Category

Landscaping

Cheap landscape upgrades

By | Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

We’ve all seen garden design porn with those beautiful, elaborate designs that cost real cash and take time to pull off. I see them on LinkedIn and in magazines like Fine Gardening. They make me jealous because I don’t have the imagination, nor plant knowledge to be a full-time designer. One day.

This blog post covers a humble project that cost zero cash and involved rescue plants. It took only minutes to complete and it solved some real problems.

Gate bed

The area I upgraded is a pretty humble corner bed next to a gate. There is a dogwood stump in the middle of it and bramble grows along the fence. For most of the year this is a dusty entrance area. I don’t even know if anybody notices the bed. But I’m in charge of maintaining the site so I have to keep it clean. That’s landscape maintenance without prejudice.

Let’s examine the problems:

  1. There are empty spaces that just get colonized by weeds
  2. The dogwood stump is visible
  3. There is only one shrub plant layer and nothing below

Solutions

We fight dead space by installing free Sedges (Carex). I scored two large clumps from another site where they were rudely edited out of a water feature zone. I’m not sure why.

I sold one clump on Facebook marketplace so I could compose a blog post about it. If you’re wondering, I sold the sedge in one day for the price of two coffees at Starbucks. I hope it thrives in its new home.

Now, back to the gate bed. Since the clump was too large, I divided it into two with a shovel. You will encounter some resistance if you try this, but keep on trying.

Adding plants eliminates dead space and introduces competition for any weeds trying to get established in the bed. It also brings in a second, lower layer and upgrades the look.

I also wanted to hide the stump until I get around to bringing a chainsaw so I can flush cut it. I believe I succeeded.

Much better.

After planting we rake and cultivate the bed (finesse work). Don’t forget to blow off the lawn edge.

If everything goes well, the sedges will grow out and one day we’ll be able to divide them again. Note that they don’t require any maintenance. Just enjoy them.

Conclusion

You can make simple landscape improvements with free plants and some sweat and time. And maybe, one day, we’ll all create more elaborate designs.

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.

Tree staking 101

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping, Trees | No Comments

Tree staking seemed really easy to understand and pull-off. Ever since I started landscaping in 2000, I’ve used two or three stakes with good quality arbortie to stake newly planted trees.

But now, thanks to my landscape professional friends in the United States, I know that there is more to staking than meets the eye. And I love the idea of learning new techniques even twenty seasons later.

Pro tip: Always be open to new ideas and techniques. There’s so much to learn.

Regular staking

I have had lots of practice with tree staking because I have twenty seasons in the field; and because I went through the Landscape Industry Certified program. There, one of the practical stations was tree planting and staking. Let’s ignore tree planting for now. I will cover it in a separate blog.

Depending on the specifications, I had to drive the tree stakes just outside of the root ball or inside. To pull it off, you’ll need a metal stake pounder and ear protection.

First, the pounder goes on the top of the stake and then you stand it up, line it up and drive it in. As the metal pounder hits the stake, it gets very loud quickly. That’s why my failure to wear ear protection during testing cost me points.

Incredibly, I would need three attempts to pass this practical station.

Second, you secure good quality arbor tie to the stakes and loop it around the tree. It should be just tight enough; not too tight and not too loose.

Pro tip: Tree stakes should only stay on for a maximum of 14 months. Beyond that the tree will get “lazy”; it won’t form the reaction wood it needs to grow strong and withstand future wind storms.

One example of standard tree stakes.

Staples

Stapled pine tree in Florida.

This was news to me. Instead of above-ground stakes this pine in Florida is stapled with stakes. First, four stakes are driven into the root ball and then both pairs are connected together.

Obviously, the wood size would increase with a bigger root ball. Here it’s a 2×2″.

Advantages

  • The stakes are mostly hidden so they don’t stick out like regular wooden stakes, which many people consider unsightly.
  • The tree develops reaction wood as it moves in response to wind events. In this example, the pine survived a recent hurricane storm that hit Florida.
  • There’s no need to go back and remove the stakes.
  • Nobody will forget to remove the stakes.
  • There is zero chance of girdling because there is no arbor tie connecting branches to the stakes.

