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Vas Sladek

Client signs in landscape maintenance

By | Landscaping | No Comments

Since most clients have jobs and don’t get to see their landscape maintenance workers, they put up sings. And now that the pictures are accumulating, I thought it might be fun to share some of them in a blog post.

Warning

Sometimes not seeing strata clients can be a good thing. Once, many seasons ago, I was sent to a nasty site to save it. It was obvious that the regular crew wasn’t managing the site properly. First, I took two helpers and cut the large site by lunch, not over two days like the regulars. Of course, this completely soaked my work shirt with sweat. I find that many new workers aren’t ready to suffer this much, worried as they are about their pay rates.

Second, we picked the weediest beds and attacked them in logical sections as a team. If you split up and approach your site in helter-skelter manner, you will be doomed. Always work as a team and methodically.

Third, a terrible idea came to me. I decided to stay longer and fight the weeds after letting the crew go home. Except, the home owners started coming home and they were mad! People came out to ask me about the horrific state of their units and I had very little to tell them. Afraid for my life, I packed it up and left. My then-employer lost the maintenance contract shortly after that.

 

Fun with signs

 

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This is a good sign. We can move on to other pressing tasks. No problem.

 

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This happens a lot. Extra short, extra long, or not at all. We adjust mower heights and cut. Just remember to put your wheels back to their original height.

 

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We are lucky to have a proper washroom on this site. It’s not always the case. On some sites we have workers driving off to answer their nature calls.

Getting young dudes covered in grass clippings to clean up and shed their boots isn’t always easy.

 

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These people had recently made the switch from grass to artificial turf and left a reminder for our young guys. As European chafer beetles attack, heat waves hit and dogs urinate, owners like these happily invest money and switch. It means less maintenance work but the soil underneath is doomed.

 

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Directly in front of this sign is a decapitated lily and I feel for the lady. It means the crew leader has more training to do with his line trimmers. Zero damage is the goal. I find that middle-aged women especially are attached to their plants. Destroying their plants isn’t good landscape maintenance. Be careful. You are the guest on site.

 

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The owner of this clematis is pro-active so the vine is still intact. I just hope the line trimmer dude slows down enough to notice the sign. To be fair, the dudes are asked to perform their tasks quickly and perfectly. It’s easy to forget to look ahead.

 

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This sign must be included because dog waste problems are horrific in landscape maintenance. This couple neglected their grass so badly that all of our mowers ignored it. Then the owner got upset, made phone calls using expletives and shouted obscenities at our workers. Now, finally, they pick-up like they were supposed to from day one. I was filling in for a girl on vacation last week and mowed this place without incident.

It’s easy to love your self-propelled mower

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

New landscapers usually start by mowing lawns with push mowers. They’re simple machines with one pull cord and they’re light. Then, as the worker progresses, he gets to use a self-propelled mower.

As the name suggests, the mower is self-propelled which means you don’t have to push it as much. This comes in handy when you mow long or sloping sections. I absolutely love seeing the faces of my new workers light up as they discover the mower’s pull.

One important detail

After you gas up your mower with straight gas, you have two more steps to complete. Use the pull cord to start the mower and then, in step two we engage the blades. Normally there is a small button on a bar which we must depress. Obviously, different machines have different set-ups.

Once your machine is on, engage your blade. This should be easy to spot as the machine gets louder and your mower bag gets all puffy. Make sure your blade is engaged.

 

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The yellow button on the bottom engages the blades.

 

True stories

Nothing gets your boss more excited than having a worker mow the front of a high-profile club house for 25 minutes without actually cutting a single blade of grass. This is a true story and the crew leader heard about it from his boss. Make sure your blades are engaged. Ask if you’re not sure. This is basic training you should receive from your superiors.

Glitches

What if you’re trained and your blades still won’t engage? This happened to me recently when I was filling in for a sick worker. I gassed up my mower, picked up my green waste tarps and left. Except my blades wouldn’t engage. What now?

Frustrated, I stopped the engine and tipped the mower on its side. Incredibly, there was a plastic pot stuck between the blades and deck. Was it a freak accident or the crew having some fun with their senior supervisor? I laughed it off and mowed all morning.

