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.
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.
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”
There is a disease in the urban landscape that I call “Bored Guy Syndrome.” It’s everywhere and I pray I never get it. This is where people 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) 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 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.
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 still largely unknown to people, and its potential for damage grossly underestimated by arborists, landscapers, and government bodies. It attacks over 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 material in Alberta.
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 established in others. Cotoneaster is the preferred host, but we have now seen it infesting crabapples, apples, hawthorn, mountain ash, green ash, common lilac, yellow-twig willow, saskatoon, dogwood, amur cherry, and ‘Schubert’ chokecherry. Entire streets have lost their cotoneaster hedges in some neighbourhoods. As of late 2015, the owner of another tree service in Calgary told me that virtually every yard he works in is now affected.
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 yellowish “crawlers”, which is the immature stage of the insect. A few crawlers might not warrant control measures. A heavy infestation will require a spray. The main predators for oystershell scale are ladybugs and lacewings, but from what I’ve seen, not in sufficient numbers to control the scale.
Oystershell scale insects are straightforward to control using conventional insecticides. 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. Dormant oil spray is largely ineffective during the dormant season, because the eggs are protected beneath the waxy dead adult shell. Infested trees can be sprayed in the same manner as hedges.
In order to avoid the use of conventional insecticides, some municipalities and community associations are recommending the use of dormant oil spray in June. The only product I know that is registered for such use is Purespray Green oil. It is also effective to spray with oil later in June, when the crawlers are in the “furry” nymph stage between crawler and adult.
“Most horticultural oils presently marketed are sufficiently refined to allow their use on plants when foliage is present. These ‘summer oils’ can be very effective for control of oystershell scale during early stages in their development, as post crawler sprays typically applied at some time in June. Young stages of oystershell scale, with minimally developed wax covers, can be effectively smothered with sprays of these oils.” – W.S. Cranshaw, Colorado State University (May 2013).
Starting in 2019, we will be using summer oil for two weeks as a post-crawler stage treatment in mid- to late June.
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.
To book pesticide applications, please call early in the season, as spray timing is very important.
UPDATE Spring 2016 – EPIDEMIC
We have just concluded our seasonal spraying for oystershell scale in Calgary, and this year has been, by far, the worst season for oystershell scale in the city. Besides cotoneaster hedges, we have identified the insects on the following plants:
Apple, crabapple (especially purple-leaved rosybloom crabs; the ‘Dolgo’ crabs are much more resistant), hawthorns, common lilac, mountain ash, green ash (especially in Douglasdale and Inglewood), amur cherry (Douglasdale), and ‘Schubert’ chokecherry (Inglewood).
I expect to see a high rate of tree mortality among the ornamental species in the next 3-5 years. The vast majority of plant material in Calgary goes untreated, and our control efforts are not even statistically significant. To date, I have not seen or heard of a response by The City of Calgary. The problem is getting so severe, that I’m not sure what the City would even be able to do about the problem at this point. We’ve now seen scale in every neighbourhood in Calgary.
Our research indicates that oystershell has the potential to infest many more species, including elms (already infested by European elm scale), willows, and all poplar species. I will update this blog as the situation progresses.
Unfortunately, many people are receiving poor advice about how to deal with oystershell scale. Even more distressing is that the advice is coming from tree services, landscapers, and garden centres, whom people tend to trust.
The most common piece of advice is to cut down the hedge. Well, ok, that’s fine if the hedge is half dead and looks terrible, but I’ve seen plenty of people cutting their beautiful hedges to the ground, when you can’t even tell that they have scale at all. This is a mistake. First of all, if you catch the infestation early, it can easily be controlled with properly-timed sprays. Second, many people are cutting their hedges down when the plants are in full-leaf, which is a big mistake, because it robs the already weakened plants of stored energy. If you must cut down your hedge, do it during the dormant season, from November until early April.
Ok, so you’ve cut down the hedge. Now what are you going to do? Well, nobody seems to have any advice at this point. I can tell you from plenty of experience that a hedge that was cut to the ground in April, will be re-infested with scale by June, if proper control measures aren’t taken. The scale infests the plants right to the base of the stems.
