Are you afraid of chainsaws?

By | Company News | No Comments

I have an uneasy relationship with machines but I’m not afraid of them. Years ago when I was a candidate in the Landscape Industry Certified program at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University I was literally shaking when I hit the chainsaw practical station. The attendant noticed and asked me if I wanted to walk away. No, never!

I did everything correctly but I forgot to put a log in place which made it difficult to cut anything. Oops. Luckily it wasn’t a deduction. I found a log and passed the station. Walk away, don’t make me laugh.

Now, fast forward to 2018 and read about a perfectly good day I had with an old warrior chainsaw. The chainsaw is very old but a new chain made it usable. The bonus was that I got to change the chain myself which was extremely therapeutic.

It’s hard for an ISA certified arborist to admit that in my nightmares my chains always break and fly off. So putting a new chain on correctly made me relax. After all, I installed it myself.

The other bonus was that I was flying solo and allowed to practice. There was nobody watching.

Dead birches

My task was fairly easy: take down six dead birches (Betula papyrifera).

 

Blow like a pro

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

It’s October, 2018, and leaf season is here. Landscape contractors rely on their backpack blowers to clean-up leaf avalanches on their sites. If you drive around you’re bound to see a few a rose-cheeked landscapers blowing for hours.

I personally don’t stress about leaves. I love fall and I clean up the leaves as well as I can. Then I return the following week for more.

Aside from leaf clean-up blowing, there are two more blowing techniques every landscaper must know.

 

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Pre-blow

Early in leaf season when the leaf drop isn’t overwhelming, a pre-blow can be a great time saver. Pre-blow involves a quick blow of your site where leaves are blown onto lawns and then mowed. This eliminates time consuming leaf pile pick-up with rakes.

Simply mow over the leaves and bag everything. Then all that’s left to do is a final touch up blow. The only issue is judging the right amount of leaves. If the leaves really accumulate after your pre-blow, the mower will struggle to shred them when you mow. Don’t kill your mower. That’s why this technique is best used early in the leaf season. I think it could be used more in landscape maintenance.

 

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This is a well executed pre-blow. There isn’t enough leafiness to overwhelm the mower engine or to start raking piles.

 

 

Final blow

As the name suggests, this is the final courtesy clean-up blow. But I’m finding that many new employees only concentrate on the actual clean-up. With proper training they would know that their final blow also doubles as the final check.

Yes, foremen are responsible for checking their sites in theory but it’s not always easy in practice. That’s because some strata sites are huge and asking the foremen to walk the entire site at the end of the day can be too much.

So the worker doing the final blow is responsible for checking everything over as she goes. That includes missed debris piles, full green waste tarps, empty tarps, open gates and missed hand tools. It’s up to the worker to alert the foreman so we avoid calls to the office later.

Lawn care mistakes must also be corrected. Mistakes happen. Nobody goes home until missed lawns are mowed and huge mohawks eliminated.

Again, I find that new workers aren’t trained to perform final site checks when they blow. Once they get into the habit everything runs smoothly.

When a missing hand tool is discovered on site later, it means that the area wasn’t blown or the worker only occupied himself with blowing, not checking.

 

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This missed tarp was discovered during the final blow.

 

 

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This yard didn’t get mowed at all.

 

Conclusion

Consider training your landscape workers to perform pre-blows and final blows with site checking. Your whole operation will be smoother.

How you can have fun with a stump grinder

By | Landscaping, Trees | No Comments

If you read my blog posts consistently you will know that I’m not really a machine kind of guy. But as I found out, learning to use a new machine can be a fun way to spend your day and it stretches you a bit. This is exactly what happened on my stump grinding day.

 

The goal

 

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The goal for the day was to annihilate the two stumps, level off the bed with new soil and install a row of cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) to separate the two units.

 

Step 1

I rented the stump grinder at Home Depot. It’s cheaper if you can fit all of your work into four hours. Otherwise you will have to pay for the whole day.

Because the machine is heavy my boss had suggested asking a passerby for assistance. Unfortunately, I only saw teenage girls heading to school and it would have been suspicious asking them for help with a stump grinder. So I called for help.

There is only one trick to the machine. When you’re ready to stump grind, activate the black lever on the left. It locks the left wheel in place allowing you to rock the machine blade side to side over your stump. That’s it.

I really enjoyed doing this by myself without anyone kibitzing and it worked out. Only later I learned that a little boy in the window had a blast watching me.

 

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The stump is disappearing nicely.

Once the stumps are erased, you will have to rake up the wood debris and remove it. Also, don’t forget to clean up the machine or the Home Depot attendant will have a fit.

