White morning on a dark day

By | Species | No Comments

Today was the first mow day of the season and it was surreal. With the novel coronavirus raging around the globe, I had to take precautions like never before. My mouth was covered by a mask, my hands were washed and covered in clean gloves, and I kept everybody at least six feet away.

By the time I got home, my in-box was full of messages encouraging me to stay home.

White plants

Everywhere I went this morning, I saw white plants and they lifted my spirits. So, let’s take a look at five species and see if you know any of them.

Azalea (Rhododendron sp.)

Azaleas are everywhere in our West Coast landscapes and for a good reason. They look great when they’re in bloom.

Pieris japonica

This is another well-known shrub in our landscapes.

Ribes sanguineum (Currant)

This white variety isn’t as common as the pink one but perhaps it should be. Currant pops in early spring and is also well-known.

Oemleria cerasiformis (Indian plum)

Indian plum is a native plant and the blooms will eventually turn into edible berries. It brightens up the landscape nicely at the moment. You can read my blog post dedicated to this native shrub with additional pictures.

Pyracantha coccinea

I saved the toughest plant to identify for last. When I shot the picture I wasn’t completely sure what it was. Then, I noticed the familiar skinny and super sharp thorns. Ah, yes, firethorn. I know it intimately from pruning and moving it.

The thorns are so annoying, I was once asked to plant Pyracanthas by a parkade which suffered from frequent break-ins. I never heard back if my plantings actually deterred the bad boys.

If you don’t recognize the white flowers, don’t worry. I’m sure you’ve seen the orange clusters of berries that come later.

These are strange times for the entire globe but in the landscape there are always elements that can lift your spirits. Like my white morning.

For now, medical experts recommend that we stay home.

Garden as a place of comfort

By | gardening | No Comments

Brian Minter writes in today’s Vancouver Sun about gardens being places of comfort. And I totally agree. Except it wasn’t very comfortable today buying the paper. Just before I entered Shopper’s drug mart, the security guard questioned me about my shopping intentions. What? These really are strange times we live in.

Escape

With the novel coronavirus upsetting our normal routines, we need gardens more than ever. We need some safe spaces to escape to, where we can rest and relax.

Unfortunately, I only have a small patio so I have to rely on containers. Of course, Brian Minter is a gardening legend in British Columbia so he’s after well-designed containers. Mine are planted with rejected plants I brought in from work; and I love all of my rescues.

Elements

The only designed pot I have contains Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) which moves nicely with the breeze. All around it I planted purple tulips because I read too many gardening magazines and I saw this idea in one of them. The light grass contrasts nicely with the purple tulips. At least that’s the idea. The tulips aren’t out yet. I can’t wait.

Rebel daffodil discarded in the woods and rescued.

Minter also mentions colours and perfumes. The only perfume I get in winter comes from my one Sarcococca. The other elements are plants which attract pollinators and LED mini-lights for extra magic.

Now, while my patio probably wouldn’t get a passing mark from Brian Minter, it’s my special place. I feel like the plants I rescued and bought are my friends. Some are tiny trees I will never be able to keep to maturity but I love seeing them grow.

I have one Styrax, Pin oak and Horse chestnut, not exactly patio pot friendly specimens. Once they grow up I will give them away.

Watering my plants also got my mind away from virus news and financial stress. Now I’m considering growing vegetables.

If you have a garden or a patio, try to add some plants. It may just give you some serenity in a crazy world. I feel great when I check on my patio plants. I think you would, too.

Brian Minter is right, gardens are places of comfort.

Armeria juniperifolia

Is it OK to pull a lawn mower backwards?

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

Tiny lawns

Yes, it is OK to pull a lawn mower backwards but only when you’re mowing a small patch. When a patch of grass is very small, it makes it awkward to turn around with your machine. So, we move in and pull it back. And we repeat the process until the grass is cut.

Pretty laser lines on small patches of lawn don’t even show up properly so we need not stress. If you try to turn around with your mower, you will most likely step into planted beds and cause other problems.

Larger lawns

Larger lawns are a different story because mowing backwards makes it extremely difficult to cut in straight -laser!- lines. You will inevitably lose the lines and either:

a) Create “mohawks” or uncut sections of lawn surrounded by cut lawn. A week later these mohawks become pronounced and detract from your clean cut lawn presentation. Fixing them takes time.

b) End up cutting sections twice which is a duplication and a waste of time.

Well-cut lawns have beautiful straight lines and this is accomplished when we push the mower, not pull it. Pulling your mower means that you’re not looking at the lines properly.

Straight diagonal lines after pushing a mower, not pulling.

