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How to catch a mole

By | Books | No Comments

I sometimes see angry home owners looking at mole hills in their lawns, wondering what to do about them. And I also see metal traps with orange flagging and solar-powered noise makers designed to keep moles away.

So when I read a story about Marc Hamer’s new book “How to catch a mole“, I was intrigued; and I eventually bought the audio version from Audible and listened to it at work. It was an easy 3:45 listen; at my preferred 1.5 x speed it was actually shorter.

Hamer lives in Wales and in the introduction he promises to teach you about moles; and he succeeds. We also learn about the author’s early vagabond life and how he eventually settled down with his wife and two kids. He works as a gardener and catches moles in winter for extra income. The book is also full of poems.

If you like poems, I suggest you buy the print version or slow down the audio. I’m not a great fan of poetry so I let the details escape me. I was after mole information and I got plenty of it.

Mole catchers in the UK go back a long way. Some have built lucrative careers from mole catching.

Hamer charges per animal caught and the process is fascinating. But it also relies on his “feel” and experience. Don’t expect to become an expert mole catcher after reading this book.

The mole

Moles are fascinating. Many species are blind and the ones Hamer catches have tiny eyes that can’t focus. Moles rely on their sense of smell. That’s why when Hamer sets his traps he must hurry because moles can detect fresh air in their tunnels. Fresh air alerts them and they can quickly block sections of their tunnels.

The mole’s preferred meal is earthworms and they know that earthworms will regrow after losing one of their ends. So the mole bites off their heads and parks them underground. The earthworms won’t go anywhere while they regrow their missing body parts.

The end

One day Hamer pulls out a trap and one of the two moles is still alive. Since the animal would surely die, there is only one thing to do: he has to kill it with his own hands. And this turns out to be the last mole he catches. Disgusted with killing, Hamer realizes it’s time to retire from mole catching.

We learn that Hamer is getting old, his body is slowing down and he finds comfort in nature. There is a lot of reflection on old age and spending time in nature. People still call him about moles but he tells them he’s now retired. That leaves plenty of time to write and narrate this book.

We don’t have to kill moles. We can just grow meadows and let them be.

 

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“Overstory” book review

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When I ran across the novel “Overstory” by Richard Powers, all I knew was that it was about trees and it won a Pulitzer Prize. I avoided reviews just so I could form my own opinion and thus write an honest book review for my own blog.

Obviously, most Pulitzer Prize winning books are great but it’s not guaranteed that you will like them. As soon as I heard that this novel was about trees, I was hooked.

Go audio

Considering the novel’s door stopper size, I opted for the audio version through my Audible account. I probably wouldn’t have finished the book if I had it by my bed. Audio is easy and I listened to it mostly at work while I worked. It runs at 23 hours and I usually listen at 1.25 speed.

When I’m not running landscape crews, it’s OK to put a book on while I landscape.

Tree hugger

You will like this book if you love trees. Trees take center stage in this novel. Just the way I like it. And while this is a work of fiction, you will learn lots about trees. I can tell that the author did his homework on trees. If you removed the fictional humans, this would be a great tree primer.

For example, we now know that trees aren’t stand alone plants. They’re interconnected, they communicate and help each other. Only trees have achieved what humans couldn’t: true communism.

Of course, there are deeper questions that go beyond trees. What are we doing to our Earth? Are we messing everything up? Can we do better?

Direct action

Some of the characters resort to direct action to protect ancient trees. Having read about Earth First! and Ed Abbey’s work, this was my easily my favourite part of the book. And like Earth First!, some end up in jail.

 

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Ed Abbey’s Monkeywrench gang is a classic.

 

Conclusion

Overstory deserves it’s Pulitzer Prize status! I thoroughly enjoyed it. The human stories are there in the background and you almost don’t notice that the author is teaching you about trees. The details about trees are hardly fiction. You will learn lots of new stuff about trees in this novel.

And you will be left to ponder some deeper questions about the way we live with nature. Read this novel if you like trees or wonder why humans are messing things up.

5 stars out of 5, easily, but get the audio version. It’s 23 hours well spent.

 

 

 

The Plant Messiah

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The Plant Messiah” book by Carlos Magdalena was a massive treat to listen to at work. It will appeal to all plant lovers, gardeners, landscapers and horticulturists. The audio version is eight hours long and it could have been longer.

