All Posts By

Vas Sladek

The case of shredded Hostas

By | Edging, Plants | No Comments

Shredded Hostas

As soon as you see the client slowly approaching in her car, window rolled down, you know there might trouble coming your way. And sure enough, the poor lady looked distressed.

When her lawn was edged with a vertical line edger, her beautiful Hostas got shredded. She hated it and I hate it, too. It looks awful. She has every right to mention it. Take a look at the photos below.

Does lawn care come first, at the expense of landscape plants? I don’t think so. I can see why the lady would be distressed about her Hostas. It’s spring and they’re finally leafed out and looking great. The only thing left for the Hostas to do is push out their flowers.

Incidentally, this also happens with trees. Do lawn care machines have the right of way? No, they don’t. We have to avoid all tree and lawn care machine conflicts.

If you want to find out why, you can take my inexpensive online course on lawn care mistakes. Click here for details and let me be your teacher.

Solutions

So, what do we do about this problem? We can move the lawn edge out but this would require a lot of extra labor. Plus, the lawn section is already narrow.

We can skip the edging altogether and leave the grass shaggy under the hostas. Until the boss shows up and freaks out.

A better solution would be to use a blade edger but this isn’t a popular choice because it involves a different machine and going back.

My compromise solution was to prune off the shredded leaves so as to remove the source of the lady’s stress. I also pruned off the stems that would very likely get shredded next week. With the lawn edge nicely exposed, the workers should be able to edge the lawn without shredding any plant tissues.

After pruning with the lawn edge exposed.

Conclusion

Lawn care machines don’t have the right of way. Shredding landscape plants is terrible and your clients have every right to express their displeasure. Plants should look healthy; not have their leaves shredded weekly. Be nice to hostas.

First lawn care service disaster

By | Lawn Care, machines | No Comments

Not a good start

When you do lawn care for the first time at a new site, you really want to shine and impress your new clients. I know I do. And as a proud Red Seal Journeyman Horticulturist, I expect quality work from myself and my crew members. But earlier this spring things didn’t go well for me.

Eager to get started, I mapped out my section, picked up the line edger and went to work. Then, just three yards into my section, I did a vertical edging job on a small tree well and proceeded to blow out a patio door. Oops, that’s not good. And just think, I have an online course on lawn care mistakes.

Now, normally landscape companies have glass service people on speed dial because accidents like this happen. Except in this case, the patio door had built-in blinds which made in a $1000+ repair job.

Built-in blinds made this a very costly mistake.

Red faced

Accidents like this happen but not to me. It was very humbling, considering my work shirt is outfitted with landscape industry certified patches. I had no idea doors had built-in blinds. That really stung.

The only silver lining is that the crew members got to see the human Red Seal Vas who very occasionally makes a mistake.

Two lessons

There are two lessons we can learn from my costly mistake.

One, danger in lawn care is always seconds away if you get sloppy or cocky. Mowers and trimmers pick up objects easily and cause damage to windows, cars, and even people. Safety first!

Two, it makes no sense to vertical a small tree well with small stones showing. It’s better to ignore it and use a blade edger later. Blade edgers have a metal guard and a rubber flap which makes them much safer to use.

Edging a small tree well wasn’t worth the headache and the steep cost. Use blade edgers for tree wells and put your food behind the machine for extra protection when there is a patio window behind you.

Be careful. Don’t get caught red-faced like I did.

Cheap landscape upgrades

By | Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

We’ve all seen garden design porn with those beautiful, elaborate designs that cost real cash and take time to pull off. I see them on LinkedIn and in magazines like Fine Gardening. They make me jealous because I don’t have the imagination, nor plant knowledge to be a full-time designer. One day.

This blog post covers a humble project that cost zero cash and involved rescue plants. It took only minutes to complete and it solved some real problems.

Gate bed

The area I upgraded is a pretty humble corner bed next to a gate. There is a dogwood stump in the middle of it and bramble grows along the fence. For most of the year this is a dusty entrance area. I don’t even know if anybody notices the bed. But I’m in charge of maintaining the site so I have to keep it clean. That’s landscape maintenance without prejudice.

Let’s examine the problems:

  1. There are empty spaces that just get colonized by weeds
  2. The dogwood stump is visible
  3. There is only one shrub plant layer and nothing below

Solutions

We fight dead space by installing free Sedges (Carex). I scored two large clumps from another site where they were rudely edited out of a water feature zone. I’m not sure why.

I sold one clump on Facebook marketplace so I could compose a blog post about it. If you’re wondering, I sold the sedge in one day for the price of two coffees at Starbucks. I hope it thrives in its new home.

