structure and Pruning
Elm is one of a few species that, left to its own devices, often develops poor structure. Proper structural training after planting and for the first several years is important, if not critical, to develop strong branch attachments. I recently planted a #15 potted elm in my front yard. It needed about 4 small pruning cuts after planting to start the process of proper training. With elm, the main goal is to develop a strong central leader. We accomplish this by subordinating – reducing the length of – co-dominant branches. This sounds fancy but really its just a matter of being aware of two competing leaders and either removing one or cutting one back so that the tree recognizes the uncut branch as the true leader of the tree. This is a technique that has not been in use long enough for us to see the results on most mature elms. The majority of street tree elms we see today have major co-dominance issues, and as a result have developed structural problems, such as included bard, at the branch attachments. A properly pruned elm will become a strong mature tree that will require little maintenance and will resist storm damage.
Most often, I get the call to work on elms once they are mature, and they have either not had any pruning, or very poor pruning, over the years. If they have had no pruning, there is little I can do to change the structure of a mature elm. All I can do is manage the appearance of the tree by removing dead and diseased wood, and improve its safety by reducing poorly attached or over-extended limbs. Due to structural problems, it is often necessary to install bracing systems into mature elms, such as bolts and synthetic cables, to prevent branch failure in severe weather.
Poorly structured mature elm with several main trunks originating from same point on trunk. S.LePage photo 2014.
Health and Appearance
Remove dead, diseased, and damaged wood from the crown periodically to keep the elm looking healthy. On newly planted trees, I always install a mulched area around the tree to prevent competition from weeds and grass. Generally, as my specimen shade tree gets larger, I extend the mulched area each year or two, and may then begin to under-plant the tree with a shrub or two, or perhaps some perennials. Water is important, and a mulched bed is the most important thing any tree-owner can do to conserve moisture in the root-zone and prevent drought stress to the tree. Fertilization is unnecessary unless the tree shows specific nutrient deficiencies.
Many people express concern that their elm is too tall and are worried about their safety should the tree fail. The most common homeowner suggestion is that we top the tree and make it smaller. As with most trees, and shade trees in particular, topping is inappropriate and will lead to much bigger problems later. If the tree has poor structure and is getting very large, we can assess the tree as a potential hazard. All it may need is some reduction pruning to properly shorten a few over-extended or poorly attached limbs. Or, we may need to install a bolt and cable.
Elm tolerates hard pruning and I regularly restore trees that were mutilated by topping. On occasion, I perform a crown reduction every two to three years and completely reshape the tree. This practice is very high maintenance and costly, only recommended if the tree was topped, but is still highly valued in the yard and removal is not an option.
Roots and Foundations
The belief that roots attack foundations is largely a myth, especially on the Prairies where soil moisture is low and most of the roots grow in the top few inches of soil. That being said, I wouldn’t consider planting a large shade tree within 20-25 feet of the foundation, because studies have shown that in cases where roots have affected foundations, the majority of the cases occurred within 25 feet of the house. But the main reason to plant a large tree far from the dwelling is so it has room to grow without interference or the need for radical pruning as it gets older.
(c) 2014 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.