Now that the regular lawn care season is over, it’s a good time to recap some of the issues that came up in 2020. Let’s examine three issues: one is comical, one is frustrating for me and the last one isn’t going away anytime soon.
This issue came up in a Facebook group. The lawn care operator was asking for a good machine or technique to remove the shaggy bit of grass in the corner. The light wood is clear evidence that they’ve tried removing it with line edgers but the geometry didn’t work out.
Sometimes you just have to do it the low-tech way: bend over and rip it out.
Tree or lawn?
This looks just like another neglected tree well; it’s full of grass and lacks a sharp, ninety degree edge. But, it’s actually a misunderstanding between the unit owner and maintenance staff.
Landscapers are trained to keep tree wells weed-free and well-defined with sharp deep edges. The plastic guard on the tree is extra insurance against tree abuse from lawn care machines.
Unable to keep the tree well clean, it finally came to light that the owner had been over-seeding the tree well in order to eliminate the tree circle. He wanted a nice uniform lawn with the tree in the middle. Thus the plastic guard.
There is just one problem with the homeowner’s approach. Young trees often get outcompeted by turf. They struggle and often die because turf is an efficient competitor and lawn care machines are bound to take some liberties with the bark.
If you want to keep the tree, keep the tree well.
Chafers aren’t going away
When animals dig up your lawn in late October looking for European chafer beetle grubs, it can be a shocking site. The strata president tracked me down looking for help but by late October there isn’t much I can do. The grubs in the soil are juicy and, I presume, delicious.
I raked up the damaged turf chunks and peeled back whatever was still attached. Then I added soil and over-seeded it with good renovation seed mix.
The treatment window for chafers is in late summer after the females deposit their eggs in lawns, but there are now new treatments coming in. So, check with your local garden center. They will be happy to take your money.
Search for my European chafer beetle blogs on this website.
Eight straight hours of leaf pick-up is nothing unusual for West Coast landscape professionals in mid-November. Some strata sites have many mature trees and they drop a lot of stuff. So, you can expect to have some fun.
Here are five lessons to take away from good West Coast leaf clean-up.
Lesson 1: Tools
Always start with proper tools. When I’m asked to help out on a site, I expect to use proper tools. The rakes should be in good shape. Don’t even ask me to use rakes with many missing tines. Use great tools!
Most companies have budget for new tools. Take advantage of it. It’s borderline insulting asking a certified professional to use sub-standard tools.
Lesson 2: No pyramids
If you expect to rock leaf clean-up, forget pyramids. This goes for blowing and raking. When you blow, don’t overdo it. Blow the leaves into a decent pile and move on.
When raking, the same rule applies. Bring your tarp close and rake the leaves into it. There is no sense creating a perfect pyramid. We need the leaves in a tarp and taken away. Nobody is scoring points for making nice looking pyramids.
With huge piles, put your tarp right into them and rake or kick the leaves in. Easy. And always rake with purpose. I expect to see rosy cheeks!
Lesson 3: Tarp slavery
Lugging heavy tarps on your shoulders should only be done if you’re close to your truck because it’s the least efficient method. You can avoid tarp slavery by using a wheelbarrow or bringing your truck closer.
Note that some workers will happily walk down the block with one tarp over their shoulder just have a little break. To rock fall leaf clean-up, you must break this habit. Send them away with a full wheelbarrow if there is no truck access.
Lesson 4: Look up!
Since you’re not responsible for removing one hundred percent of the leaves on every visit, relax and do your best. Before you start stressing, look up! Is the tree above done dropping leaves or not? If not, don’t stress about every leaf on the ground. Wait until all of the leaves are down before doing a thorough clean-up.
Lesson 5: Enjoy fall!
Enjoy the fall.
This should be easy but it’s not. I often see people standing under trees blasting away at their crowns with leaf blowers. Why the rush? Enjoy the fall and its many colors.
If you struggle with this, think of the miracle that occurs inside the leaves you detest so much. Photosynthesis is a miracle that keeps all people alive and it happens inside leaves. The leaves are actually beautiful mini-factories; and they entertain us with their colors.
