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Education

What it’s like to work with landscape apprentices

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The idea

Apprentices in landscape horticulture attend classes for six weeks, usually in winter, when it’s slow. Then for the rest of the year they work under a journeyman in the field. That’s where I come in. I work with them in the field as they learn hands-on skills and more. The set-up is sound and it gets results when the journeyman wants to teach and the apprentices wants to learn.

Dogwood lesson

Today my apprentice started thinning out a mature Red-twig dogwood shrub and he did a good job. However, we still had the same problem. Only the top section was showing the classic red twigs, which is why this shrub is planted. Normally the red twigs show really well in the winter landscape. Not this specimen.

Because there were some concerns about privacy on the patio, I knocked on the door to check with the owner. And she didn’t care: whatever I wanted to do was fine by her. Sadly, because I joke around a lot, my apprentice didn’t believe me when I relayed the owner’s message. There should be complete trust between the teacher and apprentice!

Old wood goes

Now that privacy issues didn’t matter, I got the apprentice to remove all of the mature wood which look gray or brown, not red. He used a hand saw and loppers to do this work.

Once the old wood was gone, all we had left were the young, red canes. And we should get more next season. Assuming the coming blast of cold doesn’t kill the shrub. (Disclaimer: another manager approved the work; I wouldn’t prune dogwoods with -17C temperatures coming later in the week.)

Before:

Mature dogwood with red twigs up top.

After:

Old wood is gone and my apprentice is smiling!

Training

I love working alongside apprentices in the field but, sadly, I don’t get to all of them. The hands-on work they do is priceless, plus I add extra knowledge when it applies. Then the rest depends on their own work and six weeks of study.

When they come back from school they are more knowledgeable and confident. And that makes me and every landscape boss extremely happy.

A Christmas gift for homeowners and landscapers

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Holidays!!

With barely three weeks away from Christmas, I feel like all homeowners and landscapers should be rewarded. To thank you for reading this blog, I’ve dropped the price of my online course to just $5 until January 1, 2024.

If you don’t know the background, I will share a little bit here. In my twenty-five seasons in the landscape industry, I’ve seen my share of lawn care mistakes. I’ve made them; and I’ve tried to correct them in others. Then it hit me: why not assemble the biggest mistakes in one course and make it available to a wider audience.

Learn from other people’s mistakes

Obviously, landscape apprentices work with me all year and they learn from their mistakes. But why not learn quickly from other people’s mistakes? My Lawn Care Mastery 101 online course covers the biggest mistakes people make. And sadly, some experienced workers could benefit from a refresher.

Colliding with fixed objects kills your blade and bends the shaft.

Biggest mistakes

My course covers the biggest mistakes. Some are horrific like bending your mower shaft or scalping your lawn down to dirt. Other mistakes aren’t as critical because grass grows back in one week or so. If you cross your mow lines one week, you will get a chance to make corrections the week after. If you run through my course you won’t have to worry about mistakes. And it will only cost you $5. Check it out and get ready for next year’s lawn care season.

Happy holidays!! I appreciate every single reader of this blog. And check back soon because I will be giving away copies of my latest e-book in January 2024.

Garden professor takes on myths

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Link of gold

Usually, surfing online is an awful time-waster but not today. While checking my Facebook feed I came across a recent video recording of a presentation given by my mentor Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott. You might have read my earlier blog about Linda. In it, I call her my hero because she covers gardening as a scientist. This means that her findings and writings are based in science, not gardening hearsay. When I read about her experiments with mulch flammability I was extremely jealous. I would love to torch different mulches in the name of science.

Linda uses science to bust persistant gardening myths. You can listen to her presentation below. I can almost guarantee you that you will learn something new. It’s also possible that you too are holding on to gardening myths. Let Linda dispel it for you.

My mentor

Before the pandemic hit, I almost got to see Linda at a trade show in Abbotsford. I have several of her books -highly recommended-and I follow her because she writes on topics that apply to my everyday work as a landscape professional.

Let’s see some examples. I know a strata site where one of the residents buys lady beetles every year with after-tax dollars to deal with aphids. It sounds like a plausible idea until you realize that the lady has no way of keeping the lady beetles on her tree. There are more trees on her site. Linda has an extension paper that deals with this topic. (Spoiler alert: don’t do it!)

Now, what about landscape fabric? It’s sounds great! Put it down, cover it with soil or mulch and never weed again. Not so fast. The fabric clogs up and doesn’t let water through; and when the soil decomposes, thin layers can actually make life very cosy for weeds. Landscape fabric is a waste of money. (Now you know!)

Get to know Linda

Gardening is fascinating. There is always something new to learn and I have a lot of respect for garden professionals. But there are many opinions that aren’t backed up by science so why not let Linda show you the way. You can thank me later. She’s an awesome lady and she lives in our corner of the world, in the Pacific Northwest. That’s a huge bonus.

