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landscape maintenance

Fighting obstructions

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Proper landscape maintenance requires good planning. Depending on the size of your site, there should be a clear rotation so that every corner of your property gets serviced.

Jumping helter-skelter through your sites could lead to disaster. And yet, as much as you try to stick to your plan, requests and emergencies can side track you.

Requests

Small owner requests should be done right away, unless strata approval is required. For example, you can’t remove a small landscape tree just because Mrs. Rose from unit 6 wants it gone. But, if she has a few big weeds by her entrance, take care of it right away.

Bigger requests should be noted and pushed to your next visit. Try not to stray from your plan for this week but do write it down so you don’t forget.

This happened to me recently at a new site. The owner had asked me to re-stake his Styrax japonicus tree but I didn’t have a staking kit. So I promised him I would take care of it next week but I failed to write it down. Then I was slightly red-faced when he asked me about it the following week. Always write down requests that can’t be done on the same day.

The tree is now re-staked.

 

Emergency obstructions

Some tasks are more urgent. Like the exit walkway pictured below. As soon as I saw it, I knew it had to get done today. It’s just too annoying for people accessing the building.

 

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The big branch belongs to a mature Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) and it’s leaning on a vine maple (Acer circinatum). Since I didn’t have an extendable chainsaw, I pulled down the big branch and used a hand saw. It’s not pretty but at least the residents will not suffer any injuries.

 

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Much better.

 

Take care of walkway obstructions right away.

 

Can you handle landscape requests?

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When you work on multi-family strata complex landscapes all week you are bound to get a few requests. Can you handle that? Of course you can. This is how it’s done.

Plan

Don’t let owner requests derail your plan for the day. Yes, I know, sometimes the owners make it sound like the world is ending; and they leave you thinking that their medication ran out. So just note the request details, unit number and name.

If it’s something really simple then do it right away. Today, for example, we had a shrub sticking out of the ground so we got a shovel and replanted it. Easy fix.

If the request is more time consuming, make a note of it and do it as soon as you can.

 

One example

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Plant separation required here.

 

The owner freaked out about this Spirea japonica and Sarcococca marriage. I took several deep breaths and assured her that I would fix it as soon as I could. But not today because we had too much to do. Since I know this unit well, I didn’t have to write anything down.

I like plant separation but this is hardly a disaster. If anything, it’s a good sign because both plants are doing well. The Sarcococca will push out fragrant flowers in February when nothing much is happening in the landscape. Spirea japonica is a summer shrub and it has decent fall colour as well.

The fix

It took only a few minutes for me to hand snip the Spirea down by half. Don’t worry, I’ve done it before. It will push out again in spring. I also pulled out any Sarcococca runners that were too close to the Spirea.

 

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All done!

 

Don’t worry about client requests. Instead, be happy you can interact with your clients. Write down the details and do it as soon as you can. If it’s small, do it right away because your speed and attention will impress them.

Landscape install fails from 2018

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I love soft landscape installations with soil and plants because this kind of work breaks up my usual maintenance routine. Normally, everything goes well but this blog post examines two fails from 2018.

When I do all of the work I feel responsible for it. So when,  months later, I find out that things didn’t work out I need to know why. Let’s take a look.

 

Racetrack Dahlias

I remember this awesome morning well because my job was to plant Dahlias at a horse racetrack. First, I had to remove the dead plants in the planters.

 

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Preparations for new flowers in the winner’s circle.

 

Second, I installed new Dahlias; long-stemmed on top and short-stemmed on the bottom.

 

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All Dahlias are planted; only watering and clean-up remain.

 

Everything fit nicely and I had more than enough plants so I also planted some Dahlias into pots. As I worked, many of the female trainers commented on how nice it was to get some colour this close to the racetrack. Of course it was!

 

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What worried me was the large truck which came by periodically, spraying the racetrack with a liquid I assumed was water to keep the dust down. I suspect it wasn’t straight water.

Once the plants were installed, I top-dressed everything with new soil to give the planters a nice dark look; and to give the plants a little kick because the existing soil looked spent.

The last step involved watering. I found a long hose but I had to track down the building maintenance dude to get a water key. Once I watered the planters, I also hosed off the concrete. This is consistent with good landscape maintenance: always leave your work area clean so the clients don’t even notice your presence.

 

Fail!