So cutting back a hedge is fine if required, but the cutting back does nothing to stop the advance of the scale. At some point, if you want to keep your cotoneaster hedge, you will have to start a control program, which will involve at least one, and probably two applications of some kind of insecticide, in late May to mid-June.
Not many people want to talk about spraying anymore, and colleges and government agencies tend to avoid mention of chemicals altogether. The fact is that proper insecticide use is part of a well-rounded integrated pest management program, a “tool in the tool box”. Sometimes, sprays are necessary. For many insect problems, they can be avoided. For proper oystershell scale control, in an ornamental urban landscape, they are necessary.
(c) Shane LePage 2011/16/19, Wild Rose Tree Service & Pest Control, Red Deer, AB
There are two rules of thumbs I live by in my pruning work: less is more, and, do what’s needed. Sometimes a lot of pruning is required, but doing less would not achieve the required result. I teach my staff that they should prune with accountability in mind. That is, every cut they make should have a purpose, and if the client should question any cut, they should know exactly why they did what they did. Random, indiscriminate pruning is a disservice to the customer and tree. If you don’t know why you are making a cut, don’t make it.
Trees store energy in their twigs, limbs, trunks, and roots. When we prune branches, we remove stored energy. We must assess the health and vigour of the tree before we decide the pruning “dose.” A stressed, slow-growing tree will have a hard time dealing with a lot of unnecessary pruning, and a healthy, vigorous tree will respond to unnecessary pruning by putting out a lot of new growth in the form of waterspouts and adventitious growth.
The best way to assess the vigour of a tree is to measure the growth rate from the past few years. To do this, you must identify the terminal bud scale scar from the previous year’s growth (figure). Excellent growth over several years is a good indicator that you prune what you need to without too much concern. With a very slow-growing tree, be mindful to prune only what is absolutely necessary. Other ways of assessing health include leaf size, bud size, accumulation of deadwood, tip die-back, and presence of disease (such as fireblight or black knot).
Generally, it is safe to prune up to 10% of the crown of a tree at any time of year. On a very stressed tree, however, I would be concerned about taking off more than 5%. Some species, such as rosybloom crabapple varieties and hawthorn, are prone to extremely congested canopies if left untouched for many years. On these trees, it may be necessary to prune 25% or more of the canopy, and this is fine, provided the growth rate and vigour (bud or leaf size) indicate a healthy tree.
My favourite pruning instructor, Dr. Edward Gilman, formerly of the University of Florida, once told me, when I was humming and hawing about a branch that required removal, “You can cut it now, or you can cut it later, but it has to be cut.”
Less is more. Do what’s needed.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer
You can tell whether or not you’re dealing with a serious ornamental pruners by the selection of ladders on their truck. I have several types of ladders in my arsenal: several orchard ladders, two extension ladders, a pair of sawhorses, and the “secret weapon,” which is a 2” tall platform ladder.
You can purchase orchard ladders from 6’-20’ in length. I carry a 6’, 10’, and 14’ on my pruning truck, and we keep a 16’ back at the shop for the odd job that requires it. In Alberta, a 10’ orchard ladder is the go-to ladder on almost every ornamental pruning job. It’s easy to move in, under, and around most trees, and is tall enough for most pruning applications where professional tree climbing is not required. Orchard ladders are excellent on flat terrain, which is what we deal with most of the time. Sloped terrain can be a bit more challenging and requires a bit of practice to figure out. I find them much more versatile and safe to use that the common electrician’s ladder.
I’ve found there are really only two main uses of extension ladders: accessing a roof of a structure, and shaping tall conifers with hand shears.
If you long, tall hedges, a 12” plank supported by two sawhorses can be very useful to facilitate hedging.
The “Secret Weapon”
The secret weapon is a 2’ tall platform ladder, and is an extremely versatile tool for pruning and hedging, where you just need a little more height, without the bulkiness of carrying around a 6’ orchard ladder. Highly recommended. It also offers better footing than a ladder rung.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc.