 

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Very funny! A plastic pot jammed between the blades and deck. No wonder the blades wouldn’t engage.

 

Another Japanese Knotweed fight

By | Species, weeds | No Comments

Japanese knotweed is a nasty invasive perennial plant which destroys habitats especially around water bodies. As soon as I found a patch at a far corner of my site, I was on high alert. The invader probably benefitted from soil disturbances as condominium construction happened on both sites.

 

Headache

 

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Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

This is bound to be huge headache because our site is on the right and nobody is maintaining the area on the left. Since knotweed spreads by roots this will be a constant fight. Knotweed roots can extend for 20m from the parent plant and 3m deep. Definitely call or click before you dig. I hope the landscape maintenance company next door takes action soon.

 

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We didn’t have time to dig but we flush cut the hollow bamboo-like canes as close to the ground as possible. Some people are tempted to pour illegal substances on the stumps under cover of darkness. I know many municipalities use heavy chemicals that would be illegal for residents to apply. That’s how desperate it has become.

 

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One small clump generates lots of foliage and shade.

 

 

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City of Coquitlam, BC. This is a common roadside problem. The city sprayed this patch to keep it in check and off the roadway.

 

Knotweed details

The flowers on knotweed are actually attractive. They are small, white and grow in showy, plume-like, branched clusters along the plant stem and leaf joints. How can you make sure you’re dealing with knotweed in the absence of flowers? Look for the zigzag pattern in which leaves are arranged along the plant stems.

 

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Leaf and flower detail.

 

Knotweed isn’t the only bad boy invading our landscapes. There is a long list of others. Learn to recognize them and try to plant sound alternatives. Visit the Invasive Species Council of BC. They also have volunteer opportunities. But education is key.

Learning to recognize weeds is actually an important skill. New landscapers struggle in this department because machine use comes first. But once they do finesse-type work they need to recognize unwanted weeds from good plants. This takes time just like plant identification skills. Fortunately, there are only so many key weeds in our landscapes.

Garden Making magazine scaling back

By | gardening, Magazines | No Comments

Garden Making magazine is the best garden magazine in Canada. It’s beautifully designed and full of interesting articles. So it was a bit distressing to read that the magazine’s publishing schedule is changing. Welcome to our digital age.

The magazine will not be published this fall. The next issue will come out in February 2018. You almost have to ask what the point is of publishing a magazine just twice a year. I will still buy it because I find consuming electronic garden magazines difficult. My Horticulture subscription is electronic by necessity, not by choice. I find the foreign print subscription charges way too high. So I get it delivered to my iPad.

Market realities

According to a letter from the publisher fewer people are subscribing to magazines and advertisers are diverting their spending to digital media. Those are the market realities. So I am encouraged to visit gardenmaking.com. And maybe I will.

But I also make frequent visits to my local Chapter’s and it’s obvious that magazines aren’t dead yet. Fine Gardening is my favourite US-based magazine and highly recommended.

I think Garden Making can do quite well in the digital landscape. They have a nice list of subscribers. And they also follow others in offering free e-books and tips in exchange for people’s e-mails. Then comes the digital format magazine and plenty of upsell. I know it. Get ready for it.

Electronic magazine publishing must be a breeze compared to print. The publisher and editor both admit in their editorial that publishing the print magazine is more about labour of love than profits. I believe them.

Clippings

I love to save clippings of interesting articles and plants. And as the files accumulate my wife tells me frequently what she thinks of this habit. Now it looks as though I will have to start making new folders on my laptop. Perhaps some change is good.

Still, the magazine’s new reduced publishing schedule is not what I wanted to hear. I really looked forward to receiving my quarterly issues. I would have loved to see bi-monthly issues.

What do YOU read? Leave comments, if you can.

 

 

Still purchasing lady beetles for your garden?

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

A few years ago I met a home owner at one of our sites and she told me about her annual lady beetle buy and release events. I smiled politely and privately thought she was insane and had way too much disposable income. She paid $16.95 retail plus tax for a bag of lady beetles. As we learn from the fact sheet below this biocontrol business is extremely lucrative.

 

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Now, a few seasons later,  there is a new Fact Sheet from the University of Washington Extension that clarifies the issue and it happens to be co-authored by my favourite horticulture scientist Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.

