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Landscape Industry

Can you turn aboriginal youth into landscapers?

By | Landscape Industry, Training | No Comments

Apprentices

Good landscapers are in great demand at the moment. Some of my previous blog posts showed how easy it was for new immigrants to become landscapers. But what about aboriginal youth?

To answer this question, we’ll consider the case of young Nate (his real name: used with permission). Nate is a great young dude with a partner and a new baby to support. He came to us from a Manitoba reserve where there were few opportunities and the weather sucked. So, Nate packed up and hit the West Coast for British Columbia- the best place on Earth! (If you ignore the current brutal housing situation.)

Right spirit

Nate possesses the right kind of spirit: a mix of initiative, playfulness, willingness to learn and can-do attitude. We found that out when Nate joined us for a company weekend getaway at the Wildlings Resort.

Once he got settled into his cabin, Nate launched his rental boat onto the lake, stocked annually with trout, and emerged hours later with a huge catch. All of his work mates observed the two fish limit, and they were stunned. But not Nate. This was his native land and there were no limits. His wide poacher’s grin proved it.

Luckily for Nate, his work mates were all too overcome by alcohol and legal marijuana to report him to the nearest conservation office. By the time they agreed on the correct “poacher” spelling, Nate had the fish gutted and iced with frightening efficiency. He also followed the old native custom of sharing by giving some fish away to his cabin mates.

Training

Now, when your apprentice has the right attitude, it’s easy to train him. Or her. That’s where Red Seal Vas comes in. Journeymen are supposed share their knowledge with apprentices in the field; and enjoy the process. The company gets a better trained, confident employee; and the apprentice gets valuable skills. With the right skills, young Nate can never be unemployed. The new skills are his to keep; better pay and advancement follow.

Now, let’s see how this works in the field with actual examples. Nate had the pleasure of my company for just a few hours, and this is what we covered.

Styrax pruning

We found some crossing branches inside a Japanese snowbell tree (Styrax japonicus), so I got Nate to remove them. When he pulled out a rusted hand saw he found on site earlier, buried in debris, I had to remind him to always use sharp hand saws. If your hand saw blade is rusty, get a new one and replace it. Making sharp cuts is mandatory.

We also reviewed the tree’s botanical name, Styrax japonicus. The specific epithet refers to Japan. Plant identification skills are very important for landscapers.

Lavender

Mid-November is a good time to deadhead spent lavender flowers. Use good hand snips, carefully grab a handful of flower spikes, and snip them off. The trick is to watch your fingers, so you don’t cut yourself. Don’t rush but don’t waste time snipping single flowers. Grab a handful.

Gunnera

Gunnera is an herbaceous flowering plant with large leaves. We found a cluster of them by a water feature. Since it was mid-November, the large leaves were flat on the ground and fading fast. When you moved the leaves, you could see the plant bases where growth occurs.

So, I showed Nate how the big leaves get flush cut at the base but not discarded with other green waste. Instead, we stack the large leaves on top of the plant bases, to keep them cozy in winter.

Nate cutting back Gunneras

Conclusion

By now the answer to my question above should be clear. Aboriginal youth can definitely be developed into landscape professionals with the right kind of training and support from employers; and journeymen willing to teach people. I’m confident that young Nate will do well in 2023.

One big reason landscaper gives up on his business

By | Landscape Industry | No Comments

Wait! What!

Recently I heard of a local landscape company owner who is ready to walk away from the business. Now, ever since I started landscaping in 2000, I always thought that starting your own company was the goal. Be your own boss, set your own work hours, exploit some workers, etc.

Proper Landscaping Inc was born with a dream like that and now the company provides great landscape maintenance services throughout the Lower Mainland. There’s no walking away.

Why quit?

So it’s interesting to hear about the owner of a small, but established, landscaping business is ready to call it quits. Why?

Because he can’t find any good people to rely on to scale his business. he wants to expand and, perhaps, ease up a bit. He wants good people to do good work without him being there all day.

That’s the dream: build a good team and then you make a great living. But the job market landscape has changed with the pandemic. People stayed home and got a chance to re-evaluate their lives. Why would someone go work for a small landscaping company?

The Landscape Management Network (LMN) says that in the US, 92% of landscape companies struggle with hiring, training and retaining staff.

My own work life in 2022 is hybrid: I have a full-time job as a landscape manager but I also blog for a living and I have many private side-gig clients. Small residential clients. But it’s clear what my day-job boss is offering me.

Red Seal Vas, trained and experienced, ready for action!

