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Vas Sladek

No escape from desperate homeowners

By | gardening, Landscaping | No Comments

Tracked me down

Yes, of course you can find me on Google. You can search for landscapers in the Tri-cities area, and you should be able to find me. But people still track me down while I work for other clients. And don’t get me wrong, I love meeting new people and helping them.

Yesterday, I was rushing to complete one more residence before daylight ran out. I had roughly four hours left, three with decent light. So, I blew the leaves into piles and picked them up. Then I gave the lawns one last cut. What light remained I used to prune a Magnolia tree and cut down many perennials; all brown and spent, they were ready for cutback. They’ll be back next year. Don’t worry.

Bittersweet

As I worked yesterday, my focus was on finishing the garden and putting it to bed for the season. The owners are both facing health challenges; challenges so severe that they can’t do their own gardening anymore. So, I’m happy to help them and every dollar I make helps me beat inflation. It’s also nice to see the owners pleased.

It can be distressing to see a weedy garden and long grass outside when your day is dominated by health issues. Incidentally, this also happened when the pandemic first hit, and people had to self-isolate at home. Seeing their landscapers outside on regular basis brought some normalcy to a crazy time.

Then, just as I was finishing, I saw the man approaching. And sure enough, he wanted me to see his garden. These are bittersweet moments for landscape side-hustlers. My focus is on finishing one house, not on taking more work. Now, I know it doesn’t make sense to cry about extra work walking in without any effort on my part. I am grateful for every single client. But in that moment, it’s bittersweet. I want a finish line, not a new race.

I also can’t say no because I know people need help. In this case, the couple moved into their house last summer and now they needed help. Lots of help.

Typical issues

How can Red Seal Vas help you? Well, there is lawn damage from European chafer beetles to fix, and the wife wants pretty flowers by the door where there are only shrubs and groundcovers. In the back, there is a patch of prickly bramble that will only get bigger; and next to it are three alders that will not stop growing until they’re towering over the house.

The garden wall has ivy, Pieris and junipers trailing over the lawn. And the neighbors haven’t touched their trees in a while so now they’re coming over and must be pruned. This actually gets me excited because tree work can be done in winter, just as regular landscape maintenance work ends.

Let’s do it!

Many homeowners need help with their gardens and I’m happy to help, assuming I can fit it into my schedule. You can find me on Google Maps; and approach me when you see me working in your neighborhood. I’m such a landscape slut, it’s unlikely I will say no.

And it will feel bittersweet all the way.

Can you turn aboriginal youth into landscapers?

By | Landscape Industry, Training | No Comments

Apprentices

Good landscapers are in great demand at the moment. Some of my previous blog posts showed how easy it was for new immigrants to become landscapers. But what about aboriginal youth?

To answer this question, we’ll consider the case of young Nate (his real name: used with permission). Nate is a great young dude with a partner and a new baby to support. He came to us from a Manitoba reserve where there were few opportunities and the weather sucked. So, Nate packed up and hit the West Coast for British Columbia- the best place on Earth! (If you ignore the current brutal housing situation.)

Right spirit

Nate possesses the right kind of spirit: a mix of initiative, playfulness, willingness to learn and can-do attitude. We found that out when Nate joined us for a company weekend getaway at the Wildlings Resort.

Once he got settled into his cabin, Nate launched his rental boat onto the lake, stocked annually with trout, and emerged hours later with a huge catch. All of his work mates observed the two fish limit, and they were stunned. But not Nate. This was his native land and there were no limits. His wide poacher’s grin proved it.

Luckily for Nate, his work mates were all too overcome by alcohol and legal marijuana to report him to the nearest conservation office. By the time they agreed on the correct “poacher” spelling, Nate had the fish gutted and iced with frightening efficiency. He also followed the old native custom of sharing by giving some fish away to his cabin mates.

Training

Now, when your apprentice has the right attitude, it’s easy to train him. Or her. That’s where Red Seal Vas comes in. Journeymen are supposed share their knowledge with apprentices in the field; and enjoy the process. The company gets a better trained, confident employee; and the apprentice gets valuable skills. With the right skills, young Nate can never be unemployed. The new skills are his to keep; better pay and advancement follow.

Now, let’s see how this works in the field with actual examples. Nate had the pleasure of my company for just a few hours, and this is what we covered.

