Monthly Archives

April 2018

How you can use Berberis thunbergii as a green barrier

By | Landscaping, Species | No Comments

Prickly plants can be used as green barriers in the landscape to discourage people from entering certain spaces. I was reminded of this recently when I was sent to a strata (multi-family) complex to install Berberis thunbergii plants. My task was to plant a row of plants at the top of a wall because the strata council was hoping to discourage kids from playing on top of it. Aha. There you go. It’s not just about pretty flowers. Plants can be used for specific functions. In this case to deter young kids from playing on top of a wall.

Why Berberis?

There’s lots to like about Berberis thunbergii. For one, the purple foliage is very attractive. Berberis also flowers nicely but the flowers aren’t super showy. The plants also splash out nicely in arches and they tolerate shearing.

One important key is that the plants do well in our Lower Mainland landscapes once they’re established. But how do they deter kids from playing? Well, the plants sport soft prickles that hurt just enough to discourage you from brushing your body parts against them but not so much as to cause deep gashes and bleeding. It’s a perfect plant for this situation. We had enough prickle collisions when we planted, I imagine the kids will also have some fun.

 

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Berberis thunbergii, attractive foliage and soft prickles ready to meet any juvenile trespassers.

 

Step one

First, my apprentice and I had to remove the struggling Mahonia aquifolium plants which, incidentally, sport prickly leaf margins. Also note that I kept the best looking specimens and re-used them at a bare boulevard bed. I hate throwing out decent plants.

 

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If you’re lucky enough to have a 4th-year apprentice to help you, squeeze him hard!

 

Step two

Planting the Berberis thunbergii wasn’t very easy because woodland setting means tree roots and moss. Always massage the plant roots before planting. We don’t normally have time to water in our new plants but the ground was wet and rain was in the forecast. And remember, Berberis thunbergii is a champ, that’s why we use it. As the plants grow they will fill out and form a nice barrier.

Step three

Whenever possible, use soil amender to top dress your new planting. It gives it a new black look and it gives the plants a nice kick with new soil. And remember to top dress only. Always backfill your planting holes with the native soil you excavated.

Step four

Clean up nicely with a blower and broom. Always leave your work site in great shape. If you read this blog regularly you will already know that.

 

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All done! Planted, top-dressed and cleaned-up.

 

Step five

Re-plant the rejected plants elsewhere. I did this on a boulevard bed which was mostly bare and it made me happy to see the plants salvaged and given space to grow.

 

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Unwanted Mahonia aquifolium and Nandina domestica were replanted in this almost bare bed.

 

 

Conclusion

Berberis thunbergii is a great plant to use if you need a decent plant barrier to discourage people from entering a certain space in your landscape. The prickles are hard enough to discourage trespassing and soft enough to not cause deep gashes and profuse bleeding.

 

 

On transforming tired landscapes

By | gardening, Landscaping | No Comments

It’s always fun to see tired landscapes rejuvenated. It just takes some strata council resolve and a bit of budget. And assuming you use perennials, your new landscape should be fine for years. Check out the example below and see what you think.

 

Tired landscape

 

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There isn’t much to look at. The lawn is mossy, tiny and lacking deep edge definition. There are three dead Pieris japonicas, and one still functioning native kinnikinnick groundcover plant (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). This whole corner bed is ripe for re-editing.

 

Step 1 Preparation

Start over and toss everything out! Bring in new plants and lay them out before planting. Note that all new plants are perennials. They should live for many seasons, assuming they are watered enough so they can get established in their new home.

 

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Step 2 Planting!

 

This is the fun part. Once the layout is approved you can plant. Only the green Sedums by the curb were tricky. They are succulents and easily break off.  The back corner plant is Berberis thunbergii, the reddish clumps are Spirea japonicas, the two light plants are fountain grasses (Pennisetum) and there is one sedge (Carex) on each end. The focal plant is Japanese willow (Salix).

 

 

 

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Step 3 River rock

The strata asked for and received 1-3″ river rock. Again, this step had to be done carefully. The Sedums would break off if they were hit by river rocks so care had to be taken to place the rocks around the plants. If you can, hose off the river rock so it looks better. This also helps the plants. A final clean-up blow completes the project.

 

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Now go back to the before picture and compare. I think this new version is much better. And all it took was a few brave strata council members and a bit of budget.

