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Vas Sladek

Stop abusing your Hydrangeas!

By | gardening, Landscaping, Species | No Comments

Hydrangeas play a huge part in our West Coast landscapes and they thrive in our acidic soils. I especially like the giant mop-head species. They are fun to look at and hand-prune.

 

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Summer

Everything goes well with our Hydrangeas during the summer season. They look fantastic and we don’t have to touch them, except for clipping the odd branch that interferes near walkways or entrances. But trouble comes in fall when the flowers fade. That’s when panic sets in.

The picture below inspired me to write this blog post. Since my main landscape maintenance task in fall is leaf removal, I didn’t get to this plant. And that’s too bad because the home owner obviously used his hands to snap off the canes. Shame!

 

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This is horrific: snapped off canes, right into the wood. Don’t expect too many flowers next year; and use sharp snips for pruning, not your hands.

 

Good gardening demands that we use good, sharp snips. Snapping branches off is very backward. I have no idea why the home owner was so impatient.

Key points

Here is the meat of this blog post.

A) Spent Hydrangea flowers can be kept on the plant all winter. It all depends on the owner and her preferences. In  landscape maintenance work on multi-family complexes the spent flowers come off fairly quickly. Again, the company boss will most likely dictate this. Whatever you do, use sharp snips to remove the spent flowers. Snapping canes with your hands is not allowed.

B) Most Hydrangeas flower on last year’s wood. There are exceptions: some varieties flower every year no matter what you do to them. But most Hydrangeas flower on last year’s wood.

Let’s consider one example. The Hydrangea pictured below is planted at the entrance of two units and when I first saw it, the owner complained that it was in the way and it never flowered. My recommendation? Stop hacking it down to the ground.

 

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The owner followed my advice and left the plant alone.

 

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I pruned just low enough to get the canes off the walkway and give the buds a chance in 2020.

 

When you prune it down to stumps, all you get is green canes that don’t flower. You can expect flowers next season. Luckily, the owner listened to me and left it alone. So, I snipped off the tops, going down 2-4 sections, cutting just above fat buds. I’m very confident this plant will flower nicely in 2020.

Now that it’s pruned off the walkway, there is a chance the owner will ignore it.

Stop the abuse

Hydrangeas are fun, beautiful plants and they flower on last year’s wood. So don’t make your pruning cuts too low. Prune down 2-5 bud pairs and use sharp snips, not your hands.

Tree planting mistakes you must avoid

By | Lawn Care, Trees | No Comments

Planting mistakes happen all the time but if you read this blog you will avoid making basic mistakes. Let’s consider the picture below.

What’s wrong here? Take a few minutes. There’s no rush.

 

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Turf

The turf install looks fine. All of the pieces pictured look tight, without any major gaps. Just add water and let it establish. After say, one week, you can grab a chunk and gently pull on it. If it pulls up easily then the turf still needs more time to get established. And keep watering it.

Tree

I worry about the long-term survival of this tree because in spring, when lawn care resumes, there won’t be any protection for it. You can help avoid future tree vs machine conflicts by creating a tree well or by installing a plastic guard at the base.

Tree wells work best because they keep machines away. Plastic guards are second best.

Why is tree vs machine conflict bad for the tree? Damage from mower and line edger collisions stresses the tree. To repair damaged tissues the tree must divert precious energy into repair. And that, in turn, means there are fewer resources available for growth.

Yes, trees are resilient but repeated abuse eventually kills the tree. So now, instead of enjoying free ecosystem services from the tree we must spend resources on tree removal and replacement. See the example below.

 

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This completely “beavered” tree is now removed from the landscape. Note the lack of tree well or plastic guard for protection.

 

Burlap

The picture clearly shows burlap at the base of the tree. Remember, only the tree should go into your planting hole. Remove burlap, wires, and strings.

I know from experience that burlap hides the actual root flare zone. What this means is that this tree was actually planted too low. The root flare should be at grade but I’m almost certain that if I were to remove the burlap I’d see the root flare below grade.

