Summer versus winter tree pruning

By | Seasonal, Trees | No Comments

Now that our deciduous landscape trees have lost their leaves we can clearly see the branch structures. And as I recently removed one broken branch I had a flashback to summer. And a blog post was born. So let’s consider the basic differences between summer and winter tree pruning.

 

Summer tree pruning

As trees flush out in spring strata property residents freak out about encroaching branches. That’s when I get called in.

Summer tree pruning is light because sunny days are already stressful enough for our landscape trees. Trees also store food in branches so removing too many could pose a problem for the trees. Remember, under drought conditions trees shut down their leaf openings to prevent moisture loss; this also means that they can’t produce food and must rely on reserves.

Most of the pruning requests revolve around crown shape and branch encroachment. Since the branch structure is hidden under foliage it’s best not to make too many radical cuts.

In the first example below you can see what the strata council wants: all birch crowns are to be tightened up. Nothing radical.

 

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In the second example below, the owners want this Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood) lightly shaped so it’s off the building. Again, nothing radical. The lady loves the finished look.

 

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Winter tree pruning

 

Now consider winter tree pruning. Since the leaves are gone we can see branch structures well. And all of a sudden I’m finding broken branches in crowns that were until recently covered up by leaves.

 

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Broken branches must be removed (see white arrow).

 

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Green arrow: broken branch Orange arrow: branch pointing down Red arrow: location of my cut

 

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After shot.

 

Horror show

Not all winter tree pruning is enjoyable. Some strata complexes have their trees topped and, of course, the trees notice it. Then they produce extra sprouts from the cuts and we have to remove them annually. And so the cycle begins.

 

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All done! I’ll be back in 12 months.

 

Conclusion

Leave harsher tree pruning for the winter when the trees are dormant and their branch structures are clearly visible. If you must prune trees in summer, do it lightly.

 

Simple landscape projects: tripping hazards

By | Landscaping | No Comments

I always welcome breaks from regular maintenance work and this little project was a strata request. One of the residents often tripped on tree roots in the back of her unit and she also wanted a small area where she could plant something. So I went in and fixed it in a few hours.

Step 1

 

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This is the before picture with roots and one sad Hydrangea.

 

Step one involved marking the area and eliminating small surface roots. I laughed to myself because I like to run off-road and tree roots provide me with technical trail running fun. I love tree roots. But here the lady lived in fear of the small roots so I took out the smallest ones. The bigger ones got buried by soil amender.

 

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Only the smallest roots were removed from the new pathway.

 

Step 2

Step 2 involved moving in rocks to anchor the soil from moving down the slope. I had to borrow helpers for this step because two-man rocks require two men. Two strong men. Some of the smaller rocks we borrowed from a near-by stream bed.

 

Step 3

Since I was asked to remove a Skimmia shrub from a neighbouring patio bed I dug up the struggling Hydrangea and placed the Skimmia there. This is a common theme in strata landscape maintenance. We don’t want anything dead, diseased or obviously struggling. The one Hydrangea in the corner was at best marginal.

 

Step 4

 

 

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Two yards of soil amender.

 

 

This was the best step because I got to move two yards of soil amender. The soil is nice and fluffy and smells great. Note that since my truck was parked at an angle I didn’t lift the back to dump out the soil. I handled everything with my shovel because raising the back up on an angle could potentially flip the truck over on its side.

 

Step 5

The last step before a clean-up blow was lightly top dressing the pathway and over seeding it with good quality seed.

 

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The new pathway is on the right: root-free and over seeded.

 

I hope the lady likes her new bed and safer pathway. We’ll see what she plants in there.

 

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All done: new soil, rock anchors and a transplanted Skimmia.

The last service before Christmas

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

The last week of service before the Christmas break requires focus. Most people have holidays on their minds but it’s very important to leave your landscapes looking sharp. This is how you do it.

Simple

Keep it simple. This is a bad time for major projects and heavy pruning. This type of work should be written down in your notebook for January. So what do we do? We check all high-profile entrances and walkways; and inside roadways.