Styrax pruning

We found some crossing branches inside a Japanese snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus), so I got Nate to remove them. When he pulled out a rusted hand saw he found on site earlier, buried in debris, I had to remind him to always use sharp hand saws. If your hand saw blade is rusty, get a new one and replace it. Making sharp cuts is mandatory.

We also reviewed the tree’s botanical name, Styrax japonicus. The specific epithet refers to Japan. Plant identification skills are very important for landscapers.

Lavender

Mid-November is a good time to deadhead spent lavender flowers. Use good hand snips, carefully grab a handful of flower spikes, and snip them off. The trick is to watch your fingers, so you don’t cut yourself. Don’t rush but don’t waste time snipping single flowers. Grab a handful.

Gunnera

Gunnera is an herbaceous flowering plant with large leaves. We found a cluster of them by a water feature. Since it was mid-November, the large leaves were flat on the ground and fading fast. When you moved the leaves, you could see the plant bases where growth occurs.

So, I showed Nate how the big leaves get flush cut at the base but not discarded with other green waste. Instead, we stack the large leaves on top of the plant bases, to keep them cozy in winter.

Nate cutting back Gunneras

Conclusion

By now the answer to my question above should be clear. Aboriginal youth can definitely be developed into landscape professionals with the right kind of training and support from employers; and journeymen willing to teach people. I’m confident that young Nate will do well in 2023.

Removing leaves from your garden? Not so fast!

By | gardening | No Comments

Changes

With low temperatures forecast for next week, today I received phone calls from several panicked homeowners looking to get their leaves picked up. I will squeeze in a few but I rarely work on-demand. I’m too busy with regular clients.

And this afternoon, as I headed to one of my regular residential clients, they informed me that they were keeping all of their leaves in their beds. Working on a garden design across the street, a horticulturist recommended that they mulch their beds with leaves. So, this is the change for 2022: leaves stay in beds so they can insulate the plants against harsh low temperatures. The forecast for this coming week says as low as -14C.

Leaves as mulch

Leaves can definitely be used as mulch in planted beds. A layer of leaves can insulate your plants from low winter temperatures. However, some clients can’t stand the look of their beds, stuffed full of leaves, especially in high-profile beds. Then the wind picks up and it’s a mess. So, you decide.

Insulation is one thing, but quick leaf decomposition that will benefit the plants might be a bit exaggerated. If you expect your plants to benefit from decomposed leaves, then the best first step is to shred them.

Simply pile them on your lawn and run your mower over them. Whole leaves take longer to decompose. And, speaking of lawns, it’s always a good idea to clear leaves off your lawn so you don’t get weird light-colored zones in your lawn as the grass is smothered.

Never shred your leaves on top of plastic turf!

Same old, same old?

I love the idea of clients trying different things. Why not mulch your beds with leaves instead of removing them every year. Are you tired of your perennial bed? Rip out some of your plants and get new ones.

Your garden shouldn’t be static; gardens are never finished: they evolve.

I’m perfectly happy to adjust to different client requests. There is always something to do, like perennials to cut back or broken tree branches to remove.

Enjoy the off-season and make some plans for next year.

Is it lilac or cottonwood?

By | Company News | One Comment

A true story

There was a young cottonwood growing in between two strata (multi-family complex) units. And our young landscape foreman panicked, unsure about the plant species. It looked like a lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and he wasn’t about to prune or remove a lilac shrub.

What if the fragrant flowers go missing and the owners blame him for it. So, he let the shrub grow. Until the boss showed up and ordered him to remove it.

What struck me was the dude’s panicked face. This is the same dude who can tell good marijuana from junk full of straw; and we know he has a mobile phone with Google access. Why then is he so shy?

Let’s settle it

As soon as I heard this story, I knew I had a new blog post handed to me. So, I took some pictures and then life and work got busy. But, the idea was written down and saved for later. Which would be today, March 2022, and the blog post will get published in June 2022.

So, let’s settle this, without Google. Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) is a fast growing tree. At maturity it can be over 30m in height. When I photographed it, it was still a manageable baby tree; and fairly easy to remove. When cottonwoods mature, they tend to self-prune by dropping branches. Left to mature in this location, that would mean exposing families to branch bombardment.

This cottonwood is very happy here but it can’t stay.

Since we don’t have pictures of flowers, the key distinction between the two species is leaf arrangement. Cottonwood trees have alternate leaf arrangement.

Alternate leaf arrangement.