Great news for Red Seal journeyman horticulturist candidates

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The wait is over

Finally, as of September 2023, you can access the Red Seal journeyman horticulturist exam preparation workshop online. Simply buy your study manual ($30 plus tax) online and get free access to on-demand one hour video recording. In the video, Egan Davis covers the crucial material people mess up on the Red Seal exam. This is absolute gold, especially for people challenging the exam. Apprentices who go through all four levels are in better shape but I still recommend this course to anyone planning to sit the Red Seal exam.

Old style

In 2014 I did it the old way, in the classroom. The preparation workshop took place at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and it took all day. It was also nice to see the group discussions which is one thing you can’t do with online, on-demand recordings. Some of the people in class were teachers from Kwantlen Polytechnic University; and I got to see them absolutely “smoke” the test in record time. In contrast, I stayed for the full four hours and left the exam room hungry and dehydrated.

The session cost $100 and the manual covered material that people mess up on the test. I thought it was gold for someone challenging the exam. I’m one hundred percent convinced I wouldn’t have passed without this course. For one, it showed me what exactly was on the test; and two, it gave me more confidence. I still have my notes from that day.

My mentor, Egan Davis

The teacher, Egan Davis, is a plantsman and overall a great guy. Just Google him and see. He ran the UBC horticulture program and then moved to a municipal job. I’ve also attended many of his presentations. I distinctly remember the last lecture I saw him deliver because it was just as the pandemic was hitting. Some of the attendees in the small lecture hall were already fist-bumping which confused me. But not for long. Soon my day-job employer would face pressure online to shut down his business; he didn’t!

Davis knows a lot about plants and his overall great knowledge shows in the exam preparation workshop. He’s knowledgeable and confident. Once you grab his email address, you have a mentor for life.

Just do it!

If you want to challenge or take the Red Seal exam, this workshop is for you. And now you can do it from the comforts of your home. Buy the study manual and watch the one-hour video anytime you want. I highly recommend it because the study manual covers material people mess up. It obviously can’t cover in one hour what apprentices learn in four levels.

I recommend this workshop to everyone: challengers with work experience and apprentices who have gone through all four levels. Good luck!

Kids on a rampage!

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Playground in flames

Well, not literally in flames, because there is a fire ban in British Columbia. But we did find damaged cedars in a playground enclosure. And that’s to be expected. Kids play and sometimes, without adult supervision, plants suffer. Like the cedars (Thuja occidentalis) inside the playground. Or trees sporting carved initials or broken branches. Take a look. This was no accident.

It’s unlikely this damage is left over from winter, nor was it likely done by large predatory animals roaming through Langley. I suspect kids did this and only video footage can confirm this. However, I couldn’t just knock on the door and ask for the security footage. I’m not a detective. I’m a landscaper so I do it my way.

The fix

Now, we normally shear cedar hedges from the fall as the weather cools. Assuming it does, of course. It’s already been a crazy hot summer. Not just in British Columbia but globally. So I wasn’t about to shear these poor damaged plants. That would just stress them out considering the 30 degree July heat. Plus we had time.

Out came hand snips and we lopped off the cedar tops just below the damaged stems. It was easy work without noise or air pollution.

Since the far left cedar wasn’t damaged, we had a decision to make. Do we leave it taller than the others or do we take it down to keep the hedge even? The final picture shows that we decided to level it as well to keep the hedge even.

Damage controlled, for now!

A younger landscape pro Vas would try to hunt down the little bastards responsible but a slightly older Red Seal Vas is super mellow. I believe the kids still learned something from their interaction with cedar tree tissues. The damage is fixed and this fall we’ll shear the hedge nicely, including the top. It will push out and, assuming there won’t be anymore insults, recover nicely.

Now I just wish the kids would water the plants.

Do you know the new rules of networking?

By | Education, Magazines | No Comments

New networking rules

When you go to a networking event or work party, it’s normal for people to ask “What do you do?” But this will only lead to work talk and it’s unlikely you will find out any details about your new contact. You will miss out on what David Berkins calls “multiplex ties” in his Harvard Business Review article (Special Issue, Fall 2022, pp.26-27).

If you ask better questions, you can find out that your new contact goes to the same gym or plays online chess on the same server. Perhaps your kids go to the same school or you both like stand-up comedian Bill Burr. These multiplex ties connect you better and can lead to a deeper connection.

Better questions to ask

Here’s a list of questions you can ask instead of the tired “What do you do?”

What excites you right now?

What are you looking forward to?

What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?

Where did you grow up?

What do you do for fun?

Who is your favorite superhero?

Do you support a charitable cause?

What is the most important thing I should know about you?

Meeting Red Seal Vas

Now let’s pretend you’re meeting me at a party and you ask me the second question on the list: what are you looking forward to? I will happily tell you that my day-job boss is moving his landscaping company to a four-day week. It’s a bit of a test but why not try something new? There’s logic to the move.