If you want to make the best cuts, it’s important to have quality tools. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a fortune, but a few extra dollars spent on excellent pruning tools will not only make your work easier, more enjoyable, and more attractive, but you’ll make cleaner cuts, which benefits the plants too.
I use a few main tools for everyday pruning and maintenance: the secateurs (or hand-pruners), a hand saw, loppers, a pole pruner, and long-handled shears. I generally avoid the use of pole saws, because I find that it’s difficult to make precision cuts with a hand saw from 6’ or more away from the cut. If I think I need a pole saw, I get out an orchard ladder of appropriate length and make the cut with a handsaw, from the ladder. I always try to get as close to my work as possible, to make the cleanest, most accurate cuts. It’s pretty much impossible to do thorough and proper pruning, on ornamental trees, without a ladder. I’ll discuss ladders in more detail below.
For cuts larger than about 3-4” in diameter, you may want to invest in a small chainsaw, although for most maintenance pruning applications, chainsaws are not required. There are some excellent small chainsaws on the market, specifically designed for pruning applications. As with other tools, it pays to buy quality. If you have a large yard, with a lot of trees, and expect be doing a lot of work, it would pay to get a contractor-grade chainsaw from a chainsaw dealer, rather than from a big box hardware store.
I buy my tools from specialty arborist supply stores. All of the equipment you need is available from arborist supply stores online. Two of my favourites are thearboristsupplyco.com (local Albertan company and very personalized service) and treestuff.com (based out of the US, but quick service and excellent selection).
I’ll cover each tool, and its application, separately.
In everyday plant maintenance, the secateurs are the most commonly used tool, so the importance of buying the right secateurs cannot be overstated. The industry-standard for quality is the Felco brand of by-pass pruners, and they are available in both left- and right-handed. All the parts are replaceable, and properly looked after, you probably won’t have to buy another set of these in your lifetime. They are easy to sharpen and maintain. Beware the knock-offs available in discount and big-box hardware stores.
Secateurs are great for pruning twigs and branches up to about 1/2” in diameter, on most species. On species with very hard wood, such as dead lilac, frozen apple, or elm, you might only want to cut branches up to 1/4” before you take out your handsaw. If the cut requires undo strain, or if you find yourself rocking back and forth with your wrist during the cut, then the branch is too big for the secateurs. Pruning in this way will harm your wrist, and likely make a messy cut on the tree.
For hard-core pruning enthusiasts, or career pruners, Felco offers an electronic pruner with a thin, backpack-style battery. As a commercial pruner, I own a few of these units because they handle pruning cuts up to 1.25”, which means I don’t have to use my handsaw nearly as much as if I were using standard secateurs. The main advantage with the electronic pruner is speed, efficiency, and virtually no wrist strain, even if pruning all day. The main disadvantage, especially for the homeowner, is the cost. Felcotronic pruners run about $2500, and require more frequent servicing than hand pruners. They are exceptionally well-made, and properly maintained, can last decades, according to the manufacturer. I’ve been using my first set for 11 years and they still run like they did when I bought them. For commercial applications, I couldn’t live without them.
The second-most used tool is the handsaw, and quality is very important. Sub-standard saws can make ugly cuts, regardless of technique. I started out with a Corona saw, and made what I though were decent cuts. Then I discovered the Silky Zubat handsaw, and never looked back. I use Corona as a disposable root saw now. The Zubat is made of top quality Japanese steel, and is supremely sharp. You can make the finest, most impressive looking cuts. Generally, I use my handsaw for cuts greater than 1/2” in diameter.
I don’t actually use loppers because I have electronic pruners that do the work of loppers, except much more quickly. Loppers are useful because they can cut branches from 1/2” to about 1” so quickly, and with greater leverage, than by using a handsaw. To me, their only practical use is to remove suckers near the base of trees and shrubs, such as lilacs, or to cut down medium-sized hedges, like cotoneaster. I don’t like seeing them used to make pruning cuts on trees. My philosophy is that if you’re making a pruning cut from 2’ away from the branch with a set of loppers, you should get a step-ladder and make a better cut with a handsaw.
