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landscape maintenance

Surprising landscape corner with a twist

By | landscape maintenance, Species | No Comments

Strata (multi-family) sites come in all shapes and sizes and my job, all year, is to maintain their landscaping. And I’m rarely wowed or surprised as I work in the landscapes. But it can happen.

Corner garden

As I line trimmed around a corner I literally ran into a nice wave of yellow. What do you think?

 

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I love warm yellow colours and the Irises deliver lots of warmth. I also immediately noticed the Rodgersia in the background. Aside from its prominent flower spike, it sports tough leaves. I was first introduced to this plant when I worked under municipal gardener Tracy Mallinson.

 

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Rodgersia

 

I also noticed nice bed edges and a ball made out of driftwood.

Overall, this whole corner works for me. It was fun working around it and taking pictures of it on company time.

Twist

I posted my corner discovery in one Facebook group and many members liked the picture. Except for one friend, Heike Stippler, who is the ultimate green professional and owns her own Heike Designs business based in Whistler. Because she is also involved with the Invasive Species Council of BC she gently pointed out that the Irises above are invasives called Iris pseudocorus or Yellow flag iris. Bummer. I had no idea. I was just taken with the yellows.

Then I remembered that several seasons ago, while working in the Klahanies neighbourhood in Port Moody, British Columbia, I had to remove several Yellow flag Irises because they were close to a stream that empties into the Inlet and is currently populated by beavers. The resident who called in the removal request sounded like the world was ending.

Iris pseudocorus

For this section I am openly borrowing from the Invasive Species Council of BC website. As it turns out, I’m not the only person wowed by this yellow Iris. It’s a popular, eye-catching plant and allegedly sells well at nurseries and garden centres.

The problem is that this Iris forms dense stands in wet areas and pushes out native plants. When cattails, sedges and rushes are pushed out, birds lose nesting areas. The yellow flag iris can invade irrigation canals, ditches, shallow ponds and stream and lake shorelines.

Since the iris is invasive it makes sense that it reproduces quickly through seed dispersal and horizontal root systems.

 

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Iris pseudocorus: 3 sepals curve backward, 3 petals point up, mature plants can reach 1.5 m.

 

Conclusion

Be careful when you fall in love with a yellow Iris. One suggested alternative plant is Iris ‘Butter and sugar’. Since this spot is buried deep inside a huge strata complex and far from water it’s unlikely to invade anything but winds are unpredictable. I would consider replacement with some other plant just to be on the safe side.

When you have to top natives for size control

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

I hate topping trees and so does the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); they even publish pamphlets detailing why the practice of tree topping is bad. This blog post, however, shows two cases where topping was somewhat justified and forced.

It was forced because a) the strata client insisted that it be done and they pay the maintenance fees so all you can do is attempt to educate them and, b) the natives in question threatened to overwhelm the spaces they occupy.

 

Salix discolor

 

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Before height reduction, Salix discolor. Note its landscape use close to woodland in the background.

 

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This is our native willow and it’s technically a shrub. In this setting it’s used as woodland margin shrub. But there is one problem. It reaches 7m heights quickly and the owners don’t want to see it from their upstairs patio, preferring instead to look at the tall native Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

So I went in with an extendable chain saw, pole pruners, a ladder and my best friend, a Japanese hand saw. Remember, most tree work can be done with a good hand saw.

The idea was to bring the willow height down and it went fairly well although I was a bit frustrated with some of my cuts. The willow is very soft and if you fail to finish your cuts briskly then you risk bark peeling below your cut. But considering that this is a native shrub, I expect it to shoot out again after my assault.

 

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After picture.

 

 

Acer macrophyllum

 

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BC native Acer macrophyllum with 5 lobed leaves (3 lobes dominate). The leaves are, well, big!

 

I wasn’t very happy about being sent in to top a maple tree but what do you do when the backyard belongs to the in-coming strata president? One look at his backyard made me wonder if the big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) was planted or simply drifted in. If you could look to the right you would see giants of the same species in the woods. There the maples are left alone and they reach the regular 30m tall, 25m spread dimensions.

 

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There is not enough space for this native species which will reach 30m without topping.

 

Here it is clearly not the right tree species so topping it is somewhat justified except, of course, the tree will grow again and I have a feeling I will get to know it intimately as the seasons pile on.

