Category

landscape maintenance

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.

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.