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gardening

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!

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.

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!

Weeding vindication

By | gardening, weeds | No Comments

The problem

I need to write this blog post but I have to do it gently, without starting a war. Now, landscape maintenance is populated by many all-stars like me: certified, experienced and opinionated individuals. And while I’m always ready to learn, there are limits. I’m only human.

One such limit is weeding. Weeding should be done with tools, not with fingers. Unless, of course, you’re picking huge trophy weeds.

It was only a matter of time before someone disagreed with me. I’ve seen and heard those people. They happily sit down to hand weed and pick away until their fingers are bruised and bleeding; or, more often than not, until they delegate this unpopular task to someone else.

A gift even Santa can’t match

Just last week, I received a huge gift. Something even Santa can’t bring.

Picture a large bed full of weeds, slightly compacted and muddy. A newly promoted working manager dropped to his knees to weed and inside one minute realized it would take him forever to hand-pick all of the weeds. So, he quickly got up and walked away.

To do what exactly?

Vindication 101

Did you get it? He brought a cultivator (A Dutch hoe to be precise: because it’s sharp and ideal for this situation) and ran it through the bed. Then he raked up the weedy mess and disposed of it. Like a pro.

He stayed on his feet, it was much quicker, the weeds got uprooted and the bed looked fluffy. Don’t forget the bonuses: his fingers didn’t hurt and the bed will stay nice longer!

(One major drawback of hand-picking weeds is that the roots often go undisturbed.)

That’s how you handle weedy patches. With tools. Like a pro. I know that some will still disagree. That’s fine. Those people will leave nasty comments before moving to other blog sites. Let them go, quietly.

Quiz

Study the picture and answer the question.

The best way to weed this bed quickly and efficiently is by…

A. line trimming the weeds and having a window repair service on speed dial

B. sitting down and using your arthritic, bruised fingers only

C. delegating this task to the most junior staff

D. using a small hand tool or a combination of cultivator and rake

Conclusion

Weeding isn’t going away, ever. So, use tools for weeding. It will save you time and your finesse work will shine. Yes, you can tell people Red Seal Vas trained you.

Mulch tactics

By | gardening, Mulch | No Comments

Here we go again

I love mulch. It keeps moisture in your beds, deprives weeds of sunlight and it gives your beds an instant sharp look. Of course, it does break down so you might have to top it up once in a while.

Just last week, I did some clean-ups at a new site my day-job employer took over from another landscape contractor. While the pruning looked OK, I could tell the previous dudes didn’t care for finesse work much. And yet, it’s finesse work that gives your site a sharp look.

Running a line trimmer through your planted beds doesn’t qualify as finesse work. It’s extremely dangerous and desperate. If you somehow manage not to blow out windows, you will likely injure the plants. Never do this. Allegedly, the previous contractors did this all the time. Which is why they lost the site.

Don’t go cheap with thin mulch

Here I had to gently uproot the weeds and get rid of them without removing the mulch. It would be difficult to line trim the weeds into oblivion.

But this isn’t how mulch works. At a depth of 2-3″, it should keep moisture in the bed, block sunlight from reaching any weeds and give us a sharp look.

Of course, over time the mulch degrades and requires top-up. But I also find that many homeowners try to go cheap by applying a thin layer. Which is a huge mistake.

I learned why from Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, my mentor. I knew mulch kept moisture in the bed and prevented sunlight from reaching weeds. What I didn’t know was that a thin layer of mulch made everything very cozy for weeds. It helped retain moisture in the bed without depriving the weeds of sunlight. That’s how we get beds like the one pictured above.

Now that it’s nicely weeded, it needs more mulch to replenish it and make it work and look the way it was supposed to. So, remember, don’t go cheap with mulch. Apply at least 2-3 inches and keep it topped up.

Lessons from municipal parks

By | gardening, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Go stress-free

There is something to be said for municipal landscapes in late fall. I noticed how stress-free municipal park maintenance is. Unlike commercial strata maintenance where grooming and control are the norm.

