Category

landscape maintenance

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!

Surprising landscape corner with a twist

By | landscape maintenance, Species | No Comments

Strata (multi-family) sites come in all shapes and sizes and my job, all year, is to maintain their landscaping. And I’m rarely wowed or surprised as I work in the landscapes. But it can happen.

Corner garden

As I line trimmed around a corner I literally ran into a nice wave of yellow. What do you think?

 

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I love warm yellow colours and the Irises deliver lots of warmth. I also immediately noticed the Rodgersia in the background. Aside from its prominent flower spike, it sports tough leaves. I was first introduced to this plant when I worked under municipal gardener Tracy Mallinson.

 

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Rodgersia

 

I also noticed nice bed edges and a ball made out of driftwood.

Overall, this whole corner works for me. It was fun working around it and taking pictures of it on company time.

Twist

I posted my corner discovery in one Facebook group and many members liked the picture. Except for one friend, Heike Stippler, who is the ultimate green professional and owns her own Heike Designs business based in Whistler. Because she is also involved with the Invasive Species Council of BC she gently pointed out that the Irises above are invasives called Iris pseudocorus or Yellow flag iris. Bummer. I had no idea. I was just taken with the yellows.

Then I remembered that several seasons ago, while working in the Klahanies neighbourhood in Port Moody, British Columbia, I had to remove several Yellow flag Irises because they were close to a stream that empties into the Inlet and is currently populated by beavers. The resident who called in the removal request sounded like the world was ending.

Iris pseudocorus

For this section I am openly borrowing from the Invasive Species Council of BC website. As it turns out, I’m not the only person wowed by this yellow Iris. It’s a popular, eye-catching plant and allegedly sells well at nurseries and garden centres.

The problem is that this Iris forms dense stands in wet areas and pushes out native plants. When cattails, sedges and rushes are pushed out, birds lose nesting areas. The yellow flag iris can invade irrigation canals, ditches, shallow ponds and stream and lake shorelines.

Since the iris is invasive it makes sense that it reproduces quickly through seed dispersal and horizontal root systems.

 

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Iris pseudocorus: 3 sepals curve backward, 3 petals point up, mature plants can reach 1.5 m.

 

Conclusion

Be careful when you fall in love with a yellow Iris. One suggested alternative plant is Iris ‘Butter and sugar’. Since this spot is buried deep inside a huge strata complex and far from water it’s unlikely to invade anything but winds are unpredictable. I would consider replacement with some other plant just to be on the safe side.

When you have to top natives for size control

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

I hate topping trees and so does the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); they even publish pamphlets detailing why the practice of tree topping is bad. This blog post, however, shows two cases where topping was somewhat justified and forced.

It was forced because a) the strata client insisted that it be done and they pay the maintenance fees so all you can do is attempt to educate them and, b) the natives in question threatened to overwhelm the spaces they occupy.

 

Salix discolor

 

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Before height reduction, Salix discolor. Note its landscape use close to woodland in the background.

 

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This is our native willow and it’s technically a shrub. In this setting it’s used as woodland margin shrub. But there is one problem. It reaches 7m heights quickly and the owners don’t want to see it from their upstairs patio, preferring instead to look at the tall native Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

So I went in with an extendable chain saw, pole pruners, a ladder and my best friend, a Japanese hand saw. Remember, most tree work can be done with a good hand saw.

The idea was to bring the willow height down and it went fairly well although I was a bit frustrated with some of my cuts. The willow is very soft and if you fail to finish your cuts briskly then you risk bark peeling below your cut. But considering that this is a native shrub, I expect it to shoot out again after my assault.

 

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After picture.

 

 

Acer macrophyllum

 

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BC native Acer macrophyllum with 5 lobed leaves (3 lobes dominate). The leaves are, well, big!

 

I wasn’t very happy about being sent in to top a maple tree but what do you do when the backyard belongs to the in-coming strata president? One look at his backyard made me wonder if the big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) was planted or simply drifted in. If you could look to the right you would see giants of the same species in the woods. There the maples are left alone and they reach the regular 30m tall, 25m spread dimensions.

 

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There is not enough space for this native species which will reach 30m without topping.

