Tree topping disaster

By | Arborist Insights, Pruning | No Comments

Don’t do it!

Tree topping rules are straight forward: don’t do it! I was stunned recently at a site in White Rock, British Columbia, when I saw a topped Persian ironwood (Parottia persica) tree.

Persian ironwood trees are bulletproof. They don’t suffer from any diseases, the branches have interesting look and their fall color is spectacular. You can’t do much better when deciding on a landscape tree. But this owner had his own ideas; and it helped that he was the strata council president. That’s how it works. If you’re not on council, you won’t get approval.

If you’re feeling crowded, then take out the whole tree. But that’s very complicated nowadays because municipalities now care about tree canopy cover percentages. Unless your tree is dangerous, it’s difficult to get a removal permit.

I suspect, if the municipality knew about this tree topping, they might issue a ticket. It’s a nasty procedure. So nasty, I had to compose this blog post about it. So nasty, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) publishes a handout about tree topping.

Future growth

The tree will now push out new sprouts and the president will have to hack them down every year to keep the tree at the same height. If you don’t remove the sprouts, they will develop into poorly attached shoots.

Another drawback is that it no longer looks like a Persian ironwood tree while the other specimens nearby still look great. It’s a weird effect.

Trees also store food in their branches and heavy removal can cause serious shortages for the tree. They also need lots of leaves to produce food and topping removes huge chunks of the tree crown where leaves would have developed.

Also, large wounds like these may not heal and could potentially invite insects and diseases in. Generally speaking, three inch diameter is your rule. Any cut bigger than that, may be slow to heal.

With huge sections of the crown missing, the bark can also get injured by heavy sun exposure.

Conclusion

Don’t top your trees!

Winter brush cutting

By | landscape maintenance | No Comments

Ready for some labor?

This isn’t the first time I’m mentioning brush cutting in winter. It’s a perfect cold-weather task and it shows how labor-heavy landscaping can be. We might as well say it: landscapers get sweaty. If generating sweat spooks you, I would suggest a less-strenuous career path.

The day we went out brush cutting, it was nice and sunny and the goal was to level masses of prickly bramble. It’s done once a year and it’s nice to put in a full day’s work in winter.

Safety first!

The brush-cutting task itself is fairly easy. All you need is some mixed fuel (gas and oil) and protective gear. Do not skip this part. Gloves, steel-toe boots, goggles and a helmet system with face shield and ear protection are all standard equipment. Leave your shorts at home. Don’t take any chances.

Since you’re working in a wild zone, take a good look around. I spotted rebar sticking out of the ground before I even started. Sadly, the rebar ran all the way along, with gaps in-between, so I had to look out for it all day. Next year I will try to remove it or at least bend it. As it is right now, one slip could really mess you up. See the picture below.

Always identify hazards in the landscape.

Depending on how low you brush cut, you can expect rocks and wood to fly out. For this reason the three of us separated; and later, when got close to passersby, we paused to let them go. Safety first! Never play around.

The rest of the day was fairly monotonous. We leveled prickly bramble all day and managed to finish the entire wild bank. Given the size of the bank, bramble removal isn’t practical. We just left the shredded canes on the ground. We’ll be back in twelve months to do it again, unless the boss delegates this task to someone else. But, considering the physical nature and safety aspect of this project, this isn’t a good gig for new employees.

What I hope you take away from this blog post is the physical nature of landscaping work, the occasional monotony and the importance of safety.

When we reassembled at the back of the truck, it was clear the dudes were happy to get the bank done. They worked hard brush cutting on a winter day when not too much else could be done on site.

All done!

Celebrate small wins!

By | gardening, health and safety, Landscaping | No Comments

Celebrating in tough times

As the pandemic continues, it’s important to celebrate small wins. I find that I need to improve my mental health and reading newspapers doesn’t help. I didn’t find anything up-lifting in either The Globe and Mail or the Sunday New York Times today.

So, why not celebrate small, simple wins? It’s good for my own mental health and it might inspire you to celebrate your own personal wins.

Small wins

Carex

I scored small wins with sedges (Carex). In both cases I plugged up empty spaces that would otherwise go weedy. In one case, the plants were free. I salvaged them from another work project. In the other case, the owner paid hefty nursery charges. But in both cases, the sedges are thriving and expanding in their new homes! It’s a win.

Before

After

Cedars

Many B&B (ball and burlap) cedars (Thuja occidentalis) don’t do well long-term in the landscape and people get frustrated. That’s because it costs money to buy and install the cedars; and often, the owners are looking for a privacy screen. Green preferably.

Growers are finding that B&B trees don’t have great roots and some are refusing to purchase them.

This may not look like much, but I planted these two cedars when they were just six feet tall. Except here the owner cares. She waters well and frequently which is exactly what the trees need to establish well in their first year.

Often, cedars don’t get the required watering because people are busy and landscapers aren’t really paid to water new installs. Except, of course, on the day of installation.

This is a huge win.

Rhodos

Rhododendron

This Rhododendron was huge last year. So huge it towered over the rocks. Until my desperate friends called me for help. Now, with rhodos this big, there aren’t any obvious junctions to cut to so you need faith.

Faith in latent buds, that is. Rhododendrons, especially rough barked, have latent buds which pop and produce new foliage. You can see them in the picture because they’re lighter green. Smooth barked Rhododendrons may not respond as well.

I shot this picture last week and it was nice to see the new growth. I’d hate to kill my friend’s shrubs. Another win!

Herbs

This last win is close to home. My teenage daughter loves to cook but she hates touching soil and seeing bugs. That doesn’t sound like a landscaper’s daughter.

But when we got herb seeds she happily planted them on our patio. And it wasn’t just for show. She actually used parsley and cilantro in her dishes. This was another small but significant win.

Balcony herbs

I hope 2021 is going well for you! Leave comments about your own wins. I hope you score many this year.

A new course for lawn care newbies

By | Education, Lawn Care, Training | No Comments

Vas dares to dream

I’ve been training landscapers for many years now and I always wondered if I could make a bigger impact. So, when people struggled with basic plant identification, I put together a simple picture book to help them. It allowed me to test the Designrr software and, occasionally, I make a few dollars when the e-book sells on Amazon.

Now, lawn care is a bit trickier but since I was seeing the same mistakes over and over, it made sense to create an online course. That’s how the BC Landscape Academy was born in 2021. It’s been a fun learning experience and I’m working on other courses so it feels like a school. The second course will introduce landscapers to the most common tree species.

Students wanted

It’s not really a school without students but as the new mow season approaches, I’m hoping to get a few beta testers to test drive the course. And that includes Proper Landscaping Inc. I just have to convince the big boss James, in exchange for a huge discount.

The first course deals with the Top 5 lawn care mistakes. These mistakes happen over and over as new employees come to work at landscape companies. So, what if you could alert them to the worst five mistakes from day one? It would save costly training time in the field and could, potentially, save time and money. The well-trained newbie would know what mistakes to avoid and why. Which should make him an asset to his clients and company from day one.

I just think that the employers will have to attach some carrots to this project. Finish the course and get free snips. Or, finish the course and get a small raise.

Homeowners can benefit, too

Yes, the course is aimed at professional landscapers but homeowners will also benefit. The mistakes happen all the time. Why not check it out and get educated about proper lawn care. It’s not as simple as it appears. But the BC Landscape Academy is here to help you. Don’t repeat the same mistakes. Learn from others.

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.