Category

landscape maintenance

Ornamental grass cutback: time it right

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal, Species | No Comments

I was on a large strata site last week planting winter pansies and testing out a new Stihl brush cutter. Finished for the day, I descended down the long private road that winds through the complex. And what really struck me was the beauty of the ornamental grasses. They were gently moving in the late afternoon sun and they put on a great show. They were ornamental for sure.

 

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Pressure

Unfortunately, the beautiful Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ were coming down. So you have to ask yourself why this is happening just as the grasses start to look their best. It comes down to pressure because this particular strata site is huge. It takes four weeks to make one full maintenance rotation. And the fear is that before the grass area is due for service, rain and wind will have destroyed them. That’s too bad because the show they put on along with their cousin grass species totally warmed me up. Now all that was left was a grassy stump to look at until next spring. This totally defeats the point of planting these grasses when they’re not allowed to be ornamental.

Note that there is always the possibility of rot in the centre when the grass is cut back too early.

 

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This is it until next spring. Rot in the middle is always a danger.

 

 

Cut back timing

Ornamental grasses flower in the fall and when everything else in the landscape fades, they give us something to look at. Personally, I cut them back only when they’re all broken up on the ground.

If you can let your ornamental grasses stand into winter, you might get rewarded with a beautiful frosty look. And birds also feed on the flower spikes in winter when there isn’t much else to eat.

If you can, let your grasses be ornamental and enjoy them well into spring. If you must cut them back, do it when they’re flopped over and hugging the ground.

Blow like a pro

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

It’s October, 2018, and leaf season is here. Landscape contractors rely on their backpack blowers to clean-up leaf avalanches on their sites. If you drive around you’re bound to see a few a rose-cheeked landscapers blowing for hours.

I personally don’t stress about leaves. I love fall and I clean up the leaves as well as I can. Then I return the following week for more.

Aside from leaf clean-up blowing, there are two more blowing techniques every landscaper must know.

 

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Pre-blow

Early in leaf season when the leaf drop isn’t overwhelming, a pre-blow can be a great time saver. Pre-blow involves a quick blow of your site where leaves are blown onto lawns and then mowed. This eliminates time consuming leaf pile pick-up with rakes.

Simply mow over the leaves and bag everything. Then all that’s left to do is a final touch up blow. The only issue is judging the right amount of leaves. If the leaves really accumulate after your pre-blow, the mower will struggle to shred them when you mow. Don’t kill your mower. That’s why this technique is best used early in the leaf season. I think it could be used more in landscape maintenance.

 

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This is a well executed pre-blow. There isn’t enough leafiness to overwhelm the mower engine or to start raking piles.

 

 

Final blow

As the name suggests, this is the final courtesy clean-up blow. But I’m finding that many new employees only concentrate on the actual clean-up. With proper training they would know that their final blow also doubles as the final check.

Yes, foremen are responsible for checking their sites in theory but it’s not always easy in practice. That’s because some strata sites are huge and asking the foremen to walk the entire site at the end of the day can be too much.

So the worker doing the final blow is responsible for checking everything over as she goes. That includes missed debris piles, full green waste tarps, empty tarps, open gates and missed hand tools. It’s up to the worker to alert the foreman so we avoid calls to the office later.

Lawn care mistakes must also be corrected. Mistakes happen. Nobody goes home until missed lawns are mowed and huge mohawks eliminated.

Again, I find that new workers aren’t trained to perform final site checks when they blow. Once they get into the habit everything runs smoothly.

When a missing hand tool is discovered on site later, it means that the area wasn’t blown or the worker only occupied himself with blowing, not checking.

 

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This missed tarp was discovered during the final blow.

 

 

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This yard didn’t get mowed at all.

 

Conclusion

Consider training your landscape workers to perform pre-blows and final blows with site checking. Your whole operation will be smoother.

Water your new installs for success

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

It drives me crazy when I see my landscape installs neglected and suffering from lack of water. It must be the biophilia effect because I feel responsible for the suffering plants. An yet, I can’t do much about it because it’s up to the owners to water their plants. I water them in on install day.