Today I raked out the top boulevard of my site, including leafy debris behind the hedges. Since residents, neighbours and holiday visitors use and drive-by the boulevard, it should look sharp. And today it did.

I did a little bit of hand snipping on the tops of Pieris japonica shrubs. Very lightly, just to take out the spiky growth. Unless you live in the complex, you can’t tell the shrubs were topped.

 

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Before: note the spikes on top.

 

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After: it still looks natural after pruning.

 

Backpack blow

Once my raking was done, I blew the entire site. This is a perfect time for a good, detailed blow. I normally hurry to get this noisy task out of the way but not today. Today everything got blown: the inside roadways, patios and lawns. I also blew the forest buffer zone where leafiness tends to accumulate.

After pile pick-up I hit a few weedy patches and touched up some deep edges.

The hardest part of the day was cleaning up the garden liaison’s garden. She has a Japanese-style garden and does her own maintenance but I had to clean-up cedar clippings from a few weeks ago. Cedar pruning always generates secondary drop and here I had to hand pick the clippings from inside her Hellebores. Carefully.

Note that this sort of work shouldn’t be delegated to your helpers unless they’re experienced and follow directions well. The previous company pruned the liaison’s cedar hedges too hard; and they’re no longer under contract with this strata!

Final check

I walked the small site at the end of the day to double-check everything. I also noted work tasks for the new year. When I pulled out from the site I was satisfied that it was clean for Christmas.

Happy holidays!!

 

 

Another classic residential pruning job

By | Company News, landscape maintenance | No Comments

The title of this blog post says ‘classic’ because the home owner was on a budget and had clearly let her hedges go wild. And now she was desperate to reclaim some space and light from her Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica).

This is common with homeowners. They start out with huge ambitions but a few years later they get overwhelmed and call in professionals. Then you don’t hear from them again for several seasons which is a mistake. Good, regular maintenance is best. I could tell from the garden weeds that not much happens around the patio other than smoking.

 

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The list

Luckily, the lady was still home when I arrived so we could talk about the work and her expectations. This is extremely important so you avoid any nasty misunderstandings.

The list was easy for an experienced landscaper:

  1. Prune large fence line hedge (Prunus lusitanica) but only “tickle” the tops so neighbours aren’t visible from the patio
  2. Prune the globe hard, especially off the gutters
  3. Clean up the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) by the window
  4. Remove one dead cedar (Thuja occidentalis) by the patio stairs
  5. Blow the leaves off the front lawn and from under the large hedge

 

Pruning

The pruning is easy when you have sharp shears; and the laurel is fairly soft, too. The only glitch was the slick wooden patio in the back. There was no way to anchor the ladder peg. Luckily I found a cement block under the hedge.

 

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Safety first!

 

Clean-ups

If you read my blogs regularly -and you should!- you will know that I harp on doing great clean-ups that match the pruning effort. Poor clean ups detract from your pruning work. Always clean up well.

Final courtesy blow is a given. I left the residence feeling happy with my effort. I just wonder how many seasons they will let it go before calling me back. Regular maintenance is best! I can’t stress that enough.

 

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Six stunning books for green professionals

By | Books, Education | No Comments

This past weekend I opened up the New York Times and saw a huge spread about the best books from 2018. But there was nothing for green professionals so let’s correct that omission here. I present to you six books well-worth reading with brief notes. I would say they’re all “must read” books. Who knows, they might inspire you to give someone a great gift this Christmas.

 

1. Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown

This is a very important book because Gabe Brown took his conventionally farmed land and regenerated its soils. He did it without tilling, with cover crops and eventually without all fertilizer and chemical use on his North Dakota ranch. He also diversified his operation.

So, YES, you can have great, healthy soil and make great money as a farmer in North America WITHOUT chemical inputs. Read the details in the book. It’s fascinating. The key is encouraging the life in your soil. You can search “regenerative agriculture” for more.

