All Posts By

Vas Sladek

Felco forever!

By | Tools | No Comments

Throw away society

When snow last week kept me at home, I turned to blogging. I always have a list of blog post ideas and a folder full of clippings and articles. One of those articles came from the Vancouver Sun newspaper.

The writer commented on our throw away society and I agreed with her hundred percent. I’m as guilty as the next person. Although, I should add, that I’m changing. I signed up for an account at Return-It and ordered free sticker labels. Now all I do is attach one label to a clear garbage bag full of bottles and drop it off. No more sorting filthy bottles.

Return-It itemizes all returned bottles and deposits the money to my account. I can let it accumulate there or redeem it to straight to my chequing account.

The next step for me will be recycling old electronics and cables which are rapidly accumulating in my place as my kids turn into teenagers.

Felco forever

Now back to the Sun article. What struck me was that the writer used Felco snips as an example of a tool designed to last forever. And Felcos really do last forever. The red rubber coated handles will easily outlive me.

I did a little maintenance experiment with my Felco 2s because they are easier to dismantle. They sport just one bolt. So, I popped it, cleaned out the main surfaces and installed a brand new blade.

Then, I replaced the spring. Those are the two components that you will ever have to change. The total retail cost was about C$25 and I’m hoping to submit it as a business expense on my taxes next year.

The difference in cutting quality is noticeable. The snips make nice sharp cuts easily. So easily, I regretted not composing this blog post earlier.

Incidentally, pruning demands sharp tools. Snips, loppers and hand saws. Dull tools make poor cuts and tend to shred plant tissues. Always use sharp tools.

Felco 2s with a brand new blade and spring

Conclusion

Felcos are great so they’re not cheap. But the up-front C$80 cost is justified. The snips will last forever. All you have to do is replace the spring once in a while and sharpen the blade. If you choose to replace the blade, it will only set you back C$25 at your local retailer. And I believe that’s a small price to pay for beautiful pruning cuts in the field.

If you already own Felcos, maintain them well. If you’re considering buying a pair, don’t worry about the cost. The red rubber coated handles will probably outlive you.

Training success!

By | landscape maintenance, Training | No Comments

Loving success

I train landscapers all year. Mostly in the field and sometimes through technical posts on the company’s WhatsApp. Some people absorb my brilliant wisdom like sponges, some are indifferent and, a few, couldn’t care less.

So, it makes me happy when I see workers doing well in the field without having to ask or remind them. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins. Let’s take a look.

Fixed pin oak

Broken branches on trees look awful and, if left unattended, they can invite disease into the tree. So, it’s important to identify broken branches on site or in your garden, and remove them with a sharp saw.

On site I had a newly promoted foreman searching for a handsaw so I inquired about what he was doing. A broken branch in a pin oak (Quercus palustris) on the boulevard, was the answer. I nodded and smiled. Finally, my training was paying off.

For, usually, workers just worry about their lawn care tasks. They don’t worry about other details so it’s nice to see this in the field.

Ornamental grasses

When it comes to ornamental grasses, some people disagree with me on the timing of cutback. I believe most ornamental grasses should be left alone until spring; and cut back before new growth happens.

But, in practice, tall ornamental grasses get beat up by rains and snow and therefore lose their shape. This gets some people upset and they immediately flush cut their grasses.

Many ornamental grass species mature and flower in the fall so it’s a good idea to leave them alone. You can easily do this at home in your garden but at strata complexes it’s up to the site foreman to make the call.

Now, imagine my surprise, when I drove up to one of our strata sites on what would be a sunny day, and saw ornamental grasses still standing. And glorious! I was beaming and congratulated the young foreman for his patience. Spring is coming.

Looking great in early February, 2021.

At other sites all you see is a profusion of small mounds where ornamental grasses used to be. I find it a bit depressing. Even Pennisetum alopecuroides look fine in the snow.

When your client moves

By | gardening | No Comments

Embrace change

I hate losing clients. Especially, during a pandemic but I only take care of private clients part-time because I have a full-time job as a landscape manager. Plus, I have other projects on the go, like blogging and developing online courses. But, still, it hurts to see old clients sell their house and move. Change is inevitable but I always struggle to embrace it.

The residence is special because there aren’t any lawns to cut. Since the owners are nice, successful people who travel a lot, it didn’t make sense for them to have lawns. It was bad enough last year, when they spent most of their time with family in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, and I maintained their garden.

This is why they decided to sell and move. The price was right and, with COVID-19 still raging, it made sense to stick with family.

Features

I love the design: Heuchera and Thyme cover most of the front garden. The Heucheras flower nicely and look great with their dark purples; the Thyme forms a soft bed which gets covered, absolutely covered, with insects in summer. My job was to make sure weeds and bamboo didn’t take over. And in the fall, I picked up the leaves. Nothing super special.

