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landscape maintenance

Winter brush cutting

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Ready for some labor?

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

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

Safety first!

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

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

Always identify hazards in the landscape.

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

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

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

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

All done!

Training success!

By | landscape maintenance, Training | No Comments

Loving success

I train landscapers all year. Mostly in the field and sometimes through technical posts on the company’s WhatsApp. Some people absorb my brilliant wisdom like sponges, some are indifferent and, a few, couldn’t care less.

So, it makes me happy when I see workers doing well in the field without having to ask or remind them. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins. Let’s take a look.

Fixed pin oak

Broken branches on trees look awful and, if left unattended, they can invite disease into the tree. So, it’s important to identify broken branches on site or in your garden, and remove them with a sharp saw.

On site I had a newly promoted foreman searching for a handsaw so I inquired about what he was doing. A broken branch in a pin oak (Quercus palustris) on the boulevard, was the answer. I nodded and smiled. Finally, my training was paying off.

For, usually, workers just worry about their lawn care tasks. They don’t worry about other details so it’s nice to see this in the field.

Ornamental grasses

When it comes to ornamental grasses, some people disagree with me on the timing of cutback. I believe most ornamental grasses should be left alone until spring; and cut back before new growth happens.

But, in practice, tall ornamental grasses get beat up by rains and snow and therefore lose their shape. This gets some people upset and they immediately flush cut their grasses.

Many ornamental grass species mature and flower in the fall so it’s a good idea to leave them alone. You can easily do this at home in your garden but at strata complexes it’s up to the site foreman to make the call.

Now, imagine my surprise, when I drove up to one of our strata sites on what would be a sunny day, and saw ornamental grasses still standing. And glorious! I was beaming and congratulated the young foreman for his patience. Spring is coming.

Looking great in early February, 2021.

At other sites all you see is a profusion of small mounds where ornamental grasses used to be. I find it a bit depressing. Even Pennisetum alopecuroides look fine in the snow.

Pine cones from Douglas fir

By | Arborist Insights, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Requests

Getting requests from strata owners and councils is standard. Some of them are quick and easy; and some are more involved and require approval; some generate extra invoices. Also, some are suspicious.

At one small site last fall, I got a request to clean-up pine cones along the boulevard. Ok. Except I knew there weren’t any pine trees growing along the boulevard. But, I had to go check it out. Requests are no joke, they must be taken care of.

Psedotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir)

Douglas fir

The only cones I could find belonged to a massive Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which is a native tree in British Columbia. Thus, you find it everywhere and it’s easy to identify because of its cones.

The cones have protruding bracts which make it super easy to identify the tree. People living in British Columbia should be familiar with the tree. But, not in this complex. Here, every cone is a pine cone.

So, what’s the point of this blog post? Am I just poking fun at people’s ignorance? No, although, it wouldn’t hurt if people could identify a few key native tree species.

Educate

What concerned me was the site foreman’s relaxed attitude. Why not use this request as a way to educate the clients about their own trees? If you do it gently, they might even appreciate it. You can even offer them a free copy of my picture e-book.

The other issue is removing “pine cones” from a semi-wild corner. Douglas firs shed branches and cones all year. It’s extremely difficult to keep forests “clean”. I think it’s pointless, but their strata fees pay for our services. So, we clean forest floors by removing “pine cones”. Now you know.

Pine cone-free zone!

Conclusion

Learn about your local native trees or, if you’re an expert, share your knowledge with your friends and neighbors. Leave some debris on the forest floor.

Lessons from municipal parks

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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.

Obstruction pruning

By | landscape maintenance, Pruning | No Comments

Favor for friends

It’s always nice to get a call from your friends during a pandemic. It allows you to catch up and feel some sort of connection. It’s even nicer when you know your buddy has extra work for you.

Now, normally this would be a headache because my buddy, let’s call him Sam, lives deep in Vancouver. And driving for forty-five minutes to do a small job isn’t appealing. Sam knows this so he pays me well.

So, I solve his problem and I earn some extra money during a sketchy pandemic time. With COVID-19 raging on, it would be insane to turn down extra work on a Saturday. Take the work while you can because it’s not very clear what 2021 will bring.

The problem

Sam’s bamboo badly encroached into the sidewalk and it was only a matter of time before a neighborhood Karen complained about it. So I drove in on a sunny Saturday morning to take care of it.