The Pole Pruner
My pole pruner is an extension of my arm. With enough practice, you can develop amazing dexterity with this tool. I use the pole frequently, in situations where a I can’t climb to reach a branch on the outer tips of the crown, or where making cuts too close to my work prevents me from seeing what I’m trying to accomplish, such as clearing spruce branch off a house, or reducing the width of a chokecherry, for example. Often, I need to see the “bigger picture” when making a cut, and this is where the pole pruner is most useful. Bear in mind, however, that pole cuts are usually not as high quality as secateur cuts, even when they look like it from a distance. Perfection is difficult to achieve from a distance of 6-12’. Often, I can clean-up a pole cut from a ladder. Sometimes I have to settle. The goal with pruning is to strive for excellent cuts, knowing that, occasionally, they are difficult to make.
A pole pruner consists of a cutting head, and one or more attachable poles. For ornamental work, where I use my pole frequently, I prefer a Marvin cutting head with a lightweight pole made from aspen. Pole work is a hard enough shoulder workout without the added weight of heavier materials, such as fibreglass. As with other tools, it pays to buy a professional-grade pole pruner from an arborist supply store. A good pole assembly costs around $175 (2018).
If you want to impress your friends and neighbours, master the use of hand shears. It takes a lot of practice to get really good with them, but if you stick it out, you’ll find that your ability and precision with power hedgers will be much better also. I love cutting plants with a pair of sharp shears. I prefer Bahco shears, made in France. Bang for buck, they are professional-grade, and take a real beating. As with other tools, properly maintained, they will last for years. I’ll cover the use of shears in a later section.
Hedge trimmers vs. Hand Shears
I learned to shape shrubs using shears, by old-school arborists who demanded exacting quality. For precision, and quality of cut, nothing compares to sharp, long-handled hand shears for trimming fine-twigged material such as cedar and juniper, medium-sized material such as dwarf korean lilac and potentilla, and even more course material, such as two year old spruce or common lilac branches.
Shears slice, like scissors, as opposed to gas or electric hedge shears, which rip or tear. I always use barber-shop analogy with my clients. I ask them, would you have your stylist cut your hair with a steak knife? On large projects, hand shearing can be a lot of work, and hard on the shoulders, shoulder-blades, back, etc. So these days, if its one or two shrubs, I’ll use the hand shears. On hedges, and larger topiaries, I might start with the gas hedgers to “rough-in” my shape, and then finish with the shears. This takes a good portion of the physical load out of the job, and the finished product is still very nice. I once hand-sheared a 400’ lilac hedge that was 8’ high by 8’ wide. It took two and a half long days, and was the most beautiful hedge I’ve ever made. It still hurts to think about and I will never do that again!
For those people who’ve never shaped hedges and other plant material, starting out using hand shears is a good idea, since the shaping is slower and more forgiving. That is, you can usually fix your mistakes before things get too out of hand. With power hedgers, you can make big mistakes quickly, that only time and another growing season can repair. On the prairies, that’s a long wait, so start slow, be careful. I’ve always said, if you can’t cut a straight line or a clean shape with hand shears, you won’t be able to with power hedgers.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc.
Some varieties of weigela are marginally hardy in central Alberta, and it is uncommon in the landscape. On the rare occasion when I do see a specimen in a client’s yard, it usually looks pretty dismal.
I trialled a couple different varieties the past couple years, and my favourite is ‘Red Prince’. It gets through winter fine, and has showy red flowers. The above picture was taken September 2nd. Die-back was minimal, even with the harsh winter of 2017-18.
I chose a southern exposure, with some light shade cast from surrounding trees. I gave this plant supplemental watering during dry periods and it is doing well.
Exposure – Full Sun
Pruning – Very little is required. Cut out any dead stems. Deadheading may extend the bloom period.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
I just got back from Montana, and was somewhat surprised with how much more variety they are able to use with trees and shrubs, only a few hours south of us. Oaks and maples, that barely make it through winter in Alberta, make majestic street trees in towns like Bozeman, Missoula, or Livingston.
