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Landscaping

Can you handle boxwood aroma?

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Last spring one strata owner approached me regarding boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens) by her front door. Allegedly they smelled bad and she wanted them removed. Yeah, sure. Once she shut the door I bent down and smelled the green foliage. The aroma was completely neutral: I didn’t love the smell nor did I detest it enough to pull the plants. Then a new foreman took over the site and I forgot about it.

Now let’s fast forward to spring 2018. After making landscape upgrades at one of our sites, one corner unit had a new boxwood hedge installed by their front door. It looked great but the owner’s wife couldn’t handle the smell!? So we had to pull the boxwoods and replace them with dwarf cedars.

 

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These “smelly” offenders were removed and replaced.

 

I couldn’t believe it. There it was again: female occupant unable to handle the smell of her boxwood hedge. And a new blog post was born because I had to look this up.

Searching for aroma

According to one internet source, boxwoods get their scent when the sun heats up the oil in their leaves. I find that I have to get really close to the plant to smell anything. And there are people who compare the boxwood scent to cat urine. Others get reminded of their time spent in gardens. Personally, I fall into a neutral category: I don’t find the scent attractive, nor do I detest it. I simply notice the plants.

Buxus

Boxwoods are great! They can be sheared into formal hedges and they stay green all year. In one case four owners got together and they replaced tired-looking Heathers with boxwoods.

 

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Note the pile of discarded Heathers.

 

 

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Buxus

 

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So what can you do if you want to avoid boxwood aroma issues? For one, don’t install Buxus sempervirens by front doors or by any frequently used area in your landscape. And two, plant Buxus microphylla which doesn’t sport the same offensive aroma. Finally, you can replace the boxwoods with something else.

 

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The switch is completed.

 

 

The key idea is that everything depends on your own sense of smell. Some find the boxwood aroma unbearable and some get reminded of the happy times they spent in gardens. So next time you see boxwoods, bent down and smell them.

You can also learn about boxwoods by joining the American Boxwood Society.

 

 

How I spent an afternoon with dandelions

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Dandelions (Taraxacum offcinale) didn’t become unwanted weeds until the twentieth century, probably just as green lawns became the norm for detached houses. Ted Steinberg shows us how the whole quest for perfect lawns happened in his book “American green.” This blog post will show you that you can actually have some fun pulling dandelions from your lawn.

 

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Taraxacum offinale

 

Strata setting

Stratas or multi-family complexes also demand lush green lawns so that’s why I got to pull dandelions one afternoon from high-profile front lawns. And after mowing for four hours straight, it was a welcomed cool-down task.

The yellow dandelions stick out too much and kill the green monoculture look so they have to go. And I had a great, sunny afternoon at work pulling them out.

Fiskars tool

This was also my first time using and testing Fiskar’s weeding tool which promises easy weeding without bending over. Great. The tool worked perfectly fine but allegedly some of the other units fell apart quickly.

Step 1

The unit has a plastic orange slider which gets the tool ready like a one-shot gun. Pull it up and get ready to aim.

Step 2

Aim the tool right over the dandelion leaf rosette and plunge it in. You need good aim and decent soil. Our lawns were fine so forcing the tool in was relatively easy. My aim took a bit of time, especially when the plant was smaller. I still had to bend over to pick up leftovers and pull out very stubborn specimens.

Step 3

Step on the black plastic bar. This tilts the tool and pulls up your dandelion, assuming your aim was good. No bending over required.

 

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Step on the black bar to pull out the weed without bending over.

Step 4

Move the plastic orange bar down to release the captured weed. This step reminds me of removing a spent gun shell. Definitely use a tarp for your weeds unless you’re mowing the lawn right after. I brought a wheelbarrow with me.

 

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Slide the orange bar down to eject the captured weed.

 

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Cool plant

According to Wikipedia, in the past gardeners used to weed grass from around dandelions. How things have changed. I remember playing with dandelions as a kid but now as a landscape professional I’m not allowed to tolerate them in the landscape.

I knew you could make tea from dandelion roots because once I bought a box and actually drank the tea. And you can eat every part of the plant. The roots are best consumed in late fall or winter when they’re not as bitter. Both flower buds and leaf rosettes can be eaten.

I don’t want to list all of the health benefits here but let’s just say dandelions contain a lot of good stuff. I think they’re amazing plants.

 

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The entire plant is edible!

