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Vas Sladek

Product testing in the field

By | Landscaping Equipment, Reviews | No Comments

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

New tarp

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

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

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

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

 

Old tarps

 

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The old green tarp on the bottom is slightly bigger.

 

 

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

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The new tarps are easier to twist and look better.

Lady Di: Grandiflora Rose

By | gardening, Landscaping, Species | No Comments

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

Lady Di

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

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

 

Rose details

 

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Grandiflora rose showing wax on its canes.

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

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

 

Planting

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

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

 

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Ready for planting.

 

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

Why landscape professionals lose sleep

By | Landscaping, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

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

 

Spring show

 

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

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

 

Sidewalk edging

 

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

 

Watering

 

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

 

Butchered trees

 

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

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

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

 

Poor drainage

 

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Lots of clay.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Installing a 4′ cedar hedge is a breeze

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

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

Size

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

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

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

Planting

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

 

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Before.

 

 

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

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

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

Clean-up

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

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

 

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After.

 

Conclusion

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

 

 

Too much fun with hand aerators

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

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

 

The tool

 

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

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

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

Too much funĀ 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

 

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Fiskars core aerator is a good model to use.

 

When installing artificial turf makes sense

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

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

 

Dog damage

 

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

 

Clay soils

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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Note the sticky, dense clay chunks.

 

Shade

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

 

Oak tree versus artificial turf

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

It pays to join green Facebook groups because once in a while you run into interesting landscaping cases. Like the case of an oak tree versus artificial turf.

While I am not a fan of plastic grass I will show in a future blog that there are some legitimate cases where artificial turf makes sense. More on that later. For now all we need to know is that the artificial turf install was done well. It was done in Europe in an English-speaking country obsessed with royals. See the picture below.

Poor oak

I understand the landscape installer tried to get a tree removal permit but the local authorities wouldn’t have it. So the oak stayed (yes!) but the artificial turf still went all around it.

I’m convinced that trees and artificial turf don’t mix well. Here’s why.

a) Trees rely on surficial roots to obtain water and nutrients and this root network often extends far beyond the drip line. The oak in this example was left with a small square at its base, the rest of the area got artificial turf. This will make it extremely difficult for the tree to obtain all of its required resources.

b) Artificial turf usually involves the use of compactor machines and soil compaction around tree bases is deadly. Once the soil gets compacted it’s difficult for the tree roots to obtain resources. Water will just run off instead of penetrating into the soil. Soil compaction is a silent tree killer.

This install didn’t use any stone crush base and it’s not completely clear if the soil was compacted with a machine. Any landscape work around the tree base is detrimental. The bare soil must have been graded before turf install.

c) Artificial turf heats up! I know this because my son plays soccer. If the turf can heat up my son’s modern plastic cleats, imagine what it does to the soil below. Soils under artificial turf die. My poor son suffered during his match because the host soccer club failed to water the turf. Who will help the poor oak?

 

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Conclusion

It takes time for trees to decline and die. I don’t like this oak tree’s chances. I’m convinced that landscape trees and artificial turf don’t mix well. You can have one or the other but not both.

 

Basic tree maintenance techniques for landscapers: 3-point cut

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

There are many key landscape maintenance techniques all landscapers should know well. I try to teach these techniques to our new company recruits; and home owners can benefit as well from knowing them. Trees are an important component of our landscapes and must be maintained properly.

 

Three point cuts

This is a basic technique all landscapers must know. ISA certification is not required, although I always recommend it to workers with 2-3 years of field experience. This 3-point cut technique does appear in the Certified Landscape Technician practical testing module on pruning. However, you just have to tell the judge how you would make the 3-point cut because they use one tree to test all candidates.

For now, let’s stick to basics.

Yesterday I was at a site doing normal winter maintenance. I finessed beds, blew leafy piles and then I ran into Magnolia trees that were clearly encroaching on a staircase. So I took action because I had time for it and I also enjoy the work.

To remove an unwanted branch, you must use a 3-point cut, unless you’re removing a smaller branch that could almost be taken off with hand snips. Why 3 point? Because first you have to take off the weight of the branch. If you don’t you risk bark damage.

 

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(1) Undercut (White arrow)

Make a decent undercut without getting your sharp hand saw pinched by the wood.

(2) Second cut (Green arrow) to take the weight off. See how cleanly the branch shears off. If you attempt to make just one cut at the branch collar (Orange arrow) you risk ripping off the bark.

 

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The first two cuts are completed.

 

(3) The final cut happens at the branch collar (Orange arrow). We give the tree a chance to cover up the wound. Just make sure you don’t cut into the branch collar.

 

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The branch collar is clearly visible.

 

 

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All done!

 

The problem with stubs

Leaving a stub means the tree can’t properly heal the wound by closing it over. The stub dies anyway but it could allow diseases to enter the tree. So make proper cuts without leaving stubs.