Unfortunately, our choices for street trees are limited in Alberta, and many of our staples face ever increasing threats from invasive insect pests, such as European elm scale, oystershell scale, and inevitably, Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm Disease, both lingering just east of the province as of this writing (Sept 2018). Whenever I meet a fellow arborist, be they municipal or residential in specialization, we drift to the same topic of, “What are we going to use for street tree options?” But that’s the subject of another article.
So the same tree that grows to a height of 40′ or more in Montana, might make it through the winter here, and put on one to a few inches of growth per year, maxing out at a much shorter height and width. But so long as it’s hardy (ie. makes it through the winter intact), it can be a useful accent in our ornamental landscapes, or a welcome addition to our short list of small trees.
In the picture above, I used a serviceberry (basically a single-stem Saskatoon tree) as an accent in a bed of mature daylilies and irises, planted close to both my house and my neighbour’s. And even though this tree is sitting in 24″ of black dirt, and gets all the loving care it needs, it barely puts on new growth, maybe 1/4″ per year. But it flowers nicely, leafs out, bears fruit, and has excellent fall colour. What do I care if it grows? It’s perfect as it is.
In the above pic, I used a norther pin oak as a small tree to add height and contrast next to a heavily trained ‘Royalty’ crab and some dwarf hybrid lilacs. The slight nitrogen deficiency in the oak creates a lovely chartreuse colour that contrasts nicely against the deep purple leaf of the crab. The oak is growing at such a slow rate, I can keep this look and balance for many years.
My suggestion for people who want to create a bit of new interest in their tree and shrubs beds is to experiment with some new marginal trees (avoid zone 4, however, unless you like wasting money). So long as the tree makes it through winter, it is hardy. Worst case scenario is that you rip it out and try something else. For the hard-core gardeners, this can prove to be quite a bit of fun.
(c) 2018 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.
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.
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.
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
Soil is probably the most overlooked part of the landscaping process, and likely results in the majority of plant death, or at least lack of vigour. In my 1950’s neighbourhood I was lucky to inherit about 24” of good black dirt in both my front and back yard. There isn’t a Prairie hardy plant I can’t grow in that.
If you drive a few kilometres out toward suburbia, its a completely different world. Homeowners are lucky to get 4” of mediocre black dirt, and often less, which barely grows turf. I lived in a newer area of Sylvan Lake for a few years and the soil was so thin in my front yard I only had to mow my lawn twice per summer. Is it any wonder the trees on the boulevard haven’t grown in 10 years?
Tree roots need a deep, well-drained, loamy-type soil to grow well. For shade trees like elm, 18” – or more – of good black dirt is best. Most roots grow in the top few inches of soil, but if you’ve ever seen a cut-away of the soil on construction projects in mature neighbourhoods, you’ll know that some roots go deep. And since roots anchor the tree to the earth, having a good quality growing medium will help to ensure a healthy root system, and probably a longer-lived tree. I like the idea of a stable 50’ shade tree next to my house.
Why Thin Soils?
When a new field is developed for residential properties, the developers remove the top layer of soil, the “black dirt”, and pile it up for re-distribution later. Roads are built, lots are developed, and the remaining clay soils are heavily compacted by heavy construction equipment. In the building stage, the ground is further compacted by excavation equipment, and countless vehicles from tradespeople coming and going.
Prior to the new homeowners taking occupancy, what is to be the new yard is graded by skid-steer equipment, a skiff of black dirt is spread out, and sod is laid down, with a token discount tree in the front yard. A white vinyl fence is put in and, boom, the landscape is complete. Next house! It amazes to see these beautiful million-dollar homes with five hundred dollar landscapes.