Now, when I think of lilacs, I think of shrubs with showy fragrant flowers. As a boy in Prague, I used to climb a mature lilac at my grandpa’s villa. I know the fragrance really well and still find it intoxicating.

Again, at the time, we didn’t have flowers so let’s look at lilac leaf arrangement: it’s opposite and whorled.

Opposite leaf arrangement on Syringa vulgaris. Note the fat buds as well.

Unlike cottonwoods, lilacs don’t get as tall. They might reach something like 5-7m at maturity.

Have no fear

Let’s be honest, most people know what lilacs look like but, if you look quickly, there are some similarities between the leaves. Still, lilacs versus cottonwoods shouldn’t even come up for a landscape foreman with experience.

Have no fear! If you’re not sure about a plant species, look it up and key it out. You might learn something.

Landscape side-hustle benefits

By | Side-hustle | One Comment

Benefits

Landscape side-hustles come with many benefits. It’s not just cash, even though today, in spring 2022, cash sounds great. Interest rates are going up, inflation is at 6% and gas prices are close to $2/L. Add to that Putin’s war in Ukraine, and making some extra cash on the side sounds great. Don’t even get me started on my daughter’s braces.

Ideas

Working at my regular landscape manager job and side-hustles provides me with plenty of blog post ideas. That’s gold and it keeps things interesting. Some homeowners are hilarious, like the lady with a potted hydrangea, wondering if she should prune it. I could count just a few short stems so her specimen should be left alone for at least one season. Then she might get some flowers in 2023.

Obviously, professional blogging is a form of side-hustle in itself. Always look for new opportunities. I became a pro blogger when the owner of this website needed some posts for his website.

Practice!

Extra side-work allows you to practice your craft; and it’s often more enjoyable because it’s not done on an hourly basis. I know I can install three yards of mulch fairly quickly and leave the clients with a good looking front yard that will stay weed-free for months.

Fresh mulch and happy clients!

Every pruning job, lawn care fix and question answered build up your confidence, knowledge and experience. The most interesting gigs are turned into blog posts. Of course they are.

Networking

Another benefit of side-hustling is enlarging your network. Some people may not need your services right away but they can recommend you to others. Or what seems like a lunch money kind of gig can grow like wildfire.

Once we were approached by a homeowner from across the street. Because his lawn patch looked small, my buddy immediately rejected the man and sent me over. Two years later, I’ve done more work for him and his friends; and I have access to even more work this season. All because I said yes to an easy job.

Look past money, enlarge your network and reap the benefits. I now have a client who likes my work and wants to continue to work with me on his various projects. That feels good.

Solving problems

Side-hustle work can also allow you to genuinely help people. Like the nearly deaf 86-year-old woman living alone who can no longer mow her own lawn but enjoys looking at one.

Or the man with retina problems who isn’t allowed to lift anything. He can’t do his own landscaping work and I’m happy to do it for him. When his daughter got married last summer, I pimped out their house so it looked great.

Fresh mulch, in time for wedding guests.

Now they’re moving and I will be their gardener at the new place! That’s a good client. If you do good work, don’t be afraid to say it.

Then you have the obvious case of the well-to-do people who are too busy to do their own weeding. They leave it up to you and e-transfer you money when you ask. Diving into their pool is a better use of their time.

The funniest was a lady who called me about a final lawn cut in fall. She needed help because her mower wasn’t working. So, I came over, and discovered that her mower was totally fine. The gas valve was shut off: mowers run on gas so the line must be open.

I cut her lawn and gave it much-needed edging. Who knows, she might need help again in 2022. I haven’t asked yet.

The best “client” I have is a buddy who doesn’t care about his landscaping and refuses to put money into it. When his neighbours start whispering, he calls me to knock down the wilderness.

A wild backyard I get to knock down once in a while.

Nothing new

Side-hustles are now an accepted part of life in Canada and the US. Many people make extra money on the side. Landscaping is made for side-hustlers. You don’t even have to advertise because people will approach you when they see you work.

And while some people will try to save money and do their own work, many happily accept your offers of help. Good clients also let you teach them, that’s why they’re gold.

Do it!

If you get a chance to try a side-hustle, do it. It can be a source of extra fun, income, practice and it can enlarge your network. Give it a try.

Red Seal Vas is always available for hire!

Hart’s tongue fern 101

By | Plants | No Comments

Plant ID fight club

Do you struggle with botanical names? I know I do. Remembering botanical names is always a fight. As soon as I learn a few new ones, I see a plant I know and it takes me several minutes to recall Liatris spicata. So, this blog post is a kind of trick. While it introduces you to an evergreen fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, it also builds my memory and yours. I hope.

