Category

landscape maintenance

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.

How to rock the first service day of a new contract

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | 2 Comments

It’s always exciting to take on a new strata landscape maintenance contract because the assumption is that your service will improve on the service of whoever did the site before. The fine print in your contract details exactly what will happen during the ten or twelve months to come.

First visit

I love the first visit. You get to walk the entire site and assess the highest priority sections to get hit first. This usually covers main entrances, clubhouses and mailboxes. When the site is especially large, you will have to develop a nice rotation so your service isn’t helter-skelter.

You also get to examine the dirty corners away from the main ‘beauty strip’ areas. Those corners that tend to get skipped or serviced very little. Previous pruning gets examined; and strata member introductions are made. No-go units must also be identified because some home-gardeners don’t want any service in their yards aside from lawn care. This is critical so we can avoid upsetting residents at the very beginning of our contract.

Recent example

Let’s take a look at what I saw on the first day of a new contract in Surrey.

 

Clean-ups

 

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This is an obvious task. Any leafiness from last fall must be cleaned-up. Dead plants are a huge problem so in January we catalogue them so we can deal with them in spring.

 

Plant separation

 

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It would be nice to get some plant separation by shearing both the Prunus laurocerasus and Euonymus alatus.

 

Ivy removal

 

 

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Left unchecked,  ivy (Hedera helix) will overwhelm the Euonymus alatus shrub. So I cut it away from the plant and cleared a circle around it. It will require attention periodically so the ivy doesn’t take too many liberties.

 

Nandina

 

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This doesn’t work because Nandina domestica doesn’t regenerate from pruning cuts. This plant requires a flush cut. It should send out shoots from the base, assuming it’s not dead.

 

Trees

 

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One quick hand saw cut will eliminate this unwanted branch. We don’t really want branches developing this low, except on very young trees where the branches protect new bark from sun rays.

 

No man’s land

 

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This is a classic no man’s land zone between units. It receives less attention so it’s weedy and full of garbage. Unless your landscape maintenance contract spells everything out, you can’t discriminate. You must cover the entire site.

 

Holly

 

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This holly was planted by the owners but long-term it will lead to problems because it’s already touching the building. This gets insurance companies very excited. I suggest complete removal and planting something more appropriate and less prickly.

There you have it. Not a bad first day. This site should be looking great twelve months from now.

 

Winter plant identification

By | landscape maintenance, Plant Species Information, Species | No Comments

January is the slow season in West Coast landscape maintenance but you can still have some fun by noticing landscape plants around you. They may not look their best but it’s great to examine them in winter. I still remember the shock of noticing the black berries on Black Mondo grass. I knew the plant but I never stopped to notice the berries. And that was just last winter, after many seasons of landscaping.

So let’s take a look at some of the plants I noticed on my strata sites.

 

Lonicera nitida sports nice purple berries but they can be hidden so stop and take a longer look. It’s a neat, evergreen shrub. It’s commonly sheared in tight spaces. My task was to remove ivy that was growing through it.

 

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Lonicera nitida

 

Acer griseum. This is one of my favourite trees because of its cinnamon coloured peeling bark. I never get tired of looking at the bark.

 

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Acer griseum

 

Viburnum bodnantense. This Viburnum is a treat in winter. The white and pink flowers are hard to miss on its bare branches.

 

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Viburnum bodnantense

 

Hamamelis mollis. Like the Viburnum above, these yellow flowers are a treat to see in winter. I normally hate spiders but the five spidery-looking petals look awesome.

 

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Hamamelis mollis

 

Cornus mas. If you can identify this tree from the picture below you are doing really well. It’s Cornelian cherry. The edible summer cherries can be turned into jam. I usually just buy jam at Superstore. At this particular site, the residents consider the trees “messy” because people and pets step on the ripe cherries. I would never call a tree “messy”.

 

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Cornus mas

 

Nandina domestica.

 

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Nandina domestica

It’s obviously planted for its ornamental berries (pictured above). The summer white flowers are also nice. This common landscape plant will be featured in the next blog.