What are you offering?

What’s our landscape company boss offering, exactly? According to the Landscape Management Network (LMN), people can get a paycheque anywhere. How does working for a small landscape company enhance my life? Is there a way for me to develop personally and professionally? What’s my future pathway?

If it’s just a paycheque, our small business owner will continue to struggle in his talent search. There aren’t many great landscapers available in the Lower Mainland, and lots of companies are looking as well. It looks grim.

You can’t just pay me some cash to take your truck, deliver great service and maybe rarely see the boss. That’s a silly dream for a small company. So, what are you offering? Great pay, benefits, education support, on-the-job training, nice work sites? I know that it is a long year out in the field. The work is physical, in all kinds of weather and the weather is getting more erratic. How many summer heat domes will it take for people to walk away? My fear is getting stuck in a winter vortex with weeks of super cold temperatures.

Conclusion

I can’t wait to see how this thing plays out. Will our local landscape company owner quit or will he find the star performers he craves so much? He needs a great team in order to scale his business and make great money.

I just want him to think beyond a simple paycheque. I want my life to get better; and I want to develop personally and professionally.

NALP responds to California gas-powered small engine ban

By | Landscape Industry, machines | No Comments

California drops a bomb

This season, news from California surprised many landscape companies, in the state and in the rest of North-America. The state came out with amendments to the small off-road engine regulations, which would ban the sale of all carbon-emitting landscape equipment beginning with model year 2024. Now the California Air Resources Board has approved the amendments. So, all that remains is for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to give their blessings and that could take months.

NALP response

It’s instructive to see how the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) responded to this proposed ban. (Source: Landscape Management, Dec. 13, 2021)

a) The EPA has to approve everything first.

b) Battery-powered equipment currently on the market isn’t sufficient for high-volume commercial use.

c) 85% of the gas-powered equipment in California is used by residential customers-only 15% is commercial/professional grade.

d) Landscape professionals care deeply about the environment and need equipment that can manage the demands of California’s green spaces.

e) The transition will be very costly for the 55,000 small landscape businesses in the state.

Slow progress

I know a few landscape maintenance companies that use battery-operated edgers here in British Columbia. Unfortunately, the technology still isn’t good enough when it comes to leaf blowers. Battery-operated units don’t push out enough air for proper leaf clean-up. On the other hand, the gas-powered Stihl 800 unit is a beast that pushes out great air volumes at great velocity. Yes, it will pollute your lungs but it’s a dream blower. It will be a while before battery-operated units come close to the 800 model.

Bring it on

I would love to move away from carbon-emitting machines and try new battery-operated units. It would be better for the planet and my lungs. NALP is absolutely correct when they point out that landscape professionals care deeply about the environment.

Landscapers manage invasive-species, storm-water runoff, and fight climate change by caring for the grass, trees and plants that produce oxygen, sequester carbon and cool cities down. Now we just need better battery-powered technology; and a bit more time to transition away from gas-powered machines.

Perhaps California’s new regulations will give the battery-operated technology a nudge. I know the demand is there. Personally, I can’t wait to test a battery-powered leaf blower.

Residential switch easier

If I had a house, I would definitely switch to gentler battery-operated landscape machines. Here’s why: the scale is smaller. I can easily charge batteries for a quick weekly lawn cut at home.

It isn’t that simple for commercial sites. Just take a look at my commercial site’s maximum seasonal leaf drop. It would have taken extra hours and several battery packs to clean this up. Instead, my Stihl 800 beast cleaned it up very quickly; but, I did make lots of noise.

Maximum seasonal leaf drop.

We live in interesting times. In conclusion, I think California is on to something with their new regulations but the NALP correctly points out that the battery-operated technology still isn’t good enough for commercial landscape operators.

How landscapers die on the job

By | Landscape Industry, Lawn Care, machines | No Comments

Danger!

Whenever people work with machines there is potential for accidents. This is especially true with ride-on mowers. So, let’s get the worse part of this blog post over with.

Ride-on mowers are big beasts that cover lots of lawn in short amount of time. I’ve been trained on one but I wouldn’t want to use it all day, all week. It’s a bouncy and often dusty ride.

And you can die when you get too close to edges. I know of two true incidents from the US where both operators got too close to the edge and crashed, strapped to their seats.

One dude drove too close to a creek and flipped his ride-on mower over into the creek. This poor dude never had a chance. He got crushed on the creek bed.

The second dude got too close to a pond but he had a chance to unclip and swim out. Except he wasn’t a swimmer and he panicked, drowning as his mower sank into the pond. I learned about this in a Facebook group from his boss. It’s pretty sad.