 

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Photo courtesy of http://brownsranch.us/

 

 

2. A soil owner’s manual by Jon Stika

Stika is a soil scientist but it took him years to realize that his training wasn’t the best. Eventually he comes to understand that soil biology is crucial for healthy soils. It’s not just the soil components that matter, the life in the soil is critical.

 

3. The One-Straw revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

Fukuoka was a “do-nothing” farming revolutionary in Japan. He showed that you CAN have great rice yields without tilling the soil and using costly fertilizers and chemicals. Do-nothing is a bit misleading because farming is a lot of work but the soil wasn’t tilled and cover crops were used. The details are amazing.

It’s possible that Fukuoka’s work inspired Gabe Brown above.

 

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A practice rice field at a Niigata-City, Japan public school.

 

4. Braiding sweet grass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is THE book on native American plant use. I often hear about indigenous wisdom and this book spells it out in detail. Kimmerer did a fantastic job with this book; she opened my eyes. You will learn lots about plants. I also purchased her new book on Mosses.

 

5. The plant messiah by Carlos Magdalena

Two key points: One, Magdalena goes from Spain to study at the famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (I’m jealous) and becomes a plant researcher there. Then he travels the world studying plants and clearly his native Spanish helped. His love of plants is infectious.

Two, at the beginning of the book he shows the reader why plants are important. Our very survival depends on plants. We derive food and medicines from plants plus much more. After reading this book you will appreciate plants much more.

 

6. Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science by Carey Gillam

My geography professor at the University of Saskatchewan openly discouraged me from using sources written by journalists. But in the case of Monsanto’s (now Bayer) glyphosate and other chemicals it can’t be done because many scientists have been bought by industry. I know that this debate is polarizing and the book isn’t full of good news. It’s the hardest book to read on this list.

Before you dismiss this book, recall that Health Canada is re-evaluating its recommendations; it now concedes that many of the studies the government agency relied on were sponsored by the chemical industry.

It’s much worse in the United States and the details will make your head spin. I think this book is very important.

 

Summary

Here are the key ideas.

Yes, you can make good money as a farmer without fertilizers and chemicals; stop tilling and use cover crops; and diversify your operation.

The life in your soil is the key to healthy soil.

We depend on plants for our survival. They’re also amazing.

Indigenous plant knowledge is fantastic and now we have a great book showing us the details.

Scientists can be bought so be careful when you read scientific studies. Carefully check who sponsored them.

 

How to pull off your first bare root tree planting

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

Bare root tree planting is recommended by my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott but in strata maintenance we rarely have time for it. There is often pressure to dig holes and plug the trees in.

I got my first taste of bare root tree planting when I worked at a municipal parks department in the fall of 2014. And I’ve been waiting for a chance to do it again solo. Patiently.

Lucky Vas

Then I got lucky this past October when a strata owner approached me about transplanting her Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). The poor tree had some problems. It had dead wood in the top leader and the roots had penetrated the lawn from the bottom of the pot. The lucky part was that the maple was planted in fluffy potting mix media, not in decent soil. So when I finally liberated the tree from its pot, the potting mix stayed in the pot and I was left holding a bare root tree! Brilliant!

 

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Before: roots penetrated the lawn and the tree sat in fluffy potting media.

 

Why bare root?

So what’s the advantage of bare root planting? First, the roots can be examined, pruned and rearranged. They should look like spokes on a wheel, not circling the way they do in pots. Second, nothing else is added to the planting hole. No burlap, strings or wires; and no clay bombs.

 

Lawn home

The new tree location was in the lawn which isn’t ideal because lawn grasses compete with trees for water and nutrients. I’m sure the new tree well will help channel water down to the root zone.

I did some minor root pruning on the tree and I forced the fibrous roots to stick out like spokes on a wheel.

 

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The ideal root arrangement looks like spokes on a wheel.

 

 

Stability

 

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Mudding in.

 

 

I always wondered how bare root planted trees stay upright in the hole without staking. Some large trees do require staking; just don’t forget to remove the stakes after one year.

