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landscape maintenance

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.

How to make easy cash with plant removals

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Removal request

Never discount your simple lawn care clients because, inevitably, they will come up with extra projects for you to do. And all of a sudden, there is extra money to be made by solving more problems for your clients.

The mugo pine (Pinus mugo) in this blog post was clearly struggling and the owner wanted to use the space for her potted Hydrangea. No problem.

Get set

Before you start, state your price. I did. Then, once the job price is established, bring all of the necessary tools and bang the job quickly. Of course, there is always some risk because some mugo pines are very stubborn, especially when they’re healthy. This one was marginal so it popped fairly easily.

Don’t touch my fabric

The entire bed is covered in landscape fabric and a generous layer of mulch. A few years ago I brought in several yards of fresh bark mulch because the bed looked a bit tired. See, extra services lead to extra cash.

The owner warned me not to disturb the fabric too much and I complied. I uncovered just enough of it so I could remove the stump.

Incidentally, landscape fabric doesn’t work, especially long-term. Yes, it will keep weeds down in the beginning but as the fabric clogs it causes problems for the plants. I suspect this mugo pine wasn’t getting enough water into the root zone because the fabric was pressed against the stems.

Step 1

Lop off the branches for easier access to the root zone. Once I removed the branches, I used my shovel and mattock to dig around the plant. I had to fight the fabric a little bit so I put my body between the plant and the owner’s windows. This way there wasn’t any panic in the house about damaged landscape fabric.

Once the plant was loose, I had to sever a few stubborn roots with my loppers. A hand saw will also do. The mattock is fine, too.

Step 2

Remove the stump and branches and install the potted Hydrangea. I suspect the Hydrangea will do well since it’s planted in open soil. I just had to remind the owner to water it. And now, instead of looking at a struggling mugo pine, the owner is looking forward to Hydrangea blooms next season.

Problem solved! Cash made! Blog post composed!

When beginners blow

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Basic mistakes

Landscape maintenance professionals are developed, not created overnight. It takes constant training and monitoring to make new workers into skilled machines.

Of course, without clear directions, mistakes will happen; they will happen even with clear directions. Once you’ve identified the mistakes, review them with your workers and pray they don’t repeat them.

In a recent blog post I covered poor blowing practices. Here we’ll take a look at two blowing mistakes that came to my attention recently.

Choked drains

This is a picture from the United States. The contractor’s new hire was asked to blow and he made a big pile of debris. But, instead of picking it up, he tried to make it disappear down a drain. That’s not a good plan.

While there’s some logic to it, like less labour and zero green waste to dump, this sort of work later leads to flooding in most places. I know, for example, that the City of Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) hands out fines for this kind of work. As soon as the rains come, the streets flood and upset residents call the city to fix it.

There are no short-cuts here; you must blow the debris into a pile and remove it. It’s that easy. This was a good learning experience for a new employee.

Lawn or sidewalk?

What do you with your piles? Here we had a veteran part-time employee and he left the pile in the middle of the sidewalk. So, afterwards I gently reminded him that debris piles left on lawns are easier to pick up and don’t require additional blowing.

Always pick your words carefully, because veteran part-timers appreciate corrections less. But make the corrections immediately. Remember, foremen and supervisors have to act fairly but firmly!

The other problem is sidewalk access. As soon as you make a pile like this, the only wheelchair user in the complex emerges and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get the one-finger salute. I did see an elderly dog owner with a bad hip crossing the lawn.

Pro tips

When you’re doing a clean-up blow, always blow debris into piles and pick them up. Debris doesn’t belong in drains or on the street.

Blowing your piles onto lawns makes pick-up easier, doesn’t require re-blow and it doesn’t create sidewalk obstruction.

Train your workers well! And homeowners should adopt the same strategies.