Sadly, the operator drowned in the pond.

Missing digits!

This next story involves missing digits and it comes from my home province of British Columbia. Now, when I first heard it, it sounded a bit sensational. After all, modern mowers come with safety features like bars that stop the blades when disengaged. Let go of the bar and you should be fine.

Except here we had two dudes who made poor choices while wearing headphones. One (very efficiently) offered to hold the power bar while the other emptied his mower bag and reached in to clean the chute. And that’s when the digits on his hand went missing in a flash.

Shocked, the dude screamed his ass off on site, causing a massive, and bloody, scene.

This used to happen with early push mower models where the blades didn’t stop when the operator did. New mowers are super safe.

How to stay safe

Yes, you can stay safe in the landscape.

Get as much training as you can and respect all machines and tools on your work truck. Learn to use all of them safely. Ask questions and practice. And watch out for your team mates.

The same applies to homeowners. Before you let your kids mow your lawn, train them well and watch them.

Ask about and identify potential hazards on site and at home. Especially if it’s your first visit to the site.

Don’t wear headphones while you work.

Best training for a landscaper

By | Education, Landscape Industry | No Comments

Once in a while I see an interesting question on Quora.com which I think deserves its own blog. This blog covers the following question: What’s the best training for a landscaper?

Face your fears

By far the best training for a landscaper is working in the field under an experienced foreman who is willing to train you well. Ask about this in your interview.

Yes, you can mow grass all season but it’s better to learn everything. You can learn to use all lawn care machines and then move on to pruning with power shears and bedwork.

It’s important to face your fears. Like I did today. I had to use a brush cutter, a pole chainsaw and a wood chipper.

School

If you think landscaping is still your dream gig, then take landscape horticulture courses. You can do it online, full time in school or as an apprentice aiming for Red Seal status after four seasons. Schooling increases your knowledge and your value to your company.

I also recommend getting Landscape Industry Certified. This used to involve written and practical exams but the practical exams are getting eliminated in the United States. In Canada, the practical testing will stay but there will be changes from 2020.

And don’t forget about trees. Take the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) exam and learn about trees. This will increase the value you provide to your company. It also allows you to work year-round because tree pruning is done in the off-season.

Some clients are also touchy about their trees. Non-arborist landscapers aren’t always trusted with tree work. Get ISA certified. I’ve done it. Trust me.

Reading

Read the best books, magazines and journals and attend conferences. Training never ends! I regularly attend evening courses, for example, at Van Dusen Botanic gardens in Vancouver. I’ve also been to client education days put on by Bartlett Tree Services.

And I never miss the premier landscape horticulture trade show, CanWest.

 

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Best for last

You can get the best education for new landscapers by following my blogs, here on the Proper Landscaping site and at West Coast Landscape Professional. My eBooks are available at Amazon for spare change. Search for Vas Sladek on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave reviews.

 

Landscaping can be extremely rewarding if you work and study hard under a professional foreman who is invested in your development. Good luck!

 

 

Landscape horticulture apprentice Branden Dallas

By | Education, Landscape Industry | No Comments

Since I challenged the Red Seal Journeyman Horticulturist exam, I missed out on the four winter school sessions all apprentices are required to go through. (I didn’t miss out on the hard work but I did avoid EI collection.)

It was interesting to catch up with Branden Dallas who was putting in his first work day after completing level two of the four year apprenticeship program. I asked him a few questions. His answers are edited but they follow the notes I took during our talk. This might be of interest to workers interested in taking the four year horticulture apprenticeship program. The program is win-win for all parties. The apprentice gains work experience and Red Seal status, the employer gets a decent worker for four years and, hopefully, beyond. Canada gains trained trades people.

 

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Branden Dallas

 

V: Can you tell us about the program set-up?

B: The winter session at Burnaby Continuing Education goes for six weeks starting in early November. My employer sponsored me by employing me during the season, by completing all paperwork and by covering the $1250 school fee. While I’m in school, EI covers 55% of my regular pay. EI application is done by the student. There is a final exam to sit, three hours long. Course passing mark is 75%. Final grades are sent through e-mail.

 

V: What was your typical school day like?

B: The school days are Monday to Friday, 9 to 3:30 pm with one hour for lunch. We had four different instructors. Field trips happened at least once a week and I enjoyed all of them. In class we followed a printed manual and books like “Botany for gardeners“. [ By Brian Capon]

 

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V: What was the best part of the school session?