Landscapes aren’t static. They change and evolve. It’s OK to be the agent of change. Try new things and experiment. It doesn’t always cost a lot of money.

Product testing in the field

By | Landscaping Equipment, Reviews | No Comments

I love testing new products in the field. It’s easy to get sucked into using the same tools and machines every season. But what if there is a new product that performs better and is cheaper? Field testing products myself is fun and it’s the real deal. It’s not just sales talk.

Did you notice how when you go to the doctor there always seems to be a new drug the doctor pushes on you? That’s because sales reps give the doctor perks for pushing their own drugs. Here you go, take this…..

Well, landscape company owners also get approached by sales people who happily provide samples for them to try in the field. Sure, let’s do it. And that’s how I got to test a new kind of tarp.

 

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The new tarp: stronger, easy to fold and waterproof.

 

 

New tarp

Recently we got to try out a new kind of tarp made of military grade material. Think waterproof military backpack material. It’s supposed to be tougher, easier to fold and waterproof. That’s a nice list.

So we tried a little experiment. We packed several chunks of firewood and dragged it along the pavement and over a speed bump. This put several holes into it. Bummer. Another failed test. Or was it?

We don’t normally drag sharp pieces of wood in our tarps. We usually haul leaves and weeds with, hopefully, not too much soil. Also, note if the holes actually get bigger.

So far, our crews like the new tarps. They fold easily, they are waterproof and they appear to be tougher.

 

Old tarps

 

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The old green tarp on the bottom is slightly bigger.

 

 

The old tarps we use are more like camping cover type plastic tarps. They are slightly bigger than the new ones but they don’t fold as easily. Also, it takes very little dragging to put holes in them and this drives the boss nuts. Dragging tarps is discouraged because it leads to unnecessary expenses.

The new tarps cost $1.25 more than the old ones but if they last longer, it’s a win! So far the reviews are good. I hope to report more on this as the grass cutting season starts.

Conclusion

Always be open to testing new machines, tools and materials. You could save money and improve your company performance. You could also have some extra fun.

 

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The new tarps are easier to twist and look better.

Lady Di: Grandiflora Rose

By | gardening, Landscaping, Species | No Comments

I don’t get to work with nice roses very often. Most of the time I have to cut back Rosa rugosa specimens because they are suckering and spreading out of control. Usually it’s raining so my rain gear gets all torn up by its rough thorns.

Lady Di

Recently I got to install Grandiflora rose called Lady Di. That’s more like it. Finally some class!

The potted roses displayed wax on their canes and I had no idea why. That’s how little I work with roses. So I googled it and found out that wax on roses is used to prevent them from drying out during transportation or while they sit on the shelf. No action is required because the wax will eventually fall off.

 

Rose details

 

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Grandiflora rose showing wax on its canes.

According to the tag, this rose variety produces bouquets of perfectly formed soft coral pink flowers. Great. I can’t wait to see them. The glossy green foliage is allegedly also spectacular.

The Grandiflora rose is expected to reach the height of 3-4′ and I hope there is enough room in the skinny front beds where we planted them. Since the rose has strong fragrance it should keep the owners happy.

 

Planting

Our small front beds have trees in them so I expected some push-back from tree roots but overall we managed fine. The one interesting twist is planting depth. To properly plant this rose, you have to make sure the branch union (the big fist-like base from which the canes shoot out) is planted slightly below ground level.

We are also advised to keep the soil moist throughout the growing season. Spacing between roses should be 60cm or 24″. Plant Lady Di in full or partial sun, not in shade.

 

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Ready for planting.

 

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Planted. Note how the branch union is covered by soil. The wax will fall off eventually. Now we just keep it watered and wait for the flowers and fragrance.

Why landscape professionals lose sleep

By | Landscaping, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Sometimes I see craziness in the landscape and it stays on my mind for so long, I lose sleep. Below are some examples of cases which could have been prevented by a bit of extra care. Yes, I know, the world didn’t end but still I want to see beautiful, healthy landscapes that have the ability to uplift people.

 

Spring show

 

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Not much of a show, is it? This is a recently taken over site and a high-profile access spot. Considering the poor tulip show I am almost certain this bulb install is more than one season old. If it isn’t then the bulbs must have been planted at varying depths which would cause them to come up at different times.

