One fail from 2020

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Taking stock

Landscape install projects are great because they break up the monotony of routine landscape maintenance work and they generate extra revenues for landscape companies. I also love working with plants so it’s very good fit for me.

It’s also a great idea to take stock of your completed landscape install projects and see how it all went. And while 2020 went really well, without any disasters or client complaints, there is one fail that bothers me.

Doomed Christmas trees

In one project this season we installed two expensive spruce trees along with Sedums and shrubs like Spireae and Berberis. It was all fun and games except for the trees. You know you’re dealing with spruce trees when you touch the foliage and feel the stabbing pain in your skin.

The planting went well. I dug a hole with the correct dimensions and removed the wire cage. Then I carefully back-filled the tree and went in search of water.

You should always water-in your installs.

The spruce trees were labelled as drought-tolerant but it’s my humble opinion that they must first get established.

Because the trees were situated in no-man’s land it took a while for the residents to start watering. I think this delay doomed the trees.

Others think that over-watering did them in and it’s plausible that the residents would over-compensate with over-watering.

Several weeks later, both trees were suffering. One went down hard; and the other one pushed out new growth which gave me some hope. When I visited the site next, both trees were gone, replaced by native Western Red Cedars (Thuja plicata).

Water

Plants need water to function properly. This is especially true for newly planted specimens.

Over-watering can also be deadly because excess water displaces oxygen from the soil and the tree suffocates. For this reason it’s important to stick your finger in the planting hole and check for moisture levels.

This is extremely hard for busy residents to pull off.

This one failure from 2020 will be haunting me for a while. I always feel responsible for the plants I install. Like they were my kids. It’s unfortunate that I can’t do the watering myself. I do the install and pray.

How was your year? Did you experience any failures in your gardens?

Best books, one awful year

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Books I recommend

It’s been an awful pandemic year but I did read many books in 2020, most of them in audio format as I worked in the landscape. Here is a list of four books I especially enjoyed.

Mancuso

Stefano Mancuso’s latest book “The incredible journey of plants” is a fun read. It’s not as serious as his “The revolutionary genius of plants” so it will appeal to more people.

Mancuso covers plant migrations with incredible tales of plants, like the ones that survived the Hiroshima bombing and Chernobyl.

You will also learn a new specific epithet: callipyge, which means “women’s buttocks. There is a sea palm which produces massive seeds-the biggest in the world-and they look like a woman’s buttocks. Now why would a plant produce seeds this big?

Sea palm seed!

If you like plants, you will enjoy this tour of the world. You can easily finish this book over two evenings.

Dial

The adventurer’s son” is a memoir by a scientist about his life and his son. When his son disappears in 2014 in the wild Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, a search is organized. Of course, before you arrive at this point, you get the full father-son back story. And they do a lot of fun stuff together.

As a father myself, I ask the same question: do you introduce your son to new experiences or do you shelter him to protect him? I introduced my own son to mountain biking and now I worry about crashes.

Because there wasn’t a happy ending, we get to enjoy this memoir. All fathers will enjoy reading this memoir, even if the search part of the book was long and complicated.

Stuart-Smith

The well-gardened mind” is THE book on the connection between our brains, health and gardening. Period. I’ve read a lot of stuff on the connection between health and nature and this book covers a lot of ground, in detail.

The author’s husband is a well-known garden designer and together they have created their own garden.

Well-recommended.

Urbina

The outlaw ocean” is a stunning book, full of crime, over-fishing, slavery and craziness on the high seas. Ian Urbina is not a journalist putting together a story from foreign reports. He actually hits the high seas and gets dirty.

This is an eye-opening book on the last untamed frontier. It’s hard to believe what really happens on the oceans of the world.

Workers are recruited and then kept on ships for many months as slave labor. Captains demand sex; and the lucky ones get paid for their labor. Many perish.

This is a wild book. You won’t forget reading it. Stunning.