Conclusion

Keep your eyes and mind open to new ideas and techniques. I was blown away by the stapling technique even though it’s not new. It was new to me and I would love to try it one day.

Landscaper in the hole

By | Landscaping | No Comments

I love it when I get to detour from regular landscape maintenance duties and work on a different project. For example, just last week I got to patch up a sinking hole in the lawn. There was a depression in the lawn and nobody was sure why. So, we fixed it in a few hours.

Access

How do you move several yards of lawn and garden mix soil into an area with lousy wheelbarrow access? Well, you make a phone call and you get the soil blown in. And that’s what happened.

We took advantage of a hole in the fence and ran the soil hoses through there. Fortunately, it was on a Monday morning and the worshippers were long gone. I’m not even sure if the new coronavirus allowed them to meet on Sunday.

Brutal access.
Blowing in soil.

Rolling it!

Now, it was important to roll the new soil as it was blown in so I danced with the operators. While I rolled the left side, they blew in soil on the right. Then we switched sides. And so on.

Yes, landscaping is a physical job; rolling a pin full of water to flatten soil is heavy labour. I was sweating under my toque and smiled about the very real possibility of weight loss.

It feels good to empty the rolling pin at the end.

Ginkgo

It wasn’t my idea to move a Ginkgo tree into the middle of the new depression-free lawn. I would prefer to re-plant it into native site soil, not into brand new lawn and garden mix.

So, we preserved as much of the root ball as we could and we plugged it in. Of course, this is a shock for the tree so it’s important to water it in gently with a slow soak.

Last step

Once temperatures go up high enough for grass seed to germinate, this lawn area will get hydroseeded. Hydro seeding is a faster and cheaper alternative to sod install. And it works well. Soon we’ll have a new lawn area to mow and it will be easier to maintain without the freaky depression.

The lesson here is that you can get around lousy site access by blowing soil in and hydroseeding. You will have to supply some labour.

All set for hydro seeding with male Ginkgo biloba.

Lowest point as a landscaper

By | Landscaping | No Comments

Someone online asked an interesting question: what was your lowest point as a landscaper? Aha. So I gave it some thought and my answer took me to the beginning. I started landscaping in 2000 and I was an eager apprentice working at a prominent landscape maintenance company.

Deep edging

One important winter task we had to perform was establishing deep edges. It was a lot of labour sticking an edging shovel into bed edges at exactly ninety degrees for miles and miles. And since deep edging generated many soil chunks we had to make them disappear.

This was accomplished by shaking off any grass and disposing of it; the remaining soil was cultivated into the bed. Repeat.

As hard as it was, deep edging gave our beds nice definition and a sharp look. But there was more.

 

Image_006

Ninety degree edge gives this bed nice definition.

 

Lowest point

One day I was given a respirator and a plastic applicator full of the granular herbicide Casoron. It wasn’t very clearly explained to me at the time but Casoron is a pre-emergent granular herbicide. Applied in spring, it sterilizes the soil and prevents weeds from germinating.

Few weeds means fewer labour dollars spent on weeding. Casoron application is now illegal in British Columbia but it’s a hard habit to stop. Look around in spring, you will see landscapers quietly sneaking around their sites. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

When it rains after Casoron application, the herbicide can run off and “burn” the grass by leaving it yellow. Beautiful deep edges prevent this from happening. Aha. Vas finally connected the dots.

Was this the wrong company for me? And industry? It was definitely my lowest point as a landscaper.

I had just spent weeks deep edging beds just so we could sterilize the beds with a granular herbicide. Herbicide so bad for your olfactory system it could rob you of your sense of smell.

 

River rock at the border

By | Landscaping, Mulch | No Comments

Returning from a Seattle soccer tournament last weekend, I had time to examine the border landscaping while I waited in line. It was an early summer evening and I was relaxed because I didn’t have anything to declare. I literally spent four days near soccer fields watching my son take his U12 team to the finals.

Perfect fit mulch

To my left was a row of red maples (Acer rubrum) planted in river rock beds. Aha! Another perfect fit.

 

IMG_2744

Approaching the Canadian border.