But that’s not all. Often the clay and the black dirt are either worked when wet, or extensively driven on when wet, which turns the clay rock-hard, almost like a concrete. Roots have a very hard time penetrating those kinds of soil conditions. So plant growth is slow, leaves look washed out and sickly, and twig die-back is common over the winter. Combine poor soils with improper planting practices and poor plant selection, and whatever money homeowners have spent on their landscape has been a waste. To a large degree, this can be prevented with proper soil consideration prior to planting.
Knowing all this now, if you are planning to have a house built, or are thinking of buying a new one, get involved in the building process with your builder in the early stages, let them know you want 18” of black dirt. It’s the cheapest part of the construction process and the most overlooked! Plan on having a lot of the dirt delivered as late in the building process as you can, to avoid compaction. Source high quality black dirt or garden mix. If you’re truly ambitious, get a soil sample done and find out what the nutrient profile of the soil is, and add amendments as required.
If you’re renovating a landscape in a neighbourhood with thin, poor soil, be prepared to remove it and replace with better dirt.
Compaction can be broken up with tillage equipment. Don’t work the soil when wet. I’ve never seen any examples of “gitterdun” landscaping that looked good. Do things when the timing is right. Make a plan, have it drawn out, and get it looked at by a third party professional, such as an experienced arborist, landscape gardener, or landscape designer. Take the time to do things right. Spending a couple hundred on professional advice can save thousands in wasted plant material.
Good soil to a tree is what a warm, comfortable home, with a stocked fridge, supportive family, and good friends does for us. It provides a good foundation for living, allows us to thrive, put down roots, and live stable lives. Don’t overlook the importance of soil when designing your new landscape, or renovating an older one.
(c) 2017 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB.
I live in the 60-year old neighbourhood of Grandview, in Red Deer. It recently occurred to me that I should walk around the streets and alleys of my neighbourhood to see what remains of the original trees in my area. Surely, the best shade trees must be the ones that are still around after 6 decades. So which species have endured?
Spruce (white and Colorado blue)
By far, my community is dominated by mature spruce trees, and we have some very beautiful specimens. Most are probably middle age, so without significant in-fill activity, the neighbourhood should be well-treed with mature spruce for a long time.
Most of the remaining elms still look good after 60 years. Quite a few of the city elms have a cabling system in the tree to correct for poor structure. Not much was known about structural pruning 60 years ago, so trunk weaknesses are common. Both species of elm, but especially Siberian, spread by seed, and there are many elms that have matured close to structures and fences and odd places, that were clearly not planted there. From a survivability standpoint, if we were to abandon the neighbourhood, these self-seeding trees would be here long after we left.
Another self-seeder. It is difficult to determine which maples were originally planted by homeowners, and which came up as volunteers over the years. Needless to day, Manitoba maple is a very tough, adaptable, and enduring shade tree for our region. Many people consider them weedy, and they definitely are, but easy to grow, and if properly maintained, a valuable, long-lasting shade tree.
Mountain Ash (American and European)
There are no shortage of old mountain ash trees in the neighbourhood. Many are starting to look a bit ragged and decayed, but that is mainly due to neglect and lack of structural training in their early years. With proper maintenance, I believe many of these trees would be longer-lived. Mountain ash also spreads by sucker and seed.
Similar to mountain ash, I found many examples of old crabs and rosybloom crabs, neglected and messy, but otherwise healthy. One of the oldest crabapples I’ve maintained is in Mirror, on the oldest residential property in town, and it is close to 100 years old, maybe more. It is still in excellent health. So I’m really not sure how long these trees will live, but barring an outbreak of fireblight, these trees are a good choice for longevity.
Pines (Lodgepole, ponderosa, Scots)
Although few in number, the ones I saw were in excellent health, and, like the spruce, probably around middle-age. Lots of good years ahead for those. A nice sight in a large, old back yard. I even saw two old white pine, not in the best of health, but surviving.
Many of the original cedars, planted right next to the house, are still around and in good health. I suspect they are probably nowhere near the end of their lives. Cedars can be a challenge to establish, but once they do, they can do well in shady, dry environments. Most of them are growing in the dusty dirt next to the foundation.
There aren’t many green ash in my community, but most of the ones we have are as old as the neighbourhood, I’m sure. I expect some of them have another 20-30 years in them.