 

For people who wonder what a classic landscaping day looks like

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If you’re considering a career in landscaping or you just wonder what landscapers do all day, I’m here to help. It’s not all about lawn care. There are many other seasonal tasks landscapers perform. Take my day from last week. It was classic. We installed 6 yards of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) mulch, then 3.5 yards of 1-3″ round granite rocks and then, to cool down, we built up lawns with 6 yards of lawn and garden mix soil followed by the planting of boxwoods (Buxus).

 

A new raised bed

This raised bed was full of weak laurels (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken‘) and the strata asked for a thick layer of mulch and rocks on top. Sure. The mulch is nice and light and it smells great. This was the highlight of my morning. I wheelbarrowed most of the six yards into position.

 

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Douglas fir mulch. It’s light and smells great.

 

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Almost finished.

 

Then came the hard part. The 1-3″ round granite rocks are obviously heavier and they don’t smell great. But it had to get done.

 

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Not shown are decorative rocks that were placed in this bed at regular intervals in groups of three.

 

Lawn build-up

After lunch we turned to lawn build-up. This involves covering existing lawns with a nice layer of lawn and garden soil mix which contains a large percentage of sand. Once you move it in, you rake it out nicely and then run a rolling pin over it to get it level and ready for overseeding.

 

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To build-up this tired lawn we required several yards of soil.

 

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Ready for Boxwood planting and overseeding.

 

Boxwoods

Planting boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens) is easy. The only challenge is not messing up the new soil with mulch from the plant pots. I placed a tarp nearby to help me. If you do this at home, definitely water in your new plants.

 

Vents

The lawn patches under the vents struggle as the constant air streaming dries out the grass. So we dug it up and put in leftover road base. Then we placed extra rocks from the new raised bed job on top of it. There, another permanent solution to a nagging lawn problem. The rocks won’t care one bit how much air streams over them.

 

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The grass under this vent struggled all year so removed the top layer.

 

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Next came road base layer because we had some leftover.

 

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The rock on top finished the job and now we don’t have to worry about struggling lawns.

 

Conclusion

This was an awesome, sunny and busy landscaping day. The hours just flew by and the site looks much better. We created a new raised bed, built-up tired looking lawns, replaced dead boxwoods and we solved a nagging problem. Not a bad day.

 

How you can use Berberis thunbergii as a green barrier

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Prickly plants can be used as green barriers in the landscape to discourage people from entering certain spaces. I was reminded of this recently when I was sent to a strata (multi-family) complex to install Berberis thunbergii plants. My task was to plant a row of plants at the top of a wall because the strata council was hoping to discourage kids from playing on top of it. Aha. There you go. It’s not just about pretty flowers. Plants can be used for specific functions. In this case to deter young kids from playing on top of a wall.

Why Berberis?

There’s lots to like about Berberis thunbergii. For one, the purple foliage is very attractive. Berberis also flowers nicely but the flowers aren’t super showy. The plants also splash out nicely in arches and they tolerate shearing.

One important key is that the plants do well in our Lower Mainland landscapes once they’re established. But how do they deter kids from playing? Well, the plants sport soft prickles that hurt just enough to discourage you from brushing your body parts against them but not so much as to cause deep gashes and bleeding. It’s a perfect plant for this situation. We had enough prickle collisions when we planted, I imagine the kids will also have some fun.

 

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Berberis thunbergii, attractive foliage and soft prickles ready to meet any juvenile trespassers.

 

Step one

First, my apprentice and I had to remove the struggling Mahonia aquifolium plants which, incidentally, sport prickly leaf margins. Also note that I kept the best looking specimens and re-used them at a bare boulevard bed. I hate throwing out decent plants.

 

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If you’re lucky enough to have a 4th-year apprentice to help you, squeeze him hard!

 

Step two

Planting the Berberis thunbergii wasn’t very easy because woodland setting means tree roots and moss. Always massage the plant roots before planting. We don’t normally have time to water in our new plants but the ground was wet and rain was in the forecast. And remember, Berberis thunbergii is a champ, that’s why we use it. As the plants grow they will fill out and form a nice barrier.

Step three

Whenever possible, use soil amender to top dress your new planting. It gives it a new black look and it gives the plants a nice kick with new soil. And remember to top dress only. Always backfill your planting holes with the native soil you excavated.

Step four

Clean up nicely with a blower and broom. Always leave your work site in great shape. If you read this blog regularly you will already know that.