The four work days will run longer to nine hours per day. If I show up on time and my attendance is perfect, I will get paid for forty hours. Workers who slip up, call in sick a lot or show up late won’t get the full forty hours.

The most exciting part is having three days off. In summer, I suspect this will be gold. I can go visit my sister on her ranch outside Kamloops and drive back on a Monday when traffic is lighter.

I’m also excited about having more time for my landscaping side-gigs. Last year when it got busy with weekend activities and clients demanded service, the weekend was packed. Now with the extra weekday off, there will be less pressure on the weekend. And the potential to make extra income will go up. Now that’s something to look forward to.

The company’s truck fleet will rest for one extra day and there will be fewer staff on the payroll which should improve the company’s finances. The only question mark is how the workers will handle a slightly longer day physically.

Conclusion

Memorize all or some of the questions above and use them next time you meet new people. You could discover that your new contacts have a lot more in common with you.

On native fern resilience

By | Education, gardening, Plants, Pruning | No Comments

Mutilation

My Dec 21, 2020 blog post covered the whole fern mutilation affair so please read it to get the whole story. I will only recap the key points here.

Our West Coast forests are full of the native sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It does fine in the wild and in our managed landscapes. Except when experienced landscapers don’t use their heads and power shear it.

Imagine the horror when I discovered that the fronds had been halved by power shears- in winter- and the mess was never cleaned up. And we’re talking about experienced workers, not new dudes. It’s not clear what happened but clearly there was a breakdown somewhere.

Finished product

I’m sorry, but this kind of shoddy work can not be tolerated. Here’s why.

  1. Use hand snips to take out the brown fronds, if they bother you. It does make the sword ferns look neater. Don’t power shear ferns. Ever! I don’t care if it takes longer.
  2. The fronds only make sense when they are intact, not halved. It looks freaky.
  3. Not cleaning things up is the ultimate sin. How people walk away from this carnage is beyond me. Clearly, there were some problems with the crew. Pruning and clean-up go hand in hand. Both should be fantastic.
  4. The timing is awful. If you look at the base of the ferns, you should see next season’s fronds tightly packed together. When they pop up in spring, then you can take out the old brown fronds. Not in winter. Since nothing new emerges until spring, the residents get to look at halved sword ferns all winter. That’s just bizarre.

Good news!

Because plants are resilient, we have some good news to report a year later. I’m happy to report that the sword ferns recovered nicely! And the crews are under strict orders not to touch them until next spring. Hopefully, they learned their lesson.

Like nothing happened.

Left alone until spring, these sword ferns look great all winter.

Now you know how to handle our native sword ferns. Use snips in spring to prune out the brown fronds. That’s it. Then enjoy them for the rest of the year.

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!

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.

Blogging the cold away

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When it’s frosty

Sometimes it’s just too frosty outside for landscapers to pull off a full work day. Like today. Faced with a short day in Maple Ridge, British Columbia and very little tree work, I opted to stay home and blog the cold away. And it feels great to have that option.

It hasn’t always been that way. In some years, I didn’t have banked vacation pay and losing hours stressed me out. Nor did I have extra sources of income. With COVID-19 eliminating a lot of extra fun activities in 2020, I was actually able to hit winter with banked vacation time.

This leads me to two points: the seasonality of the landscape trade and extra sources of income. Let’s take a look.

Seasonality

Before accepting my current landscape manager position six years ago, I made sure there was work all year. That was a major prerequisite. And anyone considering a career in landscape horticulture has to think about the seasonality of the trade.

Some young dudes are happy to take lay-offs. They’re single and living with their parents. Sure. But for professionals like me, with goals and obligations, winter lay-off is not an option. I need to work in winter, even if the day doesn’t always last the full eight hours. Yesterday, for example, we installed soil amender in light flurries and went home after seven hours. Not bad at all.

It also pays for landscape companies to keep their core staff working all year. If you disband in late fall to save money, you might not get all of the best people back in spring. Then what? Can you manage without landscape manager Vas? I doubt it!

Extra income

I’m in my twenty-first season of landscape maintenance so I’m used to the landscape industry’s seasonality. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for income generating ideas. Like blogging.

Blog ideas in Dollarama notebook.

Did you know I turned pro as a blogger thanks to Proper Landscaping Inc.? It’s true. I posted a few short blogs on this website just as my municipal lay-off was ending and I haven’t stopped since. You have no idea how much my kids appreciate James, the owner of Proper Landscaping, for keeping me employed.

When the weather is decent, I also do side-gigs for residential clients. People always need pruning and clean-ups done; deep-edging beds is also a great cold weather task, and so is soil installation.

When it snows, I know who to call for some snow shoveling action. Sure, it’s heavy labor but last year I turned two snow days off without pay into 24 hours of paid labor. That made me happy.

And if you come across my posts on Facebook Marketplace selling unwanted plants, you know what’s happening. Vas is hustling.

It’s cold today but we’re almost in mid-February. Spring is coming. Hold on!