What’s wrong with planting trees too low? For one, the bark tissues above the root flare aren’t supposed to be covered with soil. Over time the bark will rot and this could invite disease in.

And two, tree roots planted too deep will not be able to obtain the required oxygen. You can imagine why lack of oxygen might be a problem.

Corrections

This is what we should see in the picture above. All burlap is completely removed before planting so all we see is the trunk; and the tree is planted correctly with the root flare at grade.

There should be a tree well established around the tree to minimize any machine vs tree conflicts. All lawn care workers should be trained to avoid machine vs tree conflicts.

For more see the journal article ” Conflicts between landscape trees and lawn maintenance equipment-The first look at an urban epidemic“, by J. Morgenroth, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 14 (2015), 1054-1058.

How to catch a mole

By | Books | No Comments

I sometimes see angry home owners looking at mole hills in their lawns, wondering what to do about them. And I also see metal traps with orange flagging and solar-powered noise makers designed to keep moles away.

So when I read a story about Marc Hamer’s new book “How to catch a mole“, I was intrigued; and I eventually bought the audio version from Audible and listened to it at work. It was an easy 3:45 listen; at my preferred 1.5 x speed it was actually shorter.

Hamer lives in Wales and in the introduction he promises to teach you about moles; and he succeeds. We also learn about the author’s early vagabond life and how he eventually settled down with his wife and two kids. He works as a gardener and catches moles in winter for extra income. The book is also full of poems.

If you like poems, I suggest you buy the print version or slow down the audio. I’m not a great fan of poetry so I let the details escape me. I was after mole information and I got plenty of it.

Mole catchers in the UK go back a long way. Some have built lucrative careers from mole catching.

Hamer charges per animal caught and the process is fascinating. But it also relies on his “feel” and experience. Don’t expect to become an expert mole catcher after reading this book.

The mole

Moles are fascinating. Many species are blind and the ones Hamer catches have tiny eyes that can’t focus. Moles rely on their sense of smell. That’s why when Hamer sets his traps he must hurry because moles can detect fresh air in their tunnels. Fresh air alerts them and they can quickly block sections of their tunnels.

The mole’s preferred meal is earthworms and they know that earthworms will regrow after losing one of their ends. So the mole bites off their heads and parks them underground. The earthworms won’t go anywhere while they regrow their missing body parts.

The end

One day Hamer pulls out a trap and one of the two moles is still alive. Since the animal would surely die, there is only one thing to do: he has to kill it with his own hands. And this turns out to be the last mole he catches. Disgusted with killing, Hamer realizes it’s time to retire from mole catching.

We learn that Hamer is getting old, his body is slowing down and he finds comfort in nature. There is a lot of reflection on old age and spending time in nature. People still call him about moles but he tells them he’s now retired. That leaves plenty of time to write and narrate this book.

We don’t have to kill moles. We can just grow meadows and let them be.

 

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Why landscapers hate trampolines

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

I hate trampolines, especially when they’re parked on lawns, as they inevitably must be. It would be harsh to have your kids fall out of a trampoline and land on cement.

Light

Imagine a small backyard facing north where lack of light means grass struggles to grow and moss feels right at home. Now, also imagine a client who tells you that he’s unhappy with the look of his lawn. So you point out the conditions and the fact that the trampoline never moves.

This is a common problem in lawn care. Lawn owners often fail to consider how their lawn setting affects the condition of their lawn. The client in question has a north-facing lawn; and the weak spot directly under his trampoline proves that grass requires light to grow well. Permanently shaded lawn areas turn to hundred percent moss.

Moving the trampoline every time you mow is also a waste of time. And without help, moving the heavy trampoline sometimes results in damage to the mossy lawn.

 

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Trampoline shading and moss.

 

A minor miracle

One day I showed up and the hideous trampoline was gone! Yes, finally! It was a minor miracle.

I scraped off the moss with a rake-it was easy!-and over-seeded the bald spot. Now that the grass had access to some light, the weak area greened up. Plants require light to thrive.

