Perfect lawn: “American Green” book review

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This is a true story about green lawns and how they came to dominate in the United States. Ted Steinberg’s “American Green: the obsessive quest for the perfect lawn” is an excellent book.


Steinberg is an environmental historian and it shows. Landscapers, gardeners, and people who love or hate lawns should definitely read it. As a landscape professional I found it fascinating on my second reading.

The book isn’t new. It was published in 2006. I read it and my copy ended up in storage until now. My second reading was better. I recommend buying the softcover edition for your own library.

Steinberg takes you from the Origins, through the Dark Side and into the Future. With global warming and severe droughts in California, the Future chapters would look different if the second edition were to be published now in 2016.

Some things haven’t changed. People still die in ride-on mower accidents and Latinos still dominate the workforce in places like California. The excerpts from Spanish Phrases for Landscaping Professionals alone are worth the book cost. For example, Nosostros no ofrecemos seguro de salud (we don’t offer health insurance.)

In the Origins you will meet the key characters that shaped the landscape industry and made the lawn a key feature. It really is a fascinating question: why should the lawn dominate so much? A huge industry developed around it as landscape turned into landscaping. A father and son would share the lawn care work around their home but eventually a new industry rose up to do the work for them. Fertilizer and pesticide use went up and soon a debate started. Lawn lovers versus detractors.



This client loves his lawns….


The case for brown lawns now makes a lot of sense. With water restrictions in the US and Canada, it makes sense to let  lawns go dormant in summer. Unless you are rich and living in a place where brown can’t happen. But that will be the subject of a future blog post based on a recent Harper’s magazine story from California.

You can dive deep into this subject if you follow Steinberg’s notes. I looked up an interesting story from 1983. It was a case where a wife in Massachusetts wanted to surprise her husband with a beautiful lawn. She hired a company but managed to catch a worker urinating on her property. When she confronted him, he assaulted her, choked and strangled her and eventually crushed her skull with pieces from a retaining wall.

Defence lawyers argued that repeated exposure to chemicals made the 23 year old worker unable to decide between right and wrong. The jury disagreed. First degree murder charge carried an automatic life sentence for the recent college graduate. A sad and bizarre story.

If you work in the green industry, this is one must-read book. Likewise if you love or hate lawns. Five stars out of five.



Vas now understands how landscape turned into landscaping

Vancouver Tree Book

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Vancouver Tree Book by David Tracey is now available in bookstores. Normally I would wait for Amazon to ship the book but I didn’t want to wait. Not for a new tree book. I picked it up from Chapter’s for $21, tax included. Not bad.

It’s pocket-sized and features 100 trees. It will easily slip into your backpack. One nice touch is that we are given actual City of Vancouver spots where the trees can be seen. There is also a list of 10 treasured trees in the city.

The illustrations are very nice. Since this is a pocket guide, only basic information is presented. After scanning the guide, it’s clear I still have some work left to do on my tree identification skills. Not to worry. I will get there. I’m an arborist just like Tracey.

Having discovered Acer campestre in Langley and nowhere else, I was relieved to find out that there are plenty of specimens in Vancouver. My favorite tree, Albizia julibrissin is also in the guide, which means the guide automatically gets a passing grade.

The guide makes references to an earlier book on Vancouver Trees. Trees of Vancouver by Gerald B. Straley we learn is now out of print (I have a copy!) . Sadly, the author has passed away. That makes my copy that much more precious.

Unlike Tracey’s pocket guide, this is a bigger book that covers over 470 trees and includes leaf drawings. In the middle are 86 beautiful color photographs. Location information is also given which makes it easy for you to locate your favorite species. Tracey obviously copied this handy approach.



New and pocket-sized, 100 trees



Information on 470 trees, now out of print


This is a handy guide for all green professionals. It’s well worth $21. I will now go through it and scan it for the species I don’t yet know well. I hope you do the same.


Crazy about gardening: Des Kennedy

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Crazy about gardening

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes. Walking back to my car after returning bottles for deposit, I noticed a used bookshop sign. Closing, Final day, 70% off all used books. Aha. A very pleasant detour on my way to discovering Des Kennedy.

Half an hour later I walked out with the BC garden writer’s book. At $1.30 it was a steal. Kennedy is an award-winning writer and it shows. “Crazy about gardening” is a funny book. It’s subtitled “Reflections on the sweet seductions of a garden“. So we know this isn’t a technical manual. The lessons are subtle, mixed in with jokes and stories. If you let him, Kennedy has plenty to teach you.

There were also many spots where I almost reached for my dictionary. I also enjoyed the odd poem:

Life’s a short summer, man a flower.

