Monthly Archives

September 2019

“Overstory” book review

By | Books | No Comments

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When I ran across the novel “Overstory” by Richard Powers, all I knew was that it was about trees and it won a Pulitzer Prize. I avoided reviews just so I could form my own opinion and thus write an honest book review for my own blog.

Obviously, most Pulitzer Prize winning books are great but it’s not guaranteed that you will like them. As soon as I heard that this novel was about trees, I was hooked.

Go audio

Considering the novel’s door stopper size, I opted for the audio version through my Audible account. I probably wouldn’t have finished the book if I had it by my bed. Audio is easy and I listened to it mostly at work while I worked. It runs at 23 hours and I usually listen at 1.25 speed.

When I’m not running landscape crews, it’s OK to put a book on while I landscape.

Tree hugger

You will like this book if you love trees. Trees take center stage in this novel. Just the way I like it. And while this is a work of fiction, you will learn lots about trees. I can tell that the author did his homework on trees. If you removed the fictional humans, this would be a great tree primer.

For example, we now know that trees aren’t stand alone plants. They’re interconnected, they communicate and help each other. Only trees have achieved what humans couldn’t: true communism.

Of course, there are deeper questions that go beyond trees. What are we doing to our Earth? Are we messing everything up? Can we do better?

Direct action

Some of the characters resort to direct action to protect ancient trees. Having read about Earth First! and Ed Abbey’s work, this was my easily my favourite part of the book. And like Earth First!, some end up in jail.

 

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Ed Abbey’s Monkeywrench gang is a classic.

 

Conclusion

Overstory deserves it’s Pulitzer Prize status! I thoroughly enjoyed it. The human stories are there in the background and you almost don’t notice that the author is teaching you about trees. The details about trees are hardly fiction. You will learn lots of new stuff about trees in this novel.

And you will be left to ponder some deeper questions about the way we live with nature. Read this novel if you like trees or wonder why humans are messing things up.

5 stars out of 5, easily, but get the audio version. It’s 23 hours well spent.

 

 

 

Groundcover surprise in Seattle

By | Plant Species Information | No Comments

When I was in Seattle, USA, recently for my son’s soccer tournament (they made it to the final!) I went hunting for coffee in the morning. My cheap Motel 6 didn’t have any coffee in the lobby, nor in the room. No problem.

So, I walked into the nearest gas station to get my dark roast which happened to come with a free banana. Even better; but no sign of the New York Times.

Surprise

On the way out I noticed a familiar looking groundcover with orange fruit. I recognized the foliage but had never seen the fruit. Imagine that, a new personal plant discovery at a gas station! I would later post my pictures in a Facebook group and some people laughed. Usually people post beautiful flowers from exotic, far away places. Not me; I get excited by gas station groundcovers.

I rushed to our cramped room to use the motel’s very wobbly and unsecured Wi-Fi to confirm that it was Rubus groundcover. I knew the evergreen foliage which is brownish on the underside.

There is lots to like about Rubus. It tolerates heat, the foliage is attractive and it’s evergreen; and it produces orange fruit which resembles Salmonberry. And it makes sense because the botanical name for Salmonberry is Rubus spectabilis. We know that Salmonberry is a native West Coast plant with edible berries.

I always buy travel insurance but just to be safe, I didn’t eat any of the groundcover berries. Back home when we go for a walk with the kids, we sample all ripe Salmonberries within reach.

The groundcover Rubus also shades out weeds which is important for gas station beds. In Canada, gas station owners have very limited landscaping budgets which is why most of gas stations look awful.

Awesome groundcover

I was really surprised to see a nice looking groundcover with fruit at a gas station. It works really well and it would work well in your garden as well. If you need groundcover plants, consider Rubus. It might even feed you.

Best training for a landscaper

By | Education, Landscape Industry | No Comments

Once in a while I see an interesting question on Quora.com which I think deserves its own blog. This blog covers the following question: What’s the best training for a landscaper?

Face your fears

By far the best training for a landscaper is working in the field under an experienced foreman who is willing to train you well. Ask about this in your interview.

Yes, you can mow grass all season but it’s better to learn everything. You can learn to use all lawn care machines and then move on to pruning with power shears and bedwork.

It’s important to face your fears. Like I did today. I had to use a brush cutter, a pole chainsaw and a wood chipper.

School

If you think landscaping is still your dream gig, then take landscape horticulture courses. You can do it online, full time in school or as an apprentice aiming for Red Seal status after four seasons. Schooling increases your knowledge and your value to your company.

I also recommend getting Landscape Industry Certified. This used to involve written and practical exams but the practical exams are getting eliminated in the United States. In Canada, the practical testing will stay but there will be changes from 2020.

And don’t forget about trees. Take the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) exam and learn about trees. This will increase the value you provide to your company. It also allows you to work year-round because tree pruning is done in the off-season.

Some clients are also touchy about their trees. Non-arborist landscapers aren’t always trusted with tree work. Get ISA certified. I’ve done it. Trust me.