Now, back to the gate bed. Since the clump was too large, I divided it into two with a shovel. You will encounter some resistance if you try this, but keep on trying.

Adding plants eliminates dead space and introduces competition for any weeds trying to get established in the bed. It also brings in a second, lower layer and upgrades the look.

I also wanted to hide the stump until I get around to bringing a chainsaw so I can flush cut it. I believe I succeeded.

Much better.

After planting we rake and cultivate the bed (finesse work). Don’t forget to blow off the lawn edge.

If everything goes well, the sedges will grow out and one day we’ll be able to divide them again. Note that they don’t require any maintenance. Just enjoy them.

Conclusion

You can make simple landscape improvements with free plants and some sweat and time. And maybe, one day, we’ll all create more elaborate designs.

Windmill palm magic

By | Plants, Species, Trees | No Comments

I fell in love with palms when I visited Southern California in 2019. So, it’s nice to know that we also have a palm species growing here in British Columbia: Windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei).

I got to see one today, still in its 2 gallon landscape pot, waiting to be planted. While the palm got me excited, I wondered about available space. Take a look at the photo and recall that mature windmill palms reach heights of 15-25 feet, and widths from 6-10 feet. Always consider mature sizes before planting your shrubs and trees.

Note the two windmill palms in the middle.

Considering the mature size of this palm species, I wonder what this planted bed will look like years from now. It could be a disastrous jungle too close to the windows or a beautiful tropical corner unlike anything else on this strata site. Personally, I love the look but I would only plant one of the palms. Not two.

Palm features

  1. The windmill palm is tree-like with hairy brown fibers covering the trunk.
  2. The large fan-like leaves are attractive but the petiole which holds the leaves has sharp points which makes pruning and clean-up tricky.
  3. It’s a good accent or specimen tree
  4. I’ve seen people wrap the top in burlap to protect it from cold temperatures. But the four specimens in the courtyard of my complex do just fine in winter. Remember, palms grow from the tip only. When the tip dies, it’s over.
  5. It looks great near a patio or pool.
  6. $40 retail seems like a bargain. If only I had space.

Strata complex pool deck specimen.

Private residence specimen between outdoor kitchen and pool.

Conclusion

I love palms! If you want one as a specimen by your patio or pool, consider planting the windmill palm. It’s an awesome palm. Just make sure you have enough space for it to reach mature size.

Guard against weeds

By | weeds | No Comments

It’s been a busy weekend so I didn’t get to read my weekend newspapers until Sunday afternoon. One short question and answer article caught my eye (Vancouver Sun, Saturday February 20, 2021, F6). It was a question about a common weed called bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).

The answer was spot on. First, identify the weed. Some beautiful perennials look weedy without flowers so get to know your common weed species.\

Second, never let weeds produce seeds. Once you see flowers, you know it’s time to act. Otherwise, your garden will be full of weed seeds.

Bittercress is a fun weed because when the flowers produce seeds, the plant turns from green to yellow. Then the seed pods wait for you to touch them so they can explode and scatter their contents. If you get close enough, you can feel the seeds hitting your skin. Or, you can catch them in your hand. Thus the common name snapweed. Try it in your neighbor’s garden.

The weed is fairly easy to uproot. Use a hand tool or a full cultivator. Only use your hands if you have just a few specimens to weed out. Always try to use tools. A simple hand cultivator from Home Depot will only cost you $5.

Larger areas require full size cultivators and rakes. Once you up-root the weeds, you can rake them up and remove them. This will leave your bed area clean and fluffy.

Yes, your cultivation will inevitably bring some weed seeds up to the surface but if you stay on top of it, they won’t stand a chance. The up-side is a nice looking, weed-free, fluffy bed.

Stay positive!

People hate weeding! Dudes at work would rather backpack blow all day then finesse beds. But, you can make it fun. Think of the weeds. They’re still pretty amazing plants. They’re just not where we want them to be.

Many weeds are edible; and many are beautiful.

You can also make extra money with weeding. My client Pierre periodically calls me over to take care of his “herbs”. Herbs, right. More like mats of the same Cardamine. You can read the blog post here.

About to go missing Cardamine.

Let us grow!

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

I spent a Monday working in White Rock recently, and at lunch time I walked to a pizza place down the block. Mask on, of course. As I walked by a bus shelter I noticed a City of Surrey poster. And a blog post was born.

I looked up the Bylaw #5835 and it’s a simple two page document. It says don’t touch city trees and don’t remove them, even if firewood is your family’s only source of heat. You could be fined $500. Simple enough.

