Category

Strata Maintenance

Space considerations on BC strata landscapes

By | Company News, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

There is only so much space available for plants on strata properties. When the complexes are first built they look great but over time, as plants mature, we start to run into problems. This blog post explores some common examples from my work sites.

 

Driveways

Some driveways are way too tight. Of course, this isn’t obvious at first because we landscapers don’t live on site. In the picture below there are two Berberis thunbergii specimens planted in front of boxwood (Buxus). Dead space just gets invaded by weeds and landscapers hate dead space. So we plant it up.

And then the owners come home……There is very little sense in replanting because the owners are bound to reoffend.

 

IMG_3765ed

Berberis thunbergii crushed by a car.

 

Holly

 

IMG_3747ed

 

It’s not clear whether this holly was planted by the owners or just simply invaded the space. Whatever the case, it’s way too close to the building. And that gets insurance companies very excited.

The holly could be pruned but that wouldn’t solve the problem. There simply isn’t enough space for this plant. My suggestion was complete removal and replanting with something smaller. There are many shrubs available that won’t overwhelm this space.

 

Plant separation

 

IMG_3887ed

 

I really like this one corner. The Hamamelis mollis shrub is blooming right under a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). The only blemish is the Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora) shrub that’s growing into the witch hazel and through the fencing. So I gave it a little hand-pruning to achieve a bit of separation.

As the landscape matures, there is more and more of this type of work. Sometimes, it’s necessary to edit out plants completely.

 

Trees

 

The idea that trees need room to grow seems obvious but people often forget to look into the future. Do you know the mature size of your landscape trees? Sure they look beautiful when they’re installed but without room to grow they inevitably get abused. Mainly by harsh pruning.

I have selected two examples from many. The first maple (Acer palmatum) is the saddest maple I know! The other maple is even worse off. So please remember to consider the mature size of your landscape trees. As an arborist I prefer complete removal to annual hacking.

Trees are resilient. They will push out new growth. Except we don’t have the required space for them.

 

IMG_3975ed

The saddest maple I know. It was planted too close to the unit so it gets hacked up periodically. I would almost prefer complete removal.

 

IMG_4068ed

This is nuts! A maple tree requires room for growth. Here it’s too close to a narrow pathway. It also shades out the cedars on the right.

 

Space considerations are a big deal on strata title properties. Remember to give plants room to grow and separate them when you can.

How to rock the first service day of a new contract

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | 2 Comments

It’s always exciting to take on a new strata landscape maintenance contract because the assumption is that your service will improve on the service of whoever did the site before. The fine print in your contract details exactly what will happen during the ten or twelve months to come.

First visit

I love the first visit. You get to walk the entire site and assess the highest priority sections to get hit first. This usually covers main entrances, clubhouses and mailboxes. When the site is especially large, you will have to develop a nice rotation so your service isn’t helter-skelter.

You also get to examine the dirty corners away from the main ‘beauty strip’ areas. Those corners that tend to get skipped or serviced very little. Previous pruning gets examined; and strata member introductions are made. No-go units must also be identified because some home-gardeners don’t want any service in their yards aside from lawn care. This is critical so we can avoid upsetting residents at the very beginning of our contract.

Recent example

Let’s take a look at what I saw on the first day of a new contract in Surrey.

 

Clean-ups

 

IMG_3737ed

 

This is an obvious task. Any leafiness from last fall must be cleaned-up. Dead plants are a huge problem so in January we catalogue them so we can deal with them in spring.

 

Plant separation

 

IMG_3848ed

 

It would be nice to get some plant separation by shearing both the Prunus laurocerasus and Euonymus alatus.

 

Ivy removal

 

 

IMG_3740ed

 

Left unchecked,  ivy (Hedera helix) will overwhelm the Euonymus alatus shrub. So I cut it away from the plant and cleared a circle around it. It will require attention periodically so the ivy doesn’t take too many liberties.

 

Nandina

 

IMG_3846ed

 

This doesn’t work because Nandina domestica doesn’t regenerate from pruning cuts. This plant requires a flush cut. It should send out shoots from the base, assuming it’s not dead.