Of course, there will always be moss close to the house where shading is the worst. This is another never-ending fight. You can kill the moss, over-seed and wait but eventually the shady, wet conditions will favour moss. Some owners don’t mind putting up a fight every year.

Perfect lawn

I love beautiful lawns and happy clients but landscapers can’t pull-off miracles. If your lawn isn’t perfect, consider the setting first. A north facing lawn will receive less light and will likely have moss in it.

The same goes for trampolines. Pick one: a perfect lawn or a trampoline. You can’t have both because the contraption your kids love so much shades out the grass underneath. Grass requires light so consider recycling your trampoline. Your landscaper will love you for it.

 

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The lawn looks better with the trampoline gone.

Risking arrest for California’s Eucalypts

By | Events, Trees | No Comments

This past August I found myself in Lake Forest, California because of my son’s soccer tournament. It was yet another sunny morning and it was getting hot. It was too hot for the boys to have a serious soccer practice. So I left the team at the tennis courts and walked across the street.

 

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Private property!

My target was a nearby line of beautiful and huge Eucalyptus trees. It was like Christmas for this arborist. The trees looked awesome and as I took more pictures I drifted onto a church parking lot. There I shot many other landscape plants. I was having a fantastic California morning until a voice woke me up from my plant trance.

 

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I love these Eucalyptus trees.

 

“Can I help you? This is private property!” Immediately I thought oh, shit, was this an open carry state? Then I mumbled something about visiting California and loving their church landscaping. “We get all kinds here!” was his reply. So I apologized and told the dude I was leaving. No need to call the police. He then wished me a pleasant visit and I wondered what the Sunday sermons were like.

 

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Note the security camera.

 

Trees in Paradise

I have since learned that Lake Forest used to be an Eucalyptus plantation. Now it’s a master-planned community with beautiful landscaping. I was blown away by the landscaping so much, I walked into the nearest bookstore desperate for some sort of plant guide. And I found a door stopper gem there called Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer. (I will review this excellent book in a future blog.)

Farmer devotes a one hundred page chapter to Eucalypts and it’s a wild ride. The trees were imported from Australia and became very popular in California. And then it all swung the other way. Eucalyptus plantations in San Francisco were abandoned and the trees were allowed to go wild.

One glitch stands out from this book chapter. Californians wanted to reproduce the success Aussies had with their fast-growing Eucalypts. But what they didn’t notice was that the Aussies were processing old growth Eucalypts.

The new growth Eucalypts in California were extremely difficult to process because the young trees behave badly when they’re run through saw mills. Farmer does a great job of explaining this. Basically the trees break apart at the saw mill so it’s hard to get the nice straight lumber saw mills wanted. Bummer.

I think the Eucalypts I saw in Los Angeles looked great. I can’t wait to see them again in August 2020 but I will be more mindful of private property lines. “Canadian pro blogger dead in California” would be an unfortunate headline.

 

 

Go deep when edging

By | Edging | No Comments

Deep edging beds is a perfect landscape task for the fall. Many bed edges are worn out or completely obliterated by November and they look awful. And now that we are no longer mowing and edging there is plenty of time for this work.

Also, if your garden never had any edges, you can easily establish them by following the same procedure outlined below. You will be rewarded for your efforts with nicely defined edges.

Step 1

Use a good edging shovel-flat on the bottom- and drive it into your edge at precisely ninety degrees. Don’t fake it. Go for perfect ninety degrees. A few inches deep should suffice but, personally, I love deep ankle busters. And I pay for it when crews call the boss to complain about their supervisor creating hazardous edges.

 

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A) is the tired old edge, B) is the new edge and the white arrow shows the correct shovel angle.

 

Step 2

After you drive the shovel into your edge, place your foot behind the shovel before you dislodge the soil. You have to do this to prevent the edge from getting rounded off. Remember, the best looking deep edge is ninety degrees.

Step 3

Your deep edging will generate soil and turf chunks. Don’t leave them in your bed. Beat them up with your cultivator and remove any grass chunks. Keep the soil and rake it in for a nice, even finish.