Water for success

This is your main take-away from this blog post: new plants require copious amounts of water to properly establish. As water goes in, roots chase it down and extend. And on it goes but not without water.

 

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Disappointing.

 

This is the worst case because I did everything myself. I removed the dead cedars, dug the holes, bought and delivered the new cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘), planted them and watered them in. Months later I took this picture with some disgust. Directly behind me was a perfectly functioning garden hose. It just takes time to properly soak the cedars once in a while. Cedars are very thirsty in their first year.

 

Magnolia

 

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Because of our summer drought this Magnolia tree exhibited early leaf senescence. With some watering from me it bounced back by pushing out new foliage. The cedars behind the tree weren’t so lucky. To be fair, shading from the Magnolia becomes permanent over time but I suspect lack of water was also a major contributor to this carnage.

Note the garden hose in the picture. I have no idea why it can’t be turned on and left to soak the area for twenty minutes. Again, it’s up to the owners to water.

 

Success!

Luckily, some owners get it. This unit has two little kids and the owners water. Plus they installed a soaker hose so their new cedar hedge would establish. This space used to be bare with only two stumps to look at and I, literally, paid for this install with my blood. Because the nearby creek breeds a lot of summer mosquitos this project was an adventure. My next blog post will be on my intimate knowledge of insect repellents.

 

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These owners get a gold start for watering.

 

As we ease into fall, there will be more landscape installs. It’s absolutely critical that owners water their new plants. Good plant establishment can only happen with good watering.

How professionals handle low-profile corners

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

I don’t believe in discrimination. Every part of the landscape should receive attention. Unfortunately, landscape companies are busy and often low-profile areas get less attention or worse, they get ignored. But that’s not my style.

 

Commercial site corner

 

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Before.

 

This ugly corner was on my list for weeks and I finally got to it. The most obvious blemish is the dead dogwood in the middle. The last thing you want on your site is dead plants. So I did the most economical thing available; I flush cut it as low as I could.

The entire bed was overrun with prickly bramble (Rubus armeniacus) which just spreads so I cut it at ground level knowing that this will be a fight until I actually dig it up.

Next came light hand pruning of the Pieris japonica shrub followed by raking and weeding.

 

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After.

 

It’s not exactly a beautiful garden spot that would inspire young lovers but the whole corner looks much better and I could take it off my mind.

 

Strata site corner

 

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This is the finished product. A crew came through and they pruned the Euonymus alatus shrub on the left. Great. If you like average, that is. So what would a landscape professional do? What would you do?

One, there is still debris on top of the shrub and, unless it’s removed, it will turn brown and make the whole shrub look unsightly. Always check plant tops when pruning.

Two, there is a dead shrub in the corner and no wonder. It’s planted under a double under hang so it doesn’t get much water. So why keep it? Remove it.

Three, the shrub on the right has lots of dead in it so I pruned out most of it. I probably should have power sheared it.

Four, there are obvious weeds like snapweed (Cardamine oligosperma) which snap when they are mature and shoot out seeds everywhere. It’s a bad idea to let weeds produce seeds. The corner should have been weeded right away after pruning.

 

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After.

 

The photo above shows the finished product. There are two spikes still visible on top of the right shrub but overall it is much cleaner. Unfortunately, it took two service visits to get it to this condition. As the workers gain experience they too will be able to read the landscape better and give all corners the attention they deserve.

Summer dangers in the landscape

By | health and safety, landscape maintenance | No Comments

There I was raking out a bed and to get under a rhododendron I had to bend down and use my hands. Seconds later my left thumb was in excruciating pain. Then I quickly clued in: my hand had just passed over a ground nest full of wasps. So I hosed off  my thumb for several minutes, finished the day and left for home in a foul mood. My left hand was swelling up with every passing hour.

There are many dangers facing landscapers in the field and in summer, insects are danger number one. Still, this was my only sting all season. And as long as I can do my job, I ignore all wasps. It’s usually the residents that panic.