 

Trees

 

IMG_3739ed

 

One quick hand saw cut will eliminate this unwanted branch. We don’t really want branches developing this low, except on very young trees where the branches protect new bark from sun rays.

 

No man’s land

 

IMG_3729ed

 

This is a classic no man’s land zone between units. It receives less attention so it’s weedy and full of garbage. Unless your landscape maintenance contract spells everything out, you can’t discriminate. You must cover the entire site.

 

Holly

 

IMG_3747ed

 

This holly was planted by the owners but long-term it will lead to problems because it’s already touching the building. This gets insurance companies very excited. I suggest complete removal and planting something more appropriate and less prickly.

There you have it. Not a bad first day. This site should be looking great twelve months from now.

 

How to pimp out your boulevard tree wells

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance, Trees | No Comments

Sometimes you look out on the boulevard at your strata site and the tree wells look a bit tired. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With some tools and a bit of soil amender you can quickly pimp out your tree wells and make them look great before the holiday season hits.

 

IMG_3329ed

This looks a bit tired.

 

Step 1

First we grab a nice sharp spade and we deep edge the tree wells. The spade must hit the edge at a ninety degree angle. Nothing else will do.

As for the depth, it should be deep enough to anchor the new soil that’s coming in but not too deep. We’re not building ditches although I have created some ankle-busters in my past. Soil conditions will sometime dictate the appropriate depth.

 

IMG_3330ed

Acer griseum tree well. You might as well remove the tree guard.

 

Step 2

I know, most people dread this step but we have to weed the tree wells nicely. Use a good cultivator and when you remove the weeds also grab the chunks from step 1.

 

IMG_3331ed

Nice and clean. The ground was a bit frozen so weeding was a challenge.

 

Step 3

Next, install good quality soil amender and pile it on nicely. Remember, it will settle so don’t worry if the tree wells look a bit puffy. This step gives you an instant upgrade because the fresh black soil looks great!

Warning: do you remember what a doughnut looks like? That is exactly what the soil around your tree should look like. Find the root flare and make the new soil level with it. Then build it up and taper it off as you hit your new deep edge.

Why? Because piling soil above the root flare leads to problems. For some reason, people love building soil pyramids at the base of trees. But it’s a common mistake. The bark above the root flare isn’t supposed to be in a dark, damp environment and it can over time rot. This in turn invites disease in.

Another potential problem is adventitious roots developing above the root flare inside your soil pyramid. There the roots start to circle and they can over time girdle the tree.

So remember, don’t create soil pyramids. Think doughnuts!

 

Step 4

The last step involves clean-up. Especially the grass edges of your new tree wells. Blow them off gently.

That’s it. Now your clients can enjoy beautiful boulevard tree wells on their Christmas holiday walks.

 

IMG_3339ed

All done! Weeded, edged and top-dressed. This is my kind of tree well.

Tips for fall leaf clean-up: how to avoid pyramids and skeletons

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Fall is here and the colours in the landscape are amazing. But it’s also busy time for landscape maintenance companies because all sites are getting leafy. So let’s go over some important tips before panic sets in. You can have a smooth fall season if you do things right.

 

IMG_2494ed

Don’t forget to enjoy the fall colours

 

 

Avoid pyramids

Pyramids belong in Egypt. I see this every year: eager and some not so eager new landscapers rake leaves into beautiful leaf pyramids as if it was a contest. But it isn’t. Remember our objective: we need the leaves loaded on our truck and quickly. And how do we accomplish it? By raking onto tarps from the get-go. All raking movement should be pushing leaves onto tarps.

When I handle large leaf piles I frequently put my first tarp right onto the pile. Try it.

 

IMG_2526ed

Don’t be shy. Place your tarp in the pile and stuff it in there.

 

Big boy for maximum drop

All trees will reach their maximum leaf drop at some point so push through it. The new Stihl 700 backpack blower is super powerful and perfect for big leafy accumulations. If you can get one, use it. It made a huge difference for us this week.

And remember, when you blow avoid pyramids. Create decent looking piles and move on. There are no extra points for beautiful symmetrical leaf piles. It’s a waste of time.