 

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Ready for soil install.

 

Cedar hedge

 

Digging through the middle of this bed was actually very hard because I ran into heavy clay. Soils in the Lower Mainland are mostly clay but it’s hard to tell because new developments sometimes have engineered soils installed. And they don’t look anything like the native soils.

New cedars installed in spring will require consistent watering so they can get established. Both units were alerted but sometimes I wonder. I reminded them to slow soak the cedars; quick spray from a hose isn’t really watering.

The new grass seed, on the other hand, will need gentle sprays to achieve germination in one week or so.

 

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All done. Stumps are gone, the area is level with new soil and a new hedge is in. The lawn will require at least a week for germination.

 

This was a fun day for me because I got to transform a bare area into something new. And in the process I got to practice stump grinding which means that next time I will be super confident. Both residents were delighted with the change and promised to water religiously. God help them.

Why Persian ironwood rocks!

By | Arborist Insights, Species, Trees | No Comments

I discovered the Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica) in 2014 while working for municipal gardener Tracey Mallinson. We had many of these trees at the Poirier complex in Coquitlam, BC. But I didn’t expect this tree species to rock the Urban Foresters Symposium. It was mentioned in two lectures and for good reason. It also appeared in the plant ID contest as one of the 25 specimens.

 

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Bullet proof

 

In lecture one on urban street and landscape trees, the lecturer referred to Parrotia persica as bullet-proof. Then he introduced us to three new Parrotia persica cultivars (cv.).

Parrotia persica cv. ‘Ruby Vase’ has a more compact crown while P. persica ‘Vanessa’ has a narrow crown habit. The third cultivar is the most interesting. Called P. persica cv. ‘Persian spire’, it’s a slow-growing non-aggressive street tree or it can be used as a hedge plant. The leaves have an awesome purple boarder.

 

Lecture two

Lecture two covered moisture stress in the landscape. While the lecturer didn’t want to recommend specific species he did cover three tree species he liked. One of them was Parrotia persica, our new bullet-proof friend.

It can handle drier conditions because it comes from the high deserts of Iran. Thus the specific epithet “persica”. It has thick, somewhat hairy leaves. And it tolerates drought and alkaline soil conditions. It doesn’t suffer from any diseases and it has beautiful fall colours.

Cons

Parrotia persica is a slow grower; and the specimens I know from my landscapes tend to have irregular crowns because once in a while a branch pushes out of the crown. But again, it depends on who is looking. Personally, I have no trouble with some idiosyncrasies. Other people freak out when the crown isn’t perfectly round.

I don’t recall any problems with this tree species on any of our strata sites. So bullet-proof it is.

 

Perottia persica

 

Conclusion

If you’re considering what tree species to plant as our climate goes drier, the bullet-proof Parrotia persica is a great choice. You can try any of the three cultivars mentioned above; and you should expect decent fall colour.

 

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It feels like fall when cedar pruning starts

By | Pruning | No Comments

It always feels like fall when cedar pruning season starts. Cedar pruning is usually written into landscape maintenance contracts and it starts in fall; it can run into the New Year easily depending on site size and work load but normally the goal is to get everything sheared before Christmas.

 

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All you need: a ladder and good, sharp Stihl power shears.

 

First day

Last week I had my first full cedar pruning day of the season, cheered on by patches of Rudbeckias still holding on to summer. Just like me.

The line I was pruning covered enclosed patios and it was slower than usual because some owners have incredibly cluttered patios. And, of course, I didn’t have the right of way so I had to be careful not to damage anything.

 

The set-up

To properly top cedars a ladder is mandatory. I also used two sets of Stihl shears: one short model for tight spots and one extendable unit for topping. Remember to sharpen your blades before starting your cedar pruning season. Sharp blades glide through the foliage and give you a nice cut. Dull blades slow you down and leave little strands sticking out. Try to avoid this by sharpening your blades.

Unless your truck is nearby, always bring a jerry can with mixed gas to avoid unnecessary walking. It wastes valuable shearing time.

I also keep my water bottle handy.

No robots

Never approach cedar shearing like a robot. On this day I had to recall that patio owners value their privacy so I sheared the sides in a straight wall line, except where there were obvious deliberate undulations in the hedge.

The tops are usually hit much tighter for a nice tight laser line.

Just remember NOT to prune between the gaps because the owners want the cedars to grow into the gaps and thereby give them the privacy they crave so much.

Once in a while step back and check on your top line to make sure your laser isn’t off.