Unlike daffodils, which come back every year nicely and can therefore be naturalized, tulips aren’t as reliable after one season. It’s best to pull them and re-do the design. That’s my plan for this fall.

 

Sidewalk edging

 

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This is horrific lawn care work. Obviously, this boulevard hasn’t been bladed in a long time and I wonder why. All it takes is one machine and a new blade to fix. This is a high-profile boulevard and the edging should be sharp. Perhaps the contractor considered it to be city responsibility. Pictures like this transform into nightmares while I sleep.

 

Watering

 

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Whenever I install new plants I feel responsible for their well-being. Here, I installed Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica) as replacement for cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’). The owners were advised to water frequently so the shrubs could establish well. Overall they are doing well but this poor specimen isn’t.

 

Butchered trees

 

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Many landscape maintenance contracts run twelve months but some only ten. When the contractor is gone for two months some owners take liberties with strata property. We found this stump when our maintenance contract resumed.

This is very wrong. The cuts are so severe the tree is bound to notice and send out many shoots to compensate, assuming it has enough resources to do it. Also, cuts over 4″ in diameter heal badly and are likely to invite diseases into the tree. Lastly, this sort of ‘pruning’ destroys the tree’s natural shape and beauty.

You can either prune it properly or remove it completely. This work is horrendous.

 

Poor drainage

 

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Lots of clay.

 

Our West Coast soils have lots of clay in them which means they drain poorly. I know of one site which is very bad for drainage. The strata council spent thousands on French drains and sand top-dressing.

But as I learned at a recent VanDusen Botanical Garden seminar, sand just sits on top of the clay. It has no effect on it. Much better approach would be to top-dress the lawns with organic material which could potentially break up or loosen the clay. I’m hoping next year this is what the strata council tries instead of more sand.

Top dressing with sand is expensive, labour intensive and it doesn’t work.

 

There you have it. I’m hoping that by posting this blog I will be able to let go and thus sleep better at night. I want to dream about spring and all of its glory.

 

 

Installing a 4′ cedar hedge is a breeze

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

Putting up a quick cedar hedge barrier can be a breeze. I did it last week in between two yards where one side needs to keep a dog in check. The dog is fine, it’s the owner that fails to pick up after it. But this blog post is about planting a quick cedar hedge, not about suspicious dog owners.

Size

Small size is key because a four foot cedar can be easily purchased at your local Home Depot for $18. Anything larger will require a longer trip to a nursery and higher costs. So let’s assume four foot cedars (Thuja occidentalis) are fine.

Now, when you go to your local Home Depot bring your patience with you. It took me forever to order and pay for 13 4′ cedars. The cashier didn’t have the code so she sent a young dude outside to get one. I could have memorized the entire sales flyer in the time it took him to get back.

Outside, another young dude had trouble counting to 13. He loaded up more than I had paid for and then hopped around the back of my truck recounting and off-loading. So of course, I had to recount everything myself.

Planting

The cedars looked a bit dry. It’s always nice if you can soak the pot before planting. For my project I had a T-formation with 6 and 7 cedars. Normally, people dig a hole and then place their tree inside and so on. But when you plant a full line, it’s best to dig up the entire trench. You can then place the trees in and assess. Is your spacing OK and line straight? If not, it’s easy to adjust the plants without any extra digging.

 

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Before.

 

 

When you remove the tree from its pot, don’t be afraid to rough up the root ball. Gently massage the roots with your fingers. If fingers don’t help, use your snips and cut top to bottom to loosen up the roots. It looks a bit rough but trust me, do it.

Once your cedars are set as a new hedge, backfill the trench with the same soil. If you must bring in new fresh soil, only use it to top-dress at the end.

Watering after install is always a good idea and so is removing any tags from the cedars. New baby cedars are thirsty so keep checking on them. They have to get established and high summer temperatures are coming soon. Don’t neglect this step.

Clean-up

Clean-up is also critical. Now that you have a nice new cedar hedge let’s not spoil the show. Collect all plant tags and plastic pots. Recycle everything if possible. Then blow or rake up any excess soil from surrounding lawn or whatever is nearby.

I also used a small rake to even out the soil and to obliterate my boot prints.

 

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After.

 

Conclusion

Planting a new 4 foot cedar hedge can be a breeze. Just follow the steps above and don’t forget to keep watering the plants as temperatures shoot up in spring and summer. Young cedars are very thirsty.