 

IMG_2521ed

The Stihl 700 blower is a beast. I love it!

 

Safety

The side panel on most backpack blowers shows warning signs so get to know them well. One of them warns us about long hair getting sucked into the back of the blower. Now, I never really worried about this because I never had long hair. I listened to my parents. And now that I am of a certain advanced age, growing long hair is not really an option. But still, you might have girls on your crew and young men who ignored their parents.

While blowing a large strata site on Halloween one of our blowers got jammed when a skeleton got sucked into the back of the blower. It was abrupt and loud. God help you if your ponytail gets sucked in. You’ve been warned.

 

IMG_2510ed

Read the warning signs on your blower before you use it. The green fabric used to belong to a skeleton. Once it got sucked in, it jammed the machine.

 

Personally, I love the fall. Once I clean up a leafy site, anything fresh on the ground is fine. It’s fresh so enjoy it. The fall is beautiful.

 

Helpers landscapers love to see

By | Landscaping, Lawn Care, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

While working yesterday, I ran into a worker every landscaper loves to see. Hired by the strata council he was on dog drop duty. Great. That really helps. I wish these dog waste companies were hired more often.

 

IMG_6925ed

 

Yes, most of the dogs you see on site are adorable and many of their female owners are, too. But let’s be honest, some backyards are totally disgusting. So disgusting I actually have to include warnings in my training.

I’ve seen new lawn care dudes totally paralyzed when the next yard they have to cut is completely covered in dog waste. So, if you can, mow around the piles. As the grass gets tall around the pile there is a chance the owner will get the hint.

Angry owner

Several years ago I was confronted by the strata owner of a small patch of what used to be a lawn. He was angry because now he had a meadow. Obviously, as the strata landscaper I had to stay polite so I gently pointed out the massive piles of dog waste by now hidden in the tall grass. Nobody on the crew wanted to mow that yard.

Incidentally, when grasses are allowed to mature, they can reproduce sexually. I doubt this even entered the owner’s mind.

Now, he was really angry telling me there wasn’t anything buried in his lawn. And as he was saying this to me, he side-stepped along the wall, never actually stepping in his own meadow. Aha, case closed.

Doggy bags

If you have a weak stomach, skip this paragraph. Mower decks covered in dog waste are bad but nothing beats line trimming accidents. I openly admit to once slicing through an old improperly disposed of doggy bag. I have no idea how to describe the contents of an old doggy bag in language I can print. It’s a sick accident. No wonder I get excited when I see dog waste removal dudes.

Procedures

We mow around dog waste piles if possible. We skip totally covered yards. Some owners get notices; some get letters from strata council. All new workers are trained to line trim with goggles and their mouths closed. All workers have the right to refuse maintenance work in disgusting yards.

If you have a problem on site, definitely call a dog waste removal company. Your landscapers will love you for it.

 

IMG_6926ed

 

IMG_6927ed

Obstruction in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Obstruction in the landscape is a well-known theme but it’s often missed or ignored. Especially by newer crew leaders and workers. So let’s examine some cases of obstruction and learn from them.

 

Spring rains

This is what happens after spring rains and early season growth. All of a sudden we have obstruction everywhere. Immediate corrective action is required by people’s front doors.

 

IMG_3201ed

 

Walkways

It happens all the time. Your new worker concentrates on his lawns and in his rush to complete the work places his tarps on walkways. Then a senior citizen pulls up in a motorized scooter and we have a problem. If you think senior citizens aren’t capable to angry outbursts and middle finger salutes, think again. Never block walkways.

 

18119349_10203111679748423_6949587408846556966_n

This isn’t the best place for a tarp.

 

IMG_4381ed

Much better and stress-free!

 

Signs

Signs exist because they have a message to convey. It’s easy for vegetation to obscure them so check your sites and take action. This is especially true for sites you have recently taken over.

 

IMG_4202ed

 

IMG_4203ed

Much better.

 

Exits

All exits should be clear. This example is from a neglected strata site. I pruned off the offending maple tree (Acer circinatum) branches in a few minutes. The residents must have been ducking here for months.

