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Is it lilac or cottonwood?

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A true story

There was a young cottonwood growing in between two strata (multi-family complex) units. And our young landscape foreman panicked, unsure about the plant species. It looked like a lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and he wasn’t about to prune or remove a lilac shrub.

What if the fragrant flowers go missing and the owners blame him for it. So, he let the shrub grow. Until the boss showed up and ordered him to remove it.

What struck me was the dude’s panicked face. This is the same dude who can tell good marijuana from junk full of straw; and we know he has a mobile phone with Google access. Why then is he so shy?

Let’s settle it

As soon as I heard this story, I knew I had a new blog post handed to me. So, I took some pictures and then life and work got busy. But, the idea was written down and saved for later. Which would be today, March 2022, and the blog post will get published in June 2022.

So, let’s settle this, without Google. Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) is a fast growing tree. At maturity it can be over 30m in height. When I photographed it, it was still a manageable baby tree; and fairly easy to remove. When cottonwoods mature, they tend to self-prune by dropping branches. Left to mature in this location, that would mean exposing families to branch bombardment.

This cottonwood is very happy here but it can’t stay.

Since we don’t have pictures of flowers, the key distinction between the two species is leaf arrangement. Cottonwood trees have alternate leaf arrangement.

Alternate leaf arrangement.

Now, when I think of lilacs, I think of shrubs with showy fragrant flowers. As a boy in Prague, I used to climb a mature lilac at my grandpa’s villa. I know the fragrance really well and still find it intoxicating.

Again, at the time, we didn’t have flowers so let’s look at lilac leaf arrangement: it’s opposite and whorled.

Opposite leaf arrangement on Syringa vulgaris. Note the fat buds as well.

Unlike cottonwoods, lilacs don’t get as tall. They might reach something like 5-7m at maturity.

Have no fear

Let’s be honest, most people know what lilacs look like but, if you look quickly, there are some similarities between the leaves. Still, lilacs versus cottonwoods shouldn’t even come up for a landscape foreman with experience.

Have no fear! If you’re not sure about a plant species, look it up and key it out. You might learn something.

How to recycle Hydrangeas

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Unwanted plants

I love rescuing unwanted plants, selling them, giving them away or finding homes for them. This is how I recycled unwanted hydrangeas on one of my commercial sites.

Now, I must confess that this was round two in this particular bed. Previously, I had installed two sedges (Carex) in this bare spot in an attempt to cover up a stump. Unfortunately, without irrigation they failed to establish and died.

Hydrangeas

Both Hydrangeas show signs of life!

This is a back gate area at a major commercial construction company work yard. It isn’t much but two unwanted Hydrangeas are better than a bare spot. I’m determined to cover up the visible stump to save me the hassle of removing it.

It was nice to see growth on both shrubs. It means they will grow and hopefully bring some colour to this low-profile gate area. The owners pay for basic landscaping service to ensure that the business looks decent on the outside.

The lawns are cut bi-weekly and the bed work is done as well. But there is very little input or budget. Bare spots might stay bare. That’s where my recycling comes in. I get to have some fun while I cover up bare spots that would otherwise get weedy.

Save and share

I love rescuing unwanted plants, the same way some people look after unwanted pets. In the back of my vehicle as I write are two clumps of vinca and one Christmas cedar tree in a pot. Now I’m looking for new homes for them.

Gardeners constantly share plants and seeds; and advice. That’s what makes gardening fun.

Last year, when I gave away hundreds of unwanted Crocosmia corms, I got to meet many women of a certain age. Many happily came to collect their corms late at night. I just wish I could see their Crocosmias in full bloom.

Don’t dump your unwanted plants. Find a new home for them, sell them or give them away.

How to take down a small tree

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You can do it!

Yes, ISA certified arborist Vas says you can take down a small dead tree in your backyard. If you have deep pockets and lots of fears, then hire a tree company. But this blog post will show how you can have some fun and save money by doing the work yourself. Just don’t tell your local tree companies.

Disclaimer: tree work is dangerous so please note that I’m talking about small trees. Giants require permits and professionals.

Dead Amur maple (Acer ginnala).

This dead Amur maple is a breeze to take down. The key is to do it in sections; we’re not loggers, dropping trees in one piece. See the picture sequence below. But, first, safety.