Have some fun
Here’s the problem: a tree comes down at the back of a strata property and ISA certified arborist Vas gets a phone call from a panicked foreman. Yeah, of course I will come take a look. Why let full-time tree dudes have all the fun?
I harp on this all the time: all landscape professionals should get ISA certified so they can do some of their own tree work, add value to their companies and get extra job security. All you need is three years in the field -and you don’t have to work with trees full-time-to sit the ISA examination. Unlike my Red Seal, which is an experience-based examination, the ISA examination tests your knowledge. Then comes experience as trees come down on your sites.
Don’t be a cowboy
Full-time tree dudes have fancy protective gear and cool-looking helmets. Be like them, don’t work like a cowboy. I also made sure my chainsaw had bar oil and proper chain tension. Safety first!
If you’re freaked out about chainsaws, put the chain on personally.
This tree was clearly in the way. It’s always a good idea to clear downed trees quickly and clearing this baby tree was a delight.
If you need chainsaw practice- and many landscapers do!- cut the tree into smaller sections. I like to take slices out of the remaining stump; I just don’t talk about it in front of my boss.
The stump came down very easily which means the base was decayed and the recent wind storm made the tree snap. You can see how the stump cross section sports cavities and it’s brown compared to the upper sections. My chainsaw flew through the stump better than a hot knife through butter.
That covers the stump.
As for the trunk, simply remove the side branches and then make cuts into the stem without cutting into the lawn. Then, kick the stem over and finish your cuts. This should give you nice manageable logs to take away.
Easy does it
This clean-up job was actually quick. So quick, I was able to help the crew pick up leaf piles and check their work.
You can do this kind of tree work on your sites as well. You don’t necessarily need ISA certification but I recommend it to all landscape professionals. When you get certified, your company can charge nice coin for easy work that would otherwise be delegated to pricey, full-time tree dudes with fancy bucket trucks, confusing ropes and shiny helmets.
Don’t be intimated. You can do jobs like this. I know you can.
With landscape supervisor Vas on site, there are always bound to be adjustments to make because I love to catalogue them. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments on the fly. When tasks get pushed, they may not get done. But not when I’m on site.
Let’s see some examples.
Pro landscapers carry good quality snips on their hips for moments like these. As I walked by, I noticed low tree branches. Since we don’t want branches to grow this low, it’s a good idea to remove them.
In the second example, we have a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) branch hanging so low it made it difficult for me to mow in straight lines. The offending branch also affects the shape of the tree, as if it’s attempting to break away from the crown.
Since I didn’t have a hand saw, I had to put this on my list for later.
Aggressive line trimming
These developing ditches scare me. I know vertical line edging is responsible for this because blade edging is sharp and narrow. It would be OK if the crews left it alone but they don’t. They will hit it again next week and the ditch will grow wider. Then we’ll have to pull weeds out of the gap. Use a blade edger, if you can. If you can’t, vertical close to the driveway edge at ninety degrees.
This is the classic “beavered” look and it’s not Ok. You have to slow down and touch the post without chipping it. I know we ask people to get their work done quickly and efficiently but we also need quality. “Beavered” posts invite complaints from clients so take the time to train your crews.
Don’t touch your mow lines
Here the dude was rushing to mow a missed lawn and he took the shortest route right across his mow lines. It’s not a good idea at a high-profile clubhouse used by residents from two different complexes.
Don’t cross your mow lines; and don’t be afraid to make landscape adjustments on the fly. Your site or garden will look much better.
The idea behind pre-blowing is saving man-hours on labor. Imagine you have leaf debris on your site or in your garden and you contemplate raking it up. It can be done easily in your garden; and being outside in fresh air is good for you, especially now, during a pandemic.
But on a larger scale, you can avoid a lot of extra raking by blowing your leafy debris onto your lawns before mowing. Just do it quickly. Remember, this isn’t your end of the day, thorough, clean up blow. All you have to do is push the bulk of your leafiness onto your lawns so it can mowed up.
