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Landscaping

When cedar hedges fail

By | Landscaping | No Comments

Newly planted cedar (Thuja occidentalis) hedges often fail to establish in our strata landscapes. I see it all the time and it feels like a waste of time and money. While there may be soil issues, I find that most of the time it’s lack of proper watering that affects the new hedges.

New cedar hedges require lots of water but residents are busy with their lives; and landscapers aren’t really paid to water the landscape. They have other pressing issues to attend to.

 

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I personally planted the three brown cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘) pictured above and I watered them in. That’s it. Then it’s up to the resident near-by to water them regularly; and she happens to be a home-gardener.

Now, there is some shading from a dogwood and a shore pine but for hedges this new it’s definitely lack of water.

 

Now what?

So now what? More cedar hedges? I doubt it. That would be just throwing money away.

Let’s take a look at alternatives.

 

Yews

 

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Finally, some good news. I planted this row of Hick’s yews (Taxus) in a shady back area facing a public park. There used to be cedars but they were all doing badly; some weren’t even upright. So we tossed them all and started over.

I planted these yews last year and they inspired this blog post because it was nice to see them all green and growing. That’s how I like it. I’m confident they will do well. Yews are more resilient than cedars.

The yews will fill out and may require gentle hand pruning on top.

 

Berberis

 

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This was another fight. Narrow planter boxes planted with cedars and the plants kept failing. The planters offer limited soil and root areas and the building maintenance personnel are too busy to water regularly. In addition, the patio heats up in summer, blasting the cedars with reflected heat.

So we installed Berberis thunbergii which are tougher than cedars. They have beautiful purple foliage and in winter they sport red berries. I will check on them in twelve months.

Conclusion

Cedar hedges require lots of water to establish in the landscape but, sadly, they don’t often receive adequate amounts. Then they decline and die which is a waste of money and time. Luckily, there are alternatives like yews and Berberis. You can try other plants and have some fun with it.

 

 

Have you used the “wiggle test”?

By | Landscaping, Trees | No Comments

I was recently sent to a new strata site to re-stake a Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus) tree. The owner was concerned because the tree was leaning on his gate. So I picked up the required tools and materials for tree staking: stake pounder and a headset, two stakes, arbor tie, and a staple gun.

A sad specimen

Compared to its cousins in neighbouring yards, this tree wasn’t doing as well. And I wonder why? It has fewer branches thanks to past pruning, and there is a distinct bump on the trunk close to the ground which almost looks like the result of previous injury or girdling.

 

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This doesn’t look right.

 

 

First, I removed the old stakes. Tree stakes shouldn’t stay on for more than a year and clearly this tree is older than one year. Then I installed two new stakes so the tree wasn’t leaning anymore. When I moved the tree trunk, the root ball moved as well.

This is where the unscientific “wiggle test” comes in. I learned about this test from Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott. When you gently move a tree trunk the root ball shouldn’t be moving on healthy, well-established trees. The same is true of shrubs.

On this Styrax there was a lot of movement so I jumped over the fence into a neighbouring yard and performed the same test on another Styrax. The trunk moved but the root ball held nicely suggesting that the tree is well-established and healthy.

I used a staple gun to attach the arbor tie to both stakes and I had just enough staples for the job. Always bring spare staples and extra stakes just in case things go wrong.

Future 

I worry about this tree because it should be well established like its cousins nearby; I’m assuming, of course, that all of the trees were planted at the same time. When I performed the “wiggle test“, the root ball was moving which is bad. Considering the size and age of this Styrax, it should be nicely established. But, since I’m new on this site, I have no idea what happened in this yard in previous seasons.

If you have doubts about trees and shrubs in your gardens, try the “wiggle test“. It’s unscientific, but it gives you a good indication about the health of your plant.

 

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Re-staked Styrax is on the left.

Red Seal fail

By | Education, Landscaping | No Comments

The Red Seal exam for landscape horticulture isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be because it gives you journeyman status. It’s a tough exam so some people fail. I know a foreman who finished all four apprenticeship levels and then sat the exam unsuccessfully. It happens.