One week later I ran into a tree nest full of wasps which is much easier to detect when the wasps are flying in and out. And I was ready, too! I had my spray can ready so I gave it a nice shake and aimed it at the opening. Out came a lot of white foam.

 

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This is much easier to spot than….

 

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…a ground nest.

 

Here is the key point of this blog post: when you buy a spray can for wasps and hornets, buy the gluey stream type not foam.

The foam coated the opening and the entire part of the nest facing me. Some wasps even escaped from the opening. Two weeks later I found live wasps still inside the nest. This doesn’t happen with the glue type spray can. The toxic glue comes out in a steady stream and plugs up the nest opening. Case closed.

Hint: use goggles and pray that the wind is blowing away from you.

I waited for two weeks before removing the nest. When I examined it, I found two wasps still alive inside. Hours later the pest control technician found some nest leftovers and questioned me about it. Most likely I had just prevented him from generating a fat invoice. Safety first!

Late summer wasp problems are common in landscaping so be careful. And if you buy a spray can to control the insects, do NOT buy the foam version.

 

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Buy this type of spray, NOT foam.

 

Nothing to do on site: how to bust this myth

By | landscape maintenance, weeds | No Comments

This is my favourite myth of all: there is a landscape site or garden with nothing to do on it; it’s that perfect. As an expert in strata (multi-family complex) landscape sites, I find this extremely laughable because landscapes grow and evolve. Depending on the season you’re in, there is always maintenance work to be done.

Two types

I find two types of foremen who confidently assert that there is nothing to do on their sites. One is the outright lazy, disengaged person and the other is too new to know better. Usually, it’s the newly promoted landscape crew leader or foreman who fails to read his landscape.

And this happens more than you think.

Details

Say, it’s July and the site doesn’t want you to mow weekly. Perfect! That means you can take care of details you wouldn’t normally have time for. I love these situations; I embrace them because there is ALWAYS work on site.

Just think details and you’ll start seeing lots of work om site. Below are some examples of what to look for. You will find others in your garden or on your strata site. Learn to read your landscape as you develop what’s called a landscape eye. It takes time so obviously new foremen struggle at first. I often take them on site walks to point out little details and I do it gently. It’s a learning experience. So try it in your garden or on your strata site.

 

Weeds

There are always weeds on site, especially in lower profile corners. The groundcover in the bed below is full of weeds.

 

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Weeds, there are always weeds.

 

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Oh my, invasive Knotweed covered by invasive morning glory.

 

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This shrub is screaming for a small circle well.

 

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This makes it obvious for lawn care people.

 

Knotweed

This border patch of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is an obvious candidate for removal. As in top removal because the actual weed is difficult to remove permanently. It’s so bad, some green waste facilities don’t even accept it.

 

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Super invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)

 

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Knotweed detail.

 

Missed pruning debris on top of plants is a common problem so hand-pick the dead brown parts now that they are easy to spot.

 

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Dead debris on a yew (Taxus).

 

Watering is for your clients to do but if you have extra time and you see a complete yew hedge struggling then you can spend some time on it. This hedge is clearly struggling so I reconnected the drip line and hand-watered everything. The drip-line should be left on for hours.

 

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A yew hedge with disconnected drip line irrigation line.

 

There is no such thing as perfect landscape without any work in it; it’s a myth. Look for details and you will find them. Acquiring good “landscape eye” skills takes time.

How aphids get tulip trees in trouble

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

I don’t normally buy the Vancouver Sun because they discontinued their garden column but a story last Friday caught my eye. The title read “Aphid secretions shower property with sticky goo.” Friday, August 3, 2018 Vancouver Sun.

The problem

I have some experience with this issue so I had fun reading about this East Vancouver case. Every summer aphids descend on tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) and feed on their leaves. But since aphids can’t process sugars, they secrete them and the sticky honeydew lands on cars, driveways, etc. The affected couple in the story complained about having to wash their car and their difficulty of moving their baby carriage. The sticky honeydew also attracts wasps which freaks out most new parents.

 

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Tulip tree leaf underside covered in aphids.