A real problem

As a certified landscape professional and arborist, I attend many trade shows and seminars for education credits (CEUs) and to gain knowledge. The coronavirus pushed all of this online but learning never stops. It can’t. It continues even during a pandemic.

I mention trade shows because the presentations with the worst tree abuse cases consistently came from City of Surrey speakers. It became a running joke. As soon as I saw City of Surrey speakers, I signed up; and I can’t think of one single disappointing event.

“Pruning” by residents often meant ugly topping or outright tree removal. That might have been overlooked in years past but not anymore. Now cities care about canopy cover percentages, cooling, beauty, and ecosystem services.

Tree bylaws get drafted and workers get ISA certified so they can take great care of city trees.

Let them grow

I totally agree with the bus shelter poster. Leave street trees alone. We need them to look great and provide us with their many free ecosystem services. Let professionals do the pruning.

However, I do understand people’s frustrations. Municipalities can take months to respond to requests for pruning. I’ve done some pruning on city trees before but it wasn’t anything crazy. In one case, the owner was going bonkers with honeydew secreted by aphids feeding on tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera). Her car, sidewalk and patio were covered in sticky honeydew. Her patio was basically unusable. So, I removed whatever branches I could reach but it didn’t solve the problem completely.

Tulip tree flower

Aphids aren’t good enough reason to remove healthy trees. And we know that tulip trees come with summer aphids. Maybe some sort of cover for the patio would be a better solution.

Conclusion

Let city arborists handle city trees.

Welcome to mowing hell

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

It’s coming, I know it is. Every spring we apply generous amounts of lawn fertilizer with high Nitrogen content to get our lawns to green up. And green up they do.

Mowing hell

As the nitrogen kicks in, our lawns turn lush green and they look fantastic after cutting. But there is a catch. Where weeks ago I needed thirty minutes and three tarps to complete my commercial site lawns, now it’s all doubled.

And because I do the sites on weekends, solo, there is no one to off-load the mowing on. I occupy my own personal mowing hell. It seems like I have to empty my mower bag after every pass and, after a while, it gets old.

It’s usually at this point that I remind myself what a nice extra source of income this flexible gig is. Because the sites are commercial, not residential, I can start early or work late. I will never get old Mrs. Robinson complaining about how I robbed her of beauty sleep. This flexibility is awesome. For example, when my son has soccer matches, I can do two half-days. Nobody cares, as long as the place looks great on Monday.

Complications

Mowing hell gets worse when your mower blades are dull and it rained the night before. Now the grass clogs up the mower chute while the bag remains fairly empty. So, you’re stuck cleaning the chute. Otherwise, the mower starts dropping grassy clumps from the deck.

Dull mower blades shred the grass blades and the wetness makes them stick to the deck, bag and chute. This requires frequent stops which is annoying because I’m not paid by the hour. When I’m done, I can bail.

Make sure the blades and engine are off before reaching in to clean the chute.

It’s also important to clean the deck carefully. Stop the blades and engine and tip the mower with the filter pointing up. Then undo the spark plug. I’ve never seen it but mowing the mower blades with the spark plug still on could bring them back to life. Allegedly. Disconnect the spark plug and clean the chute. I do this before moving to a new lawn section. If you do it with every stop, you’ll be there forever.

Conclusion

Mowing hell is coming this spring. I know it. It’s the price I pay for lush green lawns. Make sure your mower blades are sharp and bring extra tarps.

Bonus: if you’re in charge of fertilizing, you can have some fun with other crews or your neighbors. Put the fertilizer down heavy and watch them sweat.

The case of an abused snowbell tree

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

When strata contracts run for only ten months, the owners get two winter months to turn rogue. That’s how one snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus) lost one half of its trunk.

Because we don’t recommend “pruning” this severe, the owner probably got fed up with strata council approval requests. Requests can go from council to the management company; and from there to the landscape contractor. I’ve seen requests so old, they were completed several weeks before the contractor formally received them.

The setting

I’m not sure how the poor tree ended up so close to the owner’s patio. It might have been a wayward seed or deliberate planting. Either way, the tree is way too close to the patio. Even if the roots don’t affect the patio stones, chances are, the foliage will eventually touch the building.

Styrax flowers are beautiful snow bells but they turn into hundreds of seeds that cover the patio and could cause the owner to slip. I’m also not sure if they wanted this much shade on their patio. I never got to interview them.

The bottom line is: the tree is situated too close to the patio.

Best solution

By far the best solution would be to remove the tree completely. There is very little available space for the tree to grow.