Safety first

You will need a hard hat, gloves, goggles, and ear protection. Don’t fake it. I used a pole chainsaw which allowed me to stand back and slowly reduce the tree to a stump. But you may not have access to a pole chainsaw so using a pole saw or just a sharp hand saw with a small ladder would suffice. It just means you will get sweatier and your arms will burn. However, you won’t have to worry about noise and air pollution, nor any rental costs.

Make sure your kids, seniors in wheelchairs and pets are inside and eliminate any other potential targets. In this yard, I had to move garden lights.

Step 1.

Easy does it! Start at the top, slowly, and work your way down.

Step 2.

Leave the tall stump alone because we need it later to extract the root ball.

Step 3, root ball out.

Note the tools. A shovel is a given, two work best because they tend to snap. The black pulaski tool is very handy for digging and severing roots. The tall stump section allowed me to move the root ball and dislodge it.

Clean up

Remove all debris and get help with the heavy stump. If you’re not planting anything in the hole, cover it up with soil. Then rake over the yard to leave it looking decent. A blower is faster.

I had a lot of fun taking down this Amur maple. I’m not sure why it died. I used a pole chain saw, shovel and a pulaski. As usual, I started at the top of the tree and worked down, until a had a tall stump. I kept the stump because it made the root ball removal easier.

To eliminate accidents, you must backfill the hole, preferably with native soil from the excavation.

There, you just saved a lot of cash and got some (safe) exercise. The green waste might cost a bit of cash.

A daring cedar top rescue

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Tight tops

Ok, so the main headline is a bit dramatic. It’s about cedar tops, not about a real rescue. The point of this blog post is that, unless it’s requested, all cedar hedge tops should have straight, tight tops. That’s it.

Now, there are exceptions, like my friend Anthony. He shears the top of his cedar hedge into a wave because he is a musician and the hedge top flows like a melody. I guess. I don’t really know. It’s definitely playful but an exception nonetheless.

Why I lose sleep

The finished product.

Sadly, this is the finished product of experienced landscapers. I suspect they ran in with articulating shears and buzzed down the tops with one or maybe two strokes without using a ladder. That just screams “I don’t care!”.

Cedar tops should have tight, straight lines on top. The top should match the fence line and run parallel with it. When I see the angled top, I lose sleep over it. What happened to producing world-class work?

The fix

I knew I’d have to fix this mess because sleeping well is important for landscape professionals. The cedars also look awful from the road. When I walked by, I noticed it right away.

Unfortunately, between the time this shoddy work happened and my fix date, new owners moved in. Now, I had to fix the tops and explain the horrendous duplication. Obviously, it takes time and effort to fix the tops. It didn’t help that the new owners had their backyard stuffed full of outdoor furniture; and the owner had a list of requests, most of which would have reduced his deciduous trees by fifty percent. It was a nightmare.

Use a ladder so you see the top and run your shears over the top back and forth, several times. If you’re lucky, you’ll see last year’s level clearly. Don’t rush it. Let the shears do the work as you pass over several times. This gives you the straight, laser-like look on top.

Note that only the cedar tops are done this way. The sides are pruned lightly so they stay nice and green, not brown and full of hole.

After the fix.

Now, after the fix I can sleep at night. It’s not perfect but it will do, considering the condition of the cedars and the sharpness of my shears. The key difference is that I care. I always make an attempt at diligence. I can’t just buzz it down without seeing the top properly, and walk away. That’s not me. That’s not Red Seal journeyman work.

Always make sure your cedar hedge tops are tight and straight.

LinkedIn adds horticulture to industry list

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Overdue move

Horticulture to become a LinkedIn category” is what the headline read today (February 6, 2022). I believe it’s an overdue move but, to be honest, I had no idea this was a big deal.

I like LinkedIn because it’s a more business and industry related site; I don’t check in weekly to see whose birthday it is. LinkedIn is way more useful than Facebook. My contacts on the site are solid and they post relevant stuff to my favourite industries: horticulture, arboriculture, blogging and business. I’m definitely a fan.

Horticulture petition

I remember when I created my profile, I struggled to select my industry, because horticulture wasn’t on the list. I think I picked something environmental, which seemed close enough.

Today I found that some people weren’t that forgiving. Like UK-based Ian Stephens who created a petition on change.org and got lots of LinkedIn users to sign it.

He argued, correctly, that horticulture should have its own industry section on LinkedIn. And it took LinkedIn a while to listen. But listen they did and now Ian and the rest of us will get our own industry section.