 

Ophiopogon planiscapus.

 

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Black plants make me laugh and I’m glad they exist. Black Mondo grass is one of them. It’s a nice clumping border plant with ornamental berries. One fun project is seeing what plant combinations work with it.

 

January isn’t exactly my favourite time of the year to be in the landscape but if you stop to look carefully, you can find some colour. Take pictures and identify the plants you don’t know. Then think of spring.

E-book

To help strata owners and new landscape workers with basic plant identification, I’ve put together an e-book picture guide: Common Strata Plants. The point of the guide is that the plant list comes straight from strata sites. Once you learn the plants, they will repeat over and over on your other strata sites. I’ve done the basic listing for you. You can see my e-book details here.

 

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Last service day of the season

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

The very last service day of the season on sites with ten month contracts is a special day. This blog post assumes that everything went well and your contract was renewed. Your strata site looks great and should hold up for two months.

If your contract wasn’t renewed, then, well, there is very little point stressing about your last service day. Most companies only cover basics but it’s important to go out as professionals. You never know, you could get called back.

Last service day

Since we’re close to the holidays, the last service day should cover the ‘beauty strip’. This would include the front entrance, mailbox areas, club houses and front entrances to all units. Residents are bound to entertain visitors over the holidays so the fronts should look good.

You should concentrate on weeding, deep edging and any remaining leafiness. I also like to blade edge all hard edges, especially on boulevard sidewalks. The edging will last for months and it sharpens up the site.

Bed and tree well deep edging should be done at ninety degrees and nothing else. Like the blade edges, these edges should also last for months. Cultivated, weed-free beds give the site a nice sharp look for the holidays.

 

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Note the weeded, cultivated bed and deep-edged tree circle. Personally I would have blade edged the hard edges.

 

Finally, the entire site should be blown clean.

Your last service day is not a good day for pruning or starting on cedar hedge shearing. If it didn’t get done, then just leave it for the New Year. The last day should leave the site looking sharp and clean so don’t start any new projects. The residents will likely notice weedy front beds over some back unit cedar that didn’t get sheared. You can shear it after the holidays. On this day, think clean.

 

Beyond the ‘beauty strip’

Note the difference in approach. Landscaping along the ‘beauty strip’ should only be practiced on the last few service days. During the season, it would be a grave mistake. And yet, it happens. Landscape companies cover all of the key, high-profile areas and let other sections “burn”.

I personally detest this sort of discrimination. All good landscape foremen will cover 100% of their sites, even if it has to be done on rotation. Owners of back units are paying the same fees as owners of higher profile units.

If you have any ten-month contract sites, enjoy the two-month break! If you live in a ten-month contract strata unit, enjoy the quiet!

 

How to pimp out your boulevard tree wells

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

Sometimes you look out on the boulevard at your strata site and the tree wells look a bit tired. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With some tools and a bit of soil amender you can quickly pimp out your tree wells and make them look great before the holiday season hits.

 

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This looks a bit tired.

 

Step 1

First we grab a nice sharp spade and we deep edge the tree wells. The spade must hit the edge at a ninety degree angle. Nothing else will do.

As for the depth, it should be deep enough to anchor the new soil that’s coming in but not too deep. We’re not building ditches although I have created some ankle-busters in my past. Soil conditions will sometime dictate the appropriate depth.

 

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Acer griseum tree well. You might as well remove the tree guard.

 

Step 2

I know, most people dread this step but we have to weed the tree wells nicely. Use a good cultivator and when you remove the weeds also grab the chunks from step 1.

 

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Nice and clean. The ground was a bit frozen so weeding was a challenge.

 

Step 3

Next, install good quality soil amender and pile it on nicely. Remember, it will settle so don’t worry if the tree wells look a bit puffy. This step gives you an instant upgrade because the fresh black soil looks great!

Warning: do you remember what a doughnut looks like? That is exactly what the soil around your tree should look like. Find the root flare and make the new soil level with it. Then build it up and taper it off as you hit your new deep edge.

