Monthly Archives

August 2017

When trees and artificial turf are incompatible

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance, Landscaping, Lawn Care | No Comments

My friend who specializes in artificial turf installs told me recently that he was killing it. Great. I was happy for him. He went through his apprenticeship by installing NFL turf and deserves his success.

However, there are some cases where installing artificial turf is a bad idea. Take for example the case below from the United States.



Picture used with permission.


Unhappy owner

The owner was unhappy with his lawn and approached his landscape company about replacing it with artificial turf. His landscaper was worried-correctly!-about removing four inches of turf and not adversely affecting the tree. Then she posted this picture in a Facebook group and asked people for their opinions.

Incidentally, I recommend joining a few Facebook lawn care groups. Many of the groups have thousands of members and interesting things pop us almost daily.

Let’s see

This is an interesting case so let’s see.

A) I presume that the tree shades out the grass when it pushes leaves out. You could prune the tree to allow for more light penetration. Another possibility is top-dressing with a light layer of soil and over-seeding with shade grass mix. Baby the lawn a little bit. Aerate it and fertilize it.

B) To install artificial turf you have to remove the top four inches of soil and install rock. You can read my blog about my friend’s project which shows the steps involved in installing artificial turf.

Since trees rely on surficial roots for water and nutrient collection this step would no doubt affect the tree. I also notice large roots that would make it impossible to install the turf perfectly flat.

And to prepare the rock for turf install, it gets compacted with a machine. We know soil compaction kills trees by limiting air and water uptake by surficial roots. Installing four inches of rock and compacting it all around the tree would have serious consequences for the tree.

C) I understand that most artificial turf models allow water to penetrate but I still think it wouldn’t be the same deal for the tree. Then there is the issue of heat. Natural grass produces oxygen and cools down our properties and cities. It’s the opposite with artificial turf. Once it’s installed it heats up and the soil underneath dies. I think the turf would simply “cook” the tree roots.

D) I believe the tree has to go before artificial turf can be installed. Imagine the full effect from grass cooling and tree shade to open artificial turf which absorbs heat and zero shade. Remember, artificial soccer fields should be watered down to protect the players on hot summer days.

E) Then there is the issue of cost. Artificial turf isn’t cheap but it’s easier to maintain than natural grass. I personally dislike anything artificial in my landscapes. Anything that kills soil is bad in my books.


The owners of this property have to find another solution to their grass problems. Artificial turf install is totally incompatible with the tree in their front yard. They can prune the tree and baby the grass. Or they can remove the tree to make way for artificial turf. Of course, this step loses the many ecosystem services provided free of charge by the tree and leads to soil death. I would personally avoid this second idea at all costs.


Courtesy blow in landscaping

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

Courtesy blow in landscape maintenance refers to final clean up with a backpack blower. It’s assumed that this will take place because, after all, your clients deserve it. It gives their place a nice finished look.

As landscape supervisor and trainer, I train all workers on the importance of a proper clean up blow. But as I found out this past weekend, not all landscapers understand this basic lesson. So please look at the pictures below from Pennsylvania, USA and identify some of the common deficiencies. What bothers you about these picture?




Lawn care basics

Well, what’s on your list? Incredibly, this is the finished product. I believe the elderly home owner was charged $75US for the job when the going rates are something like 50% of that amount.

One obvious defect is the mess of clippings left on the sidewalk. Again, courtesy clean-up blow is a rule in landscape maintenance. The site must be cleaned up and left as if you were never there. This is hardly the case.

Another defect is the shaggy lawn around the power pole. Perhaps line trimming wasn’t part of the deal but for $75US it should have been. By next week it will be even more obvious. And remember another landscape maintenance rule: the line trimming should match the height of your mower setting. Any decent lawn care professional should be able to match his trimming height to his mower.

Blade edging rules!

Lastly, the whole street hasn’t been blade edged in a long time. This is a mistake. Once the lawn starts creeping over into the sidewalk it makes edge re-establishment time consuming.