The procedure is called ‘mud-in‘. You take the parent soil material and you add some to the hole. Then you water it in to create mud. Wait for a bit and repeat the same steps, until you reach the root flare. Then we stop because the root flare has to stay above the soil.

I gently tested my maple and it felt solid. I watered the tree again with a slow soak and instructed the owner to do the same going forward. Now we wait and see if the tree lives. It should be happier in the soil.

 

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All done! Hopefully the maple feels happier in its new home.

How landscapers crush winter

By | Landscaping, Mulch, Seasonal | No Comments

I’m often asked what landscapers do exactly in winter. So let’s take a look at one example from today. Incidentally, today was a beautiful sunny December day and I’m hoping it stays like this until Christmas.

Materials

First, I had to dump green waste because I didn’t get to it on Friday. Normally it’s a routine task but since temperatures dipped over the weekend, I was worried about my green waste load freezing to the truck deck. Luckily it went well.

Second, I picked up three yards of 3/4 crush rock. Yes, installing rock is a great winter task because it can be done on colder days when soils aren’t really workable; and pruning brittle plants could ruin them.

 

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3/4 crush.

 

Community garden

The goal was easy: replenish pathways in a community garden. The pathways did look tired and there were some big weeds so I spent some time on weeding.

 

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Note the weeds and depleted crush levels.

 

Then I wheelbarrowed the crush in. Simple work.

 

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All done, for now. There will be more crush brought in here this week to make sure we have an adequate layer of crush. This should help to keep weeds down.

 

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This looks much better.

 

Preparations continued

Pathway preparation isn’t super exciting to read about but I want to point out that not all landscape tasks are sexy. Sadly, some workers attempt to “cherry-pick” their tasks, preferring to do easier stuff. I personally hate this approach. As a landscape supervisor I do everything, without any “cherry-picking” and I’m hoping it will rub off on our employees.

I recommend to all of our apprentices that they do all tasks and do them well. That’s the best preparation for their Red Seal exams.

 

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Scuffling weeds out of pathways is a lot of labour but it has to get done.

 

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All prepared for new crush install.

 

Conclusion

West Coast winter landscaping can be a challenge but there are tasks that can be done in lower temperatures. Installing crush and weeding pathways are two decent winter landscape tasks.

Plant ID eBook dream

By | Education, Plant Species Information | No Comments

One of my earlier blogs showcased my plant ID picture book specifically targeting strata landscape plants. New workers would come on and they would ask me the same plant identification questions over and over. Now, as a landscape supervisor, I’m paid well to help out as much as I can. But it does get repetitive. So I self-published an eBook on Amazon’s KDP with 100+ of the most common strata landscape plants.

Practice

It took a while but the whole thing finally clicked with a new worker last week. She stared at a Viburnum davidii shrub and asked me if it was a Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica). No, it wasn’t. Then she sighed and expressed her frustration with plant identification.

And I was ready! Why get frustrated when I put together an eBook for people like her. It’s nothing special. It’s just a simple picture collection of the most common plants we see on our strata (multi-family) sites. For the price of one regular Starbucks coffee you get a list of plants you’re guaranteed to see on your work sites. No tropical plants or vegetables, no fluff to waste your time.

Once you cover the basic 100+ plants, you should be good to go. Yes, the plants don’t repeat completely but I can handle questions about beautiful Ligularias. Viburnum davidii are fairly common.

 

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Viburnum davidii

Amazon

So the girl went home and bought a copy of my eBook. It’s a simple process and it’s extremely cheap. And every sale boosts my Amazon ranking, which is updated hourly. That’s why my Facebook post was called “#1 for an hour”.

 

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Why plant ID?

Plant ID is a critical skill for landscapers. Knowing plants speeds things up on site and avoids many embarrassing mistakes. It’s also something bosses expect you to have. After all, this worker wants to be in a foreman position next year which will lead to better pay. I will help her as much as I can, now that she’s my “client”.

I’m really happy that this whole thing worked out the way I envisioned it.