Nature prescriptions in BC, first in Canada

By | Education, health and safety | No Comments

Good news! Yes, really

Finally some good news during a pandemic. Nature prescriptions are now officially available in British Columbia, the first province in Canada to pull this off. And it makes perfect sense to launch PaRx in Super, Natural BC. The project is a collaborations between health care providers and the BC Parks Foundation.

I had no idea this was coming to British Columbia. I only found out about it when I opened my Globe and Mail newspaper last week.

Now, I’ve read about US doctors prescribing nature to patients in places like California. This is how it works.

Imagine a chubby boy from a poor neighborhood coming to see his doctor. The doctor could prescribe him pricey pills for his anxiety; and expose him to various side-effects while she pockets her Big Pharma perks. But this is a good news blog post so our doctor prescribes time in nature. Say, two hours per week spent in a local park.

What’s interesting is that patients actually did it when they got a prescription from their doctor. They trusted their doctor who handed them a prescription with a map of the nearest park.

It works!

We know it works. Spending time in nature works for all sorts of ailments and medical conditions. And all side-effects are positive, like longer life and more energy.

This PaRx launch is actually well-timed during a pandemic because many people are stressed out. Many people have lost their jobs and their social connections have been severed. But going outside to your local park is safe and good for you.

I’ve written blog posts about forest bathing and its many benefits. PaRx takes it a step further because your family doctor prescribes time in nature for you. It’s good for you and for the planet.

2021

Let’s hope the PaRx program grows huge as many more health care providers sign on. In the meantime consider making a donation to the BC Parks Foundation. Anything over $20 will get you a tax receipt.

Now get outside and enjoy nature!

Red Seal Vas enjoying mall plants and coffee in Irvine, California.

Lessons from municipal parks

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Go stress-free

There is something to be said for municipal landscapes in late fall. I noticed how stress-free municipal park maintenance is. Unlike commercial strata maintenance where grooming and control are the norm.

Now, I know that municipalities have set annual budgets and during a pandemic there probably wasn’t enough cash to groom every public park.

Strata owners pay hefty monthly maintenance fees and expect to see well-groomed landscapes. Still, there are lessons you can learn from public parks and apply them in your own gardens. Let’s take a look.

Perennial cutback

In strata maintenance, spent perennials are cut-back as soon as possible. But you can leave them standing in your own garden. Covered in frost, perennials can look great; and birds eat their seeds or hide in them.

Don’t rush to cutback your perennials.

Astilbe produce gorgeous flowers in summer and I don’t mind this look. If you touch the brown stalks, they will break off in your hand.

The leafy layer protects the soil and shelters tiny life forms. Of course, in strata landscape maintenance, this kind of bed isn’t tolerated. It’s groomed!

Enjoy the December holdouts, like this Rudbeckia. Don’t rush to cut them back. Walking by today, this reminded me of warm late summer days.

Grasses

In strata maintenance, when ornamental grasses like this Miscanthus flop over even a little bit they get power-sheared into low mounds. Why the rush? Like your spent perennials, it’s OK to leave your grasses standing in winter.

Pennisetum should be left alone until spring. I quite like this look, as opposed to a harshly shaved mound.

Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) is supposed to look like this all year. Don’t shear it. Maybe run your fingers through it in spring. It looks fantastic when it moves in the wind.

Conclusion

Learn from your public parks and stop rushing to cut everything back. Ornamental grasses look great in late fall and when covered by frost in winter. Pennisetums should be cutback in spring.

Look at your garden and experiment. Take one winter and don’t cutback all of your perennials and grasses. Leave it for next spring.

How landscapers die on the job

By | Landscape Industry, Lawn Care, machines | No Comments

Danger!

Whenever people work with machines there is potential for accidents. This is especially true with ride-on mowers. So, let’s get the worse part of this blog post over with.

Ride-on mowers are big beasts that cover lots of lawn in short amount of time. I’ve been trained on one but I wouldn’t want to use it all day, all week. It’s a bouncy and often dusty ride.