Since the exam fee includes a re-write, she took the test again. No luck. Now what? Luckily her boss is giving her a chance to float among crews and do different things so she can gain more experience.

Experience!

Red Seal candidates must realize that the Landscape Horticulture exam is experience based. The questions are worded so they test the candidate’s experience, not just straight book knowledge. For example, you might be asked about a specific plant. Is it planted for summer foliage or fall berries? If you’ve never seen the plant in the field, you’re stuck guessing.

The best learning moments come in the field. This was in my head last week as I was digging up an old, dog urine soaked lawn. Yes, the smell was probably detectable by NASA but this Red Seal had a job to do. And I welcomed the chance to practice installing new sod. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t done very many sod install jobs.

Do it all!

This is my best advice for future Red Seal journeyman horticulturists. Do it all in the field. Use every tool and machine. Install new landscapes, keep plant tags and get very dirty. Like I did, digging up dog urine soaked soil so I could install new sod. This is how you become Red Seal. Do it all with a smile and collect your experience.

 

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Keys to sod install

  1. level everything off, roll it with a pin and apply starter fertilizer
  2. stagger the sod pieces and fit them tightly together
  3. water everything! Don’t skip this step.

 

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Levelled and rolled.

 

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Stagger the sod pieces to eliminate any long seams.

 

 

Happy ending

When you know you’re struggling in one specific area then face your fears. I failed two modules on my ISA arborist test and studied hard to pass them. It helps if you’re stubborn like me. I also had to do the “Planting and staking” station three times to become Landscape Industry Certified. No big deal. I studied and practiced and got my happy ending.

I’m convinced our foreman from this blog post will eventually pass the exam. But I think she’ll need to face her fears and get help with calculations. In the meantime she’s busy doing it in the field. The way it should be.

 

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All done! All of the sod pieces are tight and the new lawn is watered.

Simple landscape projects: tripping hazards

By | Landscaping | No Comments

I always welcome breaks from regular maintenance work and this little project was a strata request. One of the residents often tripped on tree roots in the back of her unit and she also wanted a small area where she could plant something. So I went in and fixed it in a few hours.

Step 1

 

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This is the before picture with roots and one sad Hydrangea.

 

Step one involved marking the area and eliminating small surface roots. I laughed to myself because I like to run off-road and tree roots provide me with technical trail running fun. I love tree roots. But here the lady lived in fear of the small roots so I took out the smallest ones. The bigger ones got buried by soil amender.

 

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Only the smallest roots were removed from the new pathway.

 

Step 2

Step 2 involved moving in rocks to anchor the soil from moving down the slope. I had to borrow helpers for this step because two-man rocks require two men. Two strong men. Some of the smaller rocks we borrowed from a near-by stream bed.

 

Step 3

Since I was asked to remove a Skimmia shrub from a neighbouring patio bed I dug up the struggling Hydrangea and placed the Skimmia there. This is a common theme in strata landscape maintenance. We don’t want anything dead, diseased or obviously struggling. The one Hydrangea in the corner was at best marginal.

 

Step 4

 

 

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Two yards of soil amender.

 

 

This was the best step because I got to move two yards of soil amender. The soil is nice and fluffy and smells great. Note that since my truck was parked at an angle I didn’t lift the back to dump out the soil. I handled everything with my shovel because raising the back up on an angle could potentially flip the truck over on its side.

 

Step 5

The last step before a clean-up blow was lightly top dressing the pathway and over seeding it with good quality seed.

 

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The new pathway is on the right: root-free and over seeded.

 

I hope the lady likes her new bed and safer pathway. We’ll see what she plants in there.

 

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All done: new soil, rock anchors and a transplanted Skimmia.

How landscapers crush winter

By | Landscaping, Mulch, Seasonal | No Comments

I’m often asked what landscapers do exactly in winter. So let’s take a look at one example from today. Incidentally, today was a beautiful sunny December day and I’m hoping it stays like this until Christmas.