One major glitch with ISA’s TRAQ qualification

By | Arborist Insights, Education | No Comments

One of the four lectures listed in the Urban Forester’s Symposium didn’t really excite me. Effective report writing sounded too soft. I prefer hard, technical lectures. But effective writing is very important. I should know. I’m trying to grow this blog and squeeze money from clients on other blogs.

Occasionally, I also have to write tree-related correspondence and construction sign-off letters.

 

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The glitch

TRAQ (Tree Risk Assessment Qualification) is ISA‘s new qualification and my lecturer, Dr. Julian Dunster, is heavily involved in the training of new candidates in the Pacific Northwest. But there is a glitch: as new TRAQ qualified arborists start writing reports, clients complain that the reports they generate are poor. So you may be able to assess the condition of my tree at home but your report to my municipality may not be understood. Or flat out rejected.

I thought it was almost comical but effective writing is a skill. You have to practice it and develop it. You can start by taking Dr. Dunster’s January course. Keep on writing and get better.

 

Seminar notes

 

Below are some key ideas from my notes.

1. There is no such thing as a private report. Assume that your writing will be made public. So be careful.

2. Think clearly-write clearly.

3. Know your audience and assume they know nothing.

4. Start at the beginning: what’s the assignment? Tree inventory, risk assessment or tree removal?

5. What’s the deliverable? Memo, email or a detailed report?

6. What’s the purpose of the report? Are you simply recording events and facts or are you informing people of your opinion?

7. Who is the client and what’s her educational level? Homeowner will differ from an engineer.

8. Don’t waffle: say what you mean!

9. Unsure about your grammar? Read it out loud. If it sounds funny, it probably is. Also, eliminate obvious typos.

10. Your report should contain evidence and justify your opinion. Simply saying that the homeowner’s tree is declining doesn’t help.

11. What’s your style? Passive or active? WordPress likes it when I use active voice but writing passively on a technical report might be fine. Just don’t mix the two styles. “It was observed….” vs. “I observed….”.

12. Keep your sentences sharp, short and to the point.

13. Remember, your reader needs information from you to make a decision.

14. Expect your reports to be in pdf format and follow logical steps: Introduction, Body, Wrap-up. Include pictures. Data can go in the appendix.

15. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. You must be credible.

16. Punctuation is important!

17. Cut out unnecessary stuff and don’t rush- come back to your report later.

Conclusion

  1. Good reports take time
  2. It’s hard work
  3. Be professional
  4. Mistakes happen

 

 

Ornamental grass cutback: time it right

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal, Species | No Comments

I was on a large strata site last week planting winter pansies and testing out a new Stihl brush cutter. Finished for the day, I descended down the long private road that winds through the complex. And what really struck me was the beauty of the ornamental grasses. They were gently moving in the late afternoon sun and they put on a great show. They were ornamental for sure.

 

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Pressure

Unfortunately, the beautiful Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ were coming down. So you have to ask yourself why this is happening just as the grasses start to look their best. It comes down to pressure because this particular strata site is huge. It takes four weeks to make one full maintenance rotation. And the fear is that before the grass area is due for service, rain and wind will have destroyed them. That’s too bad because the show they put on along with their cousin grass species totally warmed me up. Now all that was left was a grassy stump to look at until next spring. This totally defeats the point of planting these grasses when they’re not allowed to be ornamental.

Note that there is always the possibility of rot in the centre when the grass is cut back too early.

 

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This is it until next spring. Rot in the middle is always a danger.

 

 

Cut back timing

Ornamental grasses flower in the fall and when everything else in the landscape fades, they give us something to look at. Personally, I cut them back only when they’re all broken up on the ground.

If you can let your ornamental grasses stand into winter, you might get rewarded with a beautiful frosty look. And birds also feed on the flower spikes in winter when there isn’t much else to eat.

If you can, let your grasses be ornamental and enjoy them well into spring. If you must cut them back, do it when they’re flopped over and hugging the ground.