Danger!

Another problem is safety. Mowing backwards means that the mower is moving towards your feet not away from them. One slip or hesitation and your foot could end up under the mower deck with potentially severe consequences.

Speed

Mowing backwards is also much slower than pushing the mower forward. It’s hard to get a good rhythm going when you mow backwards. Pushing the mower forward the way it was intended allows you to build speed and force while staying on course.

So, if your lawn is too tiny to allow for full mower turns, then by all means push it in and pull it out until it’s done. On larger lawns it doesn’t make sense to mow backwards. Finish your line and turn around properly so you’re correctly line-up for the next pass.

Happy mowing!

Is turf or grass better for soccer?

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

Someone asked me the title question online recently. So, let’s see. If you’re talking about the game of soccer, then turf wins! Why? Because the turf is nice and even.

So many times I’ve seen my 11-year-old son miss easy shots on goal because the grass was bumpy and it threw the kids off. On turf my son would bury those shots, four times out of five.

Problems with turf

There are a few problems with turf. It’s expensive and it heats up. When it heats up in summer, it can off-gas and it requires watering. At least, in theory. In practice, I have yet to see a club hose off the turf before matches.

On one crazy day in White Rock, 2-3 years ago, with temperatures in the high 20s, my son complained about the heat. Not just about the temperature but about his feet. It turned out that his expensive plastic cleats sucked up the heat and made it extremely uncomfortable for him to play. I think his team gave up over ten goals that day. Nobody cared to water the playing surface.

The rubber bits must also be replenished once in a while; and I’ve seen references to goalies falling sick from playing on turf with rubber bits on top.

Players also suffer more injuries on turf.

Turf at Starfire, Renton, Washington State, USA

Grass

I like to see my son play on natural grass, even though Santa Claus had to bring him a plastic cleat cleaner. Also, municipalities no longer use chemicals and the grass is cooler. It also gives off oxygen.

My son likes to point out the frequent imperfections in natural grass. The grass surface can be bumpy, water pools up in some areas and turns to mud.

Grass maintenance also costs money. Municipalities have to cut, aerate, fertilize and top-dress grass fields.

I believe the biggest drawback is water. Athletic fields have a thick sand base to prevent water from pooling up which means that they have to be watered more to keep them in decent shape. Thus, we get concerned citizens calling city departments during water restrictions, asking why the athletic fields are receiving so much water. This is the reason why: they are built with thick sand bases that drain quicker.

If I could, I would have my son play only on natural grass.

Sucking up to Bartlett Tree Experts

By | Arborist Insights, Trees | No Comments

It’s common for landscape companies to do their own tree work up to some decent height, like 10-12 feet. Anything higher than that gets sketchy.

So what do you do when your client wants you to remove a giant Pin oak (Quercus palustris)? Well, you call in your favourite tree company. In this blog post it’s Bartlett Tree Experts.

Bartlett comes in and takes the tree down in no time and there is a beautiful up-side to these referrals. Every year, Bartlett Tree Experts invites their clients to a training seminar! Bingo. I live for these moments.

Client seminars

This year the seminar took place inside a Burnaby, BC, private motorcycle exhibit and Harley-Davidson store building. I already knew from past seminars that there would be a gift waiting for me at check-in. Interestingly, this year we received a bento box so I discreetly asked for a second one to prevent my kids from arguing later.

The lecture room was packed and with the coronavirus raging in China, some people were reluctant to shake hands. Hot and cold drinks were provided throughout; and sandwich lunch was included.

Egan Davis

As an introvert, mingling in a crowded room is a lot of work for me. I ran into several old acquaintances and some people from former employers. And every time they see me, they have proof that there is life after their sweatshop.

I gladly shook Egan Davis’ hand. Egan Davis is a plant expert and instructor at the UBC Botanical Garden. Incidentally, he’s my hero because he did the one-day Red Seal Journeyman Horticulturist preparation course I took in 2014. As a result, I was able to pass the challenge exam soon after thanks to this indispensable course.

Egan also delivered a great lecture on static versus dynamic landscapes. The idea is that the landscapes we install in British Columbia are static. Once we install them, we just maintain them; we don’t let them evolve.

Egan’s idea is to start with herbaceous plants, let them build up the soil and then, over time, add shrubs and trees. There is no obvious end.

Ph.D.s

The seminars included three lectures by two awesome, articulate, Ph.D.s. One is an expert on plant diseases and one on urban forestry. The fourth lecturer was a citizen master beekeeper and she delivered a lecture on honeybees and her family’s history. I must admit, half-way through I was close to nodding off. But, to be fair, it was the worst time slot right after lunch.