Most of the work was done with a pole pruner with the exception of the biggest leader. That required a saw and some care because there is a planted garden under the tree.

The owner was happy with my work (of course!) but all I was thinking about was how the tree did not belong there.

 

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After topping picture.

 

 

Conclusion

Tree topping is a horrible idea but in some cases it has to get done. Please try to avoid it as much as possible. The big-leaf maple above will grow again which means I will get called in periodically to bring it down. The same is true for the willow which will eventually reach the upper patio sight lines.

 

Strata owners are addicted to flower colours!

By | landscape maintenance, Species | No Comments

When you work on strata title properties all week you notice two things. One is the repetition of plant material on all sites. And two, you notice the addition of bright flower colours by individual owners.

Repetition

If you read my blogs often you will know that I bring this up a lot. Trees and shrubs on our strata (multi-family) sites tend to repeat because they fit in with our mostly clay, acidic soils. I keep telling my new workers that, while this repetition might seem boring, it helps them with their plant identification skills. Once you learn Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ you will keep on seeing it elsewhere. Then you will see it bloom and discover its scent. And if your skills are decent, you will get to hand snip or power shear it. Then you move on to the next shrub or tree until your plant ID skills become first rate.

 

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May 15, 2018, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’. If you don’t notice the scent, get closer until you do. It’s not bad.

 

Power colours

As you work in various strata units you start noticing annuals and perennials with bright colours. That’s usually the work of female owners but I also confess to picking up cheap plants at RONA. Like Lithodora diffusa. I planted one on my patio and now when I see it in a garden I know what it is. No surprises. It barely cost a few bucks.

 

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Lithodora diffusa

 

Examples

It’s mid May 2018 now so let’s take a look at what other specimens are favoured by home-owners. You might want to get some for your own place.

 

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Osteospermum

 

 

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Dahlias are very popular!

 

 

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Dianthus, another popular plant. I know of one yard where the owners planted various cultivars of this plant. That’s love or obsession.

 

 

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Geranium, another quick and cheap way to add colour to your place.

 

 

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Poppies tend to spread but they look fine in afternoon sun. I love yellow.

 

 

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Alliums are also very popular but here it’s just one lonely specimen by the door.

 

 

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Monardas are nice!

 

 

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Clematis is a popular vine. Just keep the base of this climber cool.

 

 

Do you know how to handle installs with soil amender?

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

It’s always a great idea to top-dress any new plant installs with fresh and fluffy soil amender. The newly planted beds get an instant dark look and the plants benefit from having new soil amender close by. At roughly $30 per yard it’s money well spent.

Key idea

When you install fresh soil amender your bed looks nice and fluffy. Congratulations! But you must not forget that the soil amender will settle. I got a reminder of this recently when I had to re-do a bed where many plants were planted too high. What really happened was that the soil amender came in first before the plants; and the young dudes doing the plant install failed to properly account for settling.

 

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This Spirea japonica is clearly sitting too high after the amender settled.

 

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This is better.

 

When you bring the amender in from your local supplier it’s dark, fluffy and beautiful but eventually it settles as it loses it’s fluffiness. So if you’re planting in this kind of situation, remember to adjust for settling. Otherwise, you will be like me replanting several specimens that are clearly sticking up and showing their roots.

Native soil

It just so happened that I was installing new plants next door to this area and on this day the plants came first; then we brought in soil amender for top-dressing. This approach has obvious advantages. One, the plants are planted in native site soil, not in fresh soil amender; and two, the planting level is obvious so we don’t have to guess at future amender settling.

Once you’re done top-dressing, it’s always a good idea to water in your new plants. Also, if the soil amender is still warm, try not to pack it directly around the plant stems. Instead, leave a bit of space between the plant stems and soil amender.

 

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Finished plant install in native soil, before soil amender application.

 

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After soil amender and watering. This frequently used staircase area now looks much better.

 

 

Conclusion

Soil amender settles over time so try to plant in native soil and then top-dressing. Planting directly in soil amender means that your plants could be sticking out too much once the amender settles.

Always top dress your newly planted beds with soil amender because they look better and it benefits the plants. Water your new plants in.

When installing artificial turf makes sense

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of artificial grass. It’s plastic, man-made with petro-chemicals, it heats up and it doesn’t produce oxygen. But there are legitimate cases where desperate people can find salvation in artificial turf.