Materials

First, I had to dump green waste because I didn’t get to it on Friday. Normally it’s a routine task but since temperatures dipped over the weekend, I was worried about my green waste load freezing to the truck deck. Luckily it went well.

Second, I picked up three yards of 3/4 crush rock. Yes, installing rock is a great winter task because it can be done on colder days when soils aren’t really workable; and pruning brittle plants could ruin them.

 

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3/4 crush.

 

Community garden

The goal was easy: replenish pathways in a community garden. The pathways did look tired and there were some big weeds so I spent some time on weeding.

 

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Note the weeds and depleted crush levels.

 

Then I wheelbarrowed the crush in. Simple work.

 

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All done, for now. There will be more crush brought in here this week to make sure we have an adequate layer of crush. This should help to keep weeds down.

 

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This looks much better.

 

Preparations continued

Pathway preparation isn’t super exciting to read about but I want to point out that not all landscape tasks are sexy. Sadly, some workers attempt to “cherry-pick” their tasks, preferring to do easier stuff. I personally hate this approach. As a landscape supervisor I do everything, without any “cherry-picking” and I’m hoping it will rub off on our employees.

I recommend to all of our apprentices that they do all tasks and do them well. That’s the best preparation for their Red Seal exams.

 

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Scuffling weeds out of pathways is a lot of labour but it has to get done.

 

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All prepared for new crush install.

 

Conclusion

West Coast winter landscaping can be a challenge but there are tasks that can be done in lower temperatures. Installing crush and weeding pathways are two decent winter landscape tasks.

How to inspire future green workers

By | Education, Landscaping | No Comments

I know a landscape foreman who received a nice card from a kid living on his site. As the seasons piled up the two developed a nice relationship. The kid would “help” on site and it would totally excite him. His mother appreciated the attention the boy received but now they were moving away.

 

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This is a card for a foreman from a resident boy moving away.

 

What I remember

I would see them only sporadically and every time I saw the woman she was very pregnant or stuffing her family car with kids. I also remember the boy handing me a bag of cookies once to hand over to the previous foreman. But since the man was on holiday, I promised to hand over the cookies later and thanked the boy. I lied.

One of the cookies broke so I tested it and the others soon followed. And they all passed their final test. I’m not proud of it but the boy never found out.

I also remember the boy being excited about tree work and my ISA certified arborist patch. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give him one. He can easily earn it later.

Two lessons

1. This boy is a poster child for biophilia, defined by Edward O. Wilson as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. He loved “helping” the landscape crew, excited by trees, machines and the big truck moving around the site. I’m sure he will become a green industry worker when he grows up.

2. This case also nicely illustrates that providing good quality work on site isn’t the only thing landscape companies should focus on. Building relationships is just as important. Sure, it takes precious time away from never-ending maintenance work but it’s an important sacrifice. Assuming it doesn’t get out of hand.

Clients that get to know you well are more likely to retain you so don’t forget to build relationships with your clients. You might get a cool card one day.

 

 

How I became a top 10 landscape writer on Quora.com

By | Education, gardening, Landscaping | No Comments

Quora.com is a fun site where you submit any question you want and wait for someone to answer it. As you read the answers, you are asked to upvote the one you really like which in turn helps the writer.

Lately, I’ve been hanging out on the site answering basic landscape questions. Then, recently I received a notification from the site. I was now officially a top 10 landscape writer. I had no idea they kept track.

So let’s take a look at some question examples and my answers. If you have a burning question, you can ask on Quora.com or message me through this blog.

 

1. What is an interesting book about flowers or plants?

The Hidden life of Trees is the best book about trees right now. It will blow your mind. You will never look at trees the same way.

Braiding sweetgrass is the best book I’ve read on native use of plants in the US and Canada. Absolutely amazing.

Lab girl is a great book by a Ph.D. researcher; chapters alternate between plants and personal life. Also a great look at women in academia and what a struggle it is. First time I read about “resurrection plants”.