He dies-alas! how soon he dies.

Obviously, just like stand-up comedy, your enjoyment is directly related to your age and experience. If you are an experienced gardener, you will definitely be entertained. If you are new to gardening, read and learn. Your vocabulary will also improve.

Some highlights

Kennedy hires a water diviner to find water on his property. A water witch. I find this fascinating because my own grandfather did this with outrageous accuracy just outside Prague. As a little city kid, visiting the country, I found it amazing. Grandpa would pick a branch, slice one end in half, grab one end with each hand and walk. Once he hit water, the top uncut end of the branch would dip down towards the ground. Success. Grandpa also made money by digging wells. The hard way.

Dog days droop. Kennedy makes fun of the late summer period when what was beautiful is all of a sudden dreary and desiccated. Pests multiply. April energy is long gone. The gardener temporarily loses grip.

Lawns. We know they use water, fertilizers, herbicides, and require time and effort to maintain. It’s a bizarre fetish. Once the lawn is nicely cut Kennedy admits to feeling a “bizarre little thrill of satisfaction, of emotional well-being.” I concur. There is something to this.

At $1.30 this book was a steal. Des Kennedy is worth whatever Amazon charges for his books. Give him a try.






Sales and 10x life: Meet Grant Cardone

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Like most landscape professionals, I have a few private clients. Just as I finished my lawn care duties on my bi-weekly run on the Westwood Plateau, I noticed the house next door was for sale. Open house scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The landscaping looked awful. The owners had clearly moved out.

This is where Grant Cardone comes in. He is a millionaire sales professional, speaker, author and real estate investor in the USA. I have several of his books on audio. I took away two key ideas from his writings.

A) We are all selling

You may not be in sales but it’s guaranteed you are selling daily. If not goods, then ideas and projects to your partner, family, friends, co-workers, etc. I had always considered sales people to be high-pressure hustlers. A bit sleazy. Some are. But I’ve changed. I’m selling my services and ideas all the time.

B) 10x your life

The second powerful idea is to 10x your life. Whatever you are doing, do it ten times better. For example, my side-hustle landscaping income. My study of the landscaping industry.

Back to Westwood Plateau. The home for sale clearly needed some attention. List price: $1.12 million. So I called the selling realtor. A rare cold call for me! She agreed that the landscaping could use attention. Could I cut it on Friday? Of course. She cut me a cheque and left it on the front porch. Done deal. Double what the lady next door pays me!

I cut and edged the front lawns. Blade edging clearly had not been done for months so I re-established all hard edges. Courtesy blow closed out the session. Then the buying agent showed up. His Porsche driving clients wondered if I came with the house. Very funny.



Grass cut, edges re-established, crack weeds buzzed down.


Action steps

Get to know Grant Cardone and improve your sales. Take your life and 10x everything. See what happens.

If you see me hustling on the Westwood Plateau, say Hi.



Abiotic tree injuries: girdling

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Tree girdling

As landscape supervisor and arborist I reported for duty one fine spring day in White Rock. The request was to check on a dead Acer palmatum tree. Great, let’s see. What I found was a classic example of abiotic tree injury: girdling. In this case it was caused by an overzealous bird lover. The bird feeder string was left in place too long. Once the tree grows and “swallows” the string, there is nothing we can do. Nothing.

Tree girdling leads to two huge problems:

a) It restricts the flow of water and nutrients up the tree. The branch above the constriction eventually starves and dies. See the pictures below.

b) Trees fail at the point of constriction.



This tree owner is a bird feeder fanatic. Top area is clearly dead.



The only life is below the girdling zone where water and nutrients can reach.


Forgotten pines


Sadly, it got worse. An adjacent property has a long wild zone fence line. Hidden in the vegetation are staked pines. Staked and forgotten. The result is the same as above or worse, where the whole pine expired. I presume the pines started leaning and someone staked them with ArborTie. This material replaces wire and hose, it’s cheaper, safe, soft and simple to use.

But in the case below the arbortie was incorrectly tied with knots and left. Since the pines were leaning, there was no “play” on the arbortie. It should be checked periodically. Remember this is a low-profile wild zone between homes and a city park.




This pine was one of many; staked and forgotten.


Action steps

What can we do? Nothing against birds but tree owners should be discouraged from installing bird feeders on their trees. But if they must, then let’s at least use appropriate materials and check on the install periodically to prevent girdling. We can’t reverse girdling.