How blower maniacs start wars

By | landscape maintenance, Landscaping Equipment | No Comments

Don’t start wars

Not too long ago, I walked home to my condo complex on a windy day and a blower maniac stopped me dead in my tracks. The dude emerged from his complex across the street blowing debris into the middle of the street. Once there, the mess was at the mercy of the wind. Some of it crossed over to my complex and some of it went back. Back to where it should have been blown into a pile and collected. The way all good neighbors do it.

I waited and I waited, the dude went back in, sat down and cracked open a beer now that his work was done. Since I have a rule about not picking fights at the end of the day, I went home shaking my head at the amateurish work I had just witnessed.

It just so happens that our company maintains my complex so I instructed our crew, like any good supervisor would, to make some blower “mistakes” on their next visit.

It happens a lot

This kind of poor clean-up blowing happens a lot. A few weeks later I was working at my commercial sites on a Saturday morning. When I looked up from my pruning, I saw another blower maniac. This dude was in the middle of the road without a safety vest, which is extremely unsafe. His blower was hanging from one shoulder, as if he was in a rush. Worse still, he was blowing debris towards my site with amazing resolve. Lucky for him, I was far away and busy. I’m also not in the habit of picking fights. I take numbers and bring my blower over later.

I’m absolutely certain this is the same geek who blows leafy debris onto my clean sites in fall.

Work like a professional

There is no excuse for blowing debris into the road, making it someone else’s problem. It’s no joke. Online I read about a sad case from the USA where a motorcyclist was killed after crashing on grass clippings blown into the road.

Always blow debris into piles, collect it and dispose of it with your green waste. The only time you can tolerate some debris in the road is on super windy days.

Blow along your curbs without stepping too far into the road and definitely wear a high-visibility vest. Put the blower on both shoulders the way the manufacturer intended it to be used.

Always be a good neighbor. I know where you work.

How to quickly upgrade tired beds

By | landscape maintenance, weeds | No Comments

The problem

This same scenario replays itself over and over: I am on site to execute a simple lawn cut and the homeowner has questions, like what to do about his tired beds. Can I help? Of course I can! I love to help and solve people’s problems. It’s a simple two-step process which requires a bit of time and money.

The front beds were weedy and had so little soil in them they were showing landscape fabric. This made them extremely difficult to weed but with the right tools, it was a quick two-hour session.

Very few people enjoy garden weeding. This applies equally to homeowners and professional landscapers. But Red Seal Vas loves side-hustling and his kids often require food and new apps. I will weed for cash.

Weeds on top of landscape fabric.

Weed like a pro

Let’s get this straight: weeding is done with tools and on your feet, unless you’re picking huge trophy weeds. Huge weeds must be hand picked.

Normally I like to use a four prong cultivator to uproot weeds and then a rake to remove the green waste. I try to remove very little soil but I don’t always succeed. In this case, the homeowner’s landscape fabric made cultivation difficult so I used a Dutch hoe to slice the weeds off.

Now, what do you do once the beds are clean? The answer takes us to step two.

Nicely weeded.

Step two

In step two we had soil delivered from Meadows Landscape Supply in Pitt Meadows, BC. Two yards of lawn and garden soil mix delivered to the drive way. The soil will cost you roughly $30/yard, plus delivery. Warning: the delivery isn’t cheap.

I’m proud to report that my two yard estimate was dead on; and so was my installation time. Remember, I’m doing a side-hustle after hours, not a regular by the hour job, so I quoted a price for the install and banged it in 75 minutes.

The soil will settle but everything got covered in a few inches of fresh soil giving us an instant dark, sharp look. The plants will also appreciate it; and any future weeding should be easier. And the weeds will come back, eventually. Wind and animals import seeds all the time. But for now, any weeds I failed to uproot are buried under fresh soil and deprived of the light they need to thrive.

Fresh soil.

Easy upgrades

Don’t be afraid to upgrade your garden beds. All you need is some tools, time and a bit of cash. In this project, it took me two hours to weed the beds and 75 minutes to install the soil. And now when the homeowner comes home, he’s greeted by dark and fresh-looking beds. And I can afford to buy new apps for my teenagers.

