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Vas Sladek

What happened when I tried organic birch water

By | health and safety, Reviews | No Comments

This blog post is proof that I will do anything to create new content, including the consumption of new products that may or may not be good for me. One such product is Sealand Birk’s new organic birch water imported with love from Denmark.

99 cents

I was cruising the snack aisles at London Drugs recently and my favourite coconut water wasn’t on sale. Then I saw the cool slim cardboard 250 mL cans of Sealand Birk’s organic birch water. It was on sale for 99 cents; regular price $2.99. I tested the original version but there are many other flavours: Elderflower, Ginger & Lime, Blueberry, Raspberry, Lemon/Mint and Rose. London Drugs only offered the original version.

 

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The Nordic birch forest trees get tapped in early spring when the sap starts running but before leaf-out happens.

This is what the Sealand Birk website says:

Discover the qualities and natural taste of delicious birch water, tapped from the tree. Sealand BIRK connects with your body and supplies not only great taste but also the true, organic sweetness of nature’s own hidden treasures.

Harvested from birch trees in Taiga forests of Finland and Lithuania. Birch water is a sweet, healthy and certified organic alternative to artificially sweetened beverages.

Low on Calories
Contains plenty of organic naturally occurring antioxidants, electrolytes, trace minerals, xylitol, fructose and vitamins that is easy for your body to absorb and enjoy. You benefit from nature itself.

Sweetened by Nature
The taste is fresh and you can experience it without any second thoughts: Sealand BIRK is naturally low on calories. The pure birch water is harvested in early spring at the perfect moment to maximize nutritious value. The taste is refreshing packed with nutrients and organically sweet.

Born on Organic
No preservatives, no additives. Sealand BIRK is born organic. There is no point in trying to improve on nature. Sealand BIRK is a new age beverage for the international consumer market

 

Vas survives

The first taste of the original version was interesting. It was like water with a hint of lemon. I wish I could describe it better but I’m a landscape blogger, not a food critic. The second can went down well and the next four were totally fine. At 99 cents per can it’s a steal but not at the regular $2.99. At that price I will buy coconut water again.

If you see Sealand Birk organic birch water on sale anywhere, give it a try. It’s an interesting drink.

Does your mosquito repellent actually work?

By | health and safety, Landscaping | No Comments

The headline above was the actual headline from an article published in the Globe and Mail on Monday, August 6, 2018. In it, writer Wency Leung reports on the results from a New Mexico State University study. But, first, a quick story.

Vas almost dies

The article above came out a few days after I almost died in the field while stump grinding. I was removing two tree stumps close to Kanaka Creek in Maple Ridge, British Columbia and I couldn’t believe the number of mosquitoes around me. I kept working but after a while, totally desperate, I called my boss to bring me repellent. Any repellent. I didn’t care. I was suffering.

Because I was alone with a rented stump grinder, I couldn’t really leave my work site. My boss eventually rescued me.

 

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This expensive gas station bottle saved me in the field.

 

 

The study

The study looked at all sorts of products from scented candles, skin patches, wearable devices to sprays containing essential oils. The result? Most of the products were useless except for the ones containing DEET and oil of lemon eucalyptus.

About mosquitoes

One of the study authors explains that “mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, and to the molecules that are created when our skin bacteria break down components of our sweat.” When you stump grind for a few hours you generate a lot of sweat. That’s the way we like our employees to work.

“The insects have odour  receptors and they’re specialized in what they can smell.” The magic of DEET is that it “binds to specific odour  receptors of mosquitoes and over-activates them; and over-activation is as bad as blocking them completely.”

This is the key: “Without smell the insects  can’t switch from host-seeking to biting mode.” Aha.

According to the article, DEET has been used for over 70 years and is considered very safe.

Conclusion

Save your money and stay safe in the landscape by purchasing repellents containing DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Next time I’m sent to work by Kanaka Creek I will be ready.

Mulch police

By | Mulch | No Comments

Sometimes strata council members can make your life very difficult. Just as you think your landscape maintenance program is on auto-pilot, things fall apart. One such case involves mulch.

The setting

Imagine a regular strata site with decent soil. Now, the landscape president decides to install a thin layer of reddish mulch in all edges, mainly by sidewalks. It sounds OK but there are problems with it.