 

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All done! Planted, top-dressed and cleaned-up.

 

Step five

Re-plant the rejected plants elsewhere. I did this on a boulevard bed which was mostly bare and it made me happy to see the plants salvaged and given space to grow.

 

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Unwanted Mahonia aquifolium and Nandina domestica were replanted in this almost bare bed.

 

 

Conclusion

Berberis thunbergii is a great plant to use if you need a decent plant barrier to discourage people from entering a certain space in your landscape. The prickles are hard enough to discourage trespassing and soft enough to not cause deep gashes and profuse bleeding.

 

 

On transforming tired landscapes

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It’s always fun to see tired landscapes rejuvenated. It just takes some strata council resolve and a bit of budget. And assuming you use perennials, your new landscape should be fine for years. Check out the example below and see what you think.

 

Tired landscape

 

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There isn’t much to look at. The lawn is mossy, tiny and lacking deep edge definition. There are three dead Pieris japonicas, and one still functioning native kinnikinnick groundcover plant (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). This whole corner bed is ripe for re-editing.

 

Step 1 Preparation

Start over and toss everything out! Bring in new plants and lay them out before planting. Note that all new plants are perennials. They should live for many seasons, assuming they are watered enough so they can get established in their new home.

 

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Step 2 Planting!

 

This is the fun part. Once the layout is approved you can plant. Only the green Sedums by the curb were tricky. They are succulents and easily break off.  The back corner plant is Berberis thunbergii, the reddish clumps are Spirea japonicas, the two light plants are fountain grasses (Pennisetum) and there is one sedge (Carex) on each end. The focal plant is Japanese willow (Salix).

 

 

 

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Step 3 River rock

The strata asked for and received 1-3″ river rock. Again, this step had to be done carefully. The Sedums would break off if they were hit by river rocks so care had to be taken to place the rocks around the plants. If you can, hose off the river rock so it looks better. This also helps the plants. A final clean-up blow completes the project.

 

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Now go back to the before picture and compare. I think this new version is much better. And all it took was a few brave strata council members and a bit of budget.

Landscapes aren’t static. They change and evolve. It’s OK to be the agent of change. Try new things and experiment. It doesn’t always cost a lot of money.

Lady Di: Grandiflora Rose

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I don’t get to work with nice roses very often. Most of the time I have to cut back Rosa rugosa specimens because they are suckering and spreading out of control. Usually it’s raining so my rain gear gets all torn up by its rough thorns.

Lady Di

Recently I got to install Grandiflora rose called Lady Di. That’s more like it. Finally some class!

The potted roses displayed wax on their canes and I had no idea why. That’s how little I work with roses. So I googled it and found out that wax on roses is used to prevent them from drying out during transportation or while they sit on the shelf. No action is required because the wax will eventually fall off.

 

Rose details

 

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Grandiflora rose showing wax on its canes.

According to the tag, this rose variety produces bouquets of perfectly formed soft coral pink flowers. Great. I can’t wait to see them. The glossy green foliage is allegedly also spectacular.

The Grandiflora rose is expected to reach the height of 3-4′ and I hope there is enough room in the skinny front beds where we planted them. Since the rose has strong fragrance it should keep the owners happy.

 

Planting

Our small front beds have trees in them so I expected some push-back from tree roots but overall we managed fine. The one interesting twist is planting depth. To properly plant this rose, you have to make sure the branch union (the big fist-like base from which the canes shoot out) is planted slightly below ground level.

We are also advised to keep the soil moist throughout the growing season. Spacing between roses should be 60cm or 24″. Plant Lady Di in full or partial sun, not in shade.

 

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Ready for planting.

 

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Planted. Note how the branch union is covered by soil. The wax will fall off eventually. Now we just keep it watered and wait for the flowers and fragrance.

Why landscape professionals lose sleep

By | Landscaping, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Sometimes I see craziness in the landscape and it stays on my mind for so long, I lose sleep. Below are some examples of cases which could have been prevented by a bit of extra care. Yes, I know, the world didn’t end but still I want to see beautiful, healthy landscapes that have the ability to uplift people.

 

Spring show

 

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Not much of a show, is it? This is a recently taken over site and a high-profile access spot. Considering the poor tulip show I am almost certain this bulb install is more than one season old. If it isn’t then the bulbs must have been planted at varying depths which would cause them to come up at different times.

