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Vas Sladek

Aralia cordata: my plant ID nightmare

By | gardening, Species | No Comments

 



 

Picture landscape pro Vas in a meeting, standing with his boss in the garden¬†liaison’s garden. She’s looking at one of her pots and mentions that she would like to get more of these plants on her site. Sure, what are they? She had no clue so the boss turned to me. Come on, Red Seal Journeyman star!

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And I had no clue what it was. There were green heart-shaped leaves in a pot. This is one of those nightmare scenarios because you’re trying to look super knowledgeable and your brain goes blank.

It got worse in the forest buffer zone when I couldn’t recall the native shrub Sambucus racemosa. Oh, well, you just have to laugh it off. I could only recall the beautiful S. nigra.

Sun King

 

Do you know this plant?

 

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I failed the patio quiz but now I know one more plant. No big deal. This is Aralia cordata Sun King (Japanese spikenard).

It’s evident that this garden liaison had done her homework. Aralia cordata is perfect for pots in partly shaded patios or entryways. This is exactly where this plant is. It’s in a pot just as you walk in through the gate onto her patio. Trees above provide lots of shade.

The leaves are bright gold colour in summer which brightens up this gate area nicely.

Flowers come in mid-spring are followed by black ornamental berries. Expect the foliage to die back to the ground in winter. Clean it up nicely and wait for spring to bring the Sun King back.

This potted Sun King is in a woodland, Japanese-style garden and near-by are ferns, sedges and Hydrangeas. The Sun King works well with woodland perennials and hostas, all of which like shade.

In the end we managed to find and install a few specimens of Aralia cordata Sun King on this site. I doubt I will forget this plant again.

Keep working on your plant ID skills.

 



 

How landscapers make money in the off-season

By | Seasonal | No Comments

The landscape off-season deserves its own blog post. How do landscapers make money in the off-season? It’s a good question. I’ve been asked on Quora.com and on the sidelines at soccer matches.

Young lay-offs

Just today one of our younger workers mentioned that he was counting down to his lay-off. Great! He will do some travelling with his friends which is a good plan for a young dude. Many young workers still live at home so their unemployment benefits are adequate. And they escape the worst weather. This is the easiest off-season ride I know.

Veteran pros

But what about veteran professionals with kids to feed? On the West Coast there is no off-season, assuming the weather holds. With Global Warming this isn’t always clear. I use vacation time to cover any missed days due to snow. I hate snow because it causes down time.

Normally we go all the way, except for one week off over Christmas. Yes, the weather sucks but it’s better than taking your kids to a food bank.

Normally we do lots of pruning and we hit semi-wild zones that don’t get regular servicing. We also re-establish bed edges.

 

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Deep edging redefines bed edges nicely and is a perfect winter activity.

 

I should add that employers want their veteran workers in the field working so they don’t disappear before spring hits. My boss knows that I need to work.

ISA advantage

It helps to have your ISA arborist certification because there is lots of tree pruning to do in winter. When you’re certified you’re more likely to score this kind of work when others are struggling to find work on frosty days.

I firmly believe that all landscapers should be ISA certified arborists.

 

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Post winter storm tree work.

 

Pro blogger

Personally, as a pro blogger, I publish blog posts all year but I find that there is more time for writing and reflection at the end of the season. I make money by selling my blog posts to landscape companies.

The off-season is also great for collecting my best blog posts and publishing them in eBook format. I use the very excellent Designrr software to create eBooks in minutes. The magic is that the software takes the blog post URL and copies the text over without any other website junk like headers and footers. You can literally create a new eBook in minutes. I love it so much, I’ve signed up for the Designrr affiliate program.

 

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This is one of my self-published eBooks.

 

Jobs

Some landscapers find jobs in unrelated fields to get through the off-season. I know of some young dudes working in bars. It depends on how desperate things get.

 

Planning

There is no-off season on the West Coast when the weather holds. With a bit of planning landscapers can make money in winter. I find that with ISA certification landscapers have more options and opportunities.

 

 



Red Seal fail

By | Education, Landscaping | No Comments

The Red Seal exam for landscape horticulture isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be because it gives you journeyman status. It’s a tough exam so some people fail. I know a foreman who finished all four apprenticeship levels and then sat the exam unsuccessfully. It happens.

Since the exam fee includes a re-write, she took the test again. No luck. Now what? Luckily her boss is giving her a chance to float among crews and do different things so she can gain more experience.

Experience!

Red Seal candidates must realize that the Landscape Horticulture exam is experience based. The questions are worded so they test the candidate’s experience, not just straight book knowledge. For example, you might be asked about a specific plant. Is it planted for summer foliage or fall berries? If you’ve never seen the plant in the field, you’re stuck guessing.