Obviously, if you’re establishing new edges you will generate more waste. In this example, I only touched up existing edges so my clean-up was minimal. Whatever the case, never leave the soil chunks in the bed. They look bad.

Step 4

When you do your clean-up blow, gently blow off any soil off your grass edges. Just do it gently so you don’t blast out soil from your beds.

Then step back and enjoy the view of your new deep edges. They should last until mowing resumes in spring and beyond.

 

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All done! Note the sharp edge, no sign of chunks and the grass is clean.

Low-idle advice for mechanically-challenged landscapers

By | Landscaping Equipment | No Comments

I use small engine machines almost every day in the field, mainly Stihl models. I use them but I don’t pretend to understand them. My favourite tasks are almost always related to plants; machines I barely tolerate. When something breaks down the machines go straight to the dealer for repair.

This simple blog post covers low idle problems and it’s intended for mechanically-challenged people.

The problem

Once in a while a problem pops up and I know there must be a simple explanation. Take this recent example from the field.

Power shearing cedar hedges is a common fall task in our West Coast landscapes. Usually there are miles of hedging to shear and time is short. Now imagine my frustration when I let go of my machine to move the ladder along and the engine dies. Once I’m ready to continue the engine starts and functions properly as long as I keep my finger on the trigger.

I also had the same problem with my backpack blower. As soon as I eased up on the trigger, the unit would shut off. Moving the blower off and on my back and restarting it is extremely annoying.

The fix

At it turns out, this low-idle problem has an easy fix which is great news for this mechanically-challenged landscape professional. The fix is so easy, I had to write a blog post about it. Slowly, very slowly, I learn about the machines I use every day and you can too.

Step 1

Grab a small screw driver provided by Stihl or any other model. Until now I’ve been only using it to execute blade changes on blade edgers.

 

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Step 2

Find the circular port hole labelled LA on the back of your blower or small engine. That’s where the screw driver goes.

 

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Step 3

For this step you should consider using a mask because the unit has to be turned on and sucking exhaust isn’t safe. With the unit running, stick the screw driver in and move it until you hear the engine speed up. It took me a while to do this but eventually I let go and let the blower idle. Once it stayed on without shutting off I was back in business. It was an easy fix. I had no idea.

 

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Let’s review. If your blower or small engine shuts off instead of idling, you can easily fix it with a small screw driver. Doing the repair yourself in the field will save you time and needless frustrations with repeated restarting.

 

Take this step before challenging the Red Seal exam

By | Education, Events | No Comments

Hort Education BC is putting on a preparation course on Saturday, November 23, 2019 at the UBC Botanical Gardens. If you have 7, 920 documented hours in the horticulture industry (roughly four seasons) you can challenge the Red Seal exam. This preparation course is an excellent way to increase your chances of passing. Here is why.

Egan Davis

Egan Davis, the instructor, teaches at the UBC Botanical Gardens and he is super experienced and knowledgeable. He is a plant geek. You can ask him lots of questions but not about actual exam questions. Those are kept secret. You have to earn the Red Seal qualification; there are no short-cuts. The exam tests your knowledge and experience.

Egan sports a booming voice and excellent delivery. I doubt you will forget spending a day with him. He helped me pass in 2014 and I will forever be grateful to him.

2014

When I took this course in 2014 I was in a rush because up-coming municipal jobs required Red Seal papers. And the preparation course was very new and evolving which is why it was free. Now it will cost you $90 but trust me, it is money well spent.

I took the full day course, studied for a few weeks and took comfort in the words of my municipal gardener boss. She told me I would do well based on listening to my comments in the field. This definitely encouraged me. The rest was all work experience from fifteen seasons in the field and landscape industry certified studies.

I did not smash the test but I passed! Now the ITA Red Seal diploma hangs on my wall and I am proud of it.

The key

All attendees received a thick manual which focused on areas where people struggle most. See, I told you, money well spent. I have no idea if attendees still receive manuals or what is in them but I bet it is something similar.

If you have any questions, call or e-mail Bill Hardy, he will help you: bhardy@horteducationbc.com or 604-430-0422.