Reading

Read the best books, magazines and journals and attend conferences. Training never ends! I regularly attend evening courses, for example, at Van Dusen Botanic gardens in Vancouver. I’ve also been to client education days put on by Bartlett Tree Services.

And I never miss the premier landscape horticulture trade show, CanWest.

 

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Best for last

You can get the best education for new landscapers by following my blogs, here on the Proper Landscaping site and at West Coast Landscape Professional. My eBooks are available at Amazon for spare change. Search for Vas Sladek on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave reviews.

 

Landscaping can be extremely rewarding if you work and study hard under a professional foreman who is invested in your development. Good luck!

 

 

Easy to identify landscape trees, volume 2

By | Species, Trees | No Comments

There are many beautiful landscape trees in our gardens and landscapes and some are easy to identify. We’ve covered five easy to identify tree species in a previous blog post and here we continue with five more. Do you know them already or are they new to you?

 

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

 

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The sweetgum tree is a nice alternative for places where maples dominate. The pointy leaves resemble maples but what gives away the sweetgum are its hard spiky fruits. When you see them, you know its a sweetgum tree. They remind me of spiky floating mines from war movies.

 

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

 

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The common name gives it away but as soon as you see the gorgeous cinnamon coloured peeling bark, you know it’s Acer griseum. Sometimes, when no one is watching, I peel one section of the bark just for fun. This is beautiful landscape tree.

 

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

 

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There is lots to look at on the Horse chestnut. The buds are huge and so are the leaves; the key identifier is the inedible chestnut.

 

European beech (Fagus sylvatica)

 

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The key identifier are fuzzy cupules which contain triangular beechnuts. Wait for the cupules to open up or take some home. They will pop open in your kitchen. My wife loves this.

 

London plane ( Platanus x acerifolia)

 

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The London plane leaves are huge and the key identifier are the spherical fruits produced on long stalks. You will never forget this tree if you get close enough. I don’t suffer from any allergies but this tree can make me cry. That’s because young leaves shed short stiff hairs and so do the fruits. Backpack blowing around these trees is a nightmare.

London planes are also extremely effective at removing pollution.

 

Now, it’s your turn to practice identifying these five trees. They are easy to identify especially now that you know what to look for.

Get ready for volume 3.

ISA certified arborist as landscape judge

By | Arborist Insights, Education, Trees | No Comments

Proper tree planting is extremely important so when I got a chance to judge a tree planting and staking practical station, I jumped at it.

The landscape industry certified practical tests run twice a year, in June and October but there will be major changes from 2020. Stay tuned.

Planting and staking

Incredibly, I had to do this section three times. My ISA certified arborist status didn’t help me because I failed to follow the specifications. And while I can’t comment in detail on any of my seven candidates, I can say that a few of them didn’t follow the written specifications.

The second time I failed this station was because I totally forgot to put on a headset during stake pounding. Safety is also super important. If you fail to use the provided personal protection equipment, you will most likely get a few deductions.

 

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My historic third attempt, finally done correctly, and giving me the prized Landscape Industry Certified technician status.

 

Planting depth

As a judge, I can’t give away the station’s secrets but let’s just say that planting the test specimen too deep is a major problem. And rightly so because landscape trees planted too deep suffer. They suffer because their roots can’t get enough oxygen. Then, when they decline and die we have to replace them which is costly. Let’s do it right the first time.

Mulch

This is another serious issue. My blog post from September 10, 2019, covered the mulch volcano epidemic. Luckily, my candidates have clear specifications to follow. The key is that there must be a few inches of soil clear between the tree trunk and the mulch. This eliminates any chance of mulch volcanoes.

And if you haven’t read my September 10, 2019 blog then go back and review the problems associated with tree mulch volcanoes.

Staking

Some newly planted trees must be stakes; and staked correctly. Once you follow the specifications, all you have to know is that the stakes shouldn’t stay on for more than one season.

 

Conclusion

Not all of the candidates I judged passed but I had a great time judging the tree planting and staking stations. I had a manual to follow and the other veteran judges helped me.

Incorrectly planted landscape trees suffer, decline and die. Then we lose their free ecosystem services at a time when more trees are required to fight Global Warming.

Easy to identify landscape trees

By | Arborist Insights | No Comments

There are many beautiful trees in our West Coast landscapes and some are really easy to identify. I thought it might be fun to compile a list of landscape trees that you can easily identify. Perhaps it will inspire you to learn more about them and go on to learn about harder to identify trees.

 

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

 

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This is our West Coast native and it’s easy to identify because its large bracts protrude from its cones. When you see these bracts you know it’s a Doug.

Bonus: read my blog post about a 1,000-year-old Douglas fir discovered on Vancouver Island. Read the book. It’s excellent! Let’s protect the last remaining stands of old growth in BC.

 

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

 

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The specific epithet “betulus” is a hint; the leaves look birch-like. What makes this tree awesome is the seed partially covered by bracts. You can’t miss Carpinus betulus when you see the bracts. These trees look great on boulevards.

