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landscape maintenance

Mulch volcanoes are here to stay

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This isn’t my first blog post about mulch volcanoes and I’m returning to this topic only because of a picture I saw on Facebook. One lawn care group member shared the picture below and people had a good laugh. I felt like crying.

What’s wrong here?

 

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It will definitely prevent weeds from growing and it looks pretty, doesn’t it? It’s a massive volcano; and reddish, too. But it’s completely twisted. I know the workers weren’t professionals. Professionals would never allow this kind of work to pass inspection.

Here is what mulched tree wells should look like: imagine a donut. No mulch touches the root flare, then it extends out in the middle and tapers towards the lawn edge.

 

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This Acer platanus has a berm around it because that’s what specifications demanded. The mulch doesn’t touch the tree trunk. Why is this so critical? To answer this, I’m borrowing heavily from the work of my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.

The above trunk tissues aren’t supposed to be covered by mulch because it creates dark, damp and low-oxygen conditions. The wetness can lead to rot and disease entry. See below how wet the section above the root flare is. This is asking for trouble. Opportunistic pests love this.

 

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Another problem related to mulch volcanoes is root girdling. When you cover trunk tissue with mulch, the tree can push out adventitious roots which develop from the stem. As they grow and thicken, they can girdle the tree, essentially choking itself to death.

 

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This is a great example showing adventitious root development inside a mulch volcano.

Mulch volcanoes aren’t going away. They’re like antibiotic resistant bugs. We need constant vigilance and good worker training. Otherwise, our landscape trees will suffer at a time when more and more trees are needed to combat Global Warming.

So, remember, apply tree mulch as if you were making a donut. Don’t build tree mulch volcanoes or I will erupt again on the pages of this blog.

Never tolerate death in the landscape

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Some months ago I spent a very satisfying morning at one site removing dead plants.  I say satisfying because I hate seeing dead plants on any site. It always looks like the landscapers don’t care.

We removed so much dead plant material, it loaded up our truck. That’s how bad it was; and how long overdue it was.

Two special cases

There are two special cases where removing dead plant material can’t be done. One is where the strata council decides against it for whatever reason. Since they’re the people paying you for your services, all you can do is suggest courses of action.

Two, the site plants may still be under warranty if the site is still new and the strata council hasn’t taken over the site from the developers. You might get to catalogue the dead specimens and hope the developers replant them. It’s usually a bitter fight so don’t make it worse by removing dead plant material. Just wait until everything gets resolved.

Why?

It’s not always possible to find out why some plants died but you should try. With our West Coast summers getting hotter some plants are doing worse than others. For example, Western Red Cedars are suffering.

Sometimes it’s poor installation or malfunctioning irrigation system.

 

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This Rhododendron was smothered by landscape fabric and river rock. Fabric plugs up and doesn’t allow water to penetrate to the root zone.

 

Assuming the plants didn’t die because of your poor maintenance, this is a great opportunity to sell the strata new plants. And that means putting together a quote with labour costs plus mark-up on every plant. In exchange the strata gets a better looking site. Looking at dead plants is depressing.

 

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This dead Thuja plicata hedge looks terrible.

 

Not same old

Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to replace dead cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis) with more cedars. We’re finding that Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica) are doing much better in the landscape and form very nice hedges. You just have to make sure they get established well.

Trees should be treated the same way. Try a different tree species once you’re sure the tree is really dead. If you’re not sure, take your snips and gently scratch a branch. If it’s green underneath there is still life in it; if it’s brown, it’s toast and you should replace it.

 

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This Cornus tree failed the wiggle test but just to make sure, I scratched the branch. Brown means it’s toast so I pulled it out easily.

 

Conclusion

Dead plants look awful in the landscape. We want healthy, beautiful landscapes for people to live in. Try to remove and replace dead plants as soon as you can get approval from your clients.

 

Aphids from hell

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Aphids are soft-bodied, sucking insects and they have a well-known association with tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera). As they suck on the leaves they exude sticky honeydew because they can’t process sugars. The trees aren’t harmed and beneficial insects arrive to feast on the sugars and on the aphids. That’s the basic biology.

 

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Tulip tree leaf covered in aphids and sticky honeydew because aphids can’t process sugars.

 

One desperate owner

Every summer the same desperate patio owner approaches me asking if I could take out more branches off the tulip trees. And it turns out I can’t. I would need a bucket truck.

Whenever there is a clash between people and trees, I normally favour the trees because we need them. Trees provide many, many, free ecosystem services; and lately tree planting is suggested as one way to fight climate change.

And yet, I really feel for this lady. Imagine her sitting out on her back patio, drinking wine with her husband as her little kids play at their feet. Then she looks up and sees aphid honeydew falling down all over her yard. That’s messed up. Aphids from hell!