Most of the old willows in my area have been mutilated at least once over the years, which has undoubtedly shortened their lifespans, and made them more hazardous. Despite that, many still remain. Our oldest willow in town is over a 100 years old and looks fine.
I was surprised to see so many old, healthy balsam poplars. This is typically a hated tree species in Alberta, but despite their reputation, many of them are long-lived and in a lot better health than many of the surrounding trees.
Old cutleaf weeping birch are non-existent in my neighbourhood, but a few really great specimens of the native paper birch remain. A friend, and long-time native plant grower, explained to me that the reason for good longevity of the paper birches is that back in 50’s, the plant material came from good local seed sources, and was better suited to our region. I’m reluctant to plant birch of any kind anymore, due to the high incidence of birch leaf miner and bronze birch borer in Red Deer. However, paper birch is much more resistant to both insects than weeping birch.
If you’re thinking of using any of the trees I’ve mentioned in this blog, keep in mind that the mature size of many of these species are not appropriate for the smaller yards of today’s neighbourhoods, with the exception of flowering crabapples, mountain ash varieties, certain pines, cedars, certain cultivars of spruce, tatarian maple, and possibly ‘Patmore’ elm, due to its tight vase-shape.
Kind of makes me wonder what these newer neighbourhoods are going to look like 20 years from now. Probably not great. Which brings me to my next blog.
(c) 2017 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
Viburnum lantana ‘Mohican’ – Mohican Sun Wayfaring Tree
I didn’t pay much attention to this plant for the first decade as an arborist. It’s a nice shrub, but not spectacular, and it can easily go unseen for most of the year in the back of a large shrub bed. A few years ago, I started to notice just how hardy and tough this plant is, as it manages to get through winter almost unscathed. Then I had the chance to work on a few specimens and realized it really makes a great border at the back of a bed, grows well in alkaline soil, and is malleable (which is to say, it responds well to pruning and can be easily trained). I now try to incorporate this plant into designs where appropriate.
Wayfaring tree exhibits nice white flower clusters (cymes) in spring, and has an impressive display of berries in late summer, that changes in colour from green to red, and finally to black. The plant attracts birds and butterflies to the garden. It is a useful shrub to consider, and not overly common on the landscape. The mature plant can reach a height and spread of about 6′.
Full sun to part shade
Dormancy is best (late October to early April), so you can see the framework of branches.
Although it is a shrub, I prune it like I would a miniature tree, by removing crossing/rubbing branches, deadwood, disease, and broken limbs. I manage the overall shape by reducing wayward limbs as needed. If planted in the correct location, this shrub shouldn’t need hard pruning, just a few cuts each year to manage the structure and form.
Crown Reduction and Training
Although unnecessary, wayfaring tree responds very well to shaping (not shearing) with secateurs.
(c) 2017 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB
Virginia creeper is a hardy, resilient, fast-growing, and generally easy-to-grow vine on the Prairies. It is best known for its incredible fall colour. It’s only major drawback is annual infestation by whiteflies. This insect feeds on the leaves, leaving them stippled and sickly, and early defoliation is common. We have successfully controlled whiteflies with insecticidal sprays with appropriate timing. Even if left alone, an established creeper will withstand attack from insects.
We look after a specimen that is 90 years old in Red Deer. it is about 25′ tall and about 4′ thick, with a pretty massive main trunk.
Virginia creeper is most commonly planted on chain-link fences, arbors, and along trellises on houses. They get heavy so they will need sturdy support. They will also get away on you. I’ve had to dig them out of eavestroughs and out from under roof shingles, so keep an eye on them.
Dormancy (so you can see what you’re working on!)
Normally, all that is required is pruning to contain the plants as they grow beyond their desired reach. It’s fine to cut them back as needed, but be careful to follow back the limb that you’re cutting, so that you don’t inadvertently sever a much larger area of branches than you want.
(c) 2017 Shane LePage, Wild Rose Garden & Tree Service Inc., Red Deer, AB