Unlike daffodils, which come back every year nicely and can therefore be naturalized, tulips aren’t as reliable after one season. It’s best to pull them and re-do the design. That’s my plan for this fall.

 

Sidewalk edging

 

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This is horrific lawn care work. Obviously, this boulevard hasn’t been bladed in a long time and I wonder why. All it takes is one machine and a new blade to fix. This is a high-profile boulevard and the edging should be sharp. Perhaps the contractor considered it to be city responsibility. Pictures like this transform into nightmares while I sleep.

 

Watering

 

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Whenever I install new plants I feel responsible for their well-being. Here, I installed Portuguese laurels (Prunus lusitanica) as replacement for cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’). The owners were advised to water frequently so the shrubs could establish well. Overall they are doing well but this poor specimen isn’t.

 

Butchered trees

 

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Many landscape maintenance contracts run twelve months but some only ten. When the contractor is gone for two months some owners take liberties with strata property. We found this stump when our maintenance contract resumed.

This is very wrong. The cuts are so severe the tree is bound to notice and send out many shoots to compensate, assuming it has enough resources to do it. Also, cuts over 4″ in diameter heal badly and are likely to invite diseases into the tree. Lastly, this sort of ‘pruning’ destroys the tree’s natural shape and beauty.

You can either prune it properly or remove it completely. This work is horrendous.

 

Poor drainage

 

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Lots of clay.

 

Our West Coast soils have lots of clay in them which means they drain poorly. I know of one site which is very bad for drainage. The strata council spent thousands on French drains and sand top-dressing.

But as I learned at a recent VanDusen Botanical Garden seminar, sand just sits on top of the clay. It has no effect on it. Much better approach would be to top-dress the lawns with organic material which could potentially break up or loosen the clay. I’m hoping next year this is what the strata council tries instead of more sand.

Top dressing with sand is expensive, labour intensive and it doesn’t work.

 

There you have it. I’m hoping that by posting this blog I will be able to let go and thus sleep better at night. I want to dream about spring and all of its glory.

 

 

Installing a 4′ cedar hedge is a breeze

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

Putting up a quick cedar hedge barrier can be a breeze. I did it last week in between two yards where one side needs to keep a dog in check. The dog is fine, it’s the owner that fails to pick up after it. But this blog post is about planting a quick cedar hedge, not about suspicious dog owners.

Size

Small size is key because a four foot cedar can be easily purchased at your local Home Depot for $18. Anything larger will require a longer trip to a nursery and higher costs. So let’s assume four foot cedars (Thuja occidentalis) are fine.

Now, when you go to your local Home Depot bring your patience with you. It took me forever to order and pay for 13 4′ cedars. The cashier didn’t have the code so she sent a young dude outside to get one. I could have memorized the entire sales flyer in the time it took him to get back.

Outside, another young dude had trouble counting to 13. He loaded up more than I had paid for and then hopped around the back of my truck recounting and off-loading. So of course, I had to recount everything myself.

Planting

The cedars looked a bit dry. It’s always nice if you can soak the pot before planting. For my project I had a T-formation with 6 and 7 cedars. Normally, people dig a hole and then place their tree inside and so on. But when you plant a full line, it’s best to dig up the entire trench. You can then place the trees in and assess. Is your spacing OK and line straight? If not, it’s easy to adjust the plants without any extra digging.

 

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Before.

 

 

When you remove the tree from its pot, don’t be afraid to rough up the root ball. Gently massage the roots with your fingers. If fingers don’t help, use your snips and cut top to bottom to loosen up the roots. It looks a bit rough but trust me, do it.

Once your cedars are set as a new hedge, backfill the trench with the same soil. If you must bring in new fresh soil, only use it to top-dress at the end.

Watering after install is always a good idea and so is removing any tags from the cedars. New baby cedars are thirsty so keep checking on them. They have to get established and high summer temperatures are coming soon. Don’t neglect this step.

Clean-up

Clean-up is also critical. Now that you have a nice new cedar hedge let’s not spoil the show. Collect all plant tags and plastic pots. Recycle everything if possible. Then blow or rake up any excess soil from surrounding lawn or whatever is nearby.

I also used a small rake to even out the soil and to obliterate my boot prints.

 

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After.

 

Conclusion

Planting a new 4 foot cedar hedge can be a breeze. Just follow the steps above and don’t forget to keep watering the plants as temperatures shoot up in spring and summer. Young cedars are very thirsty.