 

IMG_4472ed

 

IMG_4676ed

Another walkway example with Indian plum going wild.

 

IMG_4677ed

Problem solved!

 

Peonies

Peonies usually require staking and more space. I used a bit of string and two minutes.

 

IMG_4689ed

 

IMG_4704ed

 

Parking stalls

Parking stalls should always be clear of any obstructions. This took one cut with my snips.

 

IMG_4889ed

 

IMG_4890ed

Done!

 

Vehicle site lines

This one is much harder to spot. Residents driving out couldn’t clearly see other approaching vehicles so I had to prune the maples. Note that you should be able to see through Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) anyway.

 

IMG_4758ed

 

IMG_4760ed

 

Dog waste

This is a most disagreeable topic but let’s not be shy. This is what it looks like on the ground for landscape maintenance workers. The ignored long grass indicates the presence of large dog waste piles. So in this case the obstruction is created by the owners.

 

IMG_4691ed

Dog waste in the open, urine soaked lawn and hidden inside shaggy islands.

 

Future obstruction

This is an interesting small yard. I once took the liberty of pruning a few branches off this Magnolia so we could get through the gate. The owner had a fit, calling us nasty names. Unjustly, I believe. She planted two Magnolias in her small yard never bothering to read the tree tags still attached to the trees. Considering the future size of these trees I fully expect this owner to beg me to prune her trees in the future. Always consider the mature size of your new trees before planting them.

 

 

IMG_4947ed

 

Obstruction in the landscape is a well-known theme. Train your workers to spot it and correct it.

How to give your lawn a facelift with power rake and soil

By | Lawn Care, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Yes, it’s finally spring on the West Coast, so why not give your lawn a facelift? Perhaps you have bare spots showing in your lawns. Let’s add a light layer of top soil and over seed it. Or there is too much thatch and moss in your lawn. In that case, we can bring out a power rake and comb out the offenders from your lawn.

With moisture and higher temperatures your lawn should perk up very soon.

I did some of this work last week so let’s recap the steps so you can do it for your own lawn. Or you can hire a good landscape company that will do it for you Properly.

 

Power raking 101

The power rake doesn’t look like much but it packs a punch, if you let it punch. The key issue is the height level of your tines. If you drop them low, the machine will rip up your lawn. So be ready for some bare brown spots that will need an application of good, weed-free top soil and over seeding.

If you set the machine high, you will just tickle your lawn. So experiment and adjust the height depending on the condition of your lawn.

The key number two is clean up time. Don’t underestimate your clean up times. If you hit your lawn hard, expect to rake up a lot of debris. Budget your time accordingly.

If your lawn is fine

If your lawn only suffers from some bare spots, then skip the power raking step and move on to top dressing. We need good quality top soil, most likely turf blend. Turf blend contains a higher percentage of sand. It should also come from a good source and be weed-free. There is nothing worse than saving a few dollars per yard only to introduce weeds into your landscape.

 

IMG_2840

 

 

The rule for top-dressing is to rake the soil in nicely so that your bare spots are covered but the rest of your grass isn’t smothered. Rake the soil nicely into your existing grass. It should still be visible.

Over seeding is also very easy. Just beware of wind. Apply seed carefully around bed edges so you don’t create a headache for later. Monitor your lawn for seed germination and re-apply as required. With some moisture and higher temperatures everything should be fine.

 

step 1 power rake

IMG_2829 (1)

 

step 2 rake up

IMG_2834

 

step 3 top dress with soil

IMG_2831 (1)

 

step 4 rake in the soil

IMG_2830 (1)

 

step 5 over seed

IMG_2843 (1)

 

Your lawn will thank you for your hard work!

How to achieve privacy with yew hedging

By | landscape maintenance, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Privacy is a huge issue at some multi-family strata complexes. One way of achieving privacy is through hedging. This then was my task late in March. I’m not sure why the previous landscape maintenance company didn’t complete this project. It was clearly near the top of the strata list. It took me one day to complete it. I hope the residents appreciate their new privacy.