B: Definitely machines. Machines like backhoes. I wasn’t the best in class at it but it was a fun challenge. We built up soil in a bed close to the school.

 

V: What was the worst part of the school session?

B: Soils! The instructor was a Ph.D. candidate and he crammed a lot of soil science into a few classes. My head was spinning at the end. It was dry.

 

V: What are your future plans?

B: I will work for my employer all year to gain important landscape work experience. Then I will register for level three of the program this winter.

If you are interested in landscape horticulture this is a great program for you and your employer.

 

 

Requiem for a Recycling facility

By | Landscape Industry | No Comments

Only a landscaper would find the long-term closure of a recycling facility distressing. So let’s just say it. It sucks. The Coquitlam Construction Recovery Facility at 995 United Blvd, in Coquitlam, closed last November 30. The actual reasons for the closure by Wastech Services Ltd. are not very clear to me. It’s a long twisted tale that would explode the post length SEO settings for any blog on the internet. It was a mix of decline in construction material recycling volumes and pressure from the land owners of the recovery plant located nearby at 1200 United Blvd. Now we are promised a brand new facility in two years. I hope the workers who lost their jobs found suitable employment for 2017.

Why was the facility beautiful?

  1. It was never really super busy; I don’t recall any extra long wait times.
  2. The green waste dumping area was very large. It made green waste dumping a breeze with a larger one tonne truck. No stress with backing into tight spaces. Washroom nearby.
  3. The location was brilliant, close as it was to both work sites and truck parking.

 

Alternatives

The handout given to all customers showed three of the closest disposal options. So let’s take a look at the two I know. The closest dump is the nearby Coquitlam Resource Recovery Plant at 1200 United Blvd, Coquitlam. Once you clear the scale turn right and follow the blue line into the covered green waste dumping area. It fits 5-6 trucks comfortably. I find the exit a bit tight. The overwhelming smell of garbage is responsible for quick dumping times. Crew helpers are less inclined to milk it.

Getting into the facility can be challenging. This blog post was inspired by a long line-up that spilled over to United Blvd and required traffic controllers to risk their lives. Residents come to dump garbage and recyclables; and big garbage trucks also come in. That’s when I miss the now closed facility.

Meadows Landscape Recycling Center, 17799 Ferry Slip Road, in Pitt Meadows is a bit of a drive. The green waste dumping area is small, good for 3-4 trucks, but it’s much improved over the dump that used to be inside the Meadows Landscape Center. I clearly recall the elderly gentlemen who would park their trucks and trailers parallel to the dump and proceed to empty their garbage bags by hand.

I’m not familiar with Urban Wood Recyclers at 10 Spruce Street, in New Westminster. It’s commercial only.

So for now we dump most of our green waste at 1200 United Blvd and wait for the old facility to re-open. Good luck to all of the workers who lost their jobs. I hope Wastech helped them.

 

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Handout for all customers

 

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My last historic dump run on the last day

Perfect lawn: “American Green” book review

By | Books, Landscape Industry, Landscaping, Lawn Care | No Comments

This is a true story about green lawns and how they came to dominate in the United States. Ted Steinberg’s “American Green: the obsessive quest for the perfect lawn” is an excellent book.

 

Steinberg is an environmental historian and it shows. Landscapers, gardeners, and people who love or hate lawns should definitely read it. As a landscape professional I found it fascinating on my second reading.

The book isn’t new. It was published in 2006. I read it and my copy ended up in storage until now. My second reading was better. I recommend buying the softcover edition for your own library.

Steinberg takes you from the Origins, through the Dark Side and into the Future. With global warming and severe droughts in California, the Future chapters would look different if the second edition were to be published now in 2016.

Some things haven’t changed. People still die in ride-on mower accidents and Latinos still dominate the workforce in places like California. The excerpts from Spanish Phrases for Landscaping Professionals alone are worth the book cost. For example, Nosostros no ofrecemos seguro de salud (we don’t offer health insurance.)

In the Origins you will meet the key characters that shaped the landscape industry and made the lawn a key feature. It really is a fascinating question: why should the lawn dominate so much? A huge industry developed around it as landscape turned into landscaping. A father and son would share the lawn care work around their home but eventually a new industry rose up to do the work for them. Fertilizer and pesticide use went up and soon a debate started. Lawn lovers versus detractors.

 

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This client loves his lawns….

 

The case for brown lawns now makes a lot of sense. With water restrictions in the US and Canada, it makes sense to let  lawns go dormant in summer. Unless you are rich and living in a place where brown can’t happen. But that will be the subject of a future blog post based on a recent Harper’s magazine story from California.