The best learning moments come in the field. This was in my head last week as I was digging up an old, dog urine soaked lawn. Yes, the smell was probably detectable by NASA but this Red Seal had a job to do. And I welcomed the chance to practice installing new sod. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done very many sod install jobs.

Do it all!

This is my best advice for future Red Seal journeyman horticulturists. Do it all in the field. Use every tool and machine. Install new landscapes, keep plant tags and get very dirty. Like I did, digging up dog urine soaked soil so I could install new sod. This is how you become Red Seal. Do it all with a smile and collect your experience.

 

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Keys to sod install

  1. level everything off, roll it with a pin and apply starter fertilizer
  2. stagger the sod pieces and fit them tightly together
  3. water everything! Don’t skip this step.

 

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Levelled and rolled.

 

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Stagger the sod pieces to eliminate any long seams.

 

 

Happy ending

When you know you’re struggling in one specific area then face your fears. I failed two modules on my ISA arborist test and studied hard to pass them. It helps if you’re stubborn like me. I also had to do the “Planting and staking” station three times to become Landscape Industry Certified. No big deal. I studied and practiced and got my happy ending.

I’m convinced our foreman from this blog post will eventually pass the exam. But I think she’ll need to face her fears and get help with calculations. In the meantime she’s busy doing it in the field. The way it should be.

 

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All done! All of the sod pieces are tight and the new lawn is watered.

Summer versus winter tree pruning

By | Seasonal, Trees | No Comments

Now that our deciduous landscape trees have lost their leaves we can clearly see the branch structures. And as I recently removed one broken branch I had a flashback to summer. And a blog post was born. So let’s consider the basic differences between summer and winter tree pruning.

 

Summer tree pruning

As trees flush out in spring strata property residents freak out about encroaching branches. That’s when I get called in.

Summer tree pruning is light because sunny days are already stressful enough for our landscape trees. Trees also store food in branches so removing too many could pose a problem for the trees. Remember, under drought conditions trees shut down their leaf openings to prevent moisture loss; this also means that they can’t produce food and must rely on reserves.

Most of the pruning requests revolve around crown shape and branch encroachment. Since the branch structure is hidden under foliage it’s best not to make too many radical cuts.

In the first example below you can see what the strata council wants: all birch crowns are to be tightened up. Nothing radical.

 

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In the second example below, the owners want this Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood) lightly shaped so it’s off the building. Again, nothing radical. The lady loves the finished look.

 

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Winter tree pruning

 

Now consider winter tree pruning. Since the leaves are gone we can see branch structures well. And all of a sudden I’m finding broken branches in crowns that were until recently covered up by leaves.

 

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Broken branches must be removed (see white arrow).

 

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Green arrow: broken branch Orange arrow: branch pointing down Red arrow: location of my cut

 

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After shot.

 

Horror show

Not all winter tree pruning is enjoyable. Some strata complexes have their trees topped and, of course, the trees notice it. Then they produce extra sprouts from the cuts and we have to remove them annually. And so the cycle begins.

 

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All done! I’ll be back in 12 months.

 

Conclusion

Leave harsher tree pruning for the winter when the trees are dormant and their branch structures are clearly visible. If you must prune trees in summer, do it lightly.

 

Simple landscape projects: tripping hazards

By | Landscaping | No Comments

I always welcome breaks from regular maintenance work and this little project was a strata request. One of the residents often tripped on tree roots in the back of her unit and she also wanted a small area where she could plant something. So I went in and fixed it in a few hours.

Step 1

 

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This is the before picture with roots and one sad Hydrangea.

 

Step one involved marking the area and eliminating small surface roots. I laughed to myself because I like to run off-road and tree roots provide me with technical trail running fun. I love tree roots. But here the lady lived in fear of the small roots so I took out the smallest ones. The bigger ones got buried by soil amender.

 

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Only the smallest roots were removed from the new pathway.

 

Step 2

Step 2 involved moving in rocks to anchor the soil from moving down the slope. I had to borrow helpers for this step because two-man rocks require two men. Two strong men. Some of the smaller rocks we borrowed from a near-by stream bed.

 

Step 3

Since I was asked to remove a Skimmia shrub from a neighbouring patio bed I dug up the struggling Hydrangea and placed the Skimmia there. This is a common theme in strata landscape maintenance. We don’t want anything dead, diseased or obviously struggling. The one Hydrangea in the corner was at best marginal.

 

Step 4

 

 

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Two yards of soil amender.