As it turns out many gardeners buy lady beetles for their gardens and landscapes. And the fact sheet concludes that “release to open gardens and landscapes is unlikely to be successful.” Now my burning question is answered.

Control

Adult and larval beetles control aphids and scale insects, mites, beetle larvae and immature bugs.

 

Aphid problem

The site mentioned above has lots of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) which are known to attract aphids. The aphids suck on the new leaves but otherwise don’t harm the trees. Incidentally, don’t miss tulip tree flowers. They are spectacular.

Since aphids can’t process sugars, they excrete them. That’s why honeydew drops on leaves, cars and sidewalks. Then lady beetle sales go up. The lady swore that her lady beetle releases are effective. OK.

But perhaps you don’t have to spend your after-tax dollars on lady beetles. What if you can attract them naturally? Grasses and wildflowers will attract them to your gardens. Lawns not so much.

As we learn from the fact sheet, lady beetles eat fungus, fruit and occasionally vegetation. Adults look for sugar sources such as nectar or honeydew. These energy-rich supplemental foods improve lady beetle reproduction and survival over winter.

Take it easy on insecticides because they kill the target pests and natural predators.

Good or bad idea?

There are some negative aspects to this whole biocontrol business. First, we are removing populations from their natural ecosystems which may not be a good idea.

Second, native beneficial insects may suffer when we introduce non-natives. And third, introducing lady beetles may transport parasites.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I must say that the lady gets a gold star for spending $16.95 plus tax on a bag of lady beetles; and for inspiring this blog post. As we know from the new fact sheet, these lady beetle releases are unlikely to be effective. And yet, she swears by them. Perhaps the tulip tree honeydew attracts the lady beetles naturally.

I say, try to attract lady beetles naturally and save your money. Perhaps you can donate some cash to the University of Washington Extension so they can produce more science-based fact sheets.

When trees and artificial turf are incompatible

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

My friend who specializes in artificial turf installs told me recently that he was killing it. Great. I was happy for him. He went through his apprenticeship by installing NFL turf and deserves his success.

However, there are some cases where installing artificial turf is a bad idea. Take for example the case below from the United States.

 

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Picture used with permission.

 

Unhappy owner

The owner was unhappy with his lawn and approached his landscape company about replacing it with artificial turf. His landscaper was worried-correctly!-about removing four inches of turf and not adversely affecting the tree. Then she posted this picture in a Facebook group and asked people for their opinions.

Incidentally, I recommend joining a few Facebook lawn care groups. Many of the groups have thousands of members and interesting things pop us almost daily.

Let’s see

This is an interesting case so let’s see.

A) I presume that the tree shades out the grass when it pushes leaves out. You could prune the tree to allow for more light penetration. Another possibility is top-dressing with a light layer of soil and over-seeding with shade grass mix. Baby the lawn a little bit. Aerate it and fertilize it.

B) To install artificial turf you have to remove the top four inches of soil and install rock. You can read my blog about my friend’s project which shows the steps involved in installing artificial turf.

Since trees rely on surficial roots for water and nutrient collection this step would no doubt affect the tree. I also notice large roots that would make it impossible to install the turf perfectly flat.

And to prepare the rock for turf install, it gets compacted with a machine. We know soil compaction kills trees by limiting air and water uptake by surficial roots. Installing four inches of rock and compacting it all around the tree would have serious consequences for the tree.

C) I understand that most artificial turf models allow water to penetrate but I still think it wouldn’t be the same deal for the tree. Then there is the issue of heat. Natural grass produces oxygen and cools down our properties and cities. It’s the opposite with artificial turf. Once it’s installed it heats up and the soil underneath dies. I think the turf would simply “cook” the tree roots.

D) I believe the tree has to go before artificial turf can be installed. Imagine the full effect from grass cooling and tree shade to open artificial turf which absorbs heat and zero shade. Remember, artificial soccer fields should be watered down to protect the players on hot summer days.

E) Then there is the issue of cost. Artificial turf isn’t cheap but it’s easier to maintain than natural grass. I personally dislike anything artificial in my landscapes. Anything that kills soil is bad in my books.