You can dive deep into this subject if you follow Steinberg’s notes. I looked up an interesting story from 1983. It was a case where a wife in Massachusetts wanted to surprise her husband with a beautiful lawn. She hired a company but managed to catch a worker urinating on her property. When she confronted him, he assaulted her, choked and strangled her and eventually crushed her skull with pieces from a retaining wall.

Defence lawyers argued that repeated exposure to chemicals made the 23 year old worker unable to decide between right and wrong. The jury disagreed. First degree murder charge carried an automatic life sentence for the recent college graduate. A sad and bizarre story.

If you work in the green industry, this is one must-read book. Likewise if you love or hate lawns. Five stars out of five.

 

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Vas now understands how landscape turned into landscaping

A love letter to my Honda mower

By | Company News, Landscape Industry, Landscaping, Landscaping Equipment | No Comments
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My trusted friend, season after season….

 

This Honda mower is incredible! It deserves its own blog post. Every spring it starts without fail. That first puff of exhaust signalling our reunion for yet another season. It always blows me away, considering how little maintenance I perform on it. It must be the combination of shed storage and mild West Coast winters.

When one of my former employers decided to change his entire mower fleet to Lawn boys, I scored this well-used mower for $120. It was well worth it. I use it bi-weekly during the season for side work. It’s a simple machine. It has a choke/speed lever and a pull cord. Dual blade system. No bells or whistles. My trusted friend. Bravo Honda.

Yes, it’s showing its age. The front wheels will have to get replaced; the bag has a slight tear, and one of the pins holding the bag in place tends to come off periodically. The deck below sports blemishes.

I change the air filter, add oil, and stock new pull cords.  Both blades get changed at least once a month. I have two sets. They have seen better days but they will do for now. Sharp blades are critical! Dull blades tear up grass blades. What we want is one clear cut. Always change your blades. Do it carefully by first unplugging your spark plug.

Eventually, I will upgrade to a newer model. I know it. But for now, we work together to satisfy clients and keep my kids fed. It’s a good partnership.

This Honda mower is incredibly reliable. You can not go wrong by purchasing a Honda mower. I would. I might.

 

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The blue number 3 is from my ex-employer’s system; trucks had 3 mowers and we had to keep track

 

(Disclaimer: I am not sponsored, paid or otherwise compensated by Honda. This blog post is my personal review and opinion.)

 

 

01 landscape trucks never die

By | Company News, Landscape Industry, Landscaping, Landscaping Equipment | No Comments

Landscape company owners seem to keep their original 01 trucks around forever. They should be retired but somehow there is always some use for them. I was thinking about this when I showed up for work on a recent Saturday at a company we won’t name. I knew this particular 01 beast was nasty. It couldn’t accelerate, nor climb any hills; and it either didn’t brake or the wheels locked. Shifting to 2 on a steep Burnaby uphill still only got you 35-40 km/h speeds and lots of angry motorists behind you. Luckily they were all obscured in clouds of diesel exhaust.

The boss informed me that he had driven it during the week and it was fine. “Just don’t follow anyone closely, drive slowly and pump the brakes before attempting to brake.” Great. Just what I wanted to hear. The truck needs to get serviced but who has the time during a busy week. Can the company even afford to take it out of circulation?

This just leads to stress. Stress I don’t need. Or want.

One night I had a dream. As I stood in the shop, this same boss handed me the keys to a never-used 2017 truck. I smiled. Then I woke up.

Sadly, I’ve experienced many other 01 trucks over the years. One pick-up truck has wobbly steering and door locks that don’t work. The tail gate no longer opens and it’s just as well. The pins holding the tail gate in place are bent so when it’s down, it slips out. Not fun.

Getting it stolen would be a welcome relief to its owner. But there is lots of nostalgia, too. This was the original 01 beast which started everything. It was there in the first trenches. Now it’s mainly used to shuttle mowers. And for how long?

Sometimes driving a 01 beast is a test. One former employer had a 01 pick-up with a heavy metal box on it. It required very frequent gas station visits. I think I wore out the metal strip on my Petro points card. This beast wouldn’t accelerate. I still remember gunning it at the bottom of the snake hill in Port Moody, afraid the truck would slow down to a crawl. When new employees survived their tests, they were in.

I have given up. Landscape workers must get used to having these original 01 antique trucks around. They will never die.

 

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This beast is a piece of work! A 01 truck all-star.

 

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