Asplenium scolopendrium stands out in our gardens because its fronds are solid and evergreen. I love the way it looks.

When my residential clients asked me about plants for their shady sidewalk bed, I mentioned the Hart’s tongue fern and they bought some. Of course, after learning the botanical name Asplenium scolopendrium I picked up the plastic pot and the tag said Phyllitis scolopendrium. I shouldn’t have panicked because my Google search would soon reveal that it was just a synonym, not a different species.

Asplenium has a connection to “spleen” and scolopendrium refers to “centipedes”, presumably because the sori (spores) on the frond undersides are arranged in rows, thus resembling centipedes.

Now, I’m hoping this information will jog my memory when I walk by a specimen of Asplenium scolopendrium. If it doesn’t, I will have to Google my own blog post. But, I feel like this is a good start. Spleen and centipedes.

Caring for Asplenium scolopendrium

I could list everything here but you might as well read the tag I photographed. One key is good drainage because this fern can suffer from root rot. Otherwise, it’s disease and pest free.

Install fun

Shady corner install

Good clients listen and learn from you. When I suggested a few of my favourite shade plants, they bought them without hesitation and at hefty retail prices.

We put Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus) in front and two fern species in the back: Asplenium scolopendrium and the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). They all looked fine a year later when I visited the home recently; there is adequate shade but I do wonder about road salts spilling over.

To summarize

Remembering botanical names isn’t easy but it’s important. I struggled to remember Asplenium scolopendrium but typing it out in this blog post 35 times might help. You can also think Asplenium (spleen) and scolopendrium (centipedes). That might hep jog your memory.

Another important step in remembering botanical names is actually planting the specimens in the ground. I keep plant tags whenever possible; and sometimes my wife finds them laundered and shredded at the bottom of our washing machine.

Now, when I go back to my client’s place to do bed clean-up, I should be able to blurt out Asplenium scolopendrium. I might even remember Phyllitis.

Note the sori in lines, thus the specific epithet scolopendrium which refers to centipedes.

Flannel flower

By | Plants | No Comments

A tattoo

It all started with a tattoo I saw on a young summer helper’s arm. You don’t often see flowers on young men’s arms so I asked a few questions, like any other plant geek. The flower in question was the Flannel flower (Actinotus helianthi). The genus Actinotus means “furnished with rays”.

Why put it on your arm? What’s so special about it? I did some research on Google to find out because the dude is no longer employed with us and I don’t recall what exactly made him choose the Flannel flower. I just remember that his father was from Australia and when they visited the country, the dude must have noticed the flowers around Sydney.

The Flannel flower is a symbol of purity used in festivals and religious ceremonies.

It’s also adaptable and enduring which is why it’s able to survive in the bushland around Sydney.

The daisy-shaped flower is also beautiful and strong which is why it’s Australia’s national symbol for the promotion of mental health awareness. The dude’s tattoo was OK but I didn’t see the beauty until I saw pictures on Pinterest. Now I understand.

Botanical notes

The Flannel flower is actually very interesting because its stems, flowers and leaves are all grey in colour; and they’re all covered in soft downy hairs. Thus the flannel name.

We know that hairs are an adaptation for avoiding water loss. That’s why the flower can survive in the bushland; and why it’s a good plant for a rock garden.

The flowers appear in spring; you can grow them from seed or cuttings and plant them in well-drained, sunny locations.

Plant lust

I think every plant on Earth is interesting and the Flannel flower definitely fits. I’m glad I asked my co-worker about his tattoo because it inspired this blog post. If you ever find yourself in Sydney, you will be ready to explore thanks to my blog post.

How trees love me back

By | landscape maintenance, Trees | No Comments

Tree hugger’s good karma

I love trees, and recently I found out that they love me back. Let me explain. When a new residential client contacted me, she specifically mentioned blowing her driveway clean every 2-3 weeks. This didn’t completely make sense until I met her.

Since the lady runs a mobile detailing service and does a lot of work in her driveway, she wants to have it nice and clean. Now, if you stand in her driveway and look up you’ll see giant Douglas fir branches coming over from the neighbouring lot.

Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are native trees in British Columbia and they’re easy to identify because their cones have unique bracts. Many specimens on Vancouver Island are very old. Harvey Rustad’s book “Big lonely Doug” is about a Douglas fir 66m tall and about 1,000 years old. I highly recommend this book.

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Needles!

Douglas firs drop a lot of needles and branches all the time. Incidentally, you will never catch me calling trees “messy”. Trees do what they do.

What this means is that the lady will need my help all year; and thanks to this tree species’ habit of dropping needles and shedding branches, I will make some spare cash all year. It’s like a constant side-hustle money machine. No, it won’t make me rich but my work does solve someone’s problem. And the lady is really nice. She’s a true client because she’s not afraid to listen to my suggestions and act on them.

Customers only care about price and will drop you for Tom, who is $1 cheaper.

When I drove home that day, I was convinced trees loved me back. Who knew trees could drive a side-hustle operation without getting cut down and turned into toilet paper?

Here we also see one of the benefits of doing side-gigs. You learn new things and meet interesting new clients. It isn’t always about money.

Take care of your trees and who knows, one day they might show you their love!

Horrific UK tree planting

By | Trees | No Comments

Lessons from the UK

Tree planting is a science. It’s not just a quick, dig a hole, put plant in, affair. And here’s some proof from the United Kingdom. I got the photo from Dr. Duncan Slater through LinkedIn.

Take a look and see what you think is wrong.

Lessons

There are three main lessons from this tree planting fail and they transfer nicely from the UK to Canada. Let’s take a look.

Lesson 1: stakes

Having one, extremely tight stake doesn’t work. Clearly the top of the tree snapped off in a wind storm because there is no “play” allowed for the tree trunk. You can solve this problem by installing two stakes with arbor tie which allow for movement and subsequent development of reaction wood. It’s like lifting weights: the more you life, the stronger you get. Held super tight, the tree never develops this reaction wood and snaps in a severe storm.

This is what also happens when stakes are left on for more than the recommended fourteen months.

Lesson 2: tree wells and mulch

The absence of tree wells is very noticeable. Young trees benefit from tree wells and mulch. The tree wells channel water into the root zone and protect the tree from lawn care machines. Inevitably, someone will come along to take care of the shaggy grass near the trunk, and the bark will get slashed. Possibly weekly.

We know that turf is a stiff competitor for new trees. They might live but they won’t thrive. Having an established tree well definitely helps.

The mulch keeps moisture in and benefits the tree as it breaks down.

This is how the City of Burnaby does it. Two stakes and mulch.


Lesson 3: location, location, location

Location matters in tree planting. The puddles visible in the picture mean that there is poor drainage. Since water displaces oxygen, our new trees can struggle and will most likely suffocate.

Conclusion

Tree planting is a science and it should be done with care. That’s the only way we can ensure that the trees will survive and thrive. They’re expensive to buy, install and replace. We need them to live for a long time and provide us with their many free ecosystem services.

Abused by an algorithm

By | Trees | No Comments

A rare slip

I always try to post normal, family-friendly stuff online. Especially on the Proper Landscaping website. I’m more like a permanent guest blogger here and this is family-friendly place. Unfortunately, last week I slipped. Luckily, it wasn’t a post on this blog, and I had no idea for a while.

While scrolling through my older posts, I noticed one about Ginkgo trees that was flagged and removed by Google. Presumably by a strict algorithm. What? I admit I was a bit surprised.

But first, take a look to see if you find it offensive.

Now, the botanical facts are, to my knowledge, completely accurate. The female Ginkgo fruits produce a strong odour. You can Google the scent description; I have no idea how to describe it. It’s not pleasant but it’s hardly overwhelming.

I’ve used the fruits in several pranks and to date I don’t recall any hospitalizations. Just hate mail through WhatsApp.

The specimen where I collected the fruits and seeds sits on a private property and the landscape architect deserves credit for fearlessness. Google algorithms are much stronger today.

Male Ginkgo trees dominate on city streets for a good reason. Imagine city sidewalks covered in fruits that produce an unpleasant odour. The seeds themselves are big enough to send senior citizens to hospital with bone fractures.

Careful!

You’ve been warned. Watch the way you word your online posts because Google algorithms are merciless. My Ginkgo post got flagged and removed for comparing females unfavourably to males. I am no misogynist; I was comparing male and females trees. And I stand by my removed post. There was nothing malicious about it.

A machine algorithm doesn’t know that. And one day it might take revenge on me when I get into a self-driving car on my way to a tree lecture.