Conclusion

The owners of this property have to find another solution to their grass problems. Artificial turf install is totally incompatible with the tree in their front yard. They can prune the tree and baby the grass. Or they can remove the tree to make way for artificial turf. Of course, this step loses the many ecosystem services provided free of charge by the tree and leads to soil death. I would personally avoid this second idea at all costs.

 

Courtesy blow in landscaping

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

Courtesy blow in landscape maintenance refers to final clean up with a backpack blower. It’s assumed that this will take place because, after all, your clients deserve it. It gives their place a nice finished look.

As landscape supervisor and trainer, I train all workers on the importance of a proper clean up blow. But as I found out this past weekend, not all landscapers understand this basic lesson. So please look at the pictures below from Pennsylvania, USA and identify some of the common deficiencies. What bothers you about these picture?

 

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Lawn care basics

Well, what’s on your list? Incredibly, this is the finished product. I believe the elderly home owner was charged $75US for the job when the going rates are something like 50% of that amount.

One obvious defect is the mess of clippings left on the sidewalk. Again, courtesy clean-up blow is a rule in landscape maintenance. The site must be cleaned up and left as if you were never there. This is hardly the case.

Another defect is the shaggy lawn around the power pole. Perhaps line trimming wasn’t part of the deal but for $75US it should have been. By next week it will be even more obvious. And remember another landscape maintenance rule: the line trimming should match the height of your mower setting. Any decent lawn care professional should be able to match his trimming height to his mower.

Blade edging rules!

Lastly, the whole street hasn’t been blade edged in a long time. This is a mistake. Once the lawn starts creeping over into the sidewalk it makes edge re-establishment time consuming.

Take a minute to examine my work pictured below from a city park in Coquitlam, British Columbia. I blade edged the city side; the shaggy edge in front is on a private site. The landscapers there don’t use blade edgers. They vertical their edges with string trimmers.

The aesthetic difference is huge. I love sharp edges. The Pennsylvania street pictured above deserves a nice sharp blade edge. And yes, a final courtesy clean-up is mandatory. Follow the edge with your blower to make sure it’s nice and sharp.

 

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Conclusion

Never leave your lawn care site without performing a courtesy clean-up blow. Line trim all edges at the same height as your mower. And periodically check your hard edges and re-establish them when necessary for a sharp, clean look.

Finally, consider getting Landscape Industry Certified so you can separate yourself from people who perform shoddy work.

Chinese windmill palms on the West Coast

By | Arborist Insights, Species, Trees | No Comments

I love palms! They remind me of tropical locations we all love to visit. So when the August 2017 issue of Arborist News featured an article on palms, I finished it on the same day. It also gave me one credit towards my recertification.

This blog post features a palm we see in the Vancouver area. I learned about Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) after they got absolutely hammered this past winter at a client’s place. The lady was clearly distressed because the fronds were all beat up and brown. Plus, her palm was situated near her pool and outdoor kitchen. So I did the only thing I could; I pruned off the brown fronds. When my client retreated into her beautiful home, I snapped a photo of the palm tag and made a reminder to myself to check the species online.

 

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This poor palm didn’t make it. All growth originates from the top and clearly, not much is happening there. But perhaps there is hope. See the next picture.

 

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We almost gave up on this palm but look at it now!

 

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This specimen survived the winter nicely.

 

Winter hardiness

Trachycarpus fortunei is the most tolerant to cold temperatures of all palmate palms. But remember, our last winter in British Columbia was the harshest winter in thirty years. My boss almost lost his juvenile Chinese windmill palm this year. See the second picture above. And it just so happens that my boss and my client both live in an area which held on to snow the longest.

The other complication is that mature Chinese windmill palms handle cold better. Younger specimens are most susceptible.

Details

The Chinese windmill palm is a solitary fan palm with a slender trunk. The key distinguishing feature of this palm is a messy layer of brown fibers that turn gray with age.

 

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Note the messy fibers.

 

The palmate fronds are up to two feet (0.6m) wide and deeply divided into one inch (2.54cm) wide, stiff segments. The petiole is 1.5 feet (0.5m) long and armed along the base with blunt teeth. Yes, the teeth are blunt but weeding around this palm is still unpleasant.