 

Clean-ups

Don’t go cheap on clean-ups. You can expect to do some hand cleaning off the tops of plants and outdoor patio furniture because cedar debris is fine. But don’t stress about the small stuff; use a blower for the final round and put all pots and furniture back.

Yes, shearing all day can be hard on your muscles but you get the satisfaction of seeing great looking cedar hedges.

Have some fun with it.

 

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All done: there’s a decent top line and the sides are still green. No pruning happened between individual plants because only solid hedges provide solid privacy.

 

Water your new installs for success

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

It drives me crazy when I see my landscape installs neglected and suffering from lack of water. It must be the biophilia effect because I feel responsible for the suffering plants. An yet, I can’t do much about it because it’s up to the owners to water their plants. I water them in on install day.

Water for success

This is your main take-away from this blog post: new plants require copious amounts of water to properly establish. As water goes in, roots chase it down and extend. And on it goes but not without water.

 

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Disappointing.

 

This is the worst case because I did everything myself. I removed the dead cedars, dug the holes, bought and delivered the new cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘), planted them and watered them in. Months later I took this picture with some disgust. Directly behind me was a perfectly functioning garden hose. It just takes time to properly soak the cedars once in a while. Cedars are very thirsty in their first year.

 

Magnolia

 

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Because of our summer drought this Magnolia tree exhibited early leaf senescence. With some watering from me it bounced back by pushing out new foliage. The cedars behind the tree weren’t so lucky. To be fair, shading from the Magnolia becomes permanent over time but I suspect lack of water was also a major contributor to this carnage.

Note the garden hose in the picture. I have no idea why it can’t be turned on and left to soak the area for twenty minutes. Again, it’s up to the owners to water.

 

Success!

Luckily, some owners get it. This unit has two little kids and the owners water. Plus they installed a soaker hose so their new cedar hedge would establish. This space used to be bare with only two stumps to look at and I, literally, paid for this install with my blood. Because the nearby creek breeds a lot of summer mosquitos this project was an adventure. My next blog post will be on my intimate knowledge of insect repellents.

 

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These owners get a gold start for watering.

 

As we ease into fall, there will be more landscape installs. It’s absolutely critical that owners water their new plants. Good plant establishment can only happen with good watering.

How professionals handle low-profile corners

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

I don’t believe in discrimination. Every part of the landscape should receive attention. Unfortunately, landscape companies are busy and often low-profile areas get less attention or worse, they get ignored. But that’s not my style.

 

Commercial site corner

 

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Before.

 

This ugly corner was on my list for weeks and I finally got to it. The most obvious blemish is the dead dogwood in the middle. The last thing you want on your site is dead plants. So I did the most economical thing available; I flush cut it as low as I could.

The entire bed was overrun with prickly bramble (Rubus armeniacus) which just spreads so I cut it at ground level knowing that this will be a fight until I actually dig it up.

Next came light hand pruning of the Pieris japonica shrub followed by raking and weeding.

 

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After.

 

It’s not exactly a beautiful garden spot that would inspire young lovers but the whole corner looks much better and I could take it off my mind.

 

Strata site corner

 

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This is the finished product. A crew came through and they pruned the Euonymus alatus shrub on the left. Great. If you like average, that is. So what would a landscape professional do? What would you do?

One, there is still debris on top of the shrub and, unless it’s removed, it will turn brown and make the whole shrub look unsightly. Always check plant tops when pruning.

Two, there is a dead shrub in the corner and no wonder. It’s planted under a double under hang so it doesn’t get much water. So why keep it? Remove it.

Three, the shrub on the right has lots of dead in it so I pruned out most of it. I probably should have power sheared it.

Four, there are obvious weeds like snapweed (Cardamine oligosperma) which snap when they are mature and shoot out seeds everywhere. It’s a bad idea to let weeds produce seeds. The corner should have been weeded right away after pruning.

 

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After.

 

The photo above shows the finished product. There are two spikes still visible on top of the right shrub but overall it is much cleaner. Unfortunately, it took two service visits to get it to this condition. As the workers gain experience they too will be able to read the landscape better and give all corners the attention they deserve.

Mow like a pro: basic mistakes to avoid

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

When new workers come on board it’s always fun to see them mow for the first time. Then the fun ends and mistakes must be gently corrected. Stay patient as the new workers get used to new sites. They mow like pros and you train them like a pro.

Let’s take a look at some examples from last week.

 

Missed lawns

It happens even when the yards are connected together but it can’t wait until next week because the unit owner will call to complain. Point out the miss and send the worker back. Easy.

