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Landscaping

River rock at the border

By | Landscaping, Mulch | No Comments

Returning from a Seattle soccer tournament last weekend, I had time to examine the border landscaping while I waited in line. It was an early summer evening and I was relaxed because I didn’t have anything to declare. I literally spent four days near soccer fields watching my son take his U12 team to the finals.

Perfect fit mulch

To my left was a row of red maples (Acer rubrum) planted in river rock beds. Aha! Another perfect fit.

 

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Approaching the Canadian border.

 

Now, personally I prefer organic mulches like arbor chips or composted bark. However, river rock can be perfect in some situations. I’ve already written blog posts about river rock as replacement for dog urine soaked lawn patches; and river rock as a solution for small dirt patches where new plants get flattened by car tires or, left bare, the dirt patches just grow weeds.

When you apply a nice, thick layer of mulch it keeps weeds out and doesn’t require any extra maintenance.

Now, back to our picture.

A. The river rock is correctly kept away from the critical root zone so water and oxygen can be accessed by the tree roots. The tree well also “captures” leaves  and, assuming they’re left in place, allows them to feed the tree.

B. The river rock looks nice and thick. Thickness is important when applying mulches because we need to block out sunlight so weeds don’t germinate. Thin mulch applications can actually encourage weed growth because they trap moisture and allow sunlight to penetrate. Go deep or don’t do it all.

C. There are weeds visible in the edges which is to be expected. Wind and birds can import weed seeds.

D. River rock eliminates the need for lawn maintenance. This eliminates extra costs and protects cars lined up at the border. It would be stressful mowing and line edging near so many car windows. And, I suspect, the people lined up in their cars appreciate the complete lack of noise and air pollution.

 

Yes, you can use river rock as mulch. And, in some situations, it works better than organic mulches. Give it a try.

 

On relaxed campsite landscaping

By | Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

I recently took my kids to Adams lake north of Chase, British Columbia. There they got to swim, ride in a motorboat and stay in a camper for the first time. And Daddy got a few days of rest which is critical for landscape professionals.

 

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Adams lake, British Columbia.

 

At the lake front is a collection of campers parked on leased lots. This makes everything safer and more fun. One feature of the community that delighted the kid’s mother was a nearby community washroom and shower building.

Of course, I didn’t stress about my kids showering because they swam in the clear lake every day. I also believe in not scrubbing away protective skin oils daily, unlike my wife, who is an expert on bacterial soaps.

All this leads us to the building mentioned above and its landscaping.

 

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What do you notice about the landscaping?

This bed is as relaxed as the setting. Just shooting the picture wasn’t relaxing because this was the women’s side and I didn’t want to arouse suspicion by taking too many pictures.

The plants look natural. They aren’t sheared into tight shapes they way their cousins are on strata title properties. It’s refreshing to see plants left to grow.

Also note that nobody is stressing about weeding. There are all sorts of wild grasses and weeds in this bed and nobody cares. It fits nicely into its natural setting.

The dwarf spruce and native Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) give us height; and there are small Hostas enjoying shade created by Euonymus alatus.

 

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Euonymus alatus

 

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Alchemilla

 

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Hosta

 

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Native Pacific ninebark

 

It was nice to spend Canada Day weekend with family at a lake and provide my kids with new experiences. But I also enjoyed seeing the relaxed landscaping which perfectly matched the relaxed setting. The plants were allowed to grow and look natural. It was nice to see.

Mistakes homeowners make

By | gardening, Landscaping | No Comments

This is yet another blog post inspired by a question posted on Quora.com. As a landscaper, what do you think are common mistakes homeowners make?

There are some mistakes that repeat so let’s take a look at my list.

 

A. Poor watering

People are busy so they take out their garden hose and spray their plants for a few minutes. Unfortunately, some plants, trees especially, require slow soaking which takes more time and attention.

 

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New plantings require slow soaking.

 

Before you water your garden beds, stick your finger in your soil to see how much moisture is in there.