 

 

Oak tree versus artificial turf

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

It pays to join green Facebook groups because once in a while you run into interesting landscaping cases. Like the case of an oak tree versus artificial turf.

While I am not a fan of plastic grass I will show in a future blog that there are some legitimate cases where artificial turf makes sense. More on that later. For now all we need to know is that the artificial turf install was done well. It was done in Europe in an English-speaking country obsessed with royals. See the picture below.

Poor oak

I understand the landscape installer tried to get a tree removal permit but the local authorities wouldn’t have it. So the oak stayed (yes!) but the artificial turf still went all around it.

I’m convinced that trees and artificial turf don’t mix well. Here’s why.

a) Trees rely on surficial roots to obtain water and nutrients and this root network often extends far beyond the drip line. The oak in this example was left with a small square at its base, the rest of the area got artificial turf. This will make it extremely difficult for the tree to obtain all of its required resources.

b) Artificial turf usually involves the use of compactor machines and soil compaction around tree bases is deadly. Once the soil gets compacted it’s difficult for the tree roots to obtain resources. Water will just run off instead of penetrating into the soil. Soil compaction is a silent tree killer.

This install didn’t use any stone crush base and it’s not completely clear if the soil was compacted with a machine. Any landscape work around the tree base is detrimental. The bare soil must have been graded before turf install.

c) Artificial turf heats up! I know this because my son plays soccer. If the turf can heat up my son’s modern plastic cleats, imagine what it does to the soil below. Soils under artificial turf die. My poor son suffered during his match because the host soccer club failed to water the turf. Who will help the poor oak?

 

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Conclusion

It takes time for trees to decline and die. I don’t like this oak tree’s chances. I’m convinced that landscape trees and artificial turf don’t mix well. You can have one or the other but not both.

 

Some landscape installs come with challenges: yew privacy screen install

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We already know from my recent blog posts that fall is a great time for landscape installation projects. Cooler temperatures and moisture in the fall are good for plants; and the fall is a bit slower once we get over the maximum leaf drop on our sites and in our gardens.

Privacy screen

Privacy is a common problem. New owners move into their unit just as we remove dead cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘). Now their windows are exposed just above a walkway and we have a problem. The husband is a nice guy but the wife can compose letters to strata that would make a construction worker blush.

So a quote is submitted to strata council and approved quickly so the problem goes away. I was the lucky installer on a sunny fall day. It just so happened that the site was a challenge.

 

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It’s not perfect cover for windows yet but give it some time.

 

Cedars vs Yews

The heat waves our landscapes have been subjected to in recent summers have been hard on our cedar hedges. Most strata owners are too busy to water their plants and regular weekly landscape work visits don’t allow for watering.

Thus, the switch to yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’) which are considered hardier. They make nice hedges and sport red berries. But they are more expensive than cedars so it’s a strain on strata budgets when many cedars die.

Access

I got a bit sweaty walking the thirteen potted specimens up the back walkway and I loved it. It served as training. Access is another common hassle. Same for soil conditions. Since the soil closest to the edge was mostly clay, I was forced to off-set the yew row just a bit. Not that it’s a huge problem.

The soil was very wet and I had to be careful with irrigation pipes. Another challenge was soil volume. As soon as stuck my shovel in, I hit landscape fabric. Not good. I had to make adjustments.

Planting

 

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Not the best conditions: soggy soil, clay edge, ledge and low soil volume.

 

One adjustment involved removing the yews from their pots and cleaning off soil from the bottom of the root balls. This allowed me to plant the yews in their somewhat shallow planting holes. Also, don’t forget to rough-up the roots before planting so they stop circling.

The second adjustment involved moving in some soil. There were at least two specimens with exposed root balls so the extra soil levelled everything off nicely. Remember, when backfilling your planting holes, always use the existing soil. A very common mistake is backfilling planting holes with new soil. It looks great but water will find it easier to move into the new soil. It will then cause soil saturation and your yew will turn into a joystick. Who knows which way it will fall?

Remember the soil we cleaned off from the bottom of the root balls? I saved it and used it to top-dress the finished yew line. It gave it a nicer look.

One last step: blow off the muddy ledge below the yews. Always clean-up as best as you can. Weekend rain will water the yews in nicely. I wish them well. I always feel responsible for the health of my plantings.

 

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This is a nice change from brown cedars. I hope all of these yews survive and thrive.