Deep edging faux pas

By | Edging, landscape maintenance | No Comments

Deep edging is an easy but labour-intensive landscape task. It gives our planted beds a nice definition and, if you read this blog regularly, you will know how to do it.

Deep edging 101

  1. Grab an edging shovel and drive it into your bed edge at ninety degrees. This will give you a nice sharp edge.
  2. The depth depends on conditions and your needs. Personally, I love deep, ankle-busting edges but it makes me extremely unpopular at work.
  3. If your edging generates grassy chunks, shake off the soil and discard the grass.
  4. The last step is cleaning up the chunks with a rake or cultivator so the bed surface is nice and smooth without visible chunks.

One exception

There are exceptions in life and in landscaping. I’m repeating myself a little bit but only because I ran into this one deep edging exception last week.

Pro tip: Training never really ends. Pay attention to all new workers.

Everything ran smoothly for hours until we hit a nicely mulched bed. This is where we have to disconnect the autopilot. The edging chunks landed on top of the mulch and now this blog post is called a deep edging faux pas.

It’s a mistake because the chunks mess up the nice, ordered look of the mulched bed. Instead, we have to do one of two things.

  1. Deep edge the bed but do not kick the soil up. Just leave it dislodged so we can manually remove it without messing up the bark mulch.
  2. Or you can rake the bark mulch away from the edge, deep edge, remove any excess soil and, lastly, rake the bark mulch back into its original place.

In this particular case, we didn’t do any major harm. I picked up the chunks and cultivated the bark mulch to incorporate any soil into the mulch. And the client will never know.

Conclusion

Deep-edging is an easy landscape task but be careful when you deep edge freshly mulched beds. You have to take a few extra steps to deep edge these areas.

Why you shouldn’t freak out about secondary drop

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I preach about great clean-ups in landscape maintenance all the time. When I prune, I want the clean-up to match the pruning. No excuses, just great pruning and clean-up. Period.

Cedar hedges

On the West Coast we prune cedar hedges (Thuja plicata and T. occidentalis) from early fall until late winter. It gives us work to do in the slower part of the year and it’s better for the hedges because it’s cooler.

But the power shearing generates a lot of clippings and makes the clean-ups extremely annoying. This is because the clippings get stuck everywhere, including in the hedges.

Cones

Cedar cones are especially difficult because you have to use a ladder for the job. This makes it awkward to dislodge any larger clippings from the tree. Just switching from power shears to a rake is time consuming; and using a rake messes up the look of the cedar.

Smaller rectangular cedar hedges are easier in that we can brush off the debris from the tops before finishing the job. Large cones are tricky.

Secondary drop

The debris at the base of this cedar looks terrible. It would make any normal landscape foreman freak out and haul his workers back in to re-do it. But not so fast; I took this this photo weeks later. So, we’re seeing the dreaded “secondary drop“.

Secondary drop refers to debris that falls down after the initial pruning and clean-up. It comes with the job so there’s no need to freak out. We have to accept that some debris will fall off the cedars later. We can’t help it.

Pro tip: I know that some people will disagree with me but I am convinced that the bottoms of cedar hedges should be kept shaggier. This is to protect the roots from intense summer sunlight. In the wild, Thuja plicata trees are starting to suffer from more intense summer heat waves.

When you prune cedars, clean-up the clippings as best as you can knowing full well that there will be some secondary drop for you to clean-up later.

Why landscape supervisors have more fun

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Landscape supervisors have more fun because they often get to escape from routines. For example, today, I spent the entire morning on requests while the crews deep-edged and finessed beds.

Because I’m the extra man in the field, I can handle requests that would otherwise distract site foremen from their weekly plan. And I’m happy to help out. Let’s take a look.