All done

At the end of the day, there was an ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) sheet circulated for ISA arborists to sign for education credits. I collected 5 CEUs for this event; and 5 CEUs towards my landscape industry certified designation. Beautiful.

And that’s how I walked out of the building, with CEUs and a notebook full of notes. I also stuffed my pockets with fruit and bars for the kids.

It pays to hook up Bartlett Tree Experts with work. They just might invite you to their client training seminar in 2021. Definitely attend.

Landscaper in the hole

By | Landscaping | No Comments

I love it when I get to detour from regular landscape maintenance duties and work on a different project. For example, just last week I got to patch up a sinking hole in the lawn. There was a depression in the lawn and nobody was sure why. So, we fixed it in a few hours.

Access

How do you move several yards of lawn and garden mix soil into an area with lousy wheelbarrow access? Well, you make a phone call and you get the soil blown in. And that’s what happened.

We took advantage of a hole in the fence and ran the soil hoses through there. Fortunately, it was on a Monday morning and the worshippers were long gone. I’m not even sure if the new coronavirus allowed them to meet on Sunday.

Brutal access.
Blowing in soil.

Rolling it!

Now, it was important to roll the new soil as it was blown in so I danced with the operators. While I rolled the left side, they blew in soil on the right. Then we switched sides. And so on.

Yes, landscaping is a physical job; rolling a pin full of water to flatten soil is heavy labour. I was sweating under my toque and smiled about the very real possibility of weight loss.

It feels good to empty the rolling pin at the end.

Ginkgo

It wasn’t my idea to move a Ginkgo tree into the middle of the new depression-free lawn. I would prefer to re-plant it into native site soil, not into brand new lawn and garden mix.

So, we preserved as much of the root ball as we could and we plugged it in. Of course, this is a shock for the tree so it’s important to water it in gently with a slow soak.

Last step

Once temperatures go up high enough for grass seed to germinate, this lawn area will get hydroseeded. Hydro seeding is a faster and cheaper alternative to sod install. And it works well. Soon we’ll have a new lawn area to mow and it will be easier to maintain without the freaky depression.

The lesson here is that you can get around lousy site access by blowing soil in and hydroseeding. You will have to supply some labour.

All set for hydro seeding with male Ginkgo biloba.

Blade edger freaks

By | Lawn Care | No Comments

As I scrolled through my group newsfeed on Facebook, I noticed a lawn care post about blade edging. Finally, I found a brother in the United States who appreciates good blade edging. Here’s why you, too, should become a blade edger freak.

No lines

This picture isn’t very inspiring, is it. Left untouched, the grass will creep over and cover up the stepping stones. And that will defeat the purpose of having them installed in the first place.

To keep the grass creep in check, most landscapers will buzz down the edges. It’s not pretty but it arrests the creeping grass.

Also, note that line edgers are too weak to re-establish the hard edges. So, what do we do? I’m glad you asked!

Sharp lines

This is much better. To accomplish this work, we use a blade edger. Hit the engine, use the spinning metal blade to locate the hard edge, sink it in and follow the line. That’s it.

If you’re new to this work, kick the grass until you see the hard edge. Then rev the engine and sink the blade in.

If you encounter resistance, don’t be afraid to step back and hit the line again. Note how the sharp lines guide your eyes straight to the house. I find this extremely pleasing.

Final step

The final step involves blowing the stepping stones along both edges so the lines are nice and clear. Always pick up any grass chunks this work creates. Nicely re-established, these sharp lines should hold for a long time. Touch them up when required.

In online lawn care forums, many lawn care dudes use blade edgers to re-establish lawn edges but all subsequent touch-ups are done with line-edgers.

I don’t recommend this approach because the line edger isn’t as precise as the blade. One exception would be a day when your blade edger isn’t available. You decide.

If you love blade edging, embrace it because it’s normal.

Fall in love with your hand snips!

By | Pruning | No Comments

This is a great day for posting a new blog because it’s sunny outside and it’s a great day to believe in spring on this rare February 29th. So, let’s do an easy one about hand-pruning.

Euonymus

The request

The shrub above looks perfectly fine but the strata garden representative wanted a more formal mounded shape. Of course she did! It’s a common thing on strata properties, where there isn’t always sufficient space for plants to grow, to control everything with super-tight pruning.

Time-stressed landscapers often rush in with power shears, fire them up and shred the shrub into a ball. But, there is no need, especially if you have time; and in this case I did. (The boss was safely tucked away at a meeting.)

So, instead of creating air and noise pollution, I reached for my new Felco 4s hand snips and went to work for a few minutes.