The triumph of seeds is also amazing. How do seeds survive for hundreds of years and then, one day, decide to go for it?

2. Why is tree trimming important?

Tree trimming is an amateur phrase, I’m sorry. Always say tree pruning. Trimming sounds suspicious and it usually is. I prune trees.

Most trees know what to do but in our cities and multi-family complexes with limited space, pruning is often required because of obstruction issues. Say, a resident has to duck to get out of her apartment on her way to Starbucks.

Pruning is also important for young trees so they can be trained to look great in the future.

Pruning is also required when we find diseased, dead, damaged or crossing branches.

My e-book on Tree maintenance is available on Amazon for less than a cup of coffee, just search by title or by name: Vas Sladek.

3. How do I maintain a lawn mower for perfect lawn mowing?

Check your oil levels weekly, change spark plugs and change blades often for a great cut. Sharp blades are critical. Otherwise you are shredding grass blades.

Check your wheels so they don’t wobble. Tighten as required. Anything else, visit your nearest dealer.

If you can, use Aspen fuel, which is allegedly gentler on machines. It is also 99% hydro-carbon free which means you don’t pollute your home with poisons. See www.aspen.se

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4. It’s been raining for two days right after my lawn got aeration. Do I have to aerate the lawn again?

No! The point of lawn aeration is to allow more water and oxygen into the root zone so rain after aeration is perfect. You should only have to aerate once a year although some companies also do fall aeration.

5. What exactly does the choke setting “do” when I start the cold motor of a riding mower?

When your small engine is cold, the choke restricts air flow so the engine is getting a richer gas mixture and therefore starts easier. Once your engine is on, you should take the choke off.

Warm engines will start again easily without a choke.

There you go. If you have a burning question, go to Quora.com and ask away. You can also share your knowledge by answering some questions.

How you can have fun with a stump grinder

By | Landscaping, Trees | No Comments

If you read my blog posts consistently you will know that I’m not really a machine kind of guy. But as I found out, learning to use a new machine can be a fun way to spend your day and it stretches you a bit. This is exactly what happened on my stump grinding day.

 

The goal

 

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The goal for the day was to annihilate the two stumps, level off the bed with new soil and install a row of cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) to separate the two units.

 

Step 1

I rented the stump grinder at Home Depot. It’s cheaper if you can fit all of your work into four hours. Otherwise you will have to pay for the whole day.

Because the machine is heavy my boss had suggested asking a passerby for assistance. Unfortunately, I only saw teenage girls heading to school and it would have been suspicious asking them for help with a stump grinder. So I called for help.

There is only one trick to the machine. When you’re ready to stump grind, activate the black lever on the left. It locks the left wheel in place allowing you to rock the machine blade side to side over your stump. That’s it.

I really enjoyed doing this by myself without anyone kibitzing and it worked out. Only later I learned that a little boy in the window had a blast watching me.

 

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The stump is disappearing nicely.

Once the stumps are erased, you will have to rake up the wood debris and remove it. Also, don’t forget to clean up the machine or the Home Depot attendant will have a fit.

 

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Ready for soil install.

 

Cedar hedge

 

Digging through the middle of this bed was actually very hard because I ran into heavy clay. Soils in the Lower Mainland are mostly clay but it’s hard to tell because new developments sometimes have engineered soils installed. And they don’t look anything like the native soils.

New cedars installed in spring will require consistent watering so they can get established. Both units were alerted but sometimes I wonder. I reminded them to slow soak the cedars; quick spray from a hose isn’t really watering.

The new grass seed, on the other hand, will need gentle sprays to achieve germination in one week or so.

 

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All done. Stumps are gone, the area is level with new soil and a new hedge is in. The lawn will require at least a week for germination.

 

This was a fun day for me because I got to transform a bare area into something new. And in the process I got to practice stump grinding which means that next time I will be super confident. Both residents were delighted with the change and promised to water religiously. God help them.