And you can die when you get too close to edges. I know of two true incidents from the US where both operators got too close to the edge and crashed, strapped to their seats.

One dude drove too close to a creek and flipped his ride-on mower over into the creek. This poor dude never had a chance. He got crushed on the creek bed.

The second dude got too close to a pond but he had a chance to unclip and swim out. Except he wasn’t a swimmer and he panicked, drowning as his mower sank into the pond. I learned about this in a Facebook group from his boss. It’s pretty sad.

Sadly, the operator drowned in the pond.

Missing digits!

This next story involves missing digits and it comes from my home province of British Columbia. Now, when I first heard it, it sounded a bit sensational. After all, modern mowers come with safety features like bars that stop the blades when disengaged. Let go of the bar and you should be fine.

Except here we had two dudes who made poor choices while wearing headphones. One (very efficiently) offered to hold the power bar while the other emptied his mower bag and reached in to clean the chute. And that’s when the digits on his hand went missing in a flash.

Shocked, the dude screamed his ass off on site, causing a massive, and bloody, scene.

This used to happen with early push mower models where the blades didn’t stop when the operator did. New mowers are super safe.

How to stay safe

Yes, you can stay safe in the landscape.

Get as much training as you can and respect all machines and tools on your work truck. Learn to use all of them safely. Ask questions and practice. And watch out for your team mates.

The same applies to homeowners. Before you let your kids mow your lawn, train them well and watch them.

Ask about and identify potential hazards on site and at home. Especially if it’s your first visit to the site.

Don’t wear headphones while you work.

A gift from UK gardening star

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Twitter use pays off

I don’t have a lot of time for Twitter but I do check my feed when I can. This is how I found out that Marc Hamer was sending seeds from his own garden to the readers of his very excellent non-fiction book “How to catch a mole“. So, I responded and then we both realized that sending and even worse, planting, flower seeds from another country may not be a good idea.

Then, weeks later, the seeds arrived having cleared customs.

Seed to dust

Speaking of seeds, Marc has a new book called “Seed to Dust” coming out in January, 2021 (UK & USA); amazon.ca lists the book with May, 2021 release so I’ll have to wait. It’s in my wish list.

The book is Marc’s account of working as an estate gardener in the UK. I find these jobs fascinating and sometimes, when I have time to dream, I wonder what it would be like to have a job like that.

Imagine a huge estate, somewhere in England, owned by rich people who may or may not live on the estate. Your job is to maintain the grounds year-round.

It reminds me of a gardener in Anmore, British Columbia. He takes care of the gardens at a private $5 million residence which sits empty all year. Hamer has more fun, I’m sure.

Marc Hamer

Marc is an interesting guy. I like him just because he’s a gardener; free seeds are nice, too! At one time, he was homeless. Now he’s an author.

Marc Hamer

The title of his first book “How to catch a mole” is a bit misleading. It’s not a manual for mole catchers. It’s a meditation on life and gardening, with information on moles.

Mole catching is done in winter for extra income. As temperatures dip, earthworms go deeper and moles have to dig deeper to find them. That’s when we get those hated mole hills nobody likes. Mole hills destroy the lawn uniformity people seek in their West Coast gardens.

The best point in the book is when a mole trap catches two moles and one is still alive. This means Hamer has to kill it manually and, after he does, he decides there and then, to quit mole catching.

I guess that’s how he freed time to write books and I’m glad this happened. If you like gardening and wonder about moles, this is a great book. I bought it in audio format so I could listen to it at work. In the landscape.

If you like gardening and always wondered about moles, this is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it.

Security through shrub pruning

By | Pruning | No Comments

Start with why

Always start with why. Why are you pruning your shrubs? What’s the goal? In this blog post we cover pruning for increased security.

Left: new level; right: existing level.

The owners living behind this yew (Taxus) hedge were concerned about degenerates entering the gated complex, hidden by the hedge. And, while I don’t have any neighborhood crime statistics to share with you, the job was fairly easy.