 

Dog damage

 

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These people have a tiny back lawn frequented by their dog. The daily urine assault left the grass burned and struggling. The owner tried to fix it, over and over and finally got fed up. Since parting with the family pet wasn’t a popular option, they decided to install artificial turf. And it works in this case. Even our lawn maintenance was awkward before the changeover.

 

Clay soils

 

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Some owners are still clinging to their natural grass lawns. The soils are full of clay. You don’t have to dig far to see it.

 

Our West Coast soils have lots of clay in them which means that lawns installed over them drain poorly. The clay forms a nasty layer that doesn’t allow water to percolate down easily. If you want to fight these conditions one recommended procedure involves top dressing these lawns with organic soil. This can over time break up the clay layer. But this would take time and resources.

So what do you do? You stop fighting the conditions and install artificial turf.

You will notice in the picture that some owners are still clinging to their natural grass lawns.

 

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Note the sticky, dense clay chunks.

 

Shade

 

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In summer these backyards are dark as the Fraxinus trees flush out.

 

Shade also affects grass lawns negatively. Grass needs light to thrive and in this case we have four joined sections of backyards that turn dark in summer as the mature ash trees flush out with new growth.

Two years ago I personally pruned whatever branches I could reach on these mature ash trees (Fraxinus). Alas, it had very little effect on the lawns. They were still shady and weak. So the strata council called a tree company to remove the trees. However, the tree company advised them that the municipality was unlikely to issue tree removal permits because the trees were mature and close to houses.

Ok, so now what? One last idea: artificial turf. It looks great in shade and it eliminates the annual fight with expensive grass seed and soil top-dressing. In addition, landscape maintenance workers don’t mind skipping these units because they are difficult to access with push mowers.

This is one case where artificial turf was the last resort.

Conclusion

If you must have lawn, natural grass is better. I personally dislike man-made plastic turf. But there are cases where installing artificial turf makes perfect sense, such as dog damaged lawns, shady lawns and poorly draining lawns sitting on top of clay soils.

 

 

Basic tree maintenance techniques for landscapers: 3-point cut

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

There are many key landscape maintenance techniques all landscapers should know well. I try to teach these techniques to our new company recruits; and home owners can benefit as well from knowing them. Trees are an important component of our landscapes and must be maintained properly.

 

Three point cuts

This is a basic technique all landscapers must know. ISA certification is not required, although I always recommend it to workers with 2-3 years of field experience. This 3-point cut technique does appear in the Certified Landscape Technician practical testing module on pruning. However, you just have to tell the judge how you would make the 3-point cut because they use one tree to test all candidates.

For now, let’s stick to basics.

Yesterday I was at a site doing normal winter maintenance. I finessed beds, blew leafy piles and then I ran into Magnolia trees that were clearly encroaching on a staircase. So I took action because I had time for it and I also enjoy the work.

To remove an unwanted branch, you must use a 3-point cut, unless you’re removing a smaller branch that could almost be taken off with hand snips. Why 3 point? Because first you have to take off the weight of the branch. If you don’t you risk bark damage.

 

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(1) Undercut (White arrow)

Make a decent undercut without getting your sharp hand saw pinched by the wood.

(2) Second cut (Green arrow) to take the weight off. See how cleanly the branch shears off. If you attempt to make just one cut at the branch collar (Orange arrow) you risk ripping off the bark.

 

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The first two cuts are completed.

 

(3) The final cut happens at the branch collar (Orange arrow). We give the tree a chance to cover up the wound. Just make sure you don’t cut into the branch collar.

 

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The branch collar is clearly visible.

 

 

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All done!

 

The problem with stubs

Leaving a stub means the tree can’t properly heal the wound by closing it over. The stub dies anyway but it could allow diseases to enter the tree. So make proper cuts without leaving stubs.

 

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Acer griseum with a stub.

 

This cut was poorly done. The stub is clearly dead and you can see how the tree tried to cover up the wound. You wouldn’t believe how many of these cuts I see in the field. Sometimes the dead stub just breaks off.

Once you learn the 3-point cut, it will become automatic with practice.

 

For best results, stick together

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

Landscape foremen and crew leaders get best results when they keep their crews together as much as possible. That’s the point of this blog post. If you’re time-stressed you can finish reading this later but I hope you’ll stay and read until the end.