Now, I know that municipalities have set annual budgets and during a pandemic there probably wasn’t enough cash to groom every public park.

Strata owners pay hefty monthly maintenance fees and expect to see well-groomed landscapes. Still, there are lessons you can learn from public parks and apply them in your own gardens. Let’s take a look.

Perennial cutback

In strata maintenance, spent perennials are cut-back as soon as possible. But you can leave them standing in your own garden. Covered in frost, perennials can look great; and birds eat their seeds or hide in them.

Don’t rush to cutback your perennials.

Astilbe produce gorgeous flowers in summer and I don’t mind this look. If you touch the brown stalks, they will break off in your hand.

The leafy layer protects the soil and shelters tiny life forms. Of course, in strata landscape maintenance, this kind of bed isn’t tolerated. It’s groomed!

Enjoy the December holdouts, like this Rudbeckia. Don’t rush to cut them back. Walking by today, this reminded me of warm late summer days.

Grasses

In strata maintenance, when ornamental grasses like this Miscanthus flop over even a little bit they get power-sheared into low mounds. Why the rush? Like your spent perennials, it’s OK to leave your grasses standing in winter.

Pennisetum should be left alone until spring. I quite like this look, as opposed to a harshly shaved mound.

Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) is supposed to look like this all year. Don’t shear it. Maybe run your fingers through it in spring. It looks fantastic when it moves in the wind.

Conclusion

Learn from your public parks and stop rushing to cut everything back. Ornamental grasses look great in late fall and when covered by frost in winter. Pennisetums should be cutback in spring.

Look at your garden and experiment. Take one winter and don’t cutback all of your perennials and grasses. Leave it for next spring.

Surprises in December landscapes

By | gardening, Plants | No Comments

Plenty to see in December

I know it’s sad to see the warm seasons go but there is still plenty to see in the landscape as we hit winter. Come take a look with Red Seal Vas. How many of these plants do you know?

Fatsia japonica flowers in winter which makes it special and very welcome! The huge leaves are hard to miss. Just make sure you give this plant plenty of space to grow.

Like Fatsias, Hellebores also flower in winter. These flowers really pop in dormant winter landscapes. Interestingly, this specimen had up-turned flowers; normally the flowers point down which annoys some gardeners.

Viburnum bodnantense is one of my favorite shrubs. It’s fun to see its flowers on bare branches. I always stop and take photos.

Callicarpa looks awesome in fall. Planted in the middle of a round bed, it really popped with its purple berries. In summer, the flowers are tiny so be careful when you do mid-season pruning. You wouldn’t want to miss this show in your own garden.

I love this Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) holdout! Many people consider these trees “messy”, if that’s even possible. I know that all jam-makers would beg to differ.

Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) have tiny but beautiful flowers in summer. You have to get really close to see them. And in the fall, we get these dark berries.

Viburnum tinus looks great in fall when it’s not all chewed up by its enemy, the beetle Pyrrhalta vuburni. I love the metallic blue.

Arbutus unedo are easy to identify because they have spiked strawberries. This one, like the Cornelian cherry above, is holding on in a sheltered place.

When you stop to observe the plants in your landscape, you get nice surprises like these Escallonia flowers. I also like the waxy foliage.

Can you guess the tree species from these fruits? It’s a female Ginkgo biloba tree. When crushed, the fruits have an unpleasant odor but, again, I doesn’t bother me. I love trees!

It’s rare to see female Ginkgo trees so enjoy this photo. The tree is so ancient, it occupies its own tree family.

Conclusion

There is lots to see in our December West Coast landscapes. Slow down and take a good look. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Spring bulbs for beginners

By | gardening, Plants | No Comments

You can do it!

Planting spring bulbs in fall is easy and it doesn’t take much. Just get some bulbs, find a pot or planted bed, and find a garden trowel. Then you just need faith that the bulbs will come up in spring.

Let’s see how Red Seal Vas planted daffodils in his patio pot in minutes.

Shopping

First you need to buy bulbs you like. I love to shop online at West Coast Seeds. They have great products at great prices, and they’re local. Considering COVID-19 problems and the store’s distance from my home, online shopping was a no-brainer, even with shipping charges.