 

Now, personally I prefer organic mulches like arbor chips or composted bark. However, river rock can be perfect in some situations. I’ve already written blog posts about river rock as replacement for dog urine soaked lawn patches; and river rock as a solution for small dirt patches where new plants get flattened by car tires or, left bare, the dirt patches just grow weeds.

When you apply a nice, thick layer of mulch it keeps weeds out and doesn’t require any extra maintenance.

Now, back to our picture.

A. The river rock is correctly kept away from the critical root zone so water and oxygen can be accessed by the tree roots. The tree well also “captures” leavesĀ  and, assuming they’re left in place, allows them to feed the tree.

B. The river rock looks nice and thick. Thickness is important when applying mulches because we need to block out sunlight so weeds don’t germinate. Thin mulch applications can actually encourage weed growth because they trap moisture and allow sunlight to penetrate. Go deep or don’t do it all.

C. There are weeds visible in the edges which is to be expected. Wind and birds can import weed seeds.

D. River rock eliminates the need for lawn maintenance. This eliminates extra costs and protects cars lined up at the border. It would be stressful mowing and line edging near so many car windows. And, I suspect, the people lined up in their cars appreciate the complete lack of noise and air pollution.

 

Yes, you can use river rock as mulch. And, in some situations, it works better than organic mulches. Give it a try.

 

On relaxed campsite landscaping

By | Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

I recently took my kids to Adams lake north of Chase, British Columbia. There they got to swim, ride in a motorboat and stay in a camper for the first time. And Daddy got a few days of rest which is critical for landscape professionals.

 

IMG_1810

Adams lake, British Columbia.

 

At the lake front is a collection of campers parked on leased lots. This makes everything safer and more fun. One feature of the community that delighted the kid’s mother was a nearby community washroom and shower building.

Of course, I didn’t stress about my kids showering because they swam in the clear lake every day. I also believe in not scrubbing away protective skin oils daily, unlike my wife, who is an expert on bacterial soaps.

All this leads us to the building mentioned above and its landscaping.

 

IMG_1798

 

What do you notice about the landscaping?

This bed is as relaxed as the setting. Just shooting the picture wasn’t relaxing because this was the women’s side and I didn’t want to arouse suspicion by taking too many pictures.

The plants look natural. They aren’t sheared into tight shapes they way their cousins are on strata title properties. It’s refreshing to see plants left to grow.

Also note that nobody is stressing about weeding. There are all sorts of wild grasses and weeds in this bed and nobody cares. It fits nicely into its natural setting.

The dwarf spruce and native Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) give us height; and there are small Hostas enjoying shade created by Euonymus alatus.

 

IMG_1802

Euonymus alatus

 

IMG_1800

Alchemilla

 

IMG_1801

Hosta

 

IMG_1799

Native Pacific ninebark

 

It was nice to spend Canada Day weekend with family at a lake and provide my kids with new experiences. But I also enjoyed seeing the relaxed landscaping which perfectly matched the relaxed setting. The plants were allowed to grow and look natural. It was nice to see.

Mistakes homeowners make

By | gardening, Landscaping | No Comments

This is yet another blog post inspired by a question posted on Quora.com. As a landscaper, what do you think are common mistakes homeowners make?

There are some mistakes that repeat so let’s take a look at my list.

 

A. Poor watering

People are busy so they take out their garden hose and spray their plants for a few minutes. Unfortunately, some plants, trees especially, require slow soaking which takes more time and attention.

 

IMG_0865

New plantings require slow soaking.

 

Before you water your garden beds, stick your finger in your soil to see how much moisture is in there.

Hanging baskets require heavy soaking. I learned this when I worked at the City of Coquitlam. I had to soak every hanging basket until the water was gushing out on the bottom. It seems crazy but if you have hanging baskets, water them really well. Don’t just spray them.

My boss’s wife dumped her hanging baskets last week because they dried out. I told her to soak next year’s baskets like hell and now, slightly upset, I fear she will start making mistakes on my paycheques.

 

B. Reaching for chemicals

Homeowners are quick to reach for chemicals to solve problems in their gardens. Yes, I know, your local big box store is selling it so it can’t be bad. Right? Don’t do it. Search for better solutions, don’t introduce synthetic chemicals to your garden.