 

Littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata)

 

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Can you guess what the specific epithet “cordata” means? It means heart-shaped leaves. And again we get an awesome bract with several drupes protruding from it. When you see this set-up, heart-shaped leaf, bract and drupes, it’s Tilia cordata.

I recently observed mites on the leaves of Tilia cordata. You can prune off the affected branches but overall the tree should be fine. It’s just a freaky look.

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Ghost tree (Davidia involucrata)

 

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I shot this picture at a daycare looking up into the tree the way the kids do. I wonder if they’re afraid of the ghosts in the trees? I think the landscape architect had some fun with the design of this daycare.

The specific epithet “involucrata” hints at involucre, a grouping of bracts that partially covers a seed. This is easily in the top 5 of my most loved trees. I still can’t believe this tree exists. I love it.

If you see a smaller tree full of ghosts, you know it’s Davidia involucrata. You get bonus points if you remember what involucre refers to.

 

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

 

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Cornus is the dogwood family. Cornus mas provides multi-season interest with flowers and then edible cherries. I’ve seen people collecting the cherries in public parks and rushing off to make jam at home. I’ve never tried it.

When the cherries start dropping some people start panicking, asking for pruning and tree replacements like lunatics. This plant can a shrub or a small tree. When you see a shrubby tree with red cherries you know it’s Cornus mas.

 

There you are, five easy to identify landscape trees for you to enjoy. Practice their names and see if you can identify them in your local landscapes.

Mulch volcanoes are here to stay

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

This isn’t my first blog post about mulch volcanoes and I’m returning to this topic only because of a picture I saw on Facebook. One lawn care group member shared the picture below and people had a good laugh. I felt like crying.

What’s wrong here?

 

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It will definitely prevent weeds from growing and it looks pretty, doesn’t it? It’s a massive volcano; and reddish, too. But it’s completely twisted. I know the workers weren’t professionals. Professionals would never allow this kind of work to pass inspection.

Here is what mulched tree wells should look like: imagine a donut. No mulch touches the root flare, then it extends out in the middle and tapers towards the lawn edge.

 

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This Acer platanus has a berm around it because that’s what specifications demanded. The mulch doesn’t touch the tree trunk. Why is this so critical? To answer this, I’m borrowing heavily from the work of my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.

The above trunk tissues aren’t supposed to be covered by mulch because it creates dark, damp and low-oxygen conditions. The wetness can lead to rot and disease entry. See below how wet the section above the root flare is. This is asking for trouble. Opportunistic pests love this.

 

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Another problem related to mulch volcanoes is root girdling. When you cover trunk tissue with mulch, the tree can push out adventitious roots which develop from the stem. As they grow and thicken, they can girdle the tree, essentially choking itself to death.

 

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This is a great example showing adventitious root development inside a mulch volcano.

Mulch volcanoes aren’t going away. They’re like antibiotic resistant bugs. We need constant vigilance and good worker training. Otherwise, our landscape trees will suffer at a time when more and more trees are needed to combat Global Warming.

So, remember, apply tree mulch as if you were making a donut. Don’t build tree mulch volcanoes or I will erupt again on the pages of this blog.

Blower beast: get to know Stihl’s 800 Magnum

By | machines | No Comments

Coincidence can bring lots of fun and excitement into your life. A few months ago I got to test the new and beautiful Stihl Magnum blower. And on that same day, I purchased a copy of The Atlantic magazine with a story by James Fallows about a successful blower ban in Washington, D.C. See “Get off my lawn“, The Atlantic, April, 2019. I had no idea landscapers could have so much fun in one day.

 

The key information

(Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with Stihl).

The new Stihl Magnum is beautiful. And here’s the key selling point. Stihl’s previous models had great air speed with low volume; and then they increased air volume but air speed suffered. Now, the two volumes meet successfully in the Magnum.

This is why your leaf blowing season is about to get better. The Magnum has good air volume AND air speed. It’s a fantastic blower that will make you fall in love with blowing. Unless you’re a writer from Washington, DC.

Key features

1. innovative 2-stroke, stratified charge engine, providing outstanding performance, plenty of power, a 20% reduction in fuel consumption and up to 70% fewer exhaust emissions

2. automatic starting position and automatic choke reset, very simple to start

3. professional anti-vibration system, making them very comfortable to use, reliable and user-friendly.

 

Vas tested

 

The features from above are all sales copy from Stihl’s website. I prefer to do my own testing in the field so this blog isn’t full of fiction.  My field testing went really well. I believe this is the best blower I’ve ever used. Why?

  1. It has tons of power so it can move large amounts of debris
  2. It feels great on my shoulders
  3. It doesn’t feel heavier than the previous models
  4. It really starts nicely
  5. And I don’t notice any extra noise

 

If you have larger properties to maintain or sites that get very leafy, this would be a great blower to invest in. I think the new Magnum will make you fall in love with blowing again.

 

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My favourite local dealer is Tri-City Power Equipment, 98 Fawcett Road, Coquitlam BC V3K 6V5, 604-520-3000