Pro tip: always carry hand snips with you on your hip safely in a sheath. There is always something to correct and improve in your garden.

First, a huge advantage of hand snipping is that your cuts are precise and the plant tissues don’t get shredded. Your sharp snips make clean, precise cuts. Power shear have a tendency to shear plant tissues.

Second, another huge advantage is that hand snipping allows you to gently stagger your cuts. This way you still achieve your mounded shrub objective but with a softer look. In addition, it’s a quiet, relaxing job. I had fun doing it and it didn’t take me very long.

Pro tip: take care of small requests right away to impress your clients.

All done!

This is the after shot: we have a mounded shrub, as requested, made with precise hand snip cuts. It was a quick, relaxing task and it didn’t create any air or noise pollution. And the boss will never know!

Pro tip: always make sure your clean-up matches your pruning. Do it well.

I hope that this blog post will inspire you to fall in love with your hand snips. Not everything has to be power-sheared. Reach for your snips and enjoy!

Hydrangea deadheading

By | landscape maintenance, Plants, Pruning | No Comments

Do you cut off dead flowers from Hydrangeas? This is another burning question online so let’s examine it.

Bad habit

In commercial landscape maintenance workers tend to rush deadheading Hydrangeas and it’s a hard habit to break. There is absolutely no need to rush this task. Why?

The spent flowers can protect the new buds below from low temperatures and, when frost hits, the old flowers look brilliant. Once you cut them off, the show is over until summer. All you get to see is canes.

Recently, I had a client tell me to leave her spent Hydrangea flowers alone because birds like to hide in them. Ok. Done!

I think landscapers enjoy this deadheading task because it’s easy. It’s much easier than weeding and cultivating beds or worse, re-establishing deep-edges. I prefer to have something to look at in winter.

Careful!

If you must deadhead your Hydrangeas, do it carefully. Don’t cut lower than 2 to 3 buds. Since most Hydrangea plants flower on old wood, cutting too low risks removing flowers for next season.

This is where training comes in. It’s important to train all workers on proper pruning techniques. It happens every year. One unhappy client asks me to remove her Hydrangea because it never flowers. It just produces green canes. What a disappointment.

So, yet again, I have to beg her to stop pruning it. Green canes without flowers means that the pruning was too severe. Now all we can do is wait for next year because the flowers appear on last season’s wood.

I used to deadhead everything on my patio and in the landscape but not this past winter. I let the birds enjoy my perennials and I made some of my co-workers angry by insisting that we leave ornamental grasses standing. And the world didn’t end. So try it. Maybe you’ll form a new habit that will help birds in winter.

How to ruin someone’s garden!

By | gardening | No Comments

Disclaimer: this is a tongue-in-cheek blog post. Never ruin someone’s garden.

If you hang out online long enough, you will run into some crazy questions. Like this one: how do you ruin someone’s garden? Aha. Let’s have some fun.

Chemicals

Contact liquids

For sure the quickest way to ruin someone’s garden is to cover it in copious amounts of weed killer. I don’t want to name any one specific product but there are many available, they’re cheap and they work. If you soak everything thoroughly, you’re guaranteed success. Usually in a matter of hours.

Warning: cosmetic pesticide use isn’t allowed in British Columbia. Of course, this is a tongue-in-cheek blog post. I’m not expecting anyone to actually run out and ruin a garden but if you do, do it under cover of darkness.

Pre-emergent granular

You might also consider applying a pre-emergent granular product that forms a barrier on top of the soil. It will sterilize your garden soil and affect the most important part of garden soil: the life in the soil.

The discussion used to be about soil content. How much organic matter is in the soil, etc. But now we’re finding out that the life in your soil is crucial to success. You can quickly ruin a garden by affecting the life in its soil.

Grass seed

Dumping fast-germinating grass seed onto someone’s garden would also be a nightmare because you’d have to weed it out. And that’s not fun.

This is actually a thing in the landscaping industry. When company A loses a maintenance contract to company B, they dump a lot of expensive grass seed into beds just to mess with the new landscapers moving in. It’s hard to believe, I know.

Stop weeding

You can also ruin a garden by not weeding. Allow all weedy plants to flower and produce seeds. Since weeds are opportunistic colonizers they usually produce lots of seeds. So let them produce their seeds. They will accumulate in the soil and cause headaches for years to come.

There you have it. I hope that whoever asked the question online was kidding because need healthy gardens. One book I recommend is Dr. David Goulson’s The Garden Jungle. He wants you to stop worrying about global climate emergencies. Start with your own garden.