Take a minute to examine my work pictured below from a city park in Coquitlam, British Columbia. I blade edged the city side; the shaggy edge in front is on a private site. The landscapers there don’t use blade edgers. They vertical their edges with string trimmers.

The aesthetic difference is huge. I love sharp edges. The Pennsylvania street pictured above deserves a nice sharp blade edge. And yes, a final courtesy clean-up is mandatory. Follow the edge with your blower to make sure it’s nice and sharp.





Never leave your lawn care site without performing a courtesy clean-up blow. Line trim all edges at the same height as your mower. And periodically check your hard edges and re-establish them when necessary for a sharp, clean look.

Finally, consider getting Landscape Industry Certified so you can separate yourself from people who perform shoddy work.

Chinese windmill palms on the West Coast

By | Arborist Insights, Species, Trees | No Comments

I love palms! They remind me of tropical locations we all love to visit. So when the August 2017 issue of Arborist News featured an article on palms, I finished it on the same day. It also gave me one credit towards my recertification.

This blog post features a palm we see in the Vancouver area. I learned about Chinese windmill palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) after they got absolutely hammered this past winter at a client’s place. The lady was clearly distressed because the fronds were all beat up and brown. Plus, her palm was situated near her pool and outdoor kitchen. So I did the only thing I could; I pruned off the brown fronds. When my client retreated into her beautiful home, I snapped a photo of the palm tag and made a reminder to myself to check the species online.



This poor palm didn’t make it. All growth originates from the top and clearly, not much is happening there. But perhaps there is hope. See the next picture.



We almost gave up on this palm but look at it now!



This specimen survived the winter nicely.


Winter hardiness

Trachycarpus fortunei is the most tolerant to cold temperatures of all palmate palms. But remember, our last winter in British Columbia was the harshest winter in thirty years. My boss almost lost his juvenile Chinese windmill palm this year. See the second picture above. And it just so happens that my boss and my client both live in an area which held on to snow the longest.

The other complication is that mature Chinese windmill palms handle cold better. Younger specimens are most susceptible.


The Chinese windmill palm is a solitary fan palm with a slender trunk. The key distinguishing feature of this palm is a messy layer of brown fibers that turn gray with age.



Note the messy fibers.


The palmate fronds are up to two feet (0.6m) wide and deeply divided into one inch (2.54cm) wide, stiff segments. The petiole is 1.5 feet (0.5m) long and armed along the base with blunt teeth. Yes, the teeth are blunt but weeding around this palm is still unpleasant.

Mature specimens can reach 25 feet (7.6m) in height. This species is a good selection for small gardens.



All brown fronds should be pruned off.



This is a picture after pruning.


What palms grow in your home area?


References: Arborist News August 2017 volume 26, number 4, pp. 12-21. This is an excellent article. If you are ISA certified you can earn 1 CEU credit.

Hedge uses in the landscape

By | landscape maintenance, Landscaping | No Comments

Hedging is a common landscape element in gardens. On our strata sites it’s a similar story and as I found out, there are several different hedge uses.





Around the corner is a school and this prickly Pyracantha coccinea deters young people from hopping the fence. The plant lives up to its common name, fire thorn. Once you get it stuck in your body, get ready for swelling and pain. Rumour has it the youths still risk it to complete their illegal substance deals.


Car lights



This was a new idea. The laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’) behind the ladder is to be kept at the same height. It turns out that the units in the distance are bothered by car lights! Who knew? This sort of information has to be passed on before any pruning happens.






Privacy is a natural hedge use. Here there used to be a cedar hedge (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) but without help it died in one of our summer droughts. The yews (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’) are considered more resilient. Sadly, the last I heard on this hedge is that they too were struggling. Since I planted them personally, I find it distressing.

The residents were obviously glad to get their bedroom windows protected from passersby and windows from across the courtyard.


Site lines




The residents here are looking at a power station in the distance and its various towers and cables. Therefore, they asked us to plant more stuff in the wild zone. Obvious gaps were plugged up with cedar trees (Thuja plicata). Since this line of Pieris japonicas is the biggest we could find, the residents will have to wait for a bit before they grow up.