Don’t crush your mower
Pre-blowing is effective from late summer and into early fall. That’s when the leaf drop is noticeable but it doesn’t require pile making. The idea, again, is to quickly push leafy debris onto your lawns and mow it up so you don’t have to rake.
Making and picking up piles is time consuming so it will delay your mowing. Pre-blows are meant to be quick jobs.
When the amount of leafy debris is significant, give up on pre-blowing. You can destroy your mower by forcing it to mulch massive amounts of leaves. It’s bad for the engine.
Commercial site example
Let’s consider one of my commercial sites as an example. When I pulled up on site one late summer Saturday morning, there was enough debris on site to justify a pre-blow.
I blew off the parking lot and beds full of Rhododendron leaves. Then I mowed it all up. Remember to slow down to give the mower time to shred the debris.
At the end of my service I only did a quick clean-up blow. I didn’t do any raking thanks to my pre-blow. And blowing is easier than raking.
Give pre-blowing a try!
Before you take out your shears and hand snips, ask yourself: why am I pruning in late summer? Usually, obstruction issues are the worst and should be done as soon as possible.
For example, I was asked to prune a dogwood that was encroaching into a walkway. That’s a problem and it’s easy to solve.
Other pruning like perennial and shrub cutback isn’t as critical and could be delayed if time is short.
Let’s take a look at some examples of my work.
Shrubs encroaching onto walkways get residents excited so it’s best to do this kind of pruning as soon as possible. In this case it was a dogwood shrub. Don’t forget to hand pick the branches off the top; they will be noticeable once they dry up and turn brown.
Another pressing case involved Rhododendrons encroaching onto a patio. This patio is well-used by the family and their friends and the rhodos become annoying in late summer.
Always snip rhodos by hand because power shears just shred the plant tissues and corrections have to be made by hand anyway. This job didn’t take very long; it’s like therapy for me, hand-snipping on a sunny day.
One serious safety issue is plant obstruction around lights. Here I used pole pruners to eliminate Red maple (Acer rubrum) branches covering a lamp along a high-profile walkway.
Less critical pruning
It’s nice to clean-up perennials in your garden like Hostas or shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleja) and lilacs (Syringa sp). But it’s not as critical as obstruction pruning.
Spent Hosta flower spikes can be snipped out.
Lilacs (Syringa sp) flower early in the season and once the flowers fade, it’s nice to snip them out. I did this shrub last week because I don’t normally work on this site. But again, it’s not super critical.
Buddleja is a borderline invasive species but it sports beautiful flowers. This specimen was growing wild making mower access a bit challenging so I took it down by half. But don’t worry. It will make a comeback soon enough.
Have some fun with late summer pruning; and pay attention to obstruction and safety issues. Always know why you are pruning and get to know your target plants. Plants are fascinating so treat them well.
Never discount your simple lawn care clients because, inevitably, they will come up with extra projects for you to do. And all of a sudden, there is extra money to be made by solving more problems for your clients.
The mugo pine (Pinus mugo) in this blog post was clearly struggling and the owner wanted to use the space for her potted Hydrangea. No problem.
Before you start, state your price. I did. Then, once the job price is established, bring all of the necessary tools and bang the job quickly. Of course, there is always some risk because some mugo pines are very stubborn, especially when they’re healthy. This one was marginal so it popped fairly easily.
Don’t touch my fabric
The entire bed is covered in landscape fabric and a generous layer of mulch. A few years ago I brought in several yards of fresh bark mulch because the bed looked a bit tired. See, extra services lead to extra cash.
The owner warned me not to disturb the fabric too much and I complied. I uncovered just enough of it so I could remove the stump.
Incidentally, landscape fabric doesn’t work, especially long-term. Yes, it will keep weeds down in the beginning but as the fabric clogs it causes problems for the plants. I suspect this mugo pine wasn’t getting enough water into the root zone because the fabric was pressed against the stems.
Lop off the branches for easier access to the root zone. Once I removed the branches, I used my shovel and mattock to dig around the plant. I had to fight the fabric a little bit so I put my body between the plant and the owner’s windows. This way there wasn’t any panic in the house about damaged landscape fabric.