Sadly, several weeks later, the live Dahlias had to be replaced with plastic flowers. Like most plants, they needed regular watering. I also suspect that the original soil in the planters was weak. And the racetrack dust also can’t be good for the plants. I didn’t ask but I suspect that the racetrack spraying isn’t done with normal water. There might be additives that help keep the dust down.

 

Water

Like people, plants require water to function properly. The second fail involved a cedar hedge request. Here the case is 99% clear, the owners didn’t water the new cedars, even though a hose was available by the door.

I bought the plants, installed them and watered them in. The rest was up to the owner.

Months later I arrived on site and I was crushed because only a few specimens were still green. And while I am not responsible for watering, I did consider this project a waste of money and effort. New cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) are very thirsty.

 

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I have no idea what will replace these dead cedars. I can’t imagine the owners would request more of them.

 

Conclusion

You always do your absolute best with landscape installation projects but there will be a few fails. Overall, 2018 was a great season for new installs. These two fails bothered me for a while but instead of dwelling on them, I wrote a blog post about them. That’s cheaper than therapy.

Plants require water just like people so always water-in your newly installed plants.

 

The last service before Christmas

By | landscape maintenance, Seasonal | No Comments

The last week of service before the Christmas break requires focus. Most people have holidays on their minds but it’s very important to leave your landscapes looking sharp. This is how you do it.

Simple

Keep it simple. This is a bad time for major projects and heavy pruning. This type of work should be written down in your notebook for January. So what do we do? We check all high-profile entrances and walkways; and inside roadways.

Today I raked out the top boulevard of my site, including leafy debris behind the hedges. Since residents, neighbours and holiday visitors use and drive-by the boulevard, it should look sharp. And today it did.

I did a little bit of hand snipping on the tops of Pieris japonica shrubs. Very lightly, just to take out the spiky growth. Unless you live in the complex, you can’t tell the shrubs were topped.

 

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Before: note the spikes on top.

 

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After: it still looks natural after pruning.

 

Backpack blow

Once my raking was done, I blew the entire site. This is a perfect time for a good, detailed blow. I normally hurry to get this noisy task out of the way but not today. Today everything got blown: the inside roadways, patios and lawns. I also blew the forest buffer zone where leafiness tends to accumulate.

After pile pick-up I hit a few weedy patches and touched up some deep edges.

The hardest part of the day was cleaning up the garden liaison’s garden. She has a Japanese-style garden and does her own maintenance but I had to clean-up cedar clippings from a few weeks ago. Cedar pruning always generates secondary drop and here I had to hand pick the clippings from inside her Hellebores. Carefully.

Note that this sort of work shouldn’t be delegated to your helpers unless they’re experienced and follow directions well. The previous company pruned the liaison’s cedar hedges too hard; and they’re no longer under contract with this strata!

Final check

I walked the small site at the end of the day to double-check everything. I also noted work tasks for the new year. When I pulled out from the site I was satisfied that it was clean for Christmas.

Happy holidays!!

 

 

Another classic residential pruning job

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The title of this blog post says ‘classic’ because the home owner was on a budget and had clearly let her hedges go wild. And now she was desperate to reclaim some space and light from her Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica).

This is common with homeowners. They start out with huge ambitions but a few years later they get overwhelmed and call in professionals. Then you don’t hear from them again for several seasons which is a mistake. Good, regular maintenance is best. I could tell from the garden weeds that not much happens around the patio other than smoking.

 

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The list

Luckily, the lady was still home when I arrived so we could talk about the work and her expectations. This is extremely important so you avoid any nasty misunderstandings.

The list was easy for an experienced landscaper:

  1. Prune large fence line hedge (Prunus lusitanica) but only “tickle” the tops so neighbours aren’t visible from the patio
  2. Prune the globe hard, especially off the gutters
  3. Clean up the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) by the window
  4. Remove one dead cedar (Thuja occidentalis) by the patio stairs
  5. Blow the leaves off the front lawn and from under the large hedge

 

Pruning

The pruning is easy when you have sharp shears; and the laurel is fairly soft, too. The only glitch was the slick wooden patio in the back. There was no way to anchor the ladder peg. Luckily I found a cement block under the hedge.

 

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Safety first!

 

Clean-ups

If you read my blogs regularly -and you should!- you will know that I harp on doing great clean-ups that match the pruning effort. Poor clean ups detract from your pruning work. Always clean up well.

Final courtesy blow is a given. I left the residence feeling happy with my effort. I just wonder how many seasons they will let it go before calling me back. Regular maintenance is best! I can’t stress that enough.

 

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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

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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

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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

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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.