 

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Untouchable city trees on the left and honeydew covered patio. An unfortunate choice of tree species for this setting.

 

City trees

Since the boulevard trees technically belong to the City of Maple Ridge, they are protected and very unlikely to get removed. Poor lady.

I’ve taken out a few lower branches but taking out any more with a bucket truck would probably attract the attention of bylaw officers. And I don’t even have access to a bucket truck. Plus the trees wouldn’t look like normal trees.

And so the lady suffers every summer, sitting on sticky patio furniture and probably cursing her real estate agent.

She isn’t the only one. I have written a blog post after reading about another desperate home owner in Vancouver.

Still, we need trees in our cities and sticky honeydew can’t be enough to condemn them.

 

Is vertical edging worth the trouble?

By | landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

I hate vertical edging but sometimes I have to do it because blade attachments aren’t available. Then, when I finish I’m close to developing a rash that will only go away after I complete blog posts like this one.

Why vertical?

Why do we vertical? Why flip a machine on its side and shred your edges? Because it’s convenient. You’re already there, your flat edging is completed and now you just burn out the edges and bail. There is no need to walk back to the truck to change attachments or change blades. And you don’t have to train workers on a new machine.

Personally, I think vertical edging is too much trouble. Let’s examine some of its limitations below.

Vertical limitations

Let’s consider many of the limitations of vertical edging. And before we get into it, note that some big companies don’t allow you to vertical. This is mainly because it gives your site or home an inconsistent look; and it also increases the chances of worker injury and site damage.

 

Shredding plants

This is my biggest problem with vertical edging. As you go along the edge, inevitably you will encounter plants growing over the edge. So you either skip the edge or you shred the plants. Most workers just shred the plants. Either way your site look suffers.

By contrast, the blade edger has a metal cover which discreetly slips under the plant and allows for edging without injury to the plant.

 

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Damage isn’t limited to plants. This pot is missing a lot of plastic already.

Injury risk

Since there is no cover over the line edger you’re bound to eat a few rocks and other debris. Definitely wear goggles every time and close your mouth; and kiss your baby skin goodbye. To avoid getting hit workers angle the edger from the recommended 90 degrees which nicely leads us to the next point.

By contrast, the blade edger blade is covered with a shield and a rubber flap on the bottom.

Erosion

When you shred the edges at 45 degrees every week you eventually get erosion. Think of the UK coastline. This can lead to client complaints as the owners’ lawn edges retreat. Also, anything short of 90 degrees is ugly. If your edge can’t break your ankles, it’s not done right.

Reestablishment

Sometimes you fall behind on boulevard edging and when you finally get to it, you have no hope of re-establishing the edge. The plastic line is too weak.

By contrast, the blade edger digs in with a new blade and easily re-establishes the edge. This is also true for soft edges where the edge is gone.

Hard edges also look inconsistent and it’s slow work because as the plastic line shreds I have to constantly reload it by tapping the attachment head.

 

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While blade edgers can be kicked off course by sidewalk blemishes, vertical edging is much less consistent.

 

By contrast, the blade edger just digs into the hard edge and flies away. This is the best place to start training new workers.

 

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The top edge is my blade edger work; the bottom is a private landscaping company with line edgers. No contest!

Tight edges

My blade edger blade can nicely start and finish the lines by fitting tightly against the hard edge/soft bed zone. Vertical lines struggle here so the beginning and end of many edges stay shaggy.

Tree wells

I can blade edge around a tree well in seconds and leave it looking sharp. Vertical edging around tree wells is a pain.

Sucking exhaust

Vertical edging requires you to lift the engine higher which means the exhaust is much closer to your head. If you start getting dizzy, it’s the exhaust. This blog post assumes that you or your employer aren’t paying big dollars for the much cleaner Aspen fuel. Burning regular gasoline mixed with oil in a small engine isn’t very ecological. I want the engine down by my waist with the exhaust pointing back.

 

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Only blade edgers can nicely sharpen up stepping stones.

 

Is vertical edging worth the trouble? I don’t think so. Do you? Please leave comments.

 

Making the case for attention to detail in landscape maintenance

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Details matter a great deal. I was recently called to a residential garden with lawn care and pruning clearly completed well. But what about the details? Many details remained and taken together, they detract from the overall presentation. So, I got to work.

Details

Blackberry and salmon berry shoots protruding from the cedar hedge and shrubs were by far the biggest blemishes. So, I cut them down which sounds easy until you see the wild zone at the back of the cedar hedge. The school board never maintains the wild zone so of course it allows all kinds of undesirables to encroach on the neighbouring landscape.