Japanese willow response to drought

By | Landscaping, Species | No Comments

Every time I install new plants on a site I worry about them because I want them to get established and thrive in their new landscape. Usually I won’t see the plants for months but in the case of two Japanese willows (Salix integra) I planted it was different. After my company schedule was re-done in spring, I kept coming back to the same site so I could observe my newly installed plants, including the two willows.

Summer heat

Everything looked fine until summer heat arrived. That’s when I noticed browning in the leaf tips. That’s called necrosis or tissue death as the plant is unable to draw up enough water into the crown. So I immediately did my own weekly watering with a hose that’s literally right next to the bed.

 

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Also note the growth at the bottom of the stem.

 

Sadly, this is very common on strata (multi-family) complexes. People are very busy and when they water, they do it badly. Guaranteed, the owners sprinkle the plants for a few minutes and go back inside. Proper watering requires a gentle soak that lasts for several minutes. I watered in the morning and then again before exiting the property.

 

Bonsai response

Now observe the same plant weeks later. The top is recovering but the stem has significant growth along the stem. This is another classic response to lack of water. Since the top isn’t getting enough water, the plant starts to bonsai itself by pushing out new growth along the stem. I’m leaving it on for now to protect the bark but by fall I will prune it all off.

 

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Note the growth along the stem.

 

For comparison, examine the other Japanese willow (below) planted at the opposite corner. The owners water better and it gets a little bit more shade. I noticed some browning in the leaves but it wasn’t severe enough for the plant to attempt a bonsai move. The stem is clear of any new growth.

 

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Conclusion

Summer heat conditions are harsh for landscape plants so owners need to water properly. And when there are newly installed plants, watering is an even more pressing issue because water allows roots to develop. So check on your plants and don’t forget to water them.

 

Why dead spaces are a problem

By | gardening, Landscaping, weeds | No Comments

Dead spaces in your landscape can be a problem and one example for you to consider is pictured below. What do you see?

 

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This kind of garden bed drives me crazy because there is way too much “dead space”. Without plants and groundcovers the open space gets colonized by weeds which then have to be removed periodically. And that means precious labour man-hours are spent on unnecessary weeding.

Plants shade out and out-compete weeds and they also improve the look of the garden bed. You can even attract beneficial insects with the right plants. All for a small investment of money and time.

Close weeding

Now what? Remember this isn’t your only bed to weed so how do you do it quickly? There are two approaches but I can only recommend one.

Some people prefer hand-weeding without tools where you pick at your weeds and pray that you also removed the roots. I only do this with big weeds.

 

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Big weeds like these are easy to hand-pick.

 

With big weedy beds I find hand weeding too slow and brutal on my fingers. When hand-weeding and debris clean-up were combined on the same day it exposed hand-weeding as too slow. You must stay on your feet, cultivator in hand and press on.

Cultivate!

No, you don’t have to suffer. Just cultivate the bed and rake up the debris. I use Dutch hoes or four-prongers (pictured above) to rip up the weeds and then I gently rake over the area. This approach is much faster and it allows you to stay upright. Also, your fingers won’t bleed.

Cultivation haters point out two problems with cultivation: soil loss and weed seed exposure to sunlight. Both are valid comments but considering the condition of the bed there isn’t much to worry about. The critical factor is speed because we have many other beds to weed.

One huge bonus of cultivation is that the bed looks sharp and fluffy and stays weed-free longer than hand-picked beds. I am absolutely certain that hand-weeding doesn’t always remove the weed roots so the weeds bounce back quicker. Cultivation, on the other hand, up-roots the weeds.

One critical note on pile pick-up: keep your piles in the bed edges, do NOT rake them onto your lawn. Piles on lawn edges leave debris that will have to be blown and could potentially get picked up by trimmer machines, thus creating a hazard.

 

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Correct: keep your debris piles in the bed edges.

 

 

 

Conclusion

Fight dead spaces in your garden beds by planting shrubs or groundcovers. And if you want to weed like a professional use a cultivator.

 

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This used to be dead space until we moved shrubs and perennials in.