 

 

This was the best step because I got to move two yards of soil amender. The soil is nice and fluffy and smells great. Note that since my truck was parked at an angle I didn’t lift the back to dump out the soil. I handled everything with my shovel because raising the back up on an angle could potentially flip the truck over on its side.

 

Step 5

The last step before a clean-up blow was lightly top dressing the pathway and over seeding it with good quality seed.

 

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The new pathway is on the right: root-free and over seeded.

 

I hope the lady likes her new bed and safer pathway. We’ll see what she plants in there.

 

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All done: new soil, rock anchors and a transplanted Skimmia.

The last service before Christmas

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

The last week of service before the Christmas break requires focus. Most people have holidays on their minds but it’s very important to leave your landscapes looking sharp. This is how you do it.

Simple

Keep it simple. This is a bad time for major projects and heavy pruning. This type of work should be written down in your notebook for January. So what do we do? We check all high-profile entrances and walkways; and inside roadways.

Today I raked out the top boulevard of my site, including leafy debris behind the hedges. Since residents, neighbours and holiday visitors use and drive-by the boulevard, it should look sharp. And today it did.

I did a little bit of hand snipping on the tops of Pieris japonica shrubs. Very lightly, just to take out the spiky growth. Unless you live in the complex, you can’t tell the shrubs were topped.

 

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Before: note the spikes on top.

 

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After: it still looks natural after pruning.

 

Backpack blow

Once my raking was done, I blew the entire site. This is a perfect time for a good, detailed blow. I normally hurry to get this noisy task out of the way but not today. Today everything got blown: the inside roadways, patios and lawns. I also blew the forest buffer zone where leafiness tends to accumulate.

After pile pick-up I hit a few weedy patches and touched up some deep edges.

The hardest part of the day was cleaning up the garden liaison’s garden. She has a Japanese-style garden and does her own maintenance but I had to clean-up cedar clippings from a few weeks ago. Cedar pruning always generates secondary drop and here I had to hand pick the clippings from inside her Hellebores. Carefully.

Note that this sort of work shouldn’t be delegated to your helpers unless they’re experienced and follow directions well. The previous company pruned the liaison’s cedar hedges too hard; and they’re no longer under contract with this strata!

Final check

I walked the small site at the end of the day to double-check everything. I also noted work tasks for the new year. When I pulled out from the site I was satisfied that it was clean for Christmas.

Happy holidays!!

 

 

Another classic residential pruning job

By | Company News, landscape maintenance | No Comments

The title of this blog post says ‘classic’ because the home owner was on a budget and had clearly let her hedges go wild. And now she was desperate to reclaim some space and light from her Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica).

This is common with homeowners. They start out with huge ambitions but a few years later they get overwhelmed and call in professionals. Then you don’t hear from them again for several seasons which is a mistake. Good, regular maintenance is best. I could tell from the garden weeds that not much happens around the patio other than smoking.

 

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The list

Luckily, the lady was still home when I arrived so we could talk about the work and her expectations. This is extremely important so you avoid any nasty misunderstandings.

The list was easy for an experienced landscaper:

  1. Prune large fence line hedge (Prunus lusitanica) but only “tickle” the tops so neighbours aren’t visible from the patio
  2. Prune the globe hard, especially off the gutters
  3. Clean up the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) by the window
  4. Remove one dead cedar (Thuja occidentalis) by the patio stairs
  5. Blow the leaves off the front lawn and from under the large hedge

 

Pruning

The pruning is easy when you have sharp shears; and the laurel is fairly soft, too. The only glitch was the slick wooden patio in the back. There was no way to anchor the ladder peg. Luckily I found a cement block under the hedge.

 

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Safety first!

 

Clean-ups

If you read my blogs regularly -and you should!- you will know that I harp on doing great clean-ups that match the pruning effort. Poor clean ups detract from your pruning work. Always clean up well.

Final courtesy blow is a given. I left the residence feeling happy with my effort. I just wonder how many seasons they will let it go before calling me back. Regular maintenance is best! I can’t stress that enough.

 

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Six stunning books for green professionals

By | Books, Education | No Comments

This past weekend I opened up the New York Times and saw a huge spread about the best books from 2018. But there was nothing for green professionals so let’s correct that omission here. I present to you six books well-worth reading with brief notes. I would say they’re all “must read” books. Who knows, they might inspire you to give someone a great gift this Christmas.

 

1. Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown

This is a very important book because Gabe Brown took his conventionally farmed land and regenerated its soils. He did it without tilling, with cover crops and eventually without all fertilizer and chemical use on his North Dakota ranch. He also diversified his operation.