One, the colour doesn’t match the dark site soil and, two, the layer is very thin and barely covers the edges. Now, how do we maintain the site without disturbing the mulch?

Freak out

I didn’t even know about the new mulch install until I substituted for our regular foreman. We did our regular clean-up blow until the strata president tracked me down and started fuming. Something about blowing too aggressively and not owning brooms. I was confused at first and then I clued in. And I knew that one day I would strike back with a blog post.

Procedure

Foul language and complaints shouldn’t be directed straight at the field workers. Everything should go through the strata management company. And yet, as a supervisor, I had to take the verbal abuse and calmly reply to a man who made a mistake with mulch.

Too thin

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott informs us that a thin layer of mulch does nothing for weed suppression. If anything, a thin layer of mulch encourages weed growth by conserving moisture and allowing enough light to reach the weeds. You can either install several inches of mulch or not do it at all. As it is, you’re making it nice and cozy for weeds to grow.

Colour mismatch

Since only the edges got a sprinkle of red mulch, there is noticeable colour mismatch which I find annoying. But again, the strata member is in charge and he did the work himself.

Maintenance

The thin application of red mulch makes maintenance work extremely difficult. For example, there are Spirea japonica shrubs by the sidewalk and they have to be sheared to eliminate sidewalk obstruction. Now, before any shearing happens we have to put tarps down otherwise any debris removal would also risk removing more red mulch. This would inevitably expose the workers to the strata member’s colourful vocabulary.

The fall was an absolute nightmare. Normally backpack blowers would blow out leaves from the building and onto the curb lawns but not here. Here there was great risk of removing the eleven red chips remaining by the strata member’s sidewalk. (I’m kidding.) We literally had to rake out the leaves around his unit. Otherwise he’d bury us in expletives.

Lessons

  1. Strata members can make your life difficult.
  2. Verbal abuse isn’t OK.
  3. Put down several inches of mulch or don’t do it at all.
  4. Thin layers of mulch actually encourage weed growth.

Close calls in the landscape

By | health and safety | No Comments

I know, safety is not a sexy topic and this blog post will not likely stress Google analytics.  My most read blog posts are about making side-hustle cash from landscaping and about immigrant landscapers. But still, it’s amazing how many close calls there are in the field.

It really doesn’t take much to get injured in landscape maintenance. I witnessed two such events and I want to publish them here as a warning. (Disclaimer: don’t worry, nobody died.)

Hand aeration

We aerate lawns with machines to allow more water and oxygen to reach the root zone. It’s a common spring task built into contracts. But when the lawns are very small or difficult to access, we use hand aerators. It’s a simple tool which punches holes as the worker forces it down into the lawn.

One of my co-workers was rushing and having too much fun at the end of the day and as he furiously punched holes, he slipped and drove the metal tool into his foot. It hit above the steel-toe portion of his rubber boot and he was in serious pain. So much pain, he refused to be photographed for a future safety blog post. It took some time for the bruise to heal.

 

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Weeding

I know what you’re thinking, how can anyone get injured while weeding. But, again, it was late in the day when people are tired and distracted. The young female worker was weeding a nasty tree well full of small weeds. As she bent down to hand pick the weeds, firmly focused on the green mass by her hand, she completely missed a lower tree branch. Then her eye collided with the wooden stub. Sadly, she also declined to be photographed for my future blog on safety.

Luckily, her vision wasn’t affected but it was a close call. Not many workers wear protective goggles on site all day. You would never think of weeding as dangerous.

Conclusion

Stay alert in the landscape and watch out for hazards. Most injuries occur just before lunch when people are tired and their blood sugar levels are low. But as we’ve seen above, the end of the day can be just as bad for injuries. That’s when workers are tired and distracted by their after-work activities. Stay safe!

Trees lose when the game is Trees vs Construction

By | Trees | No Comments

At last year’s CanWest Hort Expo I attended a lecture by local tree expert Dr. Julian Dunster. During the lecture he made a key comment about trees in construction zones. There is so much disturbance on some construction sites that it’s better to remove all trees and start over.

But in practice people fight to preserve all trees on construction sites. I was in that camp myself until Dr. Dunster showed that most trees on severely disturbed sites will not survive for long. It may be best to start over by removing the existing trees and planting new ones.