Buy whatever you like. I like daffodils because they last for several seasons and can even be naturalized in planted beds. For this blog, I purchased cupped narcissi because I liked the look. Deer resistance is a nice bonus but I’m not expecting to see deer on my second floor patio.

The beauty of planting spring bulbs is that you can experiment every season. Change things up.

My box from West Coast Seeds

Planting

Normally late November on the West Coast is ideal for planting spring bulbs. I planted my daffodils today (December 12, 2020) because I’ve been busy. But don’t worry: the rule is to plant before frost hits and your soil becomes unworkable. The soil in my pot was fine and I planted in beautiful afternoon sun.

Bonus: while I worked, I enjoyed the look of my Calamagrostis ornamental grass. Since I rule over my patio, nobody cuts back my ornamental grasses in late fall. Nobody!

Planting depth

The package gives you planting depth instructions so don’t stress. The rule is to plant at twice the height of your bulbs. Just make sure you plant at roughly the same level. That way your bulbs will pop-up together. For this reason it’s a good idea to plant one pot or bed yourself. Two or more people will inevitably plant at slightly different heights. Try to avoid this.

Since my pot is bare, I left the package envelope in the pot to mark it. Now all we need is faith that the bubs will come up in spring. Check your bulb flowering time to avoid any panic. Some are early, and some mid or late spring bloomers.

The bulbs I planted can be used as cut flowers but I won’t have too many. But I suppose I could surprise my wife next spring.

Ready for planting.

Conclusion

Spring bulbs are easy to plant in late fall and they give us a nice show in spring when gardens start to come alive. Daffodils can be left alone to bloom for several seasons. Just cut them back once they fade and the stalks turn brown.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Buy different bulbs every fall and try new arrangements. One idea I love is planting tulips with two different heights.

Have some fun with spring flowering bulbs!

When your first lawn cut is in October

By | gardening, Lawn Care | No Comments

Strange COVID times

Previously I have written blogs about my friend who hates gardening and pays me to knock down his lawns when his neighbors start whispering. Over the course of one season, I will visit his “meadows” five to six times. His house is every low-baller’s dream.

Now, let’s talk about my new client. To make the first lawn cut at a house in late October is unusual but we also live in unusual times. Thanks to the pandemic, the house owners are stuck in Taiwan; and their son worked, until recently, as a consultant in California.

Now back in town, the son wanted a little fall clean-up done. And I happily gave him one reasonable number for the work.

Fall clean-up

Lawns

Normally the consultant cuts his own grass but his mower wasn’t strong enough to cut through a frosty meadow. Grass this long has to be cut twice or knocked down with a line trimmer first.

My commercial Honda model made it in one pass, albeit slowly. The lawn is obviously in rough shape so I applied fall lawn fertilizer. Edging completes the work and this is where most homeowners fail. Many don’t even own commercial grade line trimmers.

A sharp blade edge on the street side gives the home a sharp look and, when done late in the fall, it should hold for months.

The first lawn cut of 2020 in late October.

Pruning

Next came pruning and a bit of finesse work. Daylilies and peonies are made for fall cutback when the show is long over. I took out my Felco snips and went to work.

Flush cut your perennials and let them pop up next year

Laurels, boxwoods and Spireae got clipped with power shears to control their growth and give them a more formal shape.

Shaggy shrubs
After power shearing

I used hand snips for Rhododendron and Pieris shrubs. Both were too big for the consultant’s liking.

Then came a quick scan through the cedar hedges for out-of-control morning glory (Convolvulaceae family).

The final step always involves clean-up and in this case, my weapon was a backpack blower.

Now that the consultant knows about my great, affordable service, I have a feeling we’ll do business together again in 2021. He knows I can help him and, considering the way the pandemic is dragging on, it will be nice to generate some extra income.

3 West Coast lawn issues

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Lawn Care | No Comments

Season over

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.

Bend over!

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.

Female European chafer beetles. Only one is really dead!