Procedure

The new desired hedge level was marked with tape which made it easy. I used power shears and made a line along the front and then back. In step two, I used loppers to take out the biggest wood. You can try to use your power shear blades but it’s difficult and the wood gets chewed up. Use loppers.

The key is to lop out the middle stems slightly below the new top level so they aren’t visible when you drive by. The hedge will green up next year.

All done!

Sight lines

Now that we had made it harder for perverts to enter the site undetected, we turned to driving sight lines.

Before picture. Poor visibility from vehicles.

This Rhododendron hedge made it hard for people driving to and from the gate to see other vehicles so we were asked to lower it by a half.

If you immediately start to worry about Rhododendron flower buds, you are correct. Rhododendron buds are set in summer, after flowering. Therefore, any pruning in December would result in lost blooms. But, safety trumps horticulture, usually.

Procedure

Note that this pruning job was reduction pruning, not renovation pruning. Renovation pruning is much harsher and leaves lots of naked woody stems. Here we wanted a green Rhododendron hedge but lower.

So, any harsh stem cuts were made inside the hedge where they are hidden. This was much harder to achieve with the far left specimen. I had to leave two naked stems. It looks weird but remember that Rhododendrons have latent buds in their stems. These swell up and pop after pruning. This is a common response to pruning, especially with rough-barked Rhododendrons. If your Rhododendrons are smooth-barked, you’re pushing your luck.

All done. Reduced by half and thinned out.
Reduced by half and thinned out for improved visibility. The shrub will flower next year but not as furiously.

Gold star

Later that morning, the owner across the street opened up her garage and beamed at us. She loved our reduction pruning job. We reduced the shrub size roughly by half while still keeping it green and preserving some flowers. Gold stars!

Make a KIVA loan, change a life!

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Helping to change a life

I scheduled this post for Christmas Eve because right now, even during a pandemic, life is pretty good in Canada. My family is healthy, the fridge is full of food and there are presents under the tree. As of today, I’m happy to report that I also have plenty of work, both regular and side-gigs. (Knock on wood!)

But there are many people in the world who need help. This is where KIVA comes in. The organization facilitates loans to people who are unable to secure loans from local sources. This is a beautiful idea: donors lend money which is then repaid. So my $25 “donation” will eventually return to me.

As a landscape professional, I have a soft spot for farmers who need money for their projects. Some years ago I lent $25 each to two farmers and their loans were 100% repaid! So, this is better than straight donations. You allow people access to money so they can run their projects. And the loans are to be repaid.

To be honest, $25 isn’t a big deal. Even if I didn’t get it back, it would be fine. All three people I lent money to in the past repaid their loans.

How to change someone’s life

Step one involves registering with KIVA. Once you register, you can search for loans that interest you. Personally, I check out agriculture. That’s how I learned about Karina from San Gabriel, Ecuador.

Source: KIVA.org

Karina is a single 21-year-old student who works in agriculture to finance her education and help her parents. Sounds good to me.

Karina is asking for a $1,000 loan for the purchase of organic agriculture supplies so she can grow broad beans. I think she is at 65% of the loan amount. I hope she makes it.

Kiva loan projects come with expiry dates. So, when some people log in at KIVA they automatically go to loans that expire soon. You can do that, too.

Change a life

If you have $25 available to lend out through KIVA, try it out. You could change a life! And count your blessings if you live in the Pacific Northwest where life is pretty good.

Happy holidays!!

Surprises in December landscapes

By | gardening, Plants | No Comments

Plenty to see in December

I know it’s sad to see the warm seasons go but there is still plenty to see in the landscape as we hit winter. Come take a look with Red Seal Vas. How many of these plants do you know?

Fatsia japonica flowers in winter which makes it special and very welcome! The huge leaves are hard to miss. Just make sure you give this plant plenty of space to grow.