One recent example

I recalled all of this when I saw a picture someone had posted in a Facebook group. Take a look. What do you see?

 

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It’s not a pretty picture and it fits Dr. Dunster’s lecture comments. It’s possible that the people in charge of this project couldn’t get a tree removal permit or that it cost too much.

Structural roots

I’m not a construction expert but I do know that there must be a foundation in place for the structure on the left to go up. Now, considering the size of the tree, I’m almost certain that big, structural roots had to be cut before the foundation could go in. And when this happens, the stability of the tree is compromised.

Compaction

I don’t see any orange exclusion fencing around this tree which means there was a lot of construction activity around its root zone. This activity leads to soil compaction which is a silent tree killer.

Why? Because compacted soils prevent surface water from percolating down to the roots where it’s needed. The water just runs off compacted soils.

Also, the fine roots just under the surface which collect water and nutrients for the trees can’t do their job in compacted soils.

Conclusion

I believe this site should learn from Dr. Dunster’s experience and remove the tree so a smaller specimen can be planted instead. I can’t see this tree surviving for long. Start over.

Bonsai response in plants

By | Plants | No Comments

Bonsai” response is a term I learned from my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott. It happens when plants are under stress. In this blog post the stressor is lack of water but it could be something else.

The plant sends out new shoots from the base, trying to bonsai itself in response to the stress.  I learned this while going through Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott‘s new Great Courses course “The Science of Gardening“. You can read my blog post review of the course. All I will say here is that it’s highly recommended, if you can get it on sale. The regular price is brutal so forget it, unless you have deep pockets.

Site example

As soon as finished the course, I ran into a perfect example from one of my work sites. I normally float around amongst our work crews, helping and training. But, in 2018, we needed someone to take care of a small site so I did it once a week.

In spring we installed new beds on opposite corners. We planted Berberis thunbergii, Sedums, Pennisetums, Carex, Spireas and Japanese willows (Salix integra); and everything got mulched with river rock.

All of the plants developed nicely and the river rock kept weeds in check. But then summer hit and the differences were clearly visible. On the left corner lives a home gardener who waters regularly. On the right corner lives a busy family. Both have garden hoses close by. Let’s talk about the right side.

The tips of the Japanese willow shoots were turning brown so I watered the bed every week. My boss doesn’t normally like to do this but, hey, he wasn’t there and I have research to do for my blog posts.

Then I started noticing new shoots developing lower on the main stem. This was clearly the plant’s bonsai response to water stress. The left bed specimen didn’t do this because the home gardener watered regularly

I didn’t prune off the bonsai shoots until winter 2019. We will see what happens in spring.

 

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Salix integra watered by home owner. Stem and crown look normal.

 

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Salix integra ignored by home owner. Note the stem growth in response to water stress.

How I cheated on my work boots

By | Reviews | No Comments

I always buy my work boots from Stihl because I love my Lawngrips. They’re designed for landscape professionals: they look great, they have anti-slip soles for lawn surfaces and they cost just over C$100. I normally buy at least two pairs every season. You can read my review of the boots from April 2017.

The unthinkable

This past January I did the unthinkable: I bought a different pair of boots. I walked into my neighborhood work wear and safety store to see if they had any sweatshirts on sale and then it hit me. I was wearing the cheapest Wal-Mart rubber boots because my Stihl boots had lots of cracks. That’s not good.

As landscape supervisor I have to set a good example and look good for our crews and clients. My cheap rubber boots didn’t have steel-toes and cracks in my boots were unacceptable.

Then I saw  JB Goodhue Guardian 14202 boots on sale for C$69. What a steal. I tried them on and bought them because they fit my winter budget and they were right there, ready to come home with me.

 

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The Lawngrips are harder to buy because they’re only available from Stihl dealers and I have to travel much farther to get there. Assuming, of course, they have my size. But, if you love the boots like I do, you will overlook this.

In January I was a busy soccer Dad budgeting for an international soccer tournament in Las Vegas. If I had to cheat on my favourite work boots to save some cash then so be it. I did feel strange walking away with different boots.

Review 

The biggest surprise is how soft my heel strikes are. I’ve had work boots before that were super stiff but not these. When I walk, the heel strike is soft. I really like it.

The look is fairly plain; I miss my Stihl logo on the side.