 

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The beginning

The background story is fascinating. Magdalena was born in Spain and eventually made his way to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. There he was eventually accepted into Kew’s training program which only accepts something like twenty students a year. It was a dream come true for Magdalena. He was so good, he stayed on to work on endangered plant species. Thus the label “the plant messiah.”

The Kew training period is described in some detail and I felt a bit jealous when I listened to it. When I go to England next, I will visit Kew.

Water lilies

Magdalena is an expert on water lilies and he describes many overseas research trips. This is fun to listen to and reminds me of the old plant explorers who would travel the globe and then send specimens to Kew.

Magdalena’s love of plants is infectious. He’s a professional and it shows.

 

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Google image: I don’t own this picture.

 

Serious stuff

Because this book is about plants, Magdalena correctly reminds us that plants are extremely important for humans. I think it’s true that people often fail to appreciate plants. Without them we wouldn’t last long. This is Magdalena’s one serious message in an otherwise fun book.

Just consider that we eat plants, we burn them for fuel, we derive pleasure and medicines from them, and we also build with them things like shelter and boats. Many people also consume them as a hobby; and they’re also used in religious rituals. Many drug lords got rich thanks to plants.

Can you think of other uses?

Rating

I thoroughly enjoyed the eight hour audio version of this book from Kobo. I can’t find any faults with it. It inspired me to study more about plants and to appreciate them more. And Magdalena’s enthusiasm is infectious. Five stars. Easily.

Six stunning books for green professionals

By | Books, Education | No Comments

This past weekend I opened up the New York Times and saw a huge spread about the best books from 2018. But there was nothing for green professionals so let’s correct that omission here. I present to you six books well-worth reading with brief notes. I would say they’re all “must read” books. Who knows, they might inspire you to give someone a great gift this Christmas.

 

1. Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown

This is a very important book because Gabe Brown took his conventionally farmed land and regenerated its soils. He did it without tilling, with cover crops and eventually without all fertilizer and chemical use on his North Dakota ranch. He also diversified his operation.

So, YES, you can have great, healthy soil and make great money as a farmer in North America WITHOUT chemical inputs. Read the details in the book. It’s fascinating. The key is encouraging the life in your soil. You can search “regenerative agriculture” for more.

 

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Photo courtesy of http://brownsranch.us/

 

 

2. A soil owner’s manual by Jon Stika

Stika is a soil scientist but it took him years to realize that his training wasn’t the best. Eventually he comes to understand that soil biology is crucial for healthy soils. It’s not just the soil components that matter, the life in the soil is critical.

 

3. The One-Straw revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

Fukuoka was a “do-nothing” farming revolutionary in Japan. He showed that you CAN have great rice yields without tilling the soil and using costly fertilizers and chemicals. Do-nothing is a bit misleading because farming is a lot of work but the soil wasn’t tilled and cover crops were used. The details are amazing.

It’s possible that Fukuoka’s work inspired Gabe Brown above.

 

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A practice rice field at a Niigata-City, Japan public school.

 

4. Braiding sweet grass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is THE book on native American plant use. I often hear about indigenous wisdom and this book spells it out in detail. Kimmerer did a fantastic job with this book; she opened my eyes. You will learn lots about plants. I also purchased her new book on Mosses.

 

5. The plant messiah by Carlos Magdalena

Two key points: One, Magdalena goes from Spain to study at the famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (I’m jealous) and becomes a plant researcher there. Then he travels the world studying plants and clearly his native Spanish helped. His love of plants is infectious.

Two, at the beginning of the book he shows the reader why plants are important. Our very survival depends on plants. We derive food and medicines from plants plus much more. After reading this book you will appreciate plants much more.

 

6. Whitewash: the story of a weed killer, cancer and the corruption of science by Carey Gillam

My geography professor at the University of Saskatchewan openly discouraged me from using sources written by journalists. But in the case of Monsanto’s (now Bayer) glyphosate and other chemicals it can’t be done because many scientists have been bought by industry. I know that this debate is polarizing and the book isn’t full of good news. It’s the hardest book to read on this list.

Before you dismiss this book, recall that Health Canada is re-evaluating its recommendations; it now concedes that many of the studies the government agency relied on were sponsored by the chemical industry.

It’s much worse in the United States and the details will make your head spin. I think this book is very important.