Early exchange

First a quick story. When I started landscaping with a certain prominent Lower Mainland landscape maintenance company, I witnessed a heated exchange between the vice-president and my supervisor. The big boss was outraged because we were all working solo in different parts of a large site. What was the problem? Loss of control! It’s impossible for the crew leader to monitor everything when workers are split up. And this was before smartphones became widespread.

I felt offended at the time, thinking that I had enough self-motivation to complete my tasks well. I had some things to learn about crew leadership. And now, finally, eighteen seasons later, I’m blogging about it.

Two types of leader

I’m running into two types of crew leaders in my work as landscape supervisor. One likes to delegate and then fade; the other works alongside his crew members. The crews that stick together consistently out-perform the crews that split up.

Now, I know that sticking together isn’t always possible or practical. But tasks like bedwork should be performed in groups. Even mowers and line trimmers can attack the same lawn sections.

So why split? Because working together hurts. There is a price to pay in heavy sweat when you stick with your crew. Delegating and fading to another part of your site is one way to have an easy day. I know of a foreman who delegates to his crew and then invents all sorts of reasons to be away from the main action. But eventually it shows; in site condition and crew abilities.

And let’s not pretend, for even a minute, that the crews don’t see through this tactic.

Training

New workers require training and monitoring and this is best accomplished when you see them often. Delegating and disappearing won’t work. You must be there to lead, to correct mistakes and to teach. This investment will pay off when your sites start looking great.

Your workers will also appreciate your feedback. I know that many new workers have good days when they get trained on new machines or tasks.

The picture below is from my lunch time walk. Full marks to these two; they accomplish more together. And they also look out for one another in a busy mall parking lot.

 

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Beyond comfort

I feel like I became a landscape professional when I switched my focus from my physical state (sweat and discomfort) to the larger issue of site condition. Did we deliver great service to our clients? Did we accomplish the tasks we set out for the day?

Leading workers outside in physically demanding labour isn’t easy. It would be easier to slip out for a smoke and e-mail check. But what’s the goal, exactly? World-class work. And for that you must stick together with your crews as much as possible.

Can you let your winter garden go wild?

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

I enjoyed reading Margaret Renkl’s opinion piece in this past weekend’s New York Times (The New York Times, Sunday, February 11, 2018, p.8 Sunday Review). In the past Renkl used to put her garden to bed for the winter. She cut back her perennials, composted the remains of annuals and picked the weeds she had ignored all year. She also installed a thick layer of mulch to keep everything safe from the cold. Yeah, well done!

Wild

Now she doesn’t worry about her garden as much. Her one discovery this year was that robins enjoyed eating dry berries from her monkey grasses. I had to Google monkey grass because common names in Nashville may not refer to the same plant on the West Coast. I imagine she is referring to Liriope muscari which is a good groundcover plant on our strata sites. It forms nice mounds and produces flowers in summer.

So not cutting back the flower stalks in fall was good for the robins. Renkl also enjoys seeing birds pluck out seeds from her summer flowers so she doesn’t cut them when they’re spent. She also suggests that beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.

New strata contract

This past week I performed the very first contract service on a new strata site. As is customary, I walked the entire site and as I did I wondered if the entire site was populated by Margaret Renkls. There were thick layers of leaves piled up in many corners, weedy spots, tree debris piles, and many perennials were never cut back.

Alas, strata (multi-family) complexes are different from private gardens. They can’t be left to go wild. We fight nature to make it all nice and neat, crisp and healthy. And yet, I wonder. Is it a big deal to leave some leaves over the winter to protect bulbs and beneficial insects? Now when I see Hydrangeas with flowers still on I no longer reach for my snips. They can be snipped anytime. Perhaps birds can derive some benefit from perennials left standing all winter. We can get to it in spring.

 

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Does this winter look stress you out or calm you down?

 

Not so fast

Then, my dream quickly evaporated as my boss showed up, eager to put our company stamp on the site and bring it up to proper standards. Yes sir! Leaves were blown into piles and removed and any weeds along the way were picked up. We also deep-edged the worst beds; and we got to meet the strata garden contact person.

Meeting strata garden liaisons is a critical activity because it’s important to establish a good working relationship. This person reports to strata council and makes budget requests.

Next we will shear cedar hedges and cut back perennials. Weeds will be a priority and then more deep edges.

What’s happening in your own winter garden? Is it wild or well-groomed?