Hanging baskets require heavy soaking. I learned this when I worked at the City of Coquitlam. I had to soak every hanging basket until the water was gushing out on the bottom. It seems crazy but if you have hanging baskets, water them really well. Don’t just spray them.

My boss’s wife dumped her hanging baskets last week because they dried out. I told her to soak next year’s baskets like hell and now, slightly upset, I fear she will start making mistakes on my paycheques.

 

B. Reaching for chemicals

Homeowners are quick to reach for chemicals to solve problems in their gardens. Yes, I know, your local big box store is selling it so it can’t be bad. Right? Don’t do it. Search for better solutions, don’t introduce synthetic chemicals to your garden.

I know people who dump Killex on their lawn weeds every year. Then their kids go out to use the trampoline. I tried to cover the weeds by fertilizing their lawns really well. It didn’t matter. Killex it was.

Incidentally, I object to the cover photo. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are awesome and edible. I frequently drink dandelion root tea. If you hate dandelions, dig them up manually.

 

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Just attach your hose and push the lever to on. Red Seal Vas does NOT recommend this.

 

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Are you sure you want this on your home lawn?

 

C. Client vs customer

Nobody enjoys getting ripped off but, please, get to know your landscape professional and keep him for years. That’s how you become a client and landscapers love clients. Why? Because we can educate clients while we solve their landscape problems. It becomes a good relationship.

I run from customers. Earlier this year, I was referred to a man with pressing landscape problems so I went to see him. His first question was how much? It seems logical to ask about rates but I already know this dude will be a headache.

His mugo pines (Pinus mugo) were covering over half of the public sidewalk and he was afraid of getting fined by the city. I would be more afraid of ladies in motorized wheelchairs raising their middle fingers.

I did the pruning by hand, got paid and left. I hope I never hear from him again.

Now, back to my own mistakes.

Enjoy your summer.

 

Butterflies and cherry laurels: Why collecting new firsts is a lot of fun

By | gardening, Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

I really enjoy collecting new firsts. It makes my working life more exciting and, because I’m doing something for the first time, it becomes a good learning experience. Let’s examine two of my firsts from yesterday.

Butterflies

Yesterday, I was rushing my end of the day clean-up blow because my son had a soccer tournament to get to. Then I stopped to admire a Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). It flowers from June to September and clearly the flower panicles weren’t fully formed yet.

And then a butterfly showed up, attracted by the flowers and totally oblivious to my presence and the loud blower on my back. Finally I had my own picture of a Buddleia davidii with a butterfly, confirming the common name.

Now considered invasive, Buddleia davidii provides summer interest. Then when it starts to get out of control, we hack it up.

 

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Buddleia davidii (Butterfly bush) with a butterfly; my first photo confirming the common name.

 

Prunus hedges

I’ve seen and worked with English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus) before but the Genolia variety is new to me. This fastigiate cherry laurel (Prunus is in the cherry family) is perfect for privacy screens because it has a more upright habit (fastigiate). It also handles partial shade.

The upright habit and shade tolerance were critical factors in my project area.

 

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I had just taken out four dead cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘) from under a Styrax japonica tree. Obviously, replanting with the same cedars would be suspicious so in went the fastigiate cherry laurel. It can handle full sun, partial sun and shade; in this location it will get some sun and lots of shade.

The upright habit will help the homeowner create a privacy screen between his unit and the walkway. Plus the glossy green leaves are very attractive. The cherry laurel will also flower.

I watered the laurels in nicely and checked the planting depth afterwards. I got my first ever Prunus laurocerasus Genolia planting done; and the owner was extremely happy to get his dead cedars replaced. I can’t wait to check on the hedge later in the season.

 

Your street trees need water too

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

I normally ignore ads in local newspapers but my eye caught a nice ad from City of Surrey. It’s reminding us that street trees need water just like our own trees and gardens. Especially trees under five metres tall. Older more established trees can handle a few weeks of dry weather because they have well-established roots.

How to water street trees

I like to use a standard garden hose without a nozzle and slow-soak the trees along the drip-line. Drip line means the ground directly below the tip of the furthest reaching branches. I see many people spray their trees and shrubs with the same sprays used for flowers.