 

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Acer griseum with a stub.

 

This cut was poorly done. The stub is clearly dead and you can see how the tree tried to cover up the wound. You wouldn’t believe how many of these cuts I see in the field. Sometimes the dead stub just breaks off.

Once you learn the 3-point cut, it will become automatic with practice.

 

For best results, stick together

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

Landscape foremen and crew leaders get best results when they keep their crews together as much as possible. That’s the point of this blog post. If you’re time-stressed you can finish reading this later but I hope you’ll stay and read until the end.

Early exchange

First a quick story. When I started landscaping with a certain prominent Lower Mainland landscape maintenance company, I witnessed a heated exchange between the vice-president and my supervisor. The big boss was outraged because we were all working solo in different parts of a large site. What was the problem? Loss of control! It’s impossible for the crew leader to monitor everything when workers are split up. And this was before smartphones became widespread.

I felt offended at the time, thinking that I had enough self-motivation to complete my tasks well. I had some things to learn about crew leadership. And now, finally, eighteen seasons later, I’m blogging about it.

Two types of leader

I’m running into two types of crew leaders in my work as landscape supervisor. One likes to delegate and then fade; the other works alongside his crew members. The crews that stick together consistently out-perform the crews that split up.

Now, I know that sticking together isn’t always possible or practical. But tasks like bedwork should be performed in groups. Even mowers and line trimmers can attack the same lawn sections.

So why split? Because working together hurts. There is a price to pay in heavy sweat when you stick with your crew. Delegating and fading to another part of your site is one way to have an easy day. I know of a foreman who delegates to his crew and then invents all sorts of reasons to be away from the main action. But eventually it shows; in site condition and crew abilities.

And let’s not pretend, for even a minute, that the crews don’t see through this tactic.

Training

New workers require training and monitoring and this is best accomplished when you see them often. Delegating and disappearing won’t work. You must be there to lead, to correct mistakes and to teach. This investment will pay off when your sites start looking great.

Your workers will also appreciate your feedback. I know that many new workers have good days when they get trained on new machines or tasks.

The picture below is from my lunch time walk. Full marks to these two; they accomplish more together. And they also look out for one another in a busy mall parking lot.

 

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Beyond comfort

I feel like I became a landscape professional when I switched my focus from my physical state (sweat and discomfort) to the larger issue of site condition. Did we deliver great service to our clients? Did we accomplish the tasks we set out for the day?

Leading workers outside in physically demanding labour isn’t easy. It would be easier to slip out for a smoke and e-mail check. But what’s the goal, exactly? World-class work. And for that you must stick together with your crews as much as possible.

Can you let your winter garden go wild?

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

I enjoyed reading Margaret Renkl’s opinion piece in this past weekend’s New York Times (The New York Times, Sunday, February 11, 2018, p.8 Sunday Review). In the past Renkl used to put her garden to bed for the winter. She cut back her perennials, composted the remains of annuals and picked the weeds she had ignored all year. She also installed a thick layer of mulch to keep everything safe from the cold. Yeah, well done!

Wild

Now she doesn’t worry about her garden as much. Her one discovery this year was that robins enjoyed eating dry berries from her monkey grasses. I had to Google monkey grass because common names in Nashville may not refer to the same plant on the West Coast. I imagine she is referring to Liriope muscari which is a good groundcover plant on our strata sites. It forms nice mounds and produces flowers in summer.

So not cutting back the flower stalks in fall was good for the robins. Renkl also enjoys seeing birds pluck out seeds from her summer flowers so she doesn’t cut them when they’re spent. She also suggests that beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.

New strata contract

This past week I performed the very first contract service on a new strata site. As is customary, I walked the entire site and as I did I wondered if the entire site was populated by Margaret Renkls. There were thick layers of leaves piled up in many corners, weedy spots, tree debris piles, and many perennials were never cut back.

Alas, strata (multi-family) complexes are different from private gardens. They can’t be left to go wild. We fight nature to make it all nice and neat, crisp and healthy. And yet, I wonder. Is it a big deal to leave some leaves over the winter to protect bulbs and beneficial insects? Now when I see Hydrangeas with flowers still on I no longer reach for my snips. They can be snipped anytime. Perhaps birds can derive some benefit from perennials left standing all winter. We can get to it in spring.

 

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Does this winter look stress you out or calm you down?

 

Not so fast

Then, my dream quickly evaporated as my boss showed up, eager to put our company stamp on the site and bring it up to proper standards. Yes sir! Leaves were blown into piles and removed and any weeds along the way were picked up. We also deep-edged the worst beds; and we got to meet the strata garden contact person.

Meeting strata garden liaisons is a critical activity because it’s important to establish a good working relationship. This person reports to strata council and makes budget requests.

Next we will shear cedar hedges and cut back perennials. Weeds will be a priority and then more deep edges.

What’s happening in your own winter garden? Is it wild or well-groomed?