This is another common ploy. Green hedges are used to cover unsightly areas like this recycling box. Unfortunately, cedar hedges (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) are affected by shading from the box. Note the brown holes. Any shading over six months usually results in permanent browning.






Let’s not forget fun. Some people like to have fun with their hedges. While I’m not a fan, I don’t mind if the residents prune their hedges at angles that please them. Here future snow accumulations shouldn’t be an issue. This is Portuguese laurel (Prunus lusitanica).

Hedges serve many functions in our landscapes. I always prefer green barriers to structures like fences.

On branch attachment

By | Trees | No Comments

One day last year I went out for a jog at Shoreline park in Port Moody, British Columbia and ran past a fallen tree. Ok, trees fall all the time in the forest. But luckily the municipal workers made a nice clearance cut exposing one of the branch attachments. See the picture below.



Look how strong this branch attachment is. It belongs there.


Strong attachment

What do you notice? Do you see how the branch on the right is firmly attached? It’s solidly in place because it belongs there. It’s a true branch developed in a socket of overlapping wood tissue. So I stopped running and snapped a few photos. Then, after I resumed running I thought about my arborist friend’s tree lecture.

Paul Buikema is one of my tree mentors and his lectures are to be recommended. He related one story, complete with slides, showing a gorgeous deciduous tree with large leaves. I totally forgot the exact species. Paul was asked to prune it so he climbed inside. Then, horrified, he realized that all of the branches he was stepping on were pseudo-branches.

Weak attachment

The tree had been topped in the past and the branches Paul was standing on pushed out from apical meristems. Basically, when you top a tree, the buds nearest to the top push out and develop into branches. These are pseudo-branches, not real, strongly attached branches. They are attached only in the outermost layers of the parent branches and prone to failure.

Of course, Paul didn’t push his luck and bailed out of the project. It just wasn’t safe for him to stay there.



This is an illegally cut pin oak (Quercus palustris). Note the three shoots. They will never be as strong as normal branches.


This is an extreme example but it illustrates my point. This pin oak (Quercus palustris) was cut down illegally. Now look at the shoots. They will never be as strong as normal branches. Of course, I love the resilience of this oak. It’s pushing back after getting abused.



Don’t top trees

So here again we have one of the main reasons to not top trees. As the new pseudo-branches develop into big branches they can snap in wind or ice storms. This is one of the arguments arborists use to talk residents out of tree topping. Insisting on tree topping means that they accept future failure liability. That might scare them off.

If you want to read more about tree topping click here.


‘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 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.


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.


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


Pachysandra terminalis comeback

By | Species | No Comments

Water plays a crucial part in life. Humans and plants both need it to survive. And as the Lower mainland in British Columbia stays hot we are reminded of the importance of water in the landscape. Which brings me to a site in Surrey.

Take a minute to examine the picture below.




What do you see? Left to right, Hemerocallis, Pachysandra terminalis groundcover, grasses and Berberis thunbergii. That covers the plant species. Now, let’s back-up to last season.


This high-profile bed next to a busy sidewalk was completely bare except for some struggling islands of Pachysandra terminalis, a slow-growing groundcover that flowers. Towering above are beautiful native Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

The strata council wasn’t very happy with this arrangement so they asked for a quote to put some plants in. And so we did. Closest to the sidewalk we put Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro’, a much used perennial which flowered beautifully.





Then came grasses and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). Both species are tough once they establish. The purple Berberis foliage is attractive.



Berberis thunbergii



Once we finished the install, we had to water the new plants and irrigation was checked and improved to protect them.


Now back to the first picture above. Remember, we didn’t plant any Pachysandra terminalis in this bed. As irrigation came on, this groundcover came back. And furiously, considering that it’s a slow-growing plant. It’s now spreading throughout the bed as if it was reclaiming its bed from the new plants.

As it turns out, the groundcover simply didn’t have enough water. If the irrigation had been working properly all along, the new install wouldn’t have happened. I’m glad it did because it was a billable extra project; and it was fun because I worked alongside my boss.

If your plants struggle in the landscape check on them. Perhaps they just need extra care.