 

Summary

Here are the key ideas.

Yes, you can make good money as a farmer without fertilizers and chemicals; stop tilling and use cover crops; and diversify your operation.

The life in your soil is the key to healthy soil.

We depend on plants for our survival. They’re also amazing.

Indigenous plant knowledge is fantastic and now we have a great book showing us the details.

Scientists can be bought so be careful when you read scientific studies. Carefully check who sponsored them.

 

Bad news for people who enjoyed Garden Making magazine

By | Education, gardening, Magazines | No Comments

All good things must come to an end. Sadly. One example is the Canadian garden magazine Garden Making. I received the bad news from Garden Making magazine last year. Because of declining advertising revenues, lack of subscribers, and the high cost of hiring good writers and photographers, the magazine didn’t make sense financially. So the beautifully produced print edition had to go. Great! Not what I wanted to hear.

 

The last No. 32

 

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The last print edition of Garden Making magazine.

 

 

So imagine my surprise in late March when I discovered Garden Making magazine issue no.32 in my mailbox. Yay! Did they find new money to continue? No. This was just one last issue called Garden Solutions. Which made me wonder if there was a solution to problems with publishing print copies of a garden magazine in the internet age.

The editors called their magazine a labour of love. And it really was. They hired good writers and photographers and every issue was a learning experience. Now all that remains is the online version. And I’m back to buying copies of Fine Gardening (USA) and Horticulture (USA). Sadly, there is nothing in printed form left in Canada.

Digital format

Maybe I’m overreacting because I subscribe to Horticulture magazine in digital format. Not because digital is better necessarily but because it is much, much cheaper. Viewed on my iPad, it’s totally acceptable and there is nothing to recycle. I just have to print any interesting articles for my files instead of cutting them out like I used to.

So now if you want to enjoy the Garden Making magazine you have to go online. I have to get used to it. It was just hard to let go of a beautifully designed garden magazine full of helpful information.

What publications do you read?

Garden Making magazine scaling back

By | gardening, Magazines | No Comments

Garden Making magazine is the best garden magazine in Canada. It’s beautifully designed and full of interesting articles. So it was a bit distressing to read that the magazine’s publishing schedule is changing. Welcome to our digital age.

The magazine will not be published this fall. The next issue will come out in February 2018. You almost have to ask what the point is of publishing a magazine just twice a year. I will still buy it because I find consuming electronic garden magazines difficult. My Horticulture subscription is electronic by necessity, not by choice. I find the foreign print subscription charges way too high. So I get it delivered to my iPad.

Market realities

According to a letter from the publisher fewer people are subscribing to magazines and advertisers are diverting their spending to digital media. Those are the market realities. So I am encouraged to visit gardenmaking.com. And maybe I will.

But I also make frequent visits to my local Chapter’s and it’s obvious that magazines aren’t dead yet. Fine Gardening is my favourite US-based magazine and highly recommended.

I think Garden Making can do quite well in the digital landscape. They have a nice list of subscribers. And they also follow others in offering free e-books and tips in exchange for people’s e-mails. Then comes the digital format magazine and plenty of upsell. I know it. Get ready for it.

Electronic magazine publishing must be a breeze compared to print. The publisher and editor both admit in their editorial that publishing the print magazine is more about labour of love than profits. I believe them.

Clippings

I love to save clippings of interesting articles and plants. And as the files accumulate my wife tells me frequently what she thinks of this habit. Now it looks as though I will have to start making new folders on my laptop. Perhaps some change is good.

Still, the magazine’s new reduced publishing schedule is not what I wanted to hear. I really looked forward to receiving my quarterly issues. I would have loved to see bi-monthly issues.

What do YOU read? Leave comments, if you can.

 

 

‘Common strata plants’ e-book for new landscapers released

By | Books, Education, gardening | No Comments

Common Strata Plants: A Guide for West Coast Landscapers

I finally realized one of my dream projects: to self-publish an e-book for new landscapers. Since the internet has revolutionized publishing this is a great time to put your stuff out into the world. Are you not convinced yet? Then read James Altucher’s blog on self-publishing.

Why?

Why publish an e-book with common strata plants? Because it’s part of my job to train new landscapers in the field. And plant identification skills are one big part of that training. After answering the same plant questions over and over, I had an idea. I realized that we could tweak it by putting the most common plant species we see on our strata complexes into one picture file. And then publishing it in electronic e-book format and making it available for download online.