 

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Blackberry and Salmon berry invasion in progress.

 

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After my intervention.

 

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Much better!

 

Ferns

I also found two ferns on the side of the patio and cut them back. They are native sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) and only require one annual cutback after new fronds push out.

 

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Much better and we’re good for another twelve months.

 

Weeds

Nobody likes picking weeds but the side of the house was starting to “burn”. The rock layer isn’t deep enough to deprive the weeds of sunlight so they poke out of the landscape fabric.

 

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These weeds had to go.

 

Tree branches

 

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It’s a small detail but one dead branch pointing down (see white arrow) is unsightly and it presents an obstacle for lawn care people. So grab a sharp hand saw and make it disappear.

Why you should never trust metal grates

By | health and safety, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Why you should never trust metal grates

 

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Never trust metal grates on your sites. I found out the hard way today after safely working on top of several sets while pruning shrubs. Then I got cocky by concentrating on my shrub pruning and not testing the grates. And one failed! As they sometimes do.

Luckily, I was using extendable shears so when I plummeted down the moving blades were far away from me. Unfortunately, during the brief fall my right shin met the hard edge causing me immediate discomfort. If I hadn’t been wearing rubber rain pants and long pants my shin would have been much uglier.

I retrieved a first aid kit from one of our work trucks and, after washing the wound and dressing it, I drove myself to my local health clinic. There I was coldly told that the doctors there didn’t do stitches.

Emergency

Aha. So, I walked to emergency nearby and waited.

After two interviews and a check of my vital signs I was moved to a bed inside. And I was ready with a print out of the July issue of the Altucher Report. Emergency doesn’t mean urgency. It takes forever to see a doctor.

Once, when my son was a little baby he wouldn’t stop coughing so I rushed him to the same emergency. By the time the doctor on duty showed up, my son was soundly asleep! Emergency, yeah right.

Dr. Quon checked my puncture wound and confirmed that I would need freezing and two stitches. And everything went well until he left his summer intern in charge of closing the wound. Let’s just say she struggled a little bit.

It also didn’t help that the patient next to me moaned non-stop until she got the medication she begged for.

 

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This is the family friendly photo of my shin puncture wound waiting for two stitches.

 

Conclusion

Let’s review: a) never trust metal grates on site because inevitably one will fail and b) make sure your company vehicles have first aid kits; you will need them one day and it also complies with WCB rules.

And don’t get cocky, stay safe.

Another shocking waste of time

By | landscape maintenance, machines | No Comments

New landscape foremen gain experience as they work in the field with their crews and you can expect them to surprise you. I often think I’ve seen it all, but it’s not true; I will never run out of blog topics.

Consider my recent visit to one work site. The foreman and his helper were behind on mid-season pruning and finesse work. Really behind so I was called in to help out. That’s my role as landscape supervisor. I help out and train workers as we go.

Polished heads, really?

After finishing line edging, I found both workers by the truck washing and polishing their line edger heads!? Completely shocked and annoyed, I asked them why we were polishing machine attachments at ten o’clock when there was tons of pruning and weeding to do. “That’s how I like it” was the foreman’s reply.

 

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A nicely polished head but what’s the use when your site is burning?

 

Luckily, I kept calm and left to resume pruning. But this sort of time wasting shows the crew’s inexperience. They wash and polish attachments that will get dirty again the next day instead of doing important work. Logistics can be done at the end of the day before the crew leaves the site. Ten o’clock in the morning is prime time for pruning and weeding.

Blind

The crew’s inability to see their time wasting and lack of focus is extremely shocking. Having extra people on site should have been a good hint. But no, they polish their attachments after every use and chat while their sites burn. The front entrance area was full of large weeds and it could have been cleaned up in the time it took to polish two attachments.

So, what is a landscape supervisor to do? Well, first I write a blog post about it to educate others about time wasting in landscape maintenance. Second, I went online to have some fun. I posted a question on several lawn care Facebook groups, asking their members how many of them washed their line edger heads after every use.

Results

Because the Facebook groups are populated by professional lawn care dudes who run their own shows they laughed hard. Not a single individual washed his attachments after every use. That’s because most of them run businesses; they don’t work by the hour for bosses. They hustle all day so they don’t have time to waste.

My way

Following the latest feedback research, I informed the crew what I would do. I would focus on the site by taking care of mid-season pruning and finesse work. Then, if I still worried about the condition of my attachments, I would polish them after loading up the truck at the end of the day. Maybe. In practice, I never polish my attachments. I lubricate them periodically; and I replace worn out parts.

Focus on real work, never waste time!