 

 

Too much fun with hand aerators

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

Hand aerators are handy tools in spring because many smaller or hard to access lawns can not be aerated with machines. The same goes for tight corners where machines can not safely enter. Just make sure you don’t have too much fun while you’re hand aerating.

 

The tool

 

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The hand aerator produces two soil plugs at a time, it’s human-driven and produces zero emissions. Machines on the other hand produce emissions, many more plugs and they are heavy. So heavy, it makes no sense forcing them into small lawn areas. That’s where the hand aerator excels.

Of course, it’s a grind for the workers. They have to force the tool deep into the lawn in order to produce a nice plug. Remember, we are aerating our lawns so water and oxygen can enter the root zone. Or at least that’s the usual answer.

When you have to hand aerate many small lawns for hours, it can be a grind. So just think, it’s all done for beautiful lawns.

Too much fun 

Still hand aerating late in the day recently, we had some hand aerating contests. Standing side by side we tried to outdo each other from one side of the lawn to the other. It was some extra motivation for fatigued landscapers. But always make sure you don’t overdo it. Safety first!

My crew mate, let’s call him Arkadij, went a bit too far and drove the tool into his flimsy rubber boot. Seconds later he was on the ground in some discomfort. Now instead of hand aerating he was on the ground taking his boots and socks off, looking for signs of blood. Luckily, there wasn’t any. Just some red marks and a developing bruise.

When I asked for his permission to take pictures of him and make him the hero of my blog post, he refused unless I compensated him. Then it was my turn to refuse his extortion attempt. I’m happy to report that he’s OK. Always think about safety.

 

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This was a close call resulting in a bruise. Core aerators are designed for lawns not human flesh. Safety first.

 

Conclusion

Hand aerators are very handy tools, especially the models with big holes. One good model is made by Fiskars. Models with smaller pipe openings tend to plug up so don’t buy them.

The tool allows you to aerate smaller lawn areas and any tight corners where machines don’t fit.

 

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Fiskars core aerator is a good model to use.

 

When installing artificial turf makes sense

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of artificial grass. It’s plastic, man-made with petro-chemicals, it heats up and it doesn’t produce oxygen. But there are legitimate cases where desperate people can find salvation in artificial turf.

 

Dog damage

 

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These people have a tiny back lawn frequented by their dog. The daily urine assault left the grass burned and struggling. The owner tried to fix it, over and over and finally got fed up. Since parting with the family pet wasn’t a popular option, they decided to install artificial turf. And it works in this case. Even our lawn maintenance was awkward before the changeover.

 

Clay soils

 

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Some owners are still clinging to their natural grass lawns. The soils are full of clay. You don’t have to dig far to see it.

 

Our West Coast soils have lots of clay in them which means that lawns installed over them drain poorly. The clay forms a nasty layer that doesn’t allow water to percolate down easily. If you want to fight these conditions one recommended procedure involves top dressing these lawns with organic soil. This can over time break up the clay layer. But this would take time and resources.

So what do you do? You stop fighting the conditions and install artificial turf.

You will notice in the picture that some owners are still clinging to their natural grass lawns.

 

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Note the sticky, dense clay chunks.

 

Shade

 

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In summer these backyards are dark as the Fraxinus trees flush out.

 

Shade also affects grass lawns negatively. Grass needs light to thrive and in this case we have four joined sections of backyards that turn dark in summer as the mature ash trees flush out with new growth.

Two years ago I personally pruned whatever branches I could reach on these mature ash trees (Fraxinus). Alas, it had very little effect on the lawns. They were still shady and weak. So the strata council called a tree company to remove the trees. However, the tree company advised them that the municipality was unlikely to issue tree removal permits because the trees were mature and close to houses.

Ok, so now what? One last idea: artificial turf. It looks great in shade and it eliminates the annual fight with expensive grass seed and soil top-dressing. In addition, landscape maintenance workers don’t mind skipping these units because they are difficult to access with push mowers.

This is one case where artificial turf was the last resort.

Conclusion

If you must have lawn, natural grass is better. I personally dislike man-made plastic turf. But there are cases where installing artificial turf makes perfect sense, such as dog damaged lawns, shady lawns and poorly draining lawns sitting on top of clay soils.