Why? Because piling soil above the root flare leads to problems. For some reason, people love building soil pyramids at the base of trees. But it’s a common mistake. The bark above the root flare isn’t supposed to be in a dark, damp environment and it can over time rot. This in turn invites disease in.

Another potential problem is adventitious roots developing above the root flare inside your soil pyramid. There the roots start to circle and they can over time girdle the tree.

So remember, don’t create soil pyramids. Think doughnuts!

 

Step 4

The last step involves clean-up. Especially the grass edges of your new tree wells. Blow them off gently.

That’s it. Now your clients can enjoy beautiful boulevard tree wells on their Christmas holiday walks.

 

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All done! Weeded, edged and top-dressed. This is my kind of tree well.

Notes on leaf blower wars

By | health and safety, landscape maintenance | No Comments

As a member of various Facebook lawn care and landscaping groups, I often run into interesting discussions. But recently I read about an outright war in Newton, Massachusetts. A local resident named Karen Bray is working on banning leaf blowers from Newton.

I don’t want to repeat the entire fight in this blog post. You can easily Google it. So let’s just say that Karen Bray hates leaf blowers; and local landscapers don’t care for her opinions. The rest is fun tabloid stuff.

The key argument is that leaf blowers emit fine particulate matter that lodges in the lungs of kids and blower operators. I’m not a doctor but this could definitely be true. For this reason I prefer to blow solo. When 2-3 workers blow at the same time it’s a mess.

Since leaf blowers come up once in a while, it might be good to share my personal thoughts.

 

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It would take significantly longer to clean up leaves on this site without blowers.

 

Strata leaf blowing

Large strata properties would be difficult to maintain in the fall without leaf blowers. Sometimes there are three workers blowing together which wouldn’t make Karen Bray very happy. But the fastest way to clean-up leaf avalanches is to blow them into piles. And for every Karen Bray, I know a strata owner who wants every single leaf cleaned-out. The same goes for building maintenance workers. They love leaf blowers because without them debris would get dragged inside their buildings.

Without leaf blowers strata landscape maintenance costs would either go up or service standards would go down. It just isn’t practical to send five workers out with brooms and rakes. Usually there is a lot of work to be done in a day and the crews are under pressure.

There are some strata sites that demand a later start. So instead of starting machines at 8am, we start at 9am. This allows the crew to perform other tasks such as bedwork; and the residents with night shift jobs get an extra uninterrupted hour of sleep. No big deal. No fights on Facebook.

Residential leaf blowing

Because most residences are smaller, there are things you can do when you encounter opposition from the neighbourhood. You can start your blower at a normal time and you can use the smallest backpack blower for noise sensitive environments.

I use one because I couldn’t afford to pay for a big $700+ machine. And it’s worked out fine. It handles fall clean-up just fine. Obviously, the extra power would be nice when I have to clean-up pine needles, for example.

Leaf blowers have been successfully pushed out of Vancouver’s West End but I don’t know how that affected the neighbourhood and their landscapers.

We also have silent gardeners offering services for people like Karen Bray. I’m sure their clients have to pay more and chances are they are happy to do it. It’s probably a good niche.

Blower-free 2014

I personally don’t care for leaf blowers. It’s a necessary evil. I find the noise annoying when I’m not personally blowing. When I blow, I just notice the work. In 2014 I worked under a municipal gardener who barely used a blower all season. And I confess, it was glorious. Whatever mess we made we swept up with brooms. But again, this was gardening NOT strata maintenance. So we mostly covered planted beds. Grass crews covered work that required heavy blower use.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that the leaf blower wars are over-the-top. Yes, the noise is annoying. All landscape companies should do their best to blow at decent hours of the day and just long enough to get their work done. Smaller backpack blowers for noise sensitive environments are available. Some mess could be raked out and broomed.

Strata complexes tend to be larger in scale and, considering the amount of work to be completed, it isn’t practical to use rakes and brooms. There is often great pressure to complete a lot of work quickly.