Red Seal Landscape Horticulturist qualification is a nice trade paper to have. It identifies you as an experienced professional and should, in theory, lead to better pay. It also allows you to take on new apprentices.

If you are thinking about challenging the Red Seal exam in landscape horticulture take the preparation course first. Ninety dollars is a steal. Trust me.

Good luck!

 

Remembrance Day

By | Events, Trees | No Comments

Today is Remembrance Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom today. Unfortunately, I had to work today but I did stop at 11 a.m. to remember those who made their ultimate sacrifice.

A new bed

In 2014, while working for the City of Coquitlam as a park labourer, we created a new bed for Remembrance Day at Blue Mountain Park. And now I drive by the park weekly so I remember fallen soldiers all year.

In subsequent years the municipality redesigned the front planted bed but the plants in the back remain. And I’m glad they do because I planted them with my city gardener boss. We planted yews (Taxus), Astilbes, maples (Acer) and one dogwood (Cornus).

 

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I planted all of the back plants in 2014 with my city gardener boss. They all look fine.

 

First bare-root planting

The dogwood planting was very special because it was my first bare-root planting. Bare-root planting is recommended because when you wash off the root ball you can clearly see the tree roots. This then allows you to arrange them so they look like spokes on a wheel before planting. We want all roots to run out and get established, not keep running in circles. Feel free to prune out any rebel roots.

When you wash off the root ball, hold on to the mud you create. You will use it to plant the tree after your roots are nicely arranged like spokes on a wheel. The mud anchors the bare-root tree in the hole. At the time I didn’t know this. Keeping mud in the back of the truck seemed crazy.

The procedure is to install the muddy soil in phases: soil and water go in and then you wait for it to settle, and repeat the procedure until the hole is filled. The mud cements the tree in the hole.

When we did the planting in 2014 the lawn and soil were wet so I got very muddy but it didn’t bother me. I loved the new experience of bare-root planting.

2019

Now, five years later in 2019, I finally stopped by to take a picture of the dogwood and it looks healthy. I gave it a quick wiggle test by moving the trunk back and forth. The base felt solid which means the tree is established. Yay! Success. The other plants look fine as well.

 

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The dogwood in the middle was planted bare-root in 2014.

 

It feels good to know that my work will be on display for many years to come. I have since done one solo bare-root planting project and I hope to do many more. You should try it next time, too.

I hope you had a great Remembrance Day!

 

 

 

Lowest point as a landscaper

By | Landscaping | No Comments

Someone online asked an interesting question: what was your lowest point as a landscaper? Aha. So I gave it some thought and my answer took me to the beginning. I started landscaping in 2000 and I was an eager apprentice working at a prominent landscape maintenance company.

Deep edging

One important winter task we had to perform was establishing deep edges. It was a lot of labour sticking an edging shovel into bed edges at exactly ninety degrees for miles and miles. And since deep edging generated many soil chunks we had to make them disappear.

This was accomplished by shaking off any grass and disposing of it; the remaining soil was cultivated into the bed. Repeat.

As hard as it was, deep edging gave our beds nice definition and a sharp look. But there was more.

 

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Ninety degree edge gives this bed nice definition.

 

Lowest point

One day I was given a respirator and a plastic applicator full of the granular herbicide Casoron. It wasn’t very clearly explained to me at the time but Casoron is a pre-emergent granular herbicide. Applied in spring, it sterilizes the soil and prevents weeds from germinating.

Few weeds means fewer labour dollars spent on weeding. Casoron application is now illegal in British Columbia but it’s a hard habit to stop. Look around in spring, you will see landscapers quietly sneaking around their sites. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

When it rains after Casoron application, the herbicide can run off and “burn” the grass by leaving it yellow. Beautiful deep edges prevent this from happening. Aha. Vas finally connected the dots.

Was this the wrong company for me? And industry? It was definitely my lowest point as a landscaper.

I had just spent weeks deep edging beds just so we could sterilize the beds with a granular herbicide. Herbicide so bad for your olfactory system it could rob you of your sense of smell.