 

 

The City of Vancouver allegedly once brought them ladybugs, the aphids’ natural predators. This is what amazed me in 2017 and inspired me to pen a blog post about it: people paying after-tax dollars for ladybugs in the store and releasing them on their trees. One major issue is telling the ladybugs to stay on your tree. Because they move around it’s not an effective tactic.

Solution?

In the past, the couple in the story purchased their own ladybugs “but it made little difference”. So now they want the city to spray or remove the tree. I believe that would be very harsh treatment for this beautiful tree because aside from the many ecosystem services it provides, it also has beautiful flowers.

Luckily, the City of Vancouver knows that removal would cost $1000.00 per tree plus extra costs for replanting. There isn’t enough budget for projects like this which is good news for the tree.

 

Conclusion

While I understand the hassle of sticky honeydew, let’s remember the many ecosystem services trees provide for free. I especially love the tulip tree flowers which come out as the trees leaf out. Complete removal because of aphids would be horrible. Perhaps a picture of one tulip tree flower will distract you from aphids and city help lines.

 

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Liriodendron tulipifera flowers steal the show.

 

Lessons from strata owner meltdown

By | Education, landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

On large strata (multi-family) complexes you can expect to get some negative feedback during the season. Normally it’s addressed as soon as possible and if you’re lucky, the strata unit gets educated. But how do you handle a full-blown meltdown?

Keep it cool

Definitely keep it cool. For me it’s easier now that I am a supervisor of a certain age but it’s never pleasant. So, first, take a look at the picture below. What do you notice?

 

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Obviously, the lawn is dormant because it’s early August on the West Coast and the lawns aren’t irrigated. You will also notice pockets of new soil and seed.

Now, the owner of the unit (remember he owns his house, the lawn belongs to the complex) came out storming about the bad condition of his lawn. So I told him it needed water and that set him off. He told me there was no need to be rude; he was 55 and well-aware that lawns required water! Really?

Here I took a deep breath and insisted that there wasn’t anything rude about my comments. For the lawn to look green during an early August heat-wave and for the seed to germinate he had to water his lawn thoroughly several times a week.

Incidentally, if you’re new to the West Coast, dormant lawns will green up with fall rains.

Still red in the face, the man showed me his broken hose nozzle and insisted one of our workers stepped on it. So I sucked it up and bought a new nozzle for $20, tax-included.

There were some other complaints that don’t need to be listed here. They should have been sent to the strata.

 

Lessons

Obviously, getting through the whole year without any complaints would be ideal but some sites are huge and they’re populated by all sorts of people. So what lessons can we draw from this blog post?

a) There will be some negative feedback no matter how well your season goes. When strata councils change you can expect even more hassles as new members try to put their stamp on things. At this complex the strata council is new.

b) Strata owners should go through their strata councils and management companies. Assaulting landscape workers on site is not the proper way to handle it.

c) Non-irrigated West Coast lawns will most likely go dormant during the hottest parts of summer. Don’t panic because they will recover with fall rains.

d) Keep calm and stay polite because you represent your company. But don’t be afraid to educate your clients. Clearly, the owner knows about lawn watering but he isn’t doing it. His new soil and seed were dry. I watched him water later and it can best be described as a gentle sprinkle. I wasn’t about to show him how to water his lawn properly. He’s 55, he can figure it out. (The lawn requires a nice deep soaking a few times a week; always follow any municipal watering restrictions.)

e) Let it go. I’ve had to learn to let go of things as a supervisor. I answered all questions where I could, I bought a new nozzle, took pictures and notes, and notified my vacationing boss. Writing this blog post is therapy.

European chafer beetle battles: critical June-July

By | landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

This past June as I walked to my car in the morning I noticed a fat European Chafer beetle heading for the nearby lawn. Of course! June is the time the beetles fly into nearby trees to mate and then head back to delicious-looking lawns to deposit their young.

June

The European Chafer beetles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’re stuck with them. I could have stepped on the beetle with my Stihl boots but that would have been a nasty start to my day. So instead of incorporating the beetle into the sidewalk, I observed her. Once she hit the lawn she disappeared very quickly.