I’m certain that any leaf blower bans would lead to either higher maintenance costs or worse looking neighbourhoods.

Tips for fall leaf clean-up: how to avoid pyramids and skeletons

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Fall is here and the colours in the landscape are amazing. But it’s also busy time for landscape maintenance companies because all sites are getting leafy. So let’s go over some important tips before panic sets in. You can have a smooth fall season if you do things right.

 

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Don’t forget to enjoy the fall colours

 

 

Avoid pyramids

Pyramids belong in Egypt. I see this every year: eager and some not so eager new landscapers rake leaves into beautiful leaf pyramids as if it was a contest. But it isn’t. Remember our objective: we need the leaves loaded on our truck and quickly. And how do we accomplish it? By raking onto tarps from the get-go. All raking movement should be pushing leaves onto tarps.

When I handle large leaf piles I frequently put my first tarp right onto the pile. Try it.

 

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Don’t be shy. Place your tarp in the pile and stuff it in there.

 

Big boy for maximum drop

All trees will reach their maximum leaf drop at some point so push through it. The new Stihl 700 backpack blower is super powerful and perfect for big leafy accumulations. If you can get one, use it. It made a huge difference for us this week.

And remember, when you blow avoid pyramids. Create decent looking piles and move on. There are no extra points for beautiful symmetrical leaf piles. It’s a waste of time.

 

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The Stihl 700 blower is a beast. I love it!

 

Safety

The side panel on most backpack blowers shows warning signs so get to know them well. One of them warns us about long hair getting sucked into the back of the blower. Now, I never really worried about this because I never had long hair. I listened to my parents. And now that I am of a certain advanced age, growing long hair is not really an option. But still, you might have girls on your crew and young men who ignored their parents.

While blowing a large strata site on Halloween one of our blowers got jammed when a skeleton got sucked into the back of the blower. It was abrupt and loud. God help you if your ponytail gets sucked in. You’ve been warned.

 

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Read the warning signs on your blower before you use it. The green fabric used to belong to a skeleton. Once it got sucked in, it jammed the machine.

 

Personally, I love the fall. Once I clean up a leafy site, anything fresh on the ground is fine. It’s fresh so enjoy it. The fall is beautiful.

 

Winning with simple landscape improvements

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

There are many simple improvements you can make in your landscapes. And they don’t cost tons of extra cash or time. You just have to work them into your regular maintenance schedule. Below are a few examples.

Drains

Drains in lawns are often forgotten until one day they get swallowed up by your lawn. Don’t let it happen. Let me illustrate with a quick story. Many seasons ago I was in charge of maintaining a smaller strata complex in North Vancouver, British Columbia. One day, water people came in looking for controllers. Except they weren’t able to locate them. It took extra phone calls and searches for them to realize that the controller in question was under the lawn.

Once they dug it up and did their thing, they gave me a speech on maintaining drains and covers in lawns. And even though it wasn’t my fault, this episode stayed with me. So now I keep all drains and covers in lawn areas nicely blade edged so they can be located and accessed. And the best part is that you don’t have to do it weekly. Once in a while will suffice.

 

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Before long this cover will disappear.

 

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This problem can be easily fixed with a blade edger.

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This is much better.

 

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Plant separation

 

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This another overdue procedure. Note how the rhododendron and the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) co-exist without any separation. This will only get more pronounced as time goes on. And how do we enjoy the rhododendron flowers?

I had a meeting at this site in spring and the strata council didn’t want anything pruned (correctly) before flowering. But when I showed up in August, I couldn’t help myself. I removed branches from the sourwood tree and also some of the height from the rhododendron. See the picture below. What do you think?

 

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This wasn’t anything serious. I removed some tree branches and some high stuff from the rhododendron.

 

I suspect we’ll be able to nicely enjoy the rhododendron flowers next year. This was another simple landscape maintenance procedure. It just has to be squeezed into your regular weekly scheduled tasks. But like the blade edging above, it won’t have to be done again for months.

What simple improvements can you make to your garden and landscape?

