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landscape maintenance

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.

Still purchasing lady beetles for your garden?

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

A few years ago I met a home owner at one of our sites and she told me about her annual lady beetle buy and release events. I smiled politely and privately thought she was insane and had way too much disposable income. She paid $16.95 retail plus tax for a bag of lady beetles. As we learn from the fact sheet below this biocontrol business is extremely lucrative.

 

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Now, a few seasons later,  there is a new Fact Sheet from the University of Washington Extension that clarifies the issue and it happens to be co-authored by my favourite horticulture scientist Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott.

As it turns out many gardeners buy lady beetles for their gardens and landscapes. And the fact sheet concludes that “release to open gardens and landscapes is unlikely to be successful.” Now my burning question is answered.

Control

Adult and larval beetles control aphids and scale insects, mites, beetle larvae and immature bugs.

 

Aphid problem

The site mentioned above has lots of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) which are known to attract aphids. The aphids suck on the new leaves but otherwise don’t harm the trees. Incidentally, don’t miss tulip tree flowers. They are spectacular.

Since aphids can’t process sugars, they excrete them. That’s why honeydew drops on leaves, cars and sidewalks. Then lady beetle sales go up. The lady swore that her lady beetle releases are effective. OK.

But perhaps you don’t have to spend your after-tax dollars on lady beetles. What if you can attract them naturally? Grasses and wildflowers will attract them to your gardens. Lawns not so much.

As we learn from the fact sheet, lady beetles eat fungus, fruit and occasionally vegetation. Adults look for sugar sources such as nectar or honeydew. These energy-rich supplemental foods improve lady beetle reproduction and survival over winter.

Take it easy on insecticides because they kill the target pests and natural predators.

Good or bad idea?

There are some negative aspects to this whole biocontrol business. First, we are removing populations from their natural ecosystems which may not be a good idea.

Second, native beneficial insects may suffer when we introduce non-natives. And third, introducing lady beetles may transport parasites.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I must say that the lady gets a gold star for spending $16.95 plus tax on a bag of lady beetles; and for inspiring this blog post. As we know from the new fact sheet, these lady beetle releases are unlikely to be effective. And yet, she swears by them. Perhaps the tulip tree honeydew attracts the lady beetles naturally.

I say, try to attract lady beetles naturally and save your money. Perhaps you can donate some cash to the University of Washington Extension so they can produce more science-based fact sheets.

When trees and artificial turf are incompatible

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

My friend who specializes in artificial turf installs told me recently that he was killing it. Great. I was happy for him. He went through his apprenticeship by installing NFL turf and deserves his success.

However, there are some cases where installing artificial turf is a bad idea. Take for example the case below from the United States.

 

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Picture used with permission.

 

Unhappy owner

The owner was unhappy with his lawn and approached his landscape company about replacing it with artificial turf. His landscaper was worried-correctly!-about removing four inches of turf and not adversely affecting the tree. Then she posted this picture in a Facebook group and asked people for their opinions.

Incidentally, I recommend joining a few Facebook lawn care groups. Many of the groups have thousands of members and interesting things pop us almost daily.

Let’s see

This is an interesting case so let’s see.

A) I presume that the tree shades out the grass when it pushes leaves out. You could prune the tree to allow for more light penetration. Another possibility is top-dressing with a light layer of soil and over-seeding with shade grass mix. Baby the lawn a little bit. Aerate it and fertilize it.

B) To install artificial turf you have to remove the top four inches of soil and install rock. You can read my blog about my friend’s project which shows the steps involved in installing artificial turf.

Since trees rely on surficial roots for water and nutrient collection this step would no doubt affect the tree. I also notice large roots that would make it impossible to install the turf perfectly flat.

And to prepare the rock for turf install, it gets compacted with a machine. We know soil compaction kills trees by limiting air and water uptake by surficial roots. Installing four inches of rock and compacting it all around the tree would have serious consequences for the tree.

C) I understand that most artificial turf models allow water to penetrate but I still think it wouldn’t be the same deal for the tree. Then there is the issue of heat. Natural grass produces oxygen and cools down our properties and cities. It’s the opposite with artificial turf. Once it’s installed it heats up and the soil underneath dies. I think the turf would simply “cook” the tree roots.

D) I believe the tree has to go before artificial turf can be installed. Imagine the full effect from grass cooling and tree shade to open artificial turf which absorbs heat and zero shade. Remember, artificial soccer fields should be watered down to protect the players on hot summer days.