Two key ideas

  1. Repetition: Plants on our strata complexes tend to repeat and that works in our favour. Once the new worker learns to recognize shrubs like Viburnum davidii he will see them on other sites.
  2. The list: The plant list I put together comes from strata sites and represents, what I believe, is a good starting point. So just take the list and learn it. There’s no need to consult thick reference manuals or spend time making your own list.

Testing!

This was an important first run test because I have other projects in mind. So stay tuned by checking this blog. To read how I self-published the e-book, click here. Of course, the trick is to get new landscapers to download and flip through the e-book. I think employer incentives might help.

New workers are usually busy enough with machines and bedwork.  Plant knowledge comes later with experience. But let’s consider why plant ID is important.

a) Bedwork or finesse work can be completed faster when you can easily distinguish between plants and unwanted weeds. I’ve seen many new landscapers paralyzed in gardens because they weren’t sure what was what. If you’re not sure, don’t pull it. Don’t panic, just get better.

b) Landscape design requires exceptional plant knowledge. One day the new landscape worker might move up and pursue design work.

c) Nurseries only use botanical names so if you know your plants you can easily place orders and check them for accuracy. Always keep plant tags and study them.

d) Gardening, like design, depends on exceptional plant ID skills. I found this out when I apprenticed under my city gardener boss. Her plant ID knowledge was unbelievable. Eventually I found out where city gardeners make their money: in annual bed displays. The kicker is that when they meet they order new plants for next year by grouping their plant orders. You need knowledge and experience for this task. I respect all city gardeners for this.

e) Clients will stop you to ask questions and if you’re ready, you will impress them with your knowledge. As Red Seal journeyman on site I inevitable get called over by workers who are happy to deflect client questions to me. Great! I always take the heat.

f) One day your boss or client will take you for a site walk and ask for ideas. There won’t be time for Google searches. You have to suggest plants right there, on the spot. That can be stressful but not if you know some plants.

Conclusion

The plant picture book can be used by new landscapers as a starting point; and also by strata managers and strata unit owners who may wonder what’s growing on their sites. Knowing plant names makes communication with landscapers easier.

 

Common strata plants: A guide for West Coast Landscapers by Vas Sladek

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“Caring for plants” Korean short story

By | gardening, Magazines, Reviews | No Comments

As I was browsing through the magazine section of my local public library I noticed a short story in the New Yorker magazine (July 10 & 17, 2017). Caring for plants, by Hye-young Pyun, translated from Korean. Sure, why not.

It all starts with our protagonist in hospital, badly crippled. There was a car accident and, sadly, we learn that the wife didn’t make it. This is where gardening comes in. The wife loved her garden. She cared for her flowers and shrubs but now the garden looked rough and abandoned.

I have some experience with abandoned gardens. One of my earlier blogs deals with a true story from Japan. The wife commits suicide and her husband lasts barely a year or two. Their little front garden is still there but it no longer gives anyone pleasure. It is sad to see the weeds and over-grown plants.

Our protagonist eventually gets well enough to go home but he’s still in rough shape. His first caregiver is a riot and by far the best character in the story. Then she gets fired. And the mother-in-law enters the picture. We know she is sad and mad. She never liked the cripple.

When she isn’t helping her son-in-law, she is out in the garden. She knows that this was her daughter’s favourite spot so she does what she can to keep it up. Then she starts digging holes in the far corner of the garden.

Our protagonist is slowly recovering and still has to crawl to make it to the washroom. Then he mentions to his physiotherapist that she has been feeding him extra pills. Wasn’t that unusual? Perhaps. The physiotherapist, too, gets axed.

Now the mother-in-law starts talking about money and budgets. The son finds it odd and then discovers that his resignation at work had been submitted without his prior knowledge.

Then one day, he crawls to the window and sees his mother-in-law planting new plants in the holes she had dug. But wait. Is that an extra large hole in the far corner of the garden? Here we get to exercise our imagination. Perhaps tomorrow there will be a large tree delivered? Or is it meant for our crippled son-in-law. It’s up to you to decide how he ends up there. An overdose looks imminent. I think.

If you have some extra time at night or on the weekend, read this short story and let me know how you think the story ends.