The owner’s solution didn’t go far enough. She cut the tree at 4-5 feet so only the trunk was left. Which looks weird. It also removes whatever food was stored in the branches.

When over half of a tree goes missing, the tree notices it and pushes out many sprouts. After all, it will need leaves to feed itself. You can see the response in the picture below.

The response is furious, as the tree fights. The new sprouts mature into poorly attached branches and the owner is back to square one. Now you have a choice: remove the sprouts every year, remove the tree or rehabilitate it.

You can see the original cut at roughly 4 feet.

You can rehabilitate topped trees by keeping a few leaders, subordinating a few more sprouts, and completely removing the others. But here it wouldn’t make sense because there is not enough room for this Styrax.

ISA certified arborist Vas recommends complete removal!

Who was Karl Foerster?

By | Education, gardening, Species | No Comments

One stunning grass

I first learned about the Feather reed grass when I worked for the City of Coquitlam. My then gardener-boss was a fantastic teacher and, luckily, the gardens we maintained contained many Feather reed grasses.

Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) is a beautiful ornamental grass. I love the way the large seed heads sway in the wind; and I have one specimen in a pot on my humble patio. I rescued it from a work project which would have horrified Mr. Foerster; the grass that bears his name, unwanted!

Calamagrostis is a clump forming perennial grass, it’s hardy and fast growing. Its soft feathery green plumes mature into wheat-colored spikes. Poor Mr. Foerster would be horrified if he saw the way his grass gets machine gunned by landscapers in early fall into lifeless mounds. It’s as if the grass reminded them of wheat harvests. I leave my patio specimen alone and it’s totally fine.

Not too long ago, while reading a UK gardening magazine, I came across an obvious question: who was Karl Foerster? (See Blade Runner, The English Garden, March 2021, p.81) That’s what so fascinating about many plants: they have their own stories. But to get there, you must know the botanical name. Feather reed grass alone would never let you discover Karl Foerster. Always learn botanical names.

Who was Karl Foerster?

Karl Foerster (1874-1970) discovered the Feather reed grass hybrid species along a railway line in Germany in the 1930s. He ran his parents’ plant nursery which specialized in hardy perennials. He also lectured and wrote about hardy perennials.

He bred close to 370 crosses, mainly clumping grasses, Delphiniums and Phlox.

His key contributions to garden design were:

  1. popularizing the use of grasses
  2. using plants as the most important element in the garden
  3. seeing plants as individuals, not something to dispose of with the seasons

Check out these two beauties from my picture collection.

The specimen below looks great but I question its placement. At its best, the Feather reed grass covers up a laurel and obscures a sign. That’s all the excuse landscapers need to cut it down.

The grass is great but I question the placement.

Conclusion

I love grasses. They’re low maintenance and usually perennial; and they look awesome when they sway in gentle breezes. Thanks Karl!

Always learning about trees

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

Learning never stops

Learning never stops! Which is why I love the green industry and feel like I will never run out of topics to write about. Especially about trees. There is so much to learn.

Lee Valley

Take my shopping visit to Lee Valley as an example. I was there to buy new blades and springs for my Felcos ( Visit again on March 6, 2021, to read my Felco blog post). As soon as left my car, I noticed a cherry tree, planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Fungal fruiting bodies were screaming at me to notice them. And bang, as soon as I saw them, I knew the cherry tree was dead. That’s the rule. Fungus inside your tree is a disaster.

I love how the fungus-tree death connection automatically clicked in my head.

Healthy trees don’t sport fungal fruiting bodies.

Ray cells

Ray cells.

It pays to be connected to people on LinkedIn. I got this picture from a contact who marveled at seeing ray cells so clearly. Allegedly, ray cells are clearly seen in oaks.

Now, in keeping with the continuing education theme of this blog post, I went home and looked up ray cells on the internet. And I found out they’re pretty amazing.

The two main functions of ray cells in trees are:

  1. ray cells keep the growth rings together
  2. ray cells help shuttle water and nutrients in the xylem

They also look cool in cross-section.

Heading cuts

One of my private clients received a letter from her municipality, asking her to clear Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) branches off their city lamp. So they hired an arborist to do the jobs. And when I was on site to do finesse work (a nice way to say weeding), I took pictures of his heading cuts.

A heading cut.

Heading cuts are made to discourage main stem growth and promote side growth. In this case, we want to keep the maple from reaching the city lamp. The cut is made just above a branchlet or bud. And we can expect any new growth to happen sideways, not straight to the top.

Then I put my iPhone away and went back to weeding, mumbling something like “I could have made those cuts!”.

Never stop learning!