Facing your hardscape fears

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Hardscape shock

2014, Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Sitting in my Red Seal challenge preparation course I was shocked to find out that landscape horticulture involved a lot of hardscape construction. One third of the exam, to be exact. And I wasn’t alone. Many of the other candidates also expected questions on plant families and specific plant species. Clearly, we were about to face our fears.

Fast forward to August, 2016. My boss needed help fixing a hazardous spot at the top of a walkway. Uh-uh. Here we go. No more textbooks. This was real life. Plus consider that I prefer working with live plants. I find hardscape materials too cold.

This is what I learned as I faced my fears.

Basics of paving stone repair

A) Taking notes and pictures as you dismantle everything is very important. It makes it easier later when the stones go back in. Stack everything intelligently.

B) Install mason sand (finely crushed sand) to build up the low spots. Park as close as you can to your work area. Our access was limited which meant bucket work. And lots of sweat.

C) Use tamper tool to flatten the sand and even it out.

D) Re-install bricks and use rubber mallets to beat them into place. Pray they all fit.

E) Cover the stones with mason sand and broom them into gaps.

Mission accomplished. Sort of. The big hole was gone but since there was still a small tripping hazard, we will have to go back and dismantle a larger area. Maybe I will call in sick. Or go and face my fears.



A nasty wash-out at the top of a staircase



Keep track of dismantled stones; install mason sand and use tamper tool



Stones go back in, pray it all fits, use rubber mallets



brush mason sand into gaps



fine mason sand



Tools you will need

Rhododendron pruning 101: rejuvenation

By | Education, gardening, Landscaping, Tips | One Comment

Three pruning actions on rhododendrons

There are three pruning actions associated with rhododendrons. One is the removal of spent flowers (trusses) and any diseased or dead wood. Most rhodos produce seeds and you can get your rhodo to concentrate on growth by removing the spent flowers. Do this soon after flowering before the new buds get big and set. I prefer hand pinching. Just be careful so you don’t injure the buds below. Use hand snips if you are worried.



Trusses still on



Trusses pinched off


The second pruning action is for shape. Just follow the branch down to the last whorl of leaves you want to keep and cut just above those leaves. This is what I recommend to clients who wish to keep their rhododendrons from getting too big.

But what if your rhodo is too big? Now what? In this case we employ pruning action three: rejuvenation, which sounds better than renovation. This involves bravely making large cuts and significantly reducing the plant size. This works because rhodos are special. Examine their bark and look for tiny pink dots. Those are latent buds. Always aim to cut above these buds. Best case: cut above a cluster of latent buds. Then watch.

One example

Here is one example from my work site. This rejuvenation pruning was done at a corner unit where there was a problem with vehicle sight lines. Drivers couldn’t see properly when turning. So out came the saw as soon as the request was made. This was the result.



Not much to look at right after pruning. Reduced to 30%.


A few weeks later…..



Latent buds popping



Latent buds in action, a cluster of four buds below the cut



Much better after a few weeks







September 2016



September 2016



Rhododendrons are forgiving plants. Pinch off flower clusters (trusses) soon after flowering and prune for size. Bravely make big cuts if rejuvenation is required.


References: Fine Gardening, issue 86.

Develop your landscape eye

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Landscape eye

Developing your landscape eye is a critical skill. It takes time to develop but your landscape, bosses and clients will thank you for it. Basically, landscape eye refers to your ability to read a landscape and figure out what’s missing, totally wrong or just slightly off. This usually comes with experience once workers are fully proficient on all equipment.

I started landscaping at a prominent Lower Mainland landscape maintenance corporation we don’t need to name. There, the in-house seminar on “Developing your landscape eye” was delivered by the company owner. Not managers. The owner. That was no accident. Workers with good landscape eye can make corrections which leads to sharper and healthier landscapes. This seminar was a platform for the company owner to train his workers to see the landscape the way he does.

Some obvious examples are weeds, shrub spikes, walkway obstruction, flower deadheading, broken tree branches, tree branches touching buildings, missed blade edging, lawns that don’t look lush, dead plants, garbage, debris, cedar pruning lines, shoddy clean ups, etc.




Obvious weed problem



Ask yourself: how were these weeds allowed to get this big?



A broken Acer circinatum branch: remove ASAP


IMG_6873 (79)ed

Pinus mugo half way across sidewalk: prune back



A broken branch on Liquidambar styraciflua in a high-profile location



Dead cedars



Yucca flower spike can be removed



Mulch volcano: we can’t cover with mulch anything above the root flare or the tree suffers



Very poor tree cuts: the cut below was correct



Hardscape hazards



Tree collisions: to stay on the curb, mowers collide with this tree weekly. Put up a tree guard and instruct workers to avoid all collisions. Repeated abuse kills trees.