 

How to change your lawn mower oil in the field

By | Lawn Care, Tips | No Comments

Spring is here and weekly lawn care is part of our routine. Our commercial machines see daily use and work extremely hard for us as we deliver great looking lawn care.  On some days the mowers will run all day. Five days a week all the way to November.

Key changes

To keep the machines running well all year there are a few key things we can do them. We have to change oil, air filter, blades and pull cords. Luckily most of these tasks can be done in the field on the fly. Some landscape companies employ small engine mechanics, some take the machines back to their shops for maintenance. But to save time, it makes sense to make easy adjustments in the field.

 

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I love this light, simple commercial Honda mower.

 

I openly confess to struggling with machines. I prefer handling plant material. But again, my advice to all landscapers is to become total professionals by knowing everything. That includes machines. So I took notes today when our guys were changing oil in the field.

Oil change in the field

Let’s take a look at a simple commercial Honda push mower.

  1. Locate the oil tank.

 

 

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2. Now we need to extract the used oil. It might help to run the mower briefly so the oil flows better. We used a fluid evacuator. Simply stick the hose into your oil tank and start pumping until the oil is out.  Never pollute. Put the used oil into your empty oil container and recycle it at a proper facility.

 

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3. Replenish your oil with the proper formulation. Check the owner’s manual. We used 10W-30 Lucas oil. The Honda push mower requires 250mL of new oil. The exact amount will depend on the model of your lawn mower.

Frequency of oil changes will depend on actual use. Our machines work hard all season so we change the oil every two weeks. One oil change for every twenty to fifty hours of use is a general guide.

My old Honda mower sees limited action so I change the oil once a year. However, that might be a mistake. I think seasonal oil changes would be better: spring, summer and fall.

 

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A funnel and measuring cup

 

In conclusion, it’s obvious that your mower will run better and last longer with regular oil changes. It definitely pays to stop during your busy week to do this quick change. Schedule it into your week and do it.

 

 

 

When landscapers decorate their house walls

By | Species, Tips | No Comments

You can easily decorate your house walls on a budget. I like to decorate my apartment walls with pressed plants put into cheap wooden frames. I started this when I collected samples of my favorite tree, Albizia julibrissin (silk tree). I wanted to keep it but I didn’t have the money for nice picture frames. It was the same with pressed tree leaves I collected in Western Japan.

Pressing plants

It is unlikely that you have proper plant presses at home. Not to worry. You can use older, heavier books. Put your collected leaf and flower parts into the pages of your book. Do it gently. Also make sure they aren’t wet. Do your collecting on sunny days. Once it’s all in, stack other books on top and leave it for a few days.

While you wait, visit your nearest Dollarama store and pick up cheap wooden frames. Mine cost $2-3 each.

After a few days, check on your pressed samples. Install them in your wooden frames. I like to label mine but it’s optional. I also find it useful to tape the samples into place so they don’t move when I put the glass on top. That’s it. You’re done. You can decorate your study, your hallway or your garage. All on a budget.

Past collections

This project reminds me of my undergraduate years at the University of Saskatchewan. My plant systematics professor issued proper plant presses to all of his students. He gave us the task of collecting plants and bringing them to class in September. Great! Now what? I had visions of Charles Darwin hopping on a ship expedition and disappearing for years. My story is much, much humbler.

Since I also needed cash, I took a low-paying motel job in a southern Saskatchewan town called Eastend. Town is a flattering description. I remember the people as friendly if slightly freaked out by my East European accent. Years later, someone would discover dinosaur bones in the area and tourism would improve. I have no desire to ever return there.

The collecting didn’t go well at first. The landscape was dry, sporting only grasses and cactuses. Pressing succulent cactuses is a bad idea. I was so inexperienced, I actually tried it.

Then I got a lucky break when I met a local teacher. He was very happy to take me to a nearby coulee. The place was predictably nice and green and my presses filled up fast. Thanks to this kind teacher, several of my samples were accepted into the university’s herbarium collection. They bear my name for future plant students to see.

Cruising

While my samples were drying I hung out with my employer’s kids. That’s when I experienced small town cruising where young people drive up and down the main street in town. This is what happens when you travel properly. Not like a tourist but like an embedded person. It was a bizarre way to spend an evening. But it was authentic. Sadly that was my first and last cruising experience.

Results

 

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