The bamboo forms a sort of wall between the garden and the neighbors; and the neighbor’s Persian ironwood (Parottia persica) provides great fall color.

In the back is a pool with one flowering dogwood (Cornus), Hibiscus syriacus, and my favorite, the Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), the only palm that survives in our colder climate. Grape vines cover the wall.

Trachycarpus fortunei, Rudbeckia and grapes

2021

While I’ve asked the owners to kindly introduce me to the new owners, I’m not holding my breath. It wasn’t a huge money-maker for me; more like a bi-monthly maintenance visit. Since I have other clients on the same street, I will get to see the house periodically. I would love to continue my work there but, as we know, change is inevitable. It might be time to pick-up new clients somewhere else.

Stay safe and healthy!

Do you really need it?

By | health and safety, Seasonal | No Comments

Last week I was doing finesse work with my crew members and the morning was fine, considering it was still winter in mid-February. So, we weeded, cultivated and talked about all sorts of nonsense.

Then, suddenly the weather changed. All of a sudden it got cold and rain fell. Soon I noticed one of my crew mates sporting a different jacket and he seemed to be pressing buttons on his chest, the way you would on a remote control at home.

Do you really need it?

One of my favorite personal finance books by Pierre-Yves McSween is called “Do you really need it?“. I thought about this book when my crew mate told me that his jacket had a heating element in the back. Charged by batteries, it helped him stay warm in the field.

When he pressed the buttons on the front to increase the heat, I had disturbing visions of him self-immolating like a Tibetan monk, and running off screaming into the woods to start a forest fire. Then I came to and asked him how much it cost. $300!! Ouch. At that price, I prefer to layer up; and re-read McSween’s book.

Review

Now, if you think you might want to buy a jacket with a built-in heating element, read on. The dude loves the jacket but, since the arms aren’t heated, he thinks the much-cheaper vest option would be better.

The jacket can be washed but he doesn’t overdo it. This statement was a great source of jokes.

So, do you really need it? Not if it’s just for landscaping. My crew mate loves hiking and wears the jacket when he goes out into nature. Now, that makes more sense. Keeping your back warm as you hike sounds great.

I remember climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan and, upon reaching the top, realizing that I didn’t have any underlayers to change into. All I could do was wait for the sunrise so I bought a can of hot coffee for $10 and held it in my hands.

Conclusion

I had no idea heated jackets even existed. It’s sounds a bit soft and crazy, considering the $300 price tag. But, if you also like to hike in comfort, then save up and buy it. I will layer up at work and use the money I save to feed my kids

Why trees are good

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

One picture summary

Now, take a good look and decide which tree owner you are. I am a green industry professional and I own a green blog so I’m the guy on the left, obviously. As an aside, I must say that my wife doesn’t cling me like this while we admire the beauty of trees. That was way before we had kids.

I rarely consider the drop on the ground, until I have to clean it up at work. I never considered trees “messy”. That’s absurd. Just last Friday, we cleaned-up sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) seed pods off roadways and it didn’t bother me. I love the way the seed pods look, all spiky, like World War II floating mines.

The real challenge at work and outside is to convince the person on the right that trees are good. They’re not “messy”. You’d be surprised to learn that there are many tree haters. Recently, I went for a site walk with two ladies in White Rock and they proudly informed me of the number of sweetgums they had managed to clear-cut off their property. So, I nodded politely and cringed on the inside, all the while wondering if they enjoyed free oxygen.

Fun exercise

Let’s have some fun. Grab a pencil and some scrap paper and try to think of the benefits trees provide for us, free of charge. What is referred to as eco-system services.

I will do this exercise right now, in this blog post, without any preparation. I will list whatever comes to my mind. No assistance from Google. If you do it, you might change your mind about the trees in your garden or your strata complex.

Don’t look at my list below just yet. Try the exercise first.

We need trees- Vas takes the challenge

  • oxygen production
  • shade
  • bird and animal habitat, including dead wildlife trees
  • cooling in cities which tend to act as heat islands
  • beauty, including fall colors
  • medicinal use, e.g. bark, fruit
  • edible fruit
  • soil and bank stabilization
  • stormflow control (forests absorb water and release it slowly)
  • inspiration, e.g. when you see trees thousands of years old
  • carbon storage, crucial on a warming planet
  • building materials, my least-favorite benefit
  • micro climate, your home climate would be different without trees
  • annual wood production through coppicing and pollarding
  • climbing fun for kids
  • hammock anchoring
  • blog post topics
  • leaf mulch for planted beds
  • lessons, I had no idea there were winter-flowering cherries in Japan

Now I have to stop. How did you do? Remember, we need trees on a warming planet so take care of the ones you have in your garden or common property. Get to know them and plant new ones, if you have space. Maintain them well. Message me if you need help.