Step 1 Supplies

The first step obviously involved shopping for supplies. I picked up pre-ordered yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’) at Specimen Trees in Pitt Meadows, a wholesale tree and shrub supplier. I love this place because it’s full of labelled trees and one of friends works there. Since it rained heavily, off-roading in my company truck was a huge bonus.

I also picked up a yard of soil amender. KEY: always top-dress your new installs for instant great look and to give the new plants a nice ‘kick’ with fresh soil.

 

IMG_2541

Pre-ordered yews at a wholesale nursery

 

Step 2 Bed preparation

This step was fairly easy because there used to be a row of cedars providing privacy; until they died. This meant that the new grass wasn’t as established and the soil underneath was good. KEY: Considering the recent summer heat wave and winter snow load damage done to our landscape cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’), companies are switching to sturdier yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’).

First, establish a deep edge line with a ninety degree edge. Then, dig up the turf and remove it. Warning: not all facilities consider grass chunks as green waste so ask first. It’s still fairly cheap to dump it but make sure it’s on the correct pile, especially if there are rocks attached.

Complete your bed preparation by levelling off the soil.

 

IMG_2543

Establish deep edge.

 

IMG_2545

Remove all grass chunks.

 

IMG_2548

There used to be a cedar hedge here so the soil is fairly good.

 

Step 3 Yew install

I set out all twenty yews in the bed to make sure the spacing was correct. Then I installed the yews one by one. Each yew was treated the same exact way. Each plant was set in the hole and positioned so its best side faced the walkway. Who wants to look at stems? Make sure the plant is nice and green and full on the high-profile side.

Next, cut the string and remove it. Also remove the top third of the burlap. Then plant the yew slightly higher in the hole because the root flare is slightly hidden in the clay root ball; and remember, we will be top dressing everything at the end.

KEY: Backfill your planting holes with the original soil. It might be tempting to use the nice new amender from the truck. Don’t do it. Water will find it easier to enter the planting hole, it will waterlog and your yews will fall down like joysticks. Always use the original soil for back filing.

 

IMG_2549

Set it out and check for correct spacing

 

Step 4 Double-check and top-dress

Almost done! Double-check every single yew for positioning and then top-dress with soil amender. KEY: Make sure the plant root flares aren’t covered in inches of soil. Install the soil so it doesn’t cover the root flare. Then, touch up your deep edge, collect any debris or garbage and do a courtesy blow.

 

IMG_2553

All done!

 

Conclusion

Projects like this can be very satisfying. The residents get some privacy back and your helpers get to break their landscape maintenance monotony. The yews should perform better than the original cedars.

 

 

 

Grinding through winter landscapes

By | Landscaping, Seasonal, Strata Maintenance | No Comments

Last year came to a close with unusually cold temperatures and lots of snow in the Lower Mainland. As I write this blog post in early February, 2017, the cold weather continues. While working in cold weather with frosty landscapes can get very old and annoying, there is work. If you look closely. Some of it is obvious; some of it requires imagination. Consider yourself lucky if your employer let’s you work. In winter seasons past I used to get my work hours cut just because it happened to be foggy outside. Foggy!

 

The obvious

Snow clearing from walks and roads. The obvious and back-breaking task. Dress well and have some spare snow shovels ready. Just in case. Hydrate properly. Clear off high-profile walkways and car ramps.

IMG_0326IMG_0324

Brushing snow of plants. Gently take the load off. This will prevent damage. The Nandina domestica below must feel better.

IMG_0347IMG_0346

 

Surveying for damage. There will be branches to prune off and shrubs to stake or tie back.

Tree pruning. Assuming it’s not extremely cold outside, tree pruning is a perfect winter activity. The crown structure is clearly visible. Identify broken, crossing and rubbing branches; and anything dead or diseased. Identify every single tree species on your site using scientific names.

Cedars. Unless it’s extremely cold outside and positioning your ladder looks sketchy, cedar hedges can be sheared. Don’t forget you can warm up your hands on the gear case of your power shears. Just make sure the shear blades are stopped! No, it’s not very safe but what do you do with frost bitten hands?

Perennial and grass cutback. Some perennials get missed in fall or they are left to provide some winter interest. For example, Sedums and ornamental grasses. If you see snow damage it’s OK to cut them back.