How to have fun with annual tasks

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

In this blog post I will show that working on annual tasks can be fun. First of all, it gives us a nice break from routine maintenance schedules and, second, it’s only done once a year. And for me, that was a new experience.

Municipal

My first encounter with annual jobs was while working for a municipal parks department. At first, I couldn’t believe that some areas were only cut once a year. But it was a nice break from the usual routine. Since my job was to line trim, I loaded up on spare line (always do this!) and I made sure my jerry car with mixed fuel was close by for quick re-fuelling (another good habit).

Day one was near a mountain top and I couldn’t think of a prettier place to line trim. I just had to take some extra care because I couldn’t always see into the tall grass. This is why new workers are always encouraged to get familiar with their new lawns and identify any potential hazards.

 

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I line trimmed zones where the ride-on mower couldn’t reach safely.

 

On day two we worked at a section of the famous Coquitlam Crunch. Here it was the human scenery that was very pretty and I had to make sure passersby didn’t get hit. So here the work was a bit slower but just as fun.

Of course, the work isn’t very difficult; you just need some resolve. I was so excited about doing something new that the hours just flew by. This is why landscape workers report having good days after learning a new machine or task.

After I accidentally beheaded a small snake, the novelty wore off.

 

Strata

I mentioned strata “wild zones” in a previous blog. Here the issue is site size and low profile. It simply doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time in some far corner not many people see. But, I still think that all strata sites should be maintained without discrimination, that is, all areas should be maintained regularly.

 

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So you survey the “wild zone” and note the obvious tasks:

  1. weeding: the visible green mats are creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), this perennial weed is a tough weed to defeat. When you pull it out you will see many fibrous roots. I bring up buttercup when people tell me to weed with my hands. Not likely.
  2. prickly bramble:  invading from next door and growing through trees, we can’t tolerate this because it will just get worse
  3. roses out of control, both size and spread
  4. dogwood (Cornus) shrubs require pruning and thinning, since thinning requires more time it obviously hasn’t been done in a long time
  5. salal (Gaultheria shallon) pruning off the top, it’s an indestructible native so bring down to normal size
  6. Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) invading from next door, be ruthless, Sambucus grows like a weed
  7. cedar pruning (Thuja plicata), one annual shearing will suffice here

 

Once you complete the above list the whole place will look transformed. And then you can concentrate on other work knowing that you will be back in twelve months. Hopefully sooner.

 

Vas on grass

By | landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

I love people who fight for new lush lawns. I admire their tenacity and envy their deep pockets. But often they get defeated by the site conditions, like available light, good soil and proper seed.

 

Promise

 

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This is awesome. I found this sign in between two units on a strata complex we have taken over recently. Now that the key beauty strip areas are cleaned-up, we start hitting the low key zones. Like this space between two units.

The sign is full of hope and promise but when you look around, you know it didn’t really work. Why not? Why can’t strata owners plant some grass seed and enjoy a green buffer zone?

 

Assessment

 

 

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Shade

Guaranteed, this is the number one problem here. It looks OK in winter but by spring, as the trees flush out with new growth, they add more shade. The buildings do the rest.

Plants need light and water for photosynthesis. Pruning the trees would help but it wouldn’t be enough. If you remove too many branches, the tree won’t be able to feed itself. Like grass, trees also struggle to reach light so they can manufacture food.

 

Soil

I wonder about the soil depth and quality in a buffer zone like this. In addition, this rectangular patch is a small ecosystem. One idea would be to top-dress the area to help the new shade mix seed. But I am still not convinced that there would be enough light for the grass to thrive. Owners with deep pockets are free to attempt it. Top-dressing is actually a very pleasant landscape job.

Moss

What’s wrong with moss anyway? It’s prized in Japan. I’ve seen it in beautiful Japanese gardens. I would plant moss and let it go. But people love their lawns. It’s an addiction. Until site conditions cure them.

Vents

It’s also possible that the vents on both buildings affect the grass. Assuming the vents are from driers and considering that in my own place they get used daily, it could adversely affect the grass seedlings. We don’t even know if the new seed got watered and if the watering took into account the effect of the drier vents.

 

Conclusion

Always consider your site conditions when your lawn struggles. It could be more than just lack of fertilizer. Shade is always a huge issue and the same goes for soil conditions and proper watering. Seek professional advice. Call Proper Landscaping for professional help.