Like Fatsias, Hellebores also flower in winter. These flowers really pop in dormant winter landscapes. Interestingly, this specimen had up-turned flowers; normally the flowers point down which annoys some gardeners.

Viburnum bodnantense is one of my favorite shrubs. It’s fun to see its flowers on bare branches. I always stop and take photos.

Callicarpa looks awesome in fall. Planted in the middle of a round bed, it really popped with its purple berries. In summer, the flowers are tiny so be careful when you do mid-season pruning. You wouldn’t want to miss this show in your own garden.

I love this Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) holdout! Many people consider these trees “messy”, if that’s even possible. I know that all jam-makers would beg to differ.

Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) have tiny but beautiful flowers in summer. You have to get really close to see them. And in the fall, we get these dark berries.

Viburnum tinus looks great in fall when it’s not all chewed up by its enemy, the beetle Pyrrhalta vuburni. I love the metallic blue.

Arbutus unedo are easy to identify because they have spiked strawberries. This one, like the Cornelian cherry above, is holding on in a sheltered place.

When you stop to observe the plants in your landscape, you get nice surprises like these Escallonia flowers. I also like the waxy foliage.

Can you guess the tree species from these fruits? It’s a female Ginkgo biloba tree. When crushed, the fruits have an unpleasant odor but, again, I doesn’t bother me. I love trees!

It’s rare to see female Ginkgo trees so enjoy this photo. The tree is so ancient, it occupies its own tree family.

Conclusion

There is lots to see in our December West Coast landscapes. Slow down and take a good look. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Spring bulbs for beginners

By | gardening, Plants | No Comments

You can do it!

Planting spring bulbs in fall is easy and it doesn’t take much. Just get some bulbs, find a pot or planted bed, and find a garden trowel. Then you just need faith that the bulbs will come up in spring.

Let’s see how Red Seal Vas planted daffodils in his patio pot in minutes.

Shopping

First you need to buy bulbs you like. I love to shop online at West Coast Seeds. They have great products at great prices, and they’re local. Considering COVID-19 problems and the store’s distance from my home, online shopping was a no-brainer, even with shipping charges.

Buy whatever you like. I like daffodils because they last for several seasons and can even be naturalized in planted beds. For this blog, I purchased cupped narcissi because I liked the look. Deer resistance is a nice bonus but I’m not expecting to see deer on my second floor patio.

The beauty of planting spring bulbs is that you can experiment every season. Change things up.

My box from West Coast Seeds

Planting

Normally late November on the West Coast is ideal for planting spring bulbs. I planted my daffodils today (December 12, 2020) because I’ve been busy. But don’t worry: the rule is to plant before frost hits and your soil becomes unworkable. The soil in my pot was fine and I planted in beautiful afternoon sun.

Bonus: while I worked, I enjoyed the look of my Calamagrostis ornamental grass. Since I rule over my patio, nobody cuts back my ornamental grasses in late fall. Nobody!

Planting depth

The package gives you planting depth instructions so don’t stress. The rule is to plant at twice the height of your bulbs. Just make sure you plant at roughly the same level. That way your bulbs will pop-up together. For this reason it’s a good idea to plant one pot or bed yourself. Two or more people will inevitably plant at slightly different heights. Try to avoid this.

Since my pot is bare, I left the package envelope in the pot to mark it. Now all we need is faith that the bubs will come up in spring. Check your bulb flowering time to avoid any panic. Some are early, and some mid or late spring bloomers.

The bulbs I planted can be used as cut flowers but I won’t have too many. But I suppose I could surprise my wife next spring.

Ready for planting.

Conclusion

Spring bulbs are easy to plant in late fall and they give us a nice show in spring when gardens start to come alive. Daffodils can be left alone to bloom for several seasons. Just cut them back once they fade and the stalks turn brown.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Buy different bulbs every fall and try new arrangements. One idea I love is planting tulips with two different heights.

Have some fun with spring flowering bulbs!