 

Here it is clearly not the right tree species so topping it is somewhat justified except, of course, the tree will grow again and I have a feeling I will get to know it intimately as the seasons pile on.

Most of the work was done with a pole pruner with the exception of the biggest leader. That required a saw and some care because there is a planted garden under the tree.

The owner was happy with my work (of course!) but all I was thinking about was how the tree did not belong there.

 

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After topping picture.

 

 

Conclusion

Tree topping is a horrible idea but in some cases it has to get done. Please try to avoid it as much as possible. The big-leaf maple above will grow again which means I will get called in periodically to bring it down. The same is true for the willow which will eventually reach the upper patio sight lines.

 

Strata owners are addicted to flower colours!

By | landscape maintenance, Species | No Comments

When you work on strata title properties all week you notice two things. One is the repetition of plant material on all sites. And two, you notice the addition of bright flower colours by individual owners.

Repetition

If you read my blogs often you will know that I bring this up a lot. Trees and shrubs on our strata (multi-family) sites tend to repeat because they fit in with our mostly clay, acidic soils. I keep telling my new workers that, while this repetition might seem boring, it helps them with their plant identification skills. Once you learn Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ you will keep on seeing it elsewhere. Then you will see it bloom and discover its scent. And if your skills are decent, you will get to hand snip or power shear it. Then you move on to the next shrub or tree until your plant ID skills become first rate.

 

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May 15, 2018, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’. If you don’t notice the scent, get closer until you do. It’s not bad.

 

Power colours

As you work in various strata units you start noticing annuals and perennials with bright colours. That’s usually the work of female owners but I also confess to picking up cheap plants at RONA. Like Lithodora diffusa. I planted one on my patio and now when I see it in a garden I know what it is. No surprises. It barely cost a few bucks.

 

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Lithodora diffusa

 

Examples

It’s mid May 2018 now so let’s take a look at what other specimens are favoured by home-owners. You might want to get some for your own place.

 

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Osteospermum

 

 

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Dahlias are very popular!

 

 

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Dianthus, another popular plant. I know of one yard where the owners planted various cultivars of this plant. That’s love or obsession.

 

 

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Geranium, another quick and cheap way to add colour to your place.

 

 

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Poppies tend to spread but they look fine in afternoon sun. I love yellow.

 

 

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Alliums are also very popular but here it’s just one lonely specimen by the door.

 

 

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Monardas are nice!

 

 

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Clematis is a popular vine. Just keep the base of this climber cool.

 

 

Do you know how to handle installs with soil amender?

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

It’s always a great idea to top-dress any new plant installs with fresh and fluffy soil amender. The newly planted beds get an instant dark look and the plants benefit from having new soil amender close by. At roughly $30 per yard it’s money well spent.

Key idea

When you install fresh soil amender your bed looks nice and fluffy. Congratulations! But you must not forget that the soil amender will settle. I got a reminder of this recently when I had to re-do a bed where many plants were planted too high. What really happened was that the soil amender came in first before the plants; and the young dudes doing the plant install failed to properly account for settling.

 

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This Spirea japonica is clearly sitting too high after the amender settled.

 

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This is better.

 

When you bring the amender in from your local supplier it’s dark, fluffy and beautiful but eventually it settles as it loses it’s fluffiness. So if you’re planting in this kind of situation, remember to adjust for settling. Otherwise, you will be like me replanting several specimens that are clearly sticking up and showing their roots.

Native soil

It just so happened that I was installing new plants next door to this area and on this day the plants came first; then we brought in soil amender for top-dressing. This approach has obvious advantages. One, the plants are planted in native site soil, not in fresh soil amender; and two, the planting level is obvious so we don’t have to guess at future amender settling.

Once you’re done top-dressing, it’s always a good idea to water in your new plants. Also, if the soil amender is still warm, try not to pack it directly around the plant stems. Instead, leave a bit of space between the plant stems and soil amender.

 

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Finished plant install in native soil, before soil amender application.

 

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After soil amender and watering. This frequently used staircase area now looks much better.

 

 

Conclusion

Soil amender settles over time so try to plant in native soil and then top-dressing. Planting directly in soil amender means that your plants could be sticking out too much once the amender settles.

Always top dress your newly planted beds with soil amender because they look better and it benefits the plants. Water your new plants in.

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.