I know people who dump Killex on their lawn weeds every year. Then their kids go out to use the trampoline. I tried to cover the weeds by fertilizing their lawns really well. It didn’t matter. Killex it was.

Incidentally, I object to the cover photo. Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are awesome and edible. I frequently drink dandelion root tea. If you hate dandelions, dig them up manually.

 

IMG_1213

Just attach your hose and push the lever to on. Red Seal Vas does NOT recommend this.

 

IMG_1215

Are you sure you want this on your home lawn?

 

C. Client vs customer

Nobody enjoys getting ripped off but, please, get to know your landscape professional and keep him for years. That’s how you become a client and landscapers love clients. Why? Because we can educate clients while we solve their landscape problems. It becomes a good relationship.

I run from customers. Earlier this year, I was referred to a man with pressing landscape problems so I went to see him. His first question was how much? It seems logical to ask about rates but I already know this dude will be a headache.

His mugo pines (Pinus mugo) were covering over half of the public sidewalk and he was afraid of getting fined by the city. I would be more afraid of ladies in motorized wheelchairs raising their middle fingers.

I did the pruning by hand, got paid and left. I hope I never hear from him again.

Now, back to my own mistakes.

Enjoy your summer.

 

Butterflies and cherry laurels: Why collecting new firsts is a lot of fun

By | gardening, Landscaping, Plants | No Comments

I really enjoy collecting new firsts. It makes my working life more exciting and, because I’m doing something for the first time, it becomes a good learning experience. Let’s examine two of my firsts from yesterday.

Butterflies

Yesterday, I was rushing my end of the day clean-up blow because my son had a soccer tournament to get to. Then I stopped to admire a Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). It flowers from June to September and clearly the flower panicles weren’t fully formed yet.

And then a butterfly showed up, attracted by the flowers and totally oblivious to my presence and the loud blower on my back. Finally I had my own picture of a Buddleia davidii with a butterfly, confirming the common name.

Now considered invasive, Buddleia davidii provides summer interest. Then when it starts to get out of control, we hack it up.

 

IMG_2334

Buddleia davidii (Butterfly bush) with a butterfly; my first photo confirming the common name.

 

Prunus hedges

I’ve seen and worked with English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus) before but the Genolia variety is new to me. This fastigiate cherry laurel (Prunus is in the cherry family) is perfect for privacy screens because it has a more upright habit (fastigiate). It also handles partial shade.

The upright habit and shade tolerance were critical factors in my project area.

 

IMG_2309

 

I had just taken out four dead cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd‘) from under a Styrax japonica tree. Obviously, replanting with the same cedars would be suspicious so in went the fastigiate cherry laurel. It can handle full sun, partial sun and shade; in this location it will get some sun and lots of shade.

The upright habit will help the homeowner create a privacy screen between his unit and the walkway. Plus the glossy green leaves are very attractive. The cherry laurel will also flower.

I watered the laurels in nicely and checked the planting depth afterwards. I got my first ever Prunus laurocerasus Genolia planting done; and the owner was extremely happy to get his dead cedars replaced. I can’t wait to check on the hedge later in the season.

 

Your street trees need water too

By | Arborist Insights, Landscaping | No Comments

I normally ignore ads in local newspapers but my eye caught a nice ad from City of Surrey. It’s reminding us that street trees need water just like our own trees and gardens. Especially trees under five metres tall. Older more established trees can handle a few weeks of dry weather because they have well-established roots.

How to water street trees

I like to use a standard garden hose without a nozzle and slow-soak the trees along the drip-line. Drip line means the ground directly below the tip of the furthest reaching branches. I see many people spray their trees and shrubs with the same sprays used for flowers.

Yes, it takes more time but slow-soaking trees is the best way to water them.

City recommendations

This is what the City of Surrey recommends:

  1. use a hose equipped with an automatic shut-off nozzle
  2. water twice per week for 15 minutes with a steady stream of water (about 20L)
  3. water at the drip-line

The City of Surrey will also provide you with watering bags if you have young trees on your street.

Plant stress

Water stressed trees can drop their leaves prematurely and be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Recently I had residents point out problems with their plants and all of them were clearly water stressed. It starts with adequate watering. Pests appear when the plants are weak and stressed.