E) Then there is the issue of cost. Artificial turf isn’t cheap but it’s easier to maintain than natural grass. I personally dislike anything artificial in my landscapes. Anything that kills soil is bad in my books.

Conclusion

The owners of this property have to find another solution to their grass problems. Artificial turf install is totally incompatible with the tree in their front yard. They can prune the tree and baby the grass. Or they can remove the tree to make way for artificial turf. Of course, this step loses the many ecosystem services provided free of charge by the tree and leads to soil death. I would personally avoid this second idea at all costs.

 

Hedge uses in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance, Landscaping | No Comments

Hedging is a common landscape element in gardens. On our strata sites it’s a similar story and as I found out, there are several different hedge uses.

Deterrent

 

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Around the corner is a school and this prickly Pyracantha coccinea deters young people from hopping the fence. The plant lives up to its common name, fire thorn. Once you get it stuck in your body, get ready for swelling and pain. Rumour has it the youths still risk it to complete their illegal substance deals.

 

Car lights

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This was a new idea. The laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) behind the ladder is to be kept at the same height. It turns out that the units in the distance are bothered by car lights! Who knew? This sort of information has to be passed on before any pruning happens.

 

Privacy

 

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Privacy is a natural hedge use. Here there used to be a cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) but without help it died in one of our summer droughts. The yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’) are considered more resilient. Sadly, the last I heard on this hedge is that they too were struggling. Since I planted them personally, I find it distressing.

The residents were obviously glad to get their bedroom windows protected from passersby and windows from across the courtyard.

 

Site lines

 

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The residents here are looking at a power station in the distance and its various towers and cables. Therefore, they asked us to plant more stuff in the wild zone. Obvious gaps were plugged up with cedar trees (Thuja plicata). Since this line of Pieris japonicas is the biggest we could find, the residents will have to wait for a bit before they grow up.

 

Cover

 

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This is another common ploy. Green hedges are used to cover unsightly areas like this recycling box. Unfortunately, cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) are affected by shading from the box. Note the brown holes. Any shading over six months usually results in permanent browning.

 

Fun!

 

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Let’s not forget fun. Some people like to have fun with their hedges. While I’m not a fan, I don’t mind if the residents prune their hedges at angles that please them. Here future snow accumulations shouldn’t be an issue. This is Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica).

Hedges serve many functions in our landscapes. I always prefer green barriers to structures like fences.

Lace bug infested rhododendrons

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

As frequently happens, I get interrupted from my tasks to attend to strata owners’ requests. Today was a statutory holiday in British Columbia so we hit the site with a California-style mow-blow-go service. Of course, this also meant that residents who would normally be at work were home.

And off we went to see the lady’s front entrance rhododendron. The owner said it’s been suffering with white flies for five seasons. She gives it fertilizer and prunes it twice a year to keep the height in check. It doesn’t flower much. Aha, I could feel a blog post brewing in my head.

Bugs on leaf undersides

I examined the leaf undersides but found lace bugs instead of white flies. Since both bugs are sucking insects I knew sprays are usually employed to control them. So I snapped a few photos and made a note to do some research when I got home. I’m also fortunate to have great contacts to reach out to when I need help. One is municipal gardener Tracey Mallinson and another is Dr. Linda A. Gilkeson.

 

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The lace bugs are clearly visible.

 

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Clearly the work of sucking insects.

 

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Rhodo

 

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Let’s examine the rhododendron. It appears to be in too-sunny a location. Rhododendrons in shadier spots don’t suffer as many infestations. This goes for Azaleas and Pieris japonicas.

The shrubs looks OK from distance but the insect damage is obvious up close. Flipping the leaves upside down, it was easy to spot the lace bugs. The Pieris japonica on the left is also affected.

I have no idea how much rhododendron fertilizer the plant gets but I’m assuming the owner follows the label. Another suggestion online was to keep the roots moist.

The owner prunes the rhodo twice a year to keep its height in check. She enjoys the privacy she gets but doesn’t want to be overwhelmed. This made me think of Japanese gardeners who refuse to prune trees and shrubs that show signs of weakness. Instead they ask the owner to nurse the plant back to health.

 

Solutions

Best course of action in July would be direct forceful blasts of water on the underside of leaves. I’m sure there are commercial insecticidal sprays but once you go the chemical route you’re stuck. Dr. Gilkeson states that the sprays must be repeated 10-14 days later and there is some danger that the sprays could burn the leaves. We don’t have that problem with water; water is also considerably cheaper.