Incidentally, I waited until ten o’clock to start. Municipalities have different by-laws but ten o’clock is a standard start time for Saturdays. Always be careful in mature, well-to-do neighborhoods.

The shearing and clean-up took me exactly fifteen minutes. I used sharp shears and the green waste filled up one tarp. Then there was some touch up work with my hand snips where the bamboo encroached onto the sidewalk.

I did my clean-up blow quickly with the smallest gas-powered backpack blower, designed for noise-sensitive environments. By ten thirty the street was full of landscapers with heavyweight Stihl blowers on their backs. Of course!

Later, Sam stopped by the house to check things out and we had enough time to catch up, with masks on. Then I casually confirmed that he would be taking care of my invoice.

Pro tip:

Do side-gigs on project basis, not by the hour. For this job I quoted a price based on pictures. The actual length of the job is my problem. Sell your service, not man-hours!

Much better.

Obstruction in the landscape is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. Eliminate the obstruction as soon as you can.

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!

5 lessons from 8-hour leaf pick-up

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8 hours!

Eight straight hours of leaf pick-up is nothing unusual for West Coast landscape professionals in mid-November. Some strata sites have many mature trees and they drop a lot of stuff. So, you can expect to have some fun.

Here are five lessons to take away from good West Coast leaf clean-up.

Lesson 1: Tools

Always start with proper tools. When I’m asked to help out on a site, I expect to use proper tools. The rakes should be in good shape. Don’t even ask me to use rakes with many missing tines. Use great tools!

Most companies have budget for new tools. Take advantage of it. It’s borderline insulting asking a certified professional to use sub-standard tools.

Are you kidding?

Lesson 2: No pyramids

If you expect to rock leaf clean-up, forget pyramids. This goes for blowing and raking. When you blow, don’t overdo it. Blow the leaves into a decent pile and move on.

When raking, the same rule applies. Bring your tarp close and rake the leaves into it. There is no sense creating a perfect pyramid. We need the leaves in a tarp and taken away. Nobody is scoring points for making nice looking pyramids.

With huge piles, put your tarp right into them and rake or kick the leaves in. Easy. And always rake with purpose. I expect to see rosy cheeks!

Lesson 3: Tarp slavery

Lugging heavy tarps on your shoulders should only be done if you’re close to your truck because it’s the least efficient method. You can avoid tarp slavery by using a wheelbarrow or bringing your truck closer.

Note that some workers will happily walk down the block with one tarp over their shoulder just have a little break. To rock fall leaf clean-up, you must break this habit. Send them away with a full wheelbarrow if there is no truck access.

Lesson 4: Look up!

Since you’re not responsible for removing one hundred percent of the leaves on every visit, relax and do your best. Before you start stressing, look up! Is the tree above done dropping leaves or not? If not, don’t stress about every leaf on the ground. Wait until all of the leaves are down before doing a thorough clean-up.

Lesson 5: Enjoy fall!

Enjoy the fall.

This should be easy but it’s not. I often see people standing under trees blasting away at their crowns with leaf blowers. Why the rush? Enjoy the fall and its many colors.

If you struggle with this, think of the miracle that occurs inside the leaves you detest so much. Photosynthesis is a miracle that keeps all people alive and it happens inside leaves. The leaves are actually beautiful mini-factories; and they entertain us with their colors.

Tilia cordata
Persian ironwood

Landscape adjustments to consider

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

100% Vas

With landscape supervisor Vas on site, there are always bound to be adjustments to make because I love to catalogue them. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments on the fly. When tasks get pushed, they may not get done. But not when I’m on site.

Let’s see some examples.

Low branches

Pro landscapers carry good quality snips on their hips for moments like these. As I walked by, I noticed low tree branches. Since we don’t want branches to grow this low, it’s a good idea to remove them.

In the second example, we have a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) branch hanging so low it made it difficult for me to mow in straight lines. The offending branch also affects the shape of the tree, as if it’s attempting to break away from the crown.

Since I didn’t have a hand saw, I had to put this on my list for later.

Aggressive line trimming

These developing ditches scare me. I know vertical line edging is responsible for this because blade edging is sharp and narrow. It would be OK if the crews left it alone but they don’t. They will hit it again next week and the ditch will grow wider. Then we’ll have to pull weeds out of the gap. Use a blade edger, if you can. If you can’t, vertical close to the driveway edge at ninety degrees.