Landscapers with brooms

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I’m not kidding, landscapers with brooms is a real thing. I’ve seen commercial landscapers in White Rock using brooms for clean-up. You don’t see that much except for the West End of Vancouver where blowers are officially banned. I worked there way before the ban and I have no idea how it affects landscape maintenance.

White Rock

Take a moment to examine the picture below and note every detail. Then continue reading below. (I didn’t ask for permission to shoot the photo so you can’t see the workers’ faces. The girl is cute!)

 

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Don’t dismiss these dudes too quickly. In this commercial landscape setting brooms actually make a lot of sense. The only potential downside -other than the workers flying off- could be slower completion times when compared to backpack blowers; but I’m not completely convinced. See note 8 below. There are many positives:

  1. The many shopping mall islands are small and easily cleaned-up by two brooms.
  2. The workers don’t require ear protection and their exposure to dust is minimal.
  3. There is no blower to lock up from would-be thieves. Nobody steals brooms.
  4. There is zero noise pollution generated and the nearby health clinic patients must appreciate that.
  5. There is zero chance that parked cars will get covered in dust. The nearby golf store patrons are well-healed and sensitive.
  6. Brooms don’t require expensive fuel and don’t produce harmful particulates. They’re also cheap and don’t cause fuel spills.
  7. Brooms allow the workers to hear traffic. Note that they are correctly wearing high-visibility vests and using safety cones. Working in pairs is safer and more efficient. It also makes the work day more fun.
  8. Blowing small islands like this is awkward even on low power because there is always the risk of splashing soil.
  9. Using brooms gets both workers moving.

City work

I spent my 2014 season working under a municipal gardener and she absolutely detested noisy backpack blowers. I think we used them less than ten times during the season. And we survived because gardening doesn’t create as much mess as landscaping. I must confess that it was a nice change from regular landscaping. I didn’t miss the noise.

So there you have it, it’s possible to maintain landscapes without backpack blowers.

Fighting obstructions

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Proper landscape maintenance requires good planning. Depending on the size of your site, there should be a clear rotation so that every corner of your property gets serviced.

Jumping helter-skelter through your sites could lead to disaster. And yet, as much as you try to stick to your plan, requests and emergencies can side track you.

Requests

Small owner requests should be done right away, unless strata approval is required. For example, you can’t remove a small landscape tree just because Mrs. Rose from unit 6 wants it gone. But, if she has a few big weeds by her entrance, take care of it right away.

Bigger requests should be noted and pushed to your next visit. Try not to stray from your plan for this week but do write it down so you don’t forget.

This happened to me recently at a new site. The owner had asked me to re-stake his Styrax japonicus tree but I didn’t have a staking kit. So I promised him I would take care of it next week but I failed to write it down. Then I was slightly red-faced when he asked me about it the following week. Always write down requests that can’t be done on the same day.

The tree is now re-staked.

 

Emergency obstructions

Some tasks are more urgent. Like the exit walkway pictured below. As soon as I saw it, I knew it had to get done today. It’s just too annoying for people accessing the building.

 

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The big branch belongs to a mature Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) and it’s leaning on a vine maple (Acer circinatum). Since I didn’t have an extendable chainsaw, I pulled down the big branch and used a hand saw. It’s not pretty but at least the residents will not suffer any injuries.

 

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Much better.

 

Take care of walkway obstructions right away.

 

Can you handle landscape requests?

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When you work on multi-family strata complex landscapes all week you are bound to get a few requests. Can you handle that? Of course you can. This is how it’s done.

Plan

Don’t let owner requests derail your plan for the day. Yes, I know, sometimes the owners make it sound like the world is ending; and they leave you thinking that their medication ran out. So just note the request details, unit number and name.

If it’s something really simple then do it right away. Today, for example, we had a shrub sticking out of the ground so we got a shovel and replanted it. Easy fix.

If the request is more time consuming, make a note of it and do it as soon as you can.

 

One example

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Plant separation required here.

 

The owner freaked out about this Spirea japonica and Sarcococca marriage. I took several deep breaths and assured her that I would fix it as soon as I could. But not today because we had too much to do. Since I know this unit well, I didn’t have to write anything down.

I like plant separation but this is hardly a disaster. If anything, it’s a good sign because both plants are doing well. The Sarcococca will push out fragrant flowers in February when nothing much is happening in the landscape. Spirea japonica is a summer shrub and it has decent fall colour as well.

The fix

It took only a few minutes for me to hand snip the Spirea down by half. Don’t worry, I’ve done it before. It will push out again in spring. I also pulled out any Sarcococca runners that were too close to the Spirea.

 

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All done!

 

Don’t worry about client requests. Instead, be happy you can interact with your clients. Write down the details and do it as soon as you can. If it’s small, do it right away because your speed and attention will impress them.