So, YES, you can have great, healthy soil and make great money as a farmer in North America WITHOUT chemical inputs. Read the details in the book. It’s fascinating. The key is encouraging the life in your soil. You can search “regenerative agriculture” for more.

 

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Photo courtesy of http://brownsranch.us/

 

 

2. A soil owner’s manual by Jon Stika

Stika is a soil scientist but it took him years to realize that his training wasn’t the best. Eventually he comes to understand that soil biology is crucial for healthy soils. It’s not just the soil components that matter, the life in the soil is critical.

 

3. The One-Straw revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

Fukuoka was a “do-nothing” farming revolutionary in Japan. He showed that you CAN have great rice yields without tilling the soil and using costly fertilizers and chemicals. Do-nothing is a bit misleading because farming is a lot of work but the soil wasn’t tilled and cover crops were used. The details are amazing.

It’s possible that Fukuoka’s work inspired Gabe Brown above.

 

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A practice rice field at a Niigata-City, Japan public school.

 

4. Braiding sweet grass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is THE book on native American plant use. I often hear about indigenous wisdom and this book spells it out in detail. Kimmerer did a fantastic job with this book; she opened my eyes. You will learn lots about plants. I also purchased her new book on Mosses.

 

5. The plant messiah by Carlos Magdalena

Two key points: One, Magdalena goes from Spain to study at the famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (I’m jealous) and becomes a plant researcher there. Then he travels the world studying plants and clearly his native Spanish helped. His love of plants is infectious.

Two, at the beginning of the book he shows the reader why plants are important. Our very survival depends on plants. We derive food and medicines from plants plus much more. After reading this book you will appreciate plants much more.

 

6. Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science by Carey Gillam

My geography professor at the University of Saskatchewan openly discouraged me from using sources written by journalists. But in the case of Monsanto’s (now Bayer) glyphosate and other chemicals it can’t be done because many scientists have been bought by industry. I know that this debate is polarizing and the book isn’t full of good news. It’s the hardest book to read on this list.

Before you dismiss this book, recall that Health Canada is re-evaluating its recommendations; it now concedes that many of the studies the government agency relied on were sponsored by the chemical industry.

It’s much worse in the United States and the details will make your head spin. I think this book is very important.

 

Summary

Here are the key ideas.

Yes, you can make good money as a farmer without fertilizers and chemicals; stop tilling and use cover crops; and diversify your operation.

The life in your soil is the key to healthy soil.

We depend on plants for our survival. They’re also amazing.

Indigenous plant knowledge is fantastic and now we have a great book showing us the details.

Scientists can be bought so be careful when you read scientific studies. Carefully check who sponsored them.

 

How to pull off your first bare root tree planting

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

Bare root tree planting is recommended by my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott but in strata maintenance we rarely have time for it. There is often pressure to dig holes and plug the trees in.

I got my first taste of bare root tree planting when I worked at a municipal parks department in the fall of 2014. And I’ve been waiting for a chance to do it again solo. Patiently.

Lucky Vas

Then I got lucky this past October when a strata owner approached me about transplanting her Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). The poor tree had some problems. It had dead wood in the top leader and the roots had penetrated the lawn from the bottom of the pot. The lucky part was that the maple was planted in fluffy potting mix media, not in decent soil. So when I finally liberated the tree from its pot, the potting mix stayed in the pot and I was left holding a bare root tree! Brilliant!

 

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Before: roots penetrated the lawn and the tree sat in fluffy potting media.

 

Why bare root?

So what’s the advantage of bare root planting? First, the roots can be examined, pruned and rearranged. They should look like spokes on a wheel, not circling the way they do in pots. Second, nothing else is added to the planting hole. No burlap, strings or wires; and no clay bombs.

 

Lawn home

The new tree location was in the lawn which isn’t ideal because lawn grasses compete with trees for water and nutrients. I’m sure the new tree well will help channel water down to the root zone.

I did some minor root pruning on the tree and I forced the fibrous roots to stick out like spokes on a wheel.

 

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The ideal root arrangement looks like spokes on a wheel.

 

 

Stability

 

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Mudding in.

 

 

I always wondered how bare root planted trees stay upright in the hole without staking. Some large trees do require staking; just don’t forget to remove the stakes after one year.

The procedure is called ‘mud-in‘. You take the parent soil material and you add some to the hole. Then you water it in to create mud. Wait for a bit and repeat the same steps, until you reach the root flare. Then we stop because the root flare has to stay above the soil.

I gently tested my maple and it felt solid. I watered the tree again with a slow soak and instructed the owner to do the same going forward. Now we wait and see if the tree lives. It should be happier in the soil.

 

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All done! Hopefully the maple feels happier in its new home.