 

The less obvious

River rock install. This was unexpected but it made perfect sense. Imagine a deserted landscape supply store on a cold morning. Loading my truck was quick and easy. No waiting. The client needed to cover up plastic that was protruding from her patio rocks. So we buried it with 2-6″ rover rock. As she came out to inspect the work and point out the protruding plastic, we enjoyed the heat escaping from her unit!

Drains. It’s critical to expose all snow covered drains. Before the surrounding areas flood. This step often gets skipped because it’s assumed municipalities are responsible for it. They are but they’re also busy. Be glad you have some work to do.

Exploring new sites. As new sites come on, this is a good time to familiarize yourself with your new work areas. Walk every inch, make notes, written and mental. Take pictures. Survey. You’ll be glad you did when the weather improves. This includes site clubhouses with washrooms and heat. Consider a brief safety meeting as you defrost. Just don’t make a mess.

Tree stake removal. Check to see how long the tree stakes have been on the trees. Anything over one year should be removed. Unless it’s a special case like downhill leaning pines that would collapse instantly. Staked trees fail to form reaction wood which is formed when wind events run though. It makes trees stronger.

IMG_0460

 

Tree training. Now is a good time to take a new arboriculture apprentice and point out weak, crossing and damaged branches.

Blowing snow. I hate blowers and the noise they make but there are cases when blowing snow makes a lot of sense. We exposed the light top layer and shovelled the remainder, thus saving ourselves a lot of time and back-breaking labour. Ice can also be blown away if you’re patient enough to let air build up under the ice. This can actually be a fun activity.

 

Conclusion

There is winter work to be done even when the weather does not cooperate. Just do it safely. Dress properly. I spent money today on a new, warmer toque, $1.99 on a neck warmer, and new, what I hope will be much warmer gloves. Test day tomorrow. There will be food on the table for my kids. That thought always warms me up!

It’s also a good idea to enjoy the frosty landscape views. Kids make cute snowmen; the mountains look great covered in white. Make the best of it.

 

IMG_0245


untitled

Allright ladder fun

By | gardening, Landscaping Equipment, Strata Maintenance, Tips | No Comments

Tripod ladders rule

Japanese-style tripod ladders are excellent landscape and garden tools! Out in the field helping one of our strata maintenance crews with pruning, I took my lunch and opened up the Vancouver Sun. There, on page B3 was an article on ladders by Steve Whysall. Happy coincidence!

Let’s get to the best part right away. The single peg on the ladder is brilliant because you can position it almost anywhere. It will fit through hedges and you can punch it into your soil for stability. The most common size is ten feet. Since I was pruning small hedges in tight entrances, the small six foot ladder was perfect. It’s light to carry and maneuver and it got me just high enough to perform my cedar shearing. Lifting the extendable shears above my shoulders is tiring and leads to needless exhaust sucking. Why do that? Always position yourself for maximum output and comfort.

 

IMG_9389

6 ft ladder is easy to maneuver in tight entrances and gets you just high enough to shear the cedars nicely

 

Safety

Obviously, the bigger the ladder and the higher you are, the bigger the dangers. Always think about safety. Don’t rush. My only serious injury in seventeen seasons of landscaping happened while I was descending one of the bigger ladders. It was a 12 or 14 foot “widow-maker”. I started descending before my power shears were completely stopped. Yeah, I know, this was early in my career. Then my thumb met the steel blades. If it hadn’t been for my nail, the top of my thumb would have been missing. I still recall my helper down below, horrified by my blood dripping on her.

Incidentally, this was also the first- and I hope only- time when I jumped the line at a walk-in medical clinic. I remember an older gentleman probably waiting for his cough syrup, objecting to my line jump. I couldn’t care less.

The Allright Ladder Company is based in Vancouver and it is the oldest ladder company in Canada. They’ve been making them since 1921. Visit their website for safety information or read the Vancouver Sun article sidebar.

As the fall and winter pruning seasons come, I will use these Japanese-style tripod pruning ladders often. Consider getting one for your garden. Most landscape companies have them on their trucks.

 

IMG_9390

6 ft is the smallest available ladder from Allright