I did experience some discomfort above my right ankle for about three days. It scared me because sometimes suspicious boots go on sale. But, as it turns out, I just had to break them in and now, weeks later, they feel fine. Actually, I had no choice but to break them in because of my budget and because I’m a dedicated landscape blogger.

Specs

You can see the specifications for my Guardian 14202 boots on the company’s website.

 

Conclusion

If money is no object and you are a professional landscaper then buy the Stihl Lawngrips. If you enjoy saving money, JB Goodhue’s industrial Guardian 14202 boots are a great choice, especially in winter. The boots kept me nice a cozy last week in freezing morning temperatures.

Note that my Guardian 14202 boots were on sale for C$69. The regular retail price is C$114.99. At that price I would go for the Stihl Lawngrips every time.

Why I love hand-pruning

By | Pruning | No Comments

I love hand-pruning! It’s quiet and usually it leads to soft-looking shapes unlike harsh and noisy power shearing. It also allows you to feel the foliage and think about other issues as you work. Below I discuss two winter hand pruning examples.

Privet shape

I was beaming inside and out when I was asked to hand prune potted privets (Ligustrum japonicum) by two residential tower entrances. All of a sudden, a routine maintenance day turned into joy!

I pulled out my Felco 2 hand pruners and went to work. Incidentally, always try to use good tools for pruning. Cheap hand pruners could produce cheap looking shrubs.

My job was to snip out the light green new growth and still leave the privets natural looking. It’s hard to achieve this with power shears which shred the foliage and make the plant look too tight. A more natural form is preferable in this case.

 

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Note the light green new growth.

 

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All done and still natural looking. This kind of work is like therapy.

 

Laurel fix

Another easy hand pruning job involves fixing laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) after power shearing. Because power shears can only work at one level there is always some shredding visible afterwards. Fixing this is another beautiful hand pruning job.

 

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Notice the inevitable shredding that goes along with power shearing.

 

Find the worst shredded parts and hand snip them out so the wood blends in more. Always try to cut just above a leaf node so the leaves cover up the cuts. The laurel will look better than it did post power shearing.

 

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Conclusion

Hand pruning can be relaxing and almost feel like therapy. I love the quiet snipping and the resulting soft shapes. Power shearing tends to be harsh and noisy. When you shred laurels with your power shears, take the time to snip out the ugliest looking stems.

Landscapers with brooms

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

I’m not kidding, landscapers with brooms is a real thing. I’ve seen commercial landscapers in White Rock using brooms for clean-up. You don’t see that much except for the West End of Vancouver where blowers are officially banned. I worked there way before the ban and I have no idea how it affects landscape maintenance.

White Rock

Take a moment to examine the picture below and note every detail. Then continue reading below. (I didn’t ask for permission to shoot the photo so you can’t see the workers’ faces. The girl is cute!)

 

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Don’t dismiss these dudes too quickly. In this commercial landscape setting brooms actually make a lot of sense. The only potential downside -other than the workers flying off- could be slower completion times when compared to backpack blowers; but I’m not completely convinced. See note 8 below. There are many positives:

  1. The many shopping mall islands are small and easily cleaned-up by two brooms.
  2. The workers don’t require ear protection and their exposure to dust is minimal.
  3. There is no blower to lock up from would-be thieves. Nobody steals brooms.
  4. There is zero noise pollution generated and the nearby health clinic patients must appreciate that.
  5. There is zero chance that parked cars will get covered in dust. The nearby golf store patrons are well-healed and sensitive.
  6. Brooms don’t require expensive fuel and don’t produce harmful particulates. They’re also cheap and don’t cause fuel spills.
  7. Brooms allow the workers to hear traffic. Note that they are correctly wearing high-visibility vests and using safety cones. Working in pairs is safer and more efficient. It also makes the work day more fun.
  8. Blowing small islands like this is awkward even on low power because there is always the risk of splashing soil.
  9. Using brooms gets both workers moving.

City work

I spent my 2014 season working under a municipal gardener and she absolutely detested noisy backpack blowers. I think we used them less than ten times during the season. And we survived because gardening doesn’t create as much mess as landscaping. I must confess that it was a nice change from regular landscaping. I didn’t miss the noise.

So there you have it, it’s possible to maintain landscapes without backpack blowers.