Hedge reduction

The owners of the cedar hedge (Thuja plicata) below felt boxed-in so they requested a significant 12-18 inch reduction. Armed with sharp new shears and Stihl’s new KM 94 R engine, I bravely attacked the hedge.

The key is establishing the new height and marking it in the hedge. Then the shearing can begin. Luckily, I didn’t run into any huge stems. When you do, use loppers to eliminate them, not your shears.

I managed to catch the owner as she retrieved her newspaper and she was pleased with her “new” hedge. When you reduce cedar hedges drastically you must accept the brown wood look on top. Over time, it won’t look so freaky.

As always, the clean-ups should be as nice as the pruning. In this case, the debris filled four tarps. The last step involved a clean-up blow and putting all patio furniture and pots back to their original places.

Sarcococca

This request was nice and quick. It’s common for people to complain about overgrown shrubs by entrances so I grabbed my shears and went to work.

Note that Sarcococca flowers in winter and produces an attractive scent at a time when nothing much is happening in the landscape. So, now at the end of March it’s fine to prune this shrub.

Pro tip: Pruning after flowering is a common rule for most shrubs.

Grasses

Here, again, the homeowners didn’t like the look of their grasses so I took them down by hand. Yes, it’s slower but using long extendable power shears in tight spots is awkward. The other issue was power cables on the ground.

Pro tip: Don’t rush your tasks. Look around for dangers like outdoor light cables.

Dogwood tree

The last request involved a dogwood (Cornus) tree. The idea was to reduce the height of the crown and I pulled it off easily. One, I could reach the top branches without a ladder; and, two, because the tree is multi-stemmed reducing the top-most branches still leaves the tree looking natural.

The whole job took maybe ten minutes.

Mornings like this are gold for landscape supervisors. They almost don’t feel like work. Supervisors have more fun!

Hydrangea deadheading

By | landscape maintenance, Plants, Pruning | No Comments

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

Bad habit

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

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

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

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

Careful!

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

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

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

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

How to pimp out a barbecue area

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Good landscape maintenance dictates that we follow our plan for the day. Usually there is a set rotation so that every section of a given site is completed. Working without a plan is a recipe for disaster. Landscape foremen must know what tasks they must complete on the day they visit and on the following visit.

When small requests pop up we try to do them right away. Assuming they are small. Anything bigger and time consuming should be pushed to your next visit.

One exception

There are always exceptions, in life and in landscaping. This occurred to me in late July 2019, when a resident came out to alert us to a social event happening that weekend in the barbecue area. Now what? Do you ignore it and continue with your finesse work plan?

We decided to pimp out the barbecue area because when residents have a social event they talk. And the barbecue area needed some help so we switched and attacked the area.

Tasks

One obvious blemish were the many crack weeds showing around the barbecue pit and benches. So we carefully line trimmed them to oblivion. When you do this work check for nearby windows and pedestrians so there isn’t any trouble.

IMG_2846

All unsightly crack weeds are gone.

 

I also pruned the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) lightly. A few branches were sticking out into the walkway; and there were some dead branches inside the tree. You should be able to see through Japanese maples.

The other maple (Acer palmatum disectum) had a weeping habit and it didn’t require any pruning but there was a lot of landscape fabric showing around the tree. That’s very unsightly. Landscape fabric should be covered by several inches of mulch.

Since we didn’t have any fresh mulch, I poached some mulch from a lonely corner on the site. Poaching mulch from a neighbouring site would be wrong.

Weeds and tree seedlings were also removed from both beds. I cultivated where the old landscape fabric was still covered by mulch. This gives the bed a fresh look and it uproots weeds.

The final task is always a courtesy clean-up blow. Just try not to blow too long in summer because it’s hot and dusty outside and windows are open. I blew the barbecue area and bailed, satisfied that the residents would enjoy their barbecue.

 

IMG_2844ed

Weeds and seedlings are gone, the bed is cultivated and the maple is off the walkway.