Yes, it takes more time but slow-soaking trees is the best way to water them.

City recommendations

This is what the City of Surrey recommends:

  1. use a hose equipped with an automatic shut-off nozzle
  2. water twice per week for 15 minutes with a steady stream of water (about 20L)
  3. water at the drip-line

The City of Surrey will also provide you with watering bags if you have young trees on your street.

Plant stress

Water stressed trees can drop their leaves prematurely and be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Recently I had residents point out problems with their plants and all of them were clearly water stressed. It starts with adequate watering. Pests appear when the plants are weak and stressed.

 

Why eating lunch alone is bad for you

By | health and safety, Landscaping | No Comments

My regular work day includes a thirty minute lunch with no other formal breaks. When I first started with my current company, not having morning and afternoon breaks felt weird but there was an upside. I finished early. So, to ease my body into the new schedule, I would take quick micro-breaks to drink and eat a snack without sitting down. Now, in my fourth season, it’s all fine.

Lunches

I normally eat lunches alone because we don’t have huge crews and I need the mental break from physically demanding work. Unless my co-worker Allan is nearby, because I often poach some of his excellent Arabic tea.

Once, completely exhausted by lunch in hot weather, I collapsed in my truck and the workers turned me in to the boss. Vas sleeping, as if! I was meditating. Incredibly, this came up in my work performance review.

Not alone

And according to an article published in the Globe and Mail (“Eating lunch alone at work can have adverse effects“, Friday July 27, 2019) I have plenty of company. Almost half (42%) of working Canadians eat lunch alone every day.

Eating lunch alone isn’t really normal. It happens when people start working. Then, eating with colleagues seems like a gift we can’t afford to accept.

I find that as a supervisor in charge of field production, many workers don’t really want to spend an extra half hour with me. Unless, of course, it’s cold or rainy outside and my company truck is warm.

Adverse effects

I had no idea eating alone came with so many adverse effects. According to research mentioned in the article, “people who eat most meals alone may express feelings of loneliness and social isolation”. “Eating in solitude is more strongly associated with unhappiness than any single factor, other than having a mental illness.”

Benefits

There are many benefits to eating together and scoring free Arabic tea is just one of them. How about improved communication with co-workers, stronger relationships with co-workers, increased happiness, job satisfaction and greater productivity.

Considering the many benefits listed above, I think I will try to eat the odd lunch with our crews.

Does your mosquito repellent actually work?

By | health and safety, Landscaping | No Comments

The headline above was the actual headline from an article published in the Globe and Mail on Monday, August 6, 2018. In it, writer Wency Leung reports on the results from a New Mexico State University study. But, first, a quick story.

Vas almost dies

The article above came out a few days after I almost died in the field while stump grinding. I was removing two tree stumps close to Kanaka Creek in Maple Ridge, British Columbia and I couldn’t believe the number of mosquitoes around me. I kept working but after a while, totally desperate, I called my boss to bring me repellent. Any repellent. I didn’t care. I was suffering.

Because I was alone with a rented stump grinder, I couldn’t really leave my work site. My boss eventually rescued me.

 

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This expensive gas station bottle saved me in the field.

 

 

The study

The study looked at all sorts of products from scented candles, skin patches, wearable devices to sprays containing essential oils. The result? Most of the products were useless except for the ones containing DEET and oil of lemon eucalyptus.

About mosquitoes

One of the study authors explains that “mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, and to the molecules that are created when our skin bacteria break down components of our sweat.” When you stump grind for a few hours you generate a lot of sweat. That’s the way we like our employees to work.

“The insects have odour  receptors and they’re specialized in what they can smell.” The magic of DEET is that it “binds to specific odour  receptors of mosquitoes and over-activates them; and over-activation is as bad as blocking them completely.”

This is the key: “Without smell the insects  can’t switch from host-seeking to biting mode.” Aha.

According to the article, DEET has been used for over 70 years and is considered very safe.

Conclusion

Save your money and stay safe in the landscape by purchasing repellents containing DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Next time I’m sent to work by Kanaka Creek I will be ready.

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.