Mature specimens can reach 25 feet (7.6m) in height. This species is a good selection for small gardens.

 

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All brown fronds should be pruned off.

 

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This is a picture after pruning.

 

What palms grow in your home area?

 

References: Arborist News August 2017 volume 26, number 4, pp. 12-21. This is an excellent article. If you are ISA certified you can earn 1 CEU credit.

Hedge uses in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance, Landscaping | No Comments

Hedging is a common landscape element in gardens. On our strata sites it’s a similar story and as I found out, there are several different hedge uses.

Deterrent

 

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Around the corner is a school and this prickly Pyracantha coccinea deters young people from hopping the fence. The plant lives up to its common name, fire thorn. Once you get it stuck in your body, get ready for swelling and pain. Rumour has it the youths still risk it to complete their illegal substance deals.

 

Car lights

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This was a new idea. The laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) behind the ladder is to be kept at the same height. It turns out that the units in the distance are bothered by car lights! Who knew? This sort of information has to be passed on before any pruning happens.

 

Privacy

 

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Privacy is a natural hedge use. Here there used to be a cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) but without help it died in one of our summer droughts. The yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’) are considered more resilient. Sadly, the last I heard on this hedge is that they too were struggling. Since I planted them personally, I find it distressing.

The residents were obviously glad to get their bedroom windows protected from passersby and windows from across the courtyard.

 

Site lines

 

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The residents here are looking at a power station in the distance and its various towers and cables. Therefore, they asked us to plant more stuff in the wild zone. Obvious gaps were plugged up with cedar trees (Thuja plicata). Since this line of Pieris japonicas is the biggest we could find, the residents will have to wait for a bit before they grow up.

 

Cover

 

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This is another common ploy. Green hedges are used to cover unsightly areas like this recycling box. Unfortunately, cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) are affected by shading from the box. Note the brown holes. Any shading over six months usually results in permanent browning.

 

Fun!

 

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Let’s not forget fun. Some people like to have fun with their hedges. While I’m not a fan, I don’t mind if the residents prune their hedges at angles that please them. Here future snow accumulations shouldn’t be an issue. This is Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica).

Hedges serve many functions in our landscapes. I always prefer green barriers to structures like fences.

On branch attachment

By | Trees | No Comments

One day last year I went out for a jog at Shoreline park in Port Moody, British Columbia and ran past a fallen tree. Ok, trees fall all the time in the forest. But luckily the municipal workers made a nice clearance cut exposing one of the branch attachments. See the picture below.

 

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Look how strong this branch attachment is. It belongs there.

 

Strong attachment

What do you notice? Do you see how the branch on the right is firmly attached? It’s solidly in place because it belongs there. It’s a true branch developed in a socket of overlapping wood tissue. So I stopped running and snapped a few photos. Then, after I resumed running I thought about my arborist friend’s tree lecture.

Paul Buikema is one of my tree mentors and his lectures are to be recommended. He related one story, complete with slides, showing a gorgeous deciduous tree with large leaves. I totally forgot the exact species. Paul was asked to prune it so he climbed inside. Then, horrified, he realized that all of the branches he was stepping on were pseudo-branches.

Weak attachment

The tree had been topped in the past and the branches Paul was standing on pushed out from apical meristems. Basically, when you top a tree, the buds nearest to the top push out and develop into branches. These are pseudo-branches, not real, strongly attached branches. They are attached only in the outermost layers of the parent branches and prone to failure.

Of course, Paul didn’t push his luck and bailed out of the project. It just wasn’t safe for him to stay there.

 

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This is an illegally cut pin oak (Quercus palustris). Note the three shoots. They will never be as strong as normal branches.

 

This is an extreme example but it illustrates my point. This pin oak (Quercus palustris) was cut down illegally. Now look at the shoots. They will never be as strong as normal branches. Of course, I love the resilience of this oak. It’s pushing back after getting abused.

 

 

Don’t top trees

So here again we have one of the main reasons to not top trees. As the new pseudo-branches develop into big branches they can snap in wind or ice storms. This is one of the arguments arborists use to talk residents out of tree topping. Insisting on tree topping means that they accept future failure liability. That might scare them off.

If you want to read more about tree topping click here.