Improve your site appeal with fall planted bed changeover

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Species | No Comments

Fall is here and chances are if your planted beds are still full of annuals, they don’t look their best. And if they still do, think about changing them over soon. At one site, a strata council lady wanted us to plant winter annuals in amongst the old summer annuals; AND move some of the summer annuals around the complex. No way is that a good idea. Give it one cold day and summer annuals like begonias will turn to mush.

Time to switch

The simplest switch involves pulling your old summer annuals. And do it well. Dig up every single plant and rake out all broken flowers parts. Try not to remove too much soil as you do this.

If you have access to a rototiller, this is a good time to use it. Yes, tilling destroys soil structure but it’s Ok. Remember we’re not growing crops. The idea is to prepare your beds for easy planting. The softer the soil is for planting, the better it is for your wrists. When I worked at the City of Coquitlam our beds were so fluffy we didn’t need trowels!

If you don’t have a rototiller then just cultivate your bed nicely. That’s what I had to do last week and it was fine because I only had to work with six flats.

 

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Pulled summer annuals and cleaned up beds.

 

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Lay it out nicely to make sure the bed looks decent.

 

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Before you plant, remove the weak leaves at the base. Ornamental kale.

 

 

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Winter pansy.

 

 

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All done!

 

Don’t forget the critical last step: a courtesy blow. I had to remind my crew members to blow along the curb gently. Otherwise you risk getting debris blown in thereby ruining the show.

One extra twist

If you were planting spring bulbs, they would go in first. Obviously. Then the annuals would go on top. In spring, when the bulbs pop up, you remove the winter annuals. Then you sit back and enjoy your spring display. That’s called delayed gratification and after months of waiting, you deserve it.

 

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Final shot. Notice the courtesy blow. Always leave your work area as clean as possible. After all, this is a high-profile main entrance.

Making the case for lighter pruning

By | landscape maintenance, Landscaping | No Comments

Pruning on strata properties sometimes feels too harsh. Because of space and time constraints many shrubs get pruned into balls and boxes. Plants must be kept away from buildings and walkways; and from each other.

Additionally, power shearing shrubs is much faster than hand pruning them. And that makes every landscape maintenance boss very happy. This is why maple trees get sheared into balls because it would take much longer for someone to hand snip all of the shoots. And so it goes every season.

Home gardeners have the luxury of space and time. Normally. I recall the late Cass Turnbull giving a lecture and saying how Abelias should only be lightly hand snipped. Yes, maybe in someone’s garden but not on a strata property. As soon as the shrub sends out spikes, strata people freak and power shears come out.

Osmanthus case

There are exceptions, of course. On one strata site we have an Osmanthus shrub which got balled regularly until new owners moved in. Now they want it more natural looking. And why not? The backyard will look just fine with an Osmanthus shrub that isn’t forced into looking like a ball. It will just require some careful pruning and it might take a bit longer.

 

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The owners don’t want their Osmanthus pruned into a harsh ball again this fall.

 

Commercial fun

Another exception is my commercial property. Since I’m in charge of my time and (usually) work, I elected to hand snip my plants. It may seem slow but consider this: since I hand snip the spikes, they stay in my hand. This then eliminates the need for clean-up raking. Additionally, it gives the plants a more natural look. You can still see the shape but it’s not as harsh as it would be after power shearing.

And one extra bonus is the lack of noise and air pollution. I totally enjoyed myself in the Sunday afternoon sun. However, considering leafiness and the mess I made while weeding, I did blow the site because commercial properties should look good on Monday morning. As I blew the site I also made mental notes about tree pruning, chafer beetle damage on the lawns and finesse work.

 

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The idea is to remove the spikes. Normally these plants get power sheared.

 

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After hand pruning which was slower but it eliminated clean-ups. You can still see the original shape but it’s much softer compared to power shearing.

 

 

So remember, not every plant has to be sheared into a harsh shape. There is a solid case to be made for softer hand pruning. Please share your pruning pictures in the comments below. I would love to see how you handle your garden plants.