 

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This picture sequence should remind you to order nematodes from your local garden centre. More on this later.

 

July 8, 2018

While helping my buddy with his wild backyard I turned over unused garden beds. And in the process I dug up many beetles and a few young grubs. The grubs will mature in lawns and beds before emerging as beetles next summer. And to mature they will feed on grass roots which in turn attracts animals. Crows, birds and raccoons will happily dig up your lawn looking for these juicy grubs.

 

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European chafer beetle larvae 2018.

 

What can you do?

Step one, take better care of your lawn. My buddy is way too busy to “baby” his lawn. He has previous chafer related lawn damage that never got fixed. All three municipalities in the Tri-Cities recommend raking over your damaged lawn and then applying topsoil and over-seeding with deep-rooted grass. Water your lawn daily unless there are watering restrictions in place. Once your lawn is established water 1-2 times per week. Keep your lawn at least 6 cm high and leave clippings on the lawn.

Step two is optional and it involves applying nematodes in the third week of July. The basic idea is for the microscopic nematodes to chase down the grubs and eat them from the inside. You can read my blog about the procedure. There is one catch which makes clients nervous: you will have to apply the nematodes every year.

 

The chafer beetles are here to stay but you can help your lawn by keeping it healthy.

 

 

 

The one key for mid-season pruning success

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning | No Comments

Late June on the West Coast means mid-season pruning and, depending on site size, there can be a lot of pruning to do. Especially woody shrub pruning. And while landscapers do a great job with pruning, I am finding that the clean-ups often don’t match the beautiful precise pruning work. If you want mid-season pruning success then the key is great clean-up.

 

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Pruned and cleaned-up Japanese holly (Ilex crenata).

 

Mid-season pruning 101

Most of the mid-season pruning involves shrubs which tend to push out new growth and make people panic. They also tolerate power shearing fairly well. One example is pictured below. Cornus (dogwood), Symphoricarpos albus (Common snowberry) and Ribes. All three are shrubs and tolerate shaping with power shears. Give them a few weeks and they will start to look like they were never pruned.

 

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Left to right: dogwood, snowberry and currant

 

For best results, always use good quality power shears with sharp blades. If you have lots to do, always bring a jerry can with you and keep it close by so there isn’t any unnecessary walking. Ear and eye protection is mandatory and I’m assuming everyone is always protected.

 

Exceptions

If you know your site well then this won’t be a problem. But when I prune on a new site for the first time I always ask about exceptions because they do exist. For example, some clients prefer more natural looking shrubs so you have to prune gently. Other exceptions are laurel hedge tops to be left almost untouched because they block parking stall car light beams.

 

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The KEY

I can not overemphasize this: great clean-up work that matches the pruning job is a must. I often have to go behind our crews and double-check because inevitably two big problems arise.

One problem is debris left on top. It looks fine on your pruning day but one week later you start noticing brown branches on top of green shrubs and hedges. And your clients notice, too. So always train your crews to pick debris off the tops.

 

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Note the debris left on top of the shrub. It will look way worse once it dries out and turns brown. Always check the tops after pruning.

 

Another problem is clean-up raking. This is where many workers struggle because they have to clean-up really well without removing too much soil; and they have to reach into tight spots which often gets very old. And quickly.

Again, it’s the foreman’s job to double-check before workers move on.

The ultimate sin is skipping clean-up altogether, say, in tight spaces between shrubs. There is no easy way to do the clean-up. It must match the pruning job.

Below are some examples of finished clean-up jobs. Yes, finished. It’s obvious the workers skipped the clean-up and the foreman didn’t check. The effect is horrific; it’s not even close to average when what we need is world class.

 

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Judging from the piles on the ground, this section was completely skipped.

 

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I have no idea how this pile got missed.

 

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Another “finished” section. Yes, it’s tedious but it must be done.

 

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Corrected.

 

 

Conclusion

Mid-season pruning can be extremely demanding, especially when sites are huge. The key to mid-season pruning success is perfect clean-ups. Nothing can be skipped and the aim should always be to match the clean-up with your pruning job quality. Aim for world class!