Gotta love horticulture

I support the idea that horticulture should be more recognized on LinkedIn. When the pandemic hit two years ago, green professionals became border line essential workers. Knock on wood, I never lost a day of work due to COVID. And I quietly hope that streak outlasts the virus.

People stuck inside their homes during lockdown were extremely happy to see us taking care of their landscapes, as if everything was normal. Imagine if they were stuck at home and they could see their overgrown grass and weedy beds from their windows. That would just add to their stress.

This is based on actual comments from our strata (multi-family) residents.

LinkedIn rules

There’s lots to like about LinkedIn. You can meet people in your industry and find a new job much quicker than through other channels. Personally, I love the posts my connections publish on the site.

If you have deep pockets, try the Premium membership because it comes with access to LinkedIn Learning. The site is full of great courses; I’ve taken courses on business, SEO, blogging, and branding. Unfortunately, my pockets aren’t deep so I take advantage of the four free weeks I get. Then I cancel the membership.

People looking for work should definitely consider joining LinkedIn Premium. And now when you join, one of the industry sections will say ‘horticulture’. It’s about time.

Red Seal journeyman horticulturist and LinkedIn user Vas

One fail from 2020

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Taking stock

Landscape install projects are great because they break up the monotony of routine landscape maintenance work and they generate extra revenues for landscape companies. I also love working with plants so it’s very good fit for me.

It’s also a great idea to take stock of your completed landscape install projects and see how it all went. And while 2020 went really well, without any disasters or client complaints, there is one fail that bothers me.

Doomed Christmas trees

In one project this season we installed two expensive spruce trees along with Sedums and shrubs like Spireae and Berberis. It was all fun and games except for the trees. You know you’re dealing with spruce trees when you touch the foliage and feel the stabbing pain in your skin.

The planting went well. I dug a hole with the correct dimensions and removed the wire cage. Then I carefully back-filled the tree and went in search of water.

You should always water-in your installs.

The spruce trees were labelled as drought-tolerant but it’s my humble opinion that they must first get established.

Because the trees were situated in no-man’s land it took a while for the residents to start watering. I think this delay doomed the trees.

Others think that over-watering did them in and it’s plausible that the residents would over-compensate with over-watering.

Several weeks later, both trees were suffering. One went down hard; and the other one pushed out new growth which gave me some hope. When I visited the site next, both trees were gone, replaced by native Western Red Cedars (Thuja plicata).

Water

Plants need water to function properly. This is especially true for newly planted specimens.

Over-watering can also be deadly because excess water displaces oxygen from the soil and the tree suffocates. For this reason it’s important to stick your finger in the planting hole and check for moisture levels.

This is extremely hard for busy residents to pull off.

This one failure from 2020 will be haunting me for a while. I always feel responsible for the plants I install. Like they were my kids. It’s unfortunate that I can’t do the watering myself. I do the install and pray.

How was your year? Did you experience any failures in your gardens?

Colour from a COVID19 spring

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Spring colour

Spring 2020 is a bit strange because of the coronavirus but we can still enjoy the new spring colours as they emerge. Some of the plants are also super fragrant, like Skimmia and Daphne.

  1. Doronicums are very happy, simple flowers, I first encountered when I worked for a municipality in 2014. Mass-planted they look stunning in the early season landscape. Why I still don’t have any on my patio is a mystery. Full sun.
  2. Camellias are landscape favourites and it’s easy to see why. The flowers are beautiful and the foliage glossy.
  3. Skimmias are super fragrant at the moment. I noticed the fragrance before I noticed the source of it. Then, I stole a bit of company time to enjoy the scent until the resident behind the window started wondering about me.
  4. Oxalis is an all-star for shady corners, especially when mass-planted as it was here, correctly, under Rhododendrons. In small clumps it could be mistaken for a weed.
  5. Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) is a West Coast native shrubs. The flowers eventually turn into edible berries. Local bears love them but I had to talk my little kids into trying them.
  6. Daphne is also very fragrant but I had to get closer to catch the pleasant scent. Trust me, get closer.
  7. Viburnum tinus is a nice shrub but it’s often attacked by the beetle Pyrrhalta viburni.
  8. Plum blossoms are just as beautiful as cherries and they remind me of my time in Japan. Here the tree brightens up the entrance.

Conclusion

What plants are you enjoying this spring? COVID19 may be dominating the news and affecting our lives but it’s important to stop and enjoy the colour in our gardens. For me it’s a dose of the familiar, in a super strange season. The odd fragrant plant also helps. Enjoy the spring!