Once the plant was loose, I had to sever a few stubborn roots with my loppers. A hand saw will also do. The mattock is fine, too.
Remove the stump and branches and install the potted Hydrangea. I suspect the Hydrangea will do well since it’s planted in open soil. I just had to remind the owner to water it. And now, instead of looking at a struggling mugo pine, the owner is looking forward to Hydrangea blooms next season.
Problem solved! Cash made! Blog post composed!
Why so sad?
When you buy a fig tree, you definitely expect to harvest some figs after three years. And yet, here we are, three seasons in and the tree looks pretty sad. Why?
There are many possible reasons. So, let’s take a look at the most obvious.
Lawns are known to outcompete young trees planted in lawns like this one. Less water and nutrient availability means less growth.
One way you can help the tree is by establishing a tree well. The grass will not be a factor inside the tree well so the fine surficial tree roots can collect nutrients; and the well itself collects water. Adding a layer of mulch would keep the root zone cool and weed-free.
Speaking of water, it’s not clear how much water this fig tree received after planting. New trees require extra water so they can get established.
The tree well also eliminates any potential tree versus lawncare machine collisions. I can’t say for sure from the photo if the tree sustained any injuries. But, I wouldn’t bet against it. By establishing a tree well, you create a nice buffer between the tree and machines.
When collisions do occur and the bark gets damaged, the tree must use up precious energy for repairs instead of growth. That means no figs for you.
Nurseries install bamboo stakes so the tree doesn’t get damaged in transport or at the retail center. The bamboo stake should be removed at the time of planting. Or, if you’re really worried, a few months later. I think the Canadian landscape standards recommend stake removal after fourteen months.
Keeping stakes on means that the tree never forms any reaction wood in response to windy conditions. It makes the tree weak and reliant on the stakes.
Also, the cedar hedge behind the tree could be depriving the fig tree of the sunlight hours it needs to thrive.
Be very careful when planting trees in lawns. Always establish a tree well around the tree and mulch it. Remove any staking and never get too close to the tree with your lawn mower or edger.
The owner of the fig tree received a lot of feedback and I hope she makes some changes. Soon.
Landscape maintenance professionals are developed, not created overnight. It takes constant training and monitoring to make new workers into skilled machines.
Of course, without clear directions, mistakes will happen; they will happen even with clear directions. Once you’ve identified the mistakes, review them with your workers and pray they don’t repeat them.
In a recent blog post I covered poor blowing practices. Here we’ll take a look at two blowing mistakes that came to my attention recently.
This is a picture from the United States. The contractor’s new hire was asked to blow and he made a big pile of debris. But, instead of picking it up, he tried to make it disappear down a drain. That’s not a good plan.
While there’s some logic to it, like less labour and zero green waste to dump, this sort of work later leads to flooding in most places. I know, for example, that the City of Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) hands out fines for this kind of work. As soon as the rains come, the streets flood and upset residents call the city to fix it.
There are no short-cuts here; you must blow the debris into a pile and remove it. It’s that easy. This was a good learning experience for a new employee.
Lawn or sidewalk?
What do you with your piles? Here we had a veteran part-time employee and he left the pile in the middle of the sidewalk. So, afterwards I gently reminded him that debris piles left on lawns are easier to pick up and don’t require additional blowing.
Always pick your words carefully, because veteran part-timers appreciate corrections less. But make the corrections immediately. Remember, foremen and supervisors have to act fairly but firmly!
The other problem is sidewalk access. As soon as you make a pile like this, the only wheelchair user in the complex emerges and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get the one-finger salute. I did see an elderly dog owner with a bad hip crossing the lawn.
When you’re doing a clean-up blow, always blow debris into piles and pick them up. Debris doesn’t belong in drains or on the street.
Blowing your piles onto lawns makes pick-up easier, doesn’t require re-blow and it doesn’t create sidewalk obstruction.
Train your workers well! And homeowners should adopt the same strategies.