This is the classic “beavered” look and it’s not Ok. You have to slow down and touch the post without chipping it. I know we ask people to get their work done quickly and efficiently but we also need quality. “Beavered” posts invite complaints from clients so take the time to train your crews.

Don’t touch your mow lines

Here the dude was rushing to mow a missed lawn and he took the shortest route right across his mow lines. It’s not a good idea at a high-profile clubhouse used by residents from two different complexes.

Don’t cross your mow lines; and don’t be afraid to make landscape adjustments on the fly. Your site or garden will look much better.

On the art of pre-blow

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What’s pre-blowing?

The idea behind pre-blowing is saving man-hours on labor. Imagine you have leaf debris on your site or in your garden and you contemplate raking it up. It can be done easily in your garden; and being outside in fresh air is good for you, especially now, during a pandemic.

But on a larger scale, you can avoid a lot of extra raking by blowing your leafy debris onto your lawns before mowing. Just do it quickly. Remember, this isn’t your end of the day, thorough, clean up blow. All you have to do is push the bulk of your leafiness onto your lawns so it can mowed up.

Don’t crush your mower

Pre-blowing is effective from late summer and into early fall. That’s when the leaf drop is noticeable but it doesn’t require pile making. The idea, again, is to quickly push leafy debris onto your lawns and mow it up so you don’t have to rake.

Making and picking up piles is time consuming so it will delay your mowing. Pre-blows are meant to be quick jobs.

When the amount of leafy debris is significant, give up on pre-blowing. You can destroy your mower by forcing it to mulch massive amounts of leaves. It’s bad for the engine.

Commercial site example

Let’s consider one of my commercial sites as an example. When I pulled up on site one late summer Saturday morning, there was enough debris on site to justify a pre-blow.

I blew off the parking lot and beds full of Rhododendron leaves. Then I mowed it all up. Remember to slow down to give the mower time to shred the debris.

At the end of my service I only did a quick clean-up blow. I didn’t do any raking thanks to my pre-blow. And blowing is easier than raking.

This is how you pre-blow: just enough debris to notice but not too much for the mower to shred. No piles to rake and pick up.

Give pre-blowing a try!

Summer pruning fun

By | gardening, landscape maintenance, Pruning | No Comments

Why prune?

Before you take out your shears and hand snips, ask yourself: why am I pruning in late summer? Usually, obstruction issues are the worst and should be done as soon as possible.

For example, I was asked to prune a dogwood that was encroaching into a walkway. That’s a problem and it’s easy to solve.

Other pruning like perennial and shrub cutback isn’t as critical and could be delayed if time is short.

Let’s take a look at some examples of my work.

Obstruction

Shrubs encroaching onto walkways get residents excited so it’s best to do this kind of pruning as soon as possible. In this case it was a dogwood shrub. Don’t forget to hand pick the branches off the top; they will be noticeable once they dry up and turn brown.

Before
After

Another pressing case involved Rhododendrons encroaching onto a patio. This patio is well-used by the family and their friends and the rhodos become annoying in late summer.

Always snip rhodos by hand because power shears just shred the plant tissues and corrections have to be made by hand anyway. This job didn’t take very long; it’s like therapy for me, hand-snipping on a sunny day.

Before
After

One serious safety issue is plant obstruction around lights. Here I used pole pruners to eliminate Red maple (Acer rubrum) branches covering a lamp along a high-profile walkway.

Before
After

Less critical pruning

It’s nice to clean-up perennials in your garden like Hostas or shrubs like butterfly bush (Buddleja) and lilacs (Syringa sp). But it’s not as critical as obstruction pruning.

Spent Hosta flower spikes can be snipped out.

Lilacs (Syringa sp) flower early in the season and once the flowers fade, it’s nice to snip them out. I did this shrub last week because I don’t normally work on this site. But again, it’s not super critical.

Before

Buddleja is a borderline invasive species but it sports beautiful flowers. This specimen was growing wild making mower access a bit challenging so I took it down by half. But don’t worry. It will make a comeback soon enough.

Buddleja reduced by half.
Buddleja flowers.

Conclusion

Have some fun with late summer pruning; and pay attention to obstruction and safety issues. Always know why you are pruning and get to know your target plants. Plants are fascinating so treat them well.