The case of shredded tree guards

By | Lawn Care, machines | No Comments

Tree guards

I got the idea for this blog post from my UK LinkedIn friend who shared this picture with me. Incredibly, it’s of a shredded tree guard!

This is crazy. Shredding a tree guard is like burning down your life jacket or stomping on your wilderness first aid kit. It’s in place to protect the tree exactly from this kind of abuse.

Because it’s fairly high, I suspect the damage was caused by a ride-on mower. But, of course, any employee who shreds a tree guard could also be a lousy line trimmer. I hope I’m wrong.

Lack of training

This sort of abuse happens when workers aren’t trained properly. It’s as if lawn care machines have the right of way. They don’t.

My favorite scientific paper is from New Zealand and it deals with this kind of “mower blight.” The study authors recommend training as one way of fixing the problem. The other recommendations are: creating tree wells, and installing tree guards! Aha. That didn’t work here so we’re back to training.

What lawn care machines do to trees

When you train lawn care workers you have to teach them why it’s a bad idea to hit landscape trees with lawn mowers and line trimmers. As a worker at a municipal parks department, I witnessed one of my co-workers get out, put his trimmer on and when he trimmed the very first tree, I could almost feel the bark flying past me. So, when I bravely mentioned why it wasn’t a good idea, the dude was upset. You have to thread lightly in unionized departments. Even with temporary full-timers.

  1. Trees are resilient. You can hit them a few times and they will recover. It’s the repeated abuse that stresses the tree.
  2. Abused trees must use up precious resources for repairs when they should be investing in growth.
  3. Damaged bark can allow diseases to get in
  4. Wounding interrupts water transport
  5. Repeated wounding eventually kills the tree
  6. Removing, replacing and taking care of new trees is expensive
  7. Dead trees can’t provide important ecosystem services

This should be a good enough starting point for your crew discussion. Respect tree guards. People installed the guards for a reason.

Weeding vindication

By | gardening, weeds | No Comments

The problem

I need to write this blog post but I have to do it gently, without starting a war. Now, landscape maintenance is populated by many all-stars like me: certified, experienced and opinionated individuals. And while I’m always ready to learn, there are limits. I’m only human.

One such limit is weeding. Weeding should be done with tools, not with fingers. Unless, of course, you’re picking huge trophy weeds.

It was only a matter of time before someone disagreed with me. I’ve seen and heard those people. They happily sit down to hand weed and pick away until their fingers are bruised and bleeding; or, more often than not, until they delegate this unpopular task to someone else.

A gift even Santa can’t match

Just last week, I received a huge gift. Something even Santa can’t bring.

Picture a large bed full of weeds, slightly compacted and muddy. A newly promoted working manager dropped to his knees to weed and inside one minute realized it would take him forever to hand-pick all of the weeds. So, he quickly got up and walked away.

To do what exactly?

Vindication 101

Did you get it? He brought a cultivator (A Dutch hoe to be precise: because it’s sharp and ideal for this situation) and ran it through the bed. Then he raked up the weedy mess and disposed of it. Like a pro.

He stayed on his feet, it was much quicker, the weeds got uprooted and the bed looked fluffy. Don’t forget the bonuses: his fingers didn’t hurt and the bed will stay nice longer!

(One major drawback of hand-picking weeds is that the roots often go undisturbed.)

That’s how you handle weedy patches. With tools. Like a pro. I know that some will still disagree. That’s fine. Those people will leave nasty comments before moving to other blog sites. Let them go, quietly.

Quiz

Study the picture and answer the question.

The best way to weed this bed quickly and efficiently is by…

A. line trimming the weeds and having a window repair service on speed dial

B. sitting down and using your arthritic, bruised fingers only

C. delegating this task to the most junior staff

D. using a small hand tool or a combination of cultivator and rake

Conclusion

Weeding isn’t going away, ever. So, use tools for weeding. It will save you time and your finesse work will shine. Yes, you can tell people Red Seal Vas trained you.

Mulch tactics

By | gardening, Mulch | No Comments

Here we go again

I love mulch. It keeps moisture in your beds, deprives weeds of sunlight and it gives your beds an instant sharp look. Of course, it does break down so you might have to top it up once in a while.

Just last week, I did some clean-ups at a new site my day-job employer took over from another landscape contractor. While the pruning looked OK, I could tell the previous dudes didn’t care for finesse work much. And yet, it’s finesse work that gives your site a sharp look.

Running a line trimmer through your planted beds doesn’t qualify as finesse work. It’s extremely dangerous and desperate. If you somehow manage not to blow out windows, you will likely injure the plants. Never do this. Allegedly, the previous contractors did this all the time. Which is why they lost the site.