The deep edge is fine (90 degrees!) but we can’t leave the chunks. Very poor clean up.



This is common: tree branches touch the building



Remove low branches on trees; we can’t have branches develop this low



Remove suckers off tree trunk (above) and ivy (Hedera helix) below


As you move and work through your gardens and landscapes, pause to take a good look. Does it all makes sense? Is it all healthy and beautiful? Work on developing your landscape eye.

How to easily score education credits (CEUs)

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Hunting for education credits (CEUs) is one of my favorite activities. The idea is to force you to upgrade your skills by continually learning through reading, attending seminars, symposiums and taking quizzes. ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) requires me to collect 30 CEUs in one three year re-certification period. The re-certification renews on the date of your certification. June in my case.

The Landscape Industry Certified program in North America requires 24 CEUs every two years. Certification expires on December 31, every two years. In Canada, the CNLA will send a friendly reminder. There is a form to fill out and mail back.

To re-certify:

a) will cost you money but it’s cash well-spent. If you ask your employer nicely, it won’t cost you anything. The cost of not re-certifying is much higher. Re-certify!

b) normally one hour spent in class or reading equals one credit. By completing my eleven hour audiobook “Lab girl”, I will be eligible to claim eleven hours; a one-page book report is required.

So what does a West Coast landscape pro do to stay certified and up-to-date? Take a look at the picture for clues.




Arborist News

Arborist News magazine is published bi-monthly by the ISA and every issue has one CEU article for you to complete. You can fill in your answers and mail the form in or complete it online. The ISA will automatically add the credits to your file.

The magazine also advertises various books and manuals you can complete for CEUs. Get whatever interests you or where your knowledge is the weakest. There are tons of choices.

Can-West Hort Show

This is the premier horticulture show in British Columbia. I will attend the Urban Forester’s Symposium. Five hours of lectures equals five ISA CEUs. Lunch is included. ISA sign up form will be provided. Bring your certification number.

The CNLA will also credit me with five CEUs for this symposium. Then I have two more seminars on the following day. 1.5 hours x 2= 3 CEUs for a total of 8 towards my CLT.

The best part of this event is the plant ID contest booth. No CEUs are given here but you can win a prize and outscore your friends.

Also, it’s a great event for creating new contacts and maintaining existing ones. Some people I will only see once a year at this horticulture show!


As mentioned above, the CNLA will credit you for every hour spent reading green industry related books. Trees: their natural history by Peter A. Thomas was the one tree book recommended by Dr. Hope Jahren in her book “Lab girl”.I can’t think of a better way to collect CEUs.

Collecting CEUs for re-certification is not a pain. It’s a fun investment of your time and money. Stay current in your field and deliver great value to your company and clients.



“Lab girl” book review

By | Arborist Insights, Books, Reviews, Species | No Comments

LAB GIRL” by Dr. Hope Jahren is a fantastic book! That is, if you like plants, science or you are considering a career in academia. I purchased the audio version and listened to the book during my weekend work sessions. Dr. Jahren’s Ph.D. dissertation was about a tree. Her work focuses on plants and their longevity. Paleobiology.

The chapters nicely alternate between personal life and science. I openly confess to enjoying the science chapters more. It seemed like there were too many lab set-up references. But this connects to Dr. Jahren’s constant side-kick, lab researcher Bill. The two are inseparable. After finishing the book you might feel the urge to visit with Bill. He is a pretty interesting character.

Key idea 1: If you want to make it in academia as a female Ph.D., get ready for a bumpy ride. Male professors have doubts, funding and grants are a constant headache. This book should be required reading for any female considering a career in US academia.

Key idea 2: Plants, especially trees, are incredibly fascinating. I already knew that. You will, too, after reading “Lab girl”. Consider the case of resurrection plants. They are so brown and dry, we would consider them dead, and toss them. But wait. A bit of moisture brings them back to life. This can repeat many, many times, until eventually they do die. These are the only plants that have figured out how to grow without being green!

Seeds are also amazing. Alive, they can wait for hundreds of years before taking a chance and emerging. Their one chance. What exactly triggers it?

Key idea 3: The book closes with a personal request from the author to plant a tree at your home. If you can. The planet is losing green cover every year. This small act of planting a tree or two will help.

Key idea 4: To learn more about trees, Dr. Jahren recommends Peter A. Thomas’ “Trees: Their Natural History“, about $50 from By the time this blog post is published, I expect to have it finished. In paperback form.

The book has a happy ending. Hope marries, has a child and the family settles in Hawaii. So does Bill. Of course. I love plants so I give it 5 stars out of 5.