The best solution would be for natural predators to arrive and feast on the lace bugs. Patience!

 

 

Examining details in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance | One Comment

In my capacity as landscape supervisor I continuously examine landscapes and look for details. Here is what I found last week.

 

Tree suckers

 

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Since we don’t want branches developing this low on our boulevard trees it’s best to snip them off. I always carry snips on my belt so this was a quick job. One exception would be really young trees. On young trees the lower branched shield the bark from potential sunshine damage. We can leave lower branches on, noting their eventual removal in subsequent seasons.

 

Lawn care rookies

Staff training never really ends. I like to gently point out mistakes and suggest corrections. As soon as possible. Just remember that some skills require significant amount of time to master. This applies to line trimming. Our new girl is still terrified of causing damage so she lacks the required aggression. Driftwood is fairly solid so we can take some liberties and get close enough to remove the shaggy grass edge. If driftwood chips fly off, we are obviously too close. We’ll give her more practice time on the line edger and she will improve. I know it takes time.

 

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Our new worker will eventually get close enough so the shaggy edge is removed down to mower height. Practice time required.

 

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This massive “Mohawk” is hard to explain.

 

Weak trees

It’s easy to spot the one weak red maple (Acer rubrum) on this street. Then you have to ask why it’s so weak when its sisters are doing fine. We found out the cause when we attempted to plant boxwoods around the weakling. The soil was so waterlogged we delayed the boxwood planting.

Water displaces oxygen in the soil and if nothing changes, plants suffocate and die. I believe the water leak problem has been corrected so we’ll see what happens with the red maple. My fingers are crossed.

 

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One weak Acer rubrum surrounded by thriving sisters.

 

Cedar hedges

 

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I personally planted these two cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’). So I check on them when I can to see if they’re getting watered. Cedars are thirsty in their first year.

Then this week I noticed a wooden trellis around the cedars. The owner had installed it to protect the cedars. But all I see is shading. The trellis blocks light and will most likely lead to browning. That’s not what the lady wanted to hear.

The above is what I noticed on my sites last week. Pay attention to landscape details.

What did you notice?

 

 

Obstruction in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Obstruction in the landscape is a well-known theme but it’s often missed or ignored. Especially by newer crew leaders and workers. So let’s examine some cases of obstruction and learn from them.

 

Spring rains

This is what happens after spring rains and early season growth. All of a sudden we have obstruction everywhere. Immediate corrective action is required by people’s front doors.

 

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Walkways

It happens all the time. Your new worker concentrates on his lawns and in his rush to complete the work places his tarps on walkways. Then a senior citizen pulls up in a motorized scooter and we have a problem. If you think senior citizens aren’t capable to angry outbursts and middle finger salutes, think again. Never block walkways.

 

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This isn’t the best place for a tarp.

 

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Much better and stress-free!

 

Signs

Signs exist because they have a message to convey. It’s easy for vegetation to obscure them so check your sites and take action. This is especially true for sites you have recently taken over.

 

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Much better.

 

Exits

All exits should be clear. This example is from a neglected strata site. I pruned off the offending maple tree (Acer circinatum) branches in a few minutes. The residents must have been ducking here for months.

 

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Another walkway example with Indian plum going wild.

 

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Problem solved!

 

Peonies

Peonies usually require staking and more space. I used a bit of string and two minutes.

 

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Parking stalls

Parking stalls should always be clear of any obstructions. This took one cut with my snips.

 

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Done!

 

Vehicle site lines

This one is much harder to spot. Residents driving out couldn’t clearly see other approaching vehicles so I had to prune the maples. Note that you should be able to see through Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) anyway.

 

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Dog waste

This is a most disagreeable topic but let’s not be shy. This is what it looks like on the ground for landscape maintenance workers. The ignored long grass indicates the presence of large dog waste piles. So in this case the obstruction is created by the owners.

 

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Dog waste in the open, urine soaked lawn and hidden inside shaggy islands.

 

Future obstruction

This is an interesting small yard. I once took the liberty of pruning a few branches off this Magnolia so we could get through the gate. The owner had a fit, calling us nasty names. Unjustly, I believe. She planted two Magnolias in her small yard never bothering to read the tree tags still attached to the trees. Considering the future size of these trees I fully expect this owner to beg me to prune her trees in the future. Always consider the mature size of your new trees before planting them.

 

 

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Obstruction in the landscape is a well-known theme. Train your workers to spot it and correct it.