 

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A completely missed lawn.

 

Tarp management

Workers are responsible for their tarps and must haul them out for collection to the road. Otherwise they get left behind and the office gets more unnecessary phone calls. The blower at the end of the day is the final check but it’s always a good idea to check on new workers.

 

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All tarps must be pulled out to the road for collection.

 

Mohawks

Mohawks happen when the mower doesn’t overlap properly. And they look awful one week later. Check your lawn before leaving to make sure it looks great.

 

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This mohawk will look worse a week from now.

 

Diligence!

Let’s not get sloppy, the gate must be moved, if necessary. The entire lawn gets mowed. No excuses. Kick the gate and go.

 

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Don’t cross your lines

 

So, your lawn is completed and you’re moving on. Do you take the shortest route to the gate? It would be the fastest route but it would ruin all of your beautiful laser lines. Don’t do it. Follow the edge and leave the lines intact. Never cross your finished laser lines!

 

 

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Learn to exit properly without cutting across your laser lines.

 

Mowing like a pro isn’t difficult. It just takes some time and patience. Practice, practice, practice!

Summer dangers in the landscape

By | health and safety, landscape maintenance | No Comments

There I was raking out a bed and to get under a rhododendron I had to bend down and use my hands. Seconds later my left thumb was in excruciating pain. Then I quickly clued in: my hand had just passed over a ground nest full of wasps. So I hosed off  my thumb for several minutes, finished the day and left for home in a foul mood. My left hand was swelling up with every passing hour.

There are many dangers facing landscapers in the field and in summer, insects are danger number one. Still, this was my only sting all season. And as long as I can do my job, I ignore all wasps. It’s usually the residents that panic.

One week later I ran into a tree nest full of wasps which is much easier to detect when the wasps are flying in and out. And I was ready, too! I had my spray can ready so I gave it a nice shake and aimed it at the opening. Out came a lot of white foam.

 

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This is much easier to spot than….

 

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…a ground nest.

 

Here is the key point of this blog post: when you buy a spray can for wasps and hornets, buy the gluey stream type not foam.

The foam coated the opening and the entire part of the nest facing me. Some wasps even escaped from the opening. Two weeks later I found live wasps still inside the nest. This doesn’t happen with the glue type spray can. The toxic glue comes out in a steady stream and plugs up the nest opening. Case closed.

Hint: use goggles and pray that the wind is blowing away from you.

I waited for two weeks before removing the nest. When I examined it, I found two wasps still alive inside. Hours later the pest control technician found some nest leftovers and questioned me about it. Most likely I had just prevented him from generating a fat invoice. Safety first!

Late summer wasp problems are common in landscaping so be careful. And if you buy a spray can to control the insects, do NOT buy the foam version.

 

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Buy this type of spray, NOT foam.

 

Why I find vertical line edging disturbing

By | Edging | No Comments

How do you handle your edging at home or at work? When I started out in landscaping in 2000, I wasn’t allowed to vertical edge. We always used a blade edger and that became my habit until I switched companies. My previous employers referred to people who practiced vertical line edging as “clowns”.

Now, once in a while I give vertical edging a go, especially in lower profile areas. Vertical edging refers to a line edger with string positioned so the head spins vertically north to south. Regular line edging runs horizontally along the grass and matches the height of the mower.

So why do I find it disturbing? There are several reasons detailed below. Feel free to comment on this post and let me know how you edge. I’d love to know.

 

Erosion

 

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This is an actual client complaint. As vertical edging happens weekly the lawn edge erodes so the bed actually extends farther into the lawn. This is because the line doesn’t hit the edge at the recommended 90 degrees, the way a blade edger would. The owner here is planning to install permanent plastic edging.

 

Ditches

Blade edgers use a sharp blade which creates a beautiful discreet ninety degree edge.

 

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My favourite edging attachment.

 

Vertical edging creates massive gaps that aren’t anywhere near 90 degrees.

 

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Interruptions

 

This is by far my biggest problem with vertical edging. Blade edgers have a guard so you can easily sneak under border plants without shredding them. This is very hard to pull off with a spinning line.

 

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Now what? Clearly the Hosta pictured above is getting shredded weekly and to complete the entire edge you will also have to behead the Acer palmatum dissectum. I have trouble doing that.

 

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Pictured above is the strata president’s Coreopsis. I wasn’t brave enough to shred it so I skipped the edging. A blade edger can sneak under easily. It’s these interruptions that I find disturbing. I like to edge on autopilot.

 

How do YOU edge? Leave comments.