Don’t go cheap with thin mulch

Here I had to gently uproot the weeds and get rid of them without removing the mulch. It would be difficult to line trim the weeds into oblivion.

But this isn’t how mulch works. At a depth of 2-3″, it should keep moisture in the bed, block sunlight from reaching any weeds and give us a sharp look.

Of course, over time the mulch degrades and requires top-up. But I also find that many homeowners try to go cheap by applying a thin layer. Which is a huge mistake.

I learned why from Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, my mentor. I knew mulch kept moisture in the bed and prevented sunlight from reaching weeds. What I didn’t know was that a thin layer of mulch made everything very cozy for weeds. It helped retain moisture in the bed without depriving the weeds of sunlight. That’s how we get beds like the one pictured above.

Now that it’s nicely weeded, it needs more mulch to replenish it and make it work and look the way it was supposed to. So, remember, don’t go cheap with mulch. Apply at least 2-3 inches and keep it topped up.

Pine cones from Douglas fir

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Requests

Getting requests from strata owners and councils is standard. Some of them are quick and easy; and some are more involved and require approval; some generate extra invoices. Also, some are suspicious.

At one small site last fall, I got a request to clean-up pine cones along the boulevard. Ok. Except I knew there weren’t any pine trees growing along the boulevard. But, I had to go check it out. Requests are no joke, they must be taken care of.

Psedotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir)

Douglas fir

The only cones I could find belonged to a massive Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which is a native tree in British Columbia. Thus, you find it everywhere and it’s easy to identify because of its cones.

The cones have protruding bracts which make it super easy to identify the tree. People living in British Columbia should be familiar with the tree. But, not in this complex. Here, every cone is a pine cone.

So, what’s the point of this blog post? Am I just poking fun at people’s ignorance? No, although, it wouldn’t hurt if people could identify a few key native tree species.

Educate

What concerned me was the site foreman’s relaxed attitude. Why not use this request as a way to educate the clients about their own trees? If you do it gently, they might even appreciate it. You can even offer them a free copy of my picture e-book.

The other issue is removing “pine cones” from a semi-wild corner. Douglas firs shed branches and cones all year. It’s extremely difficult to keep forests “clean”. I think it’s pointless, but their strata fees pay for our services. So, we clean forest floors by removing “pine cones”. Now you know.

Pine cone-free zone!

Conclusion

Learn about your local native trees or, if you’re an expert, share your knowledge with your friends and neighbors. Leave some debris on the forest floor.

Blogging the cold away

By | Education | No Comments

When it’s frosty

Sometimes it’s just too frosty outside for landscapers to pull off a full work day. Like today. Faced with a short day in Maple Ridge, British Columbia and very little tree work, I opted to stay home and blog the cold away. And it feels great to have that option.

It hasn’t always been that way. In some years, I didn’t have banked vacation pay and losing hours stressed me out. Nor did I have extra sources of income. With COVID-19 eliminating a lot of extra fun activities in 2020, I was actually able to hit winter with banked vacation time.

This leads me to two points: the seasonality of the landscape trade and extra sources of income. Let’s take a look.

Seasonality

Before accepting my current landscape manager position six years ago, I made sure there was work all year. That was a major prerequisite. And anyone considering a career in landscape horticulture has to think about the seasonality of the trade.

Some young dudes are happy to take lay-offs. They’re single and living with their parents. Sure. But for professionals like me, with goals and obligations, winter lay-off is not an option. I need to work in winter, even if the day doesn’t always last the full eight hours. Yesterday, for example, we installed soil amender in light flurries and went home after seven hours. Not bad at all.

It also pays for landscape companies to keep their core staff working all year. If you disband in late fall to save money, you might not get all of the best people back in spring. Then what? Can you manage without landscape manager Vas? I doubt it!

Extra income

I’m in my twenty-first season of landscape maintenance so I’m used to the landscape industry’s seasonality. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for income generating ideas. Like blogging.

Blog ideas in Dollarama notebook.

Did you know I turned pro as a blogger thanks to Proper Landscaping Inc.? It’s true. I posted a few short blogs on this website just as my municipal lay-off was ending and I haven’t stopped since. You have no idea how much my kids appreciate James, the owner of Proper Landscaping, for keeping me employed.

When the weather is decent, I also do side-gigs for residential clients. People always need pruning and clean-ups done; deep-edging beds is also a great cold weather task, and so is soil installation.

When it snows, I know who to call for some snow shoveling action. Sure, it’s heavy labor but last year I turned two snow days off without pay into 24 hours of paid labor. That made me happy.

And if you come across my posts on Facebook Marketplace selling unwanted plants, you know what’s happening. Vas is hustling.

It’s cold today but we’re almost in mid-February. Spring is coming. Hold on!