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Training

Tough love for landscape apprentices

By | Pruning, Training | No Comments

Nice try!

Picture an entrance area flanked by cedar hedges on the left and right. We got down to cedar pruning as temperatures dipped and light flurries started coming down. I worked on my hedge and then moved on. That’s when my apprentice saw me and motioned to me to come top his hedge.

Nice try! Now way! Apprentices training under Red Seal Vas do everything hands on. They learn by doing and by facing their fears. When I can, I give some background information but mostly it’s hands on in the field.

Since this hedge is in a high-profile spot, there’s extra pressure to make it look good. And when you succeed, you will do it well again somewhere else. That’s how we get good, confident workers. You have to face your fears. I still do.

Easy does it!

Notice that I didn’t crack any jokes. It’s important for the apprentice to know that we have confidence in him. I did stop him to remind him to slow down with the cedar tops. This is a common mistake: people rush the tops. They make two passes over the top and leave. That’s wrong, unless you’re trying to get the top to grow higher.

Cedar hedge sides are clipped much lighter than the tops. The tops should be tight and that requires making several passes over them with the blades. (It helps if your shears are sharp!) Don’t rush this step.

If you must check the level, by all means, walk away and take a look. In this case we already know that the top line is there from last year. We just have to find it under the new growth.

Journeyman: nice tight cedar tops (Note that the grasses are still standing!!)

Apprentice: not bad at all. Keep doing it!

Having fun

I like winter because it’s slower without lawn care. This gives me a chance to notice how the crew members are working. When I can, I gently instruct and correct them. To put in world-class work we need skilled workers.

What it’s like to work with landscape apprentices

By | Education, Pruning, Training | No Comments

The idea

Apprentices in landscape horticulture attend classes for six weeks, usually in winter, when it’s slow. Then for the rest of the year they work under a journeyman in the field. That’s where I come in. I work with them in the field as they learn hands-on skills and more. The set-up is sound and it gets results when the journeyman wants to teach and the apprentices wants to learn.

Dogwood lesson

Today my apprentice started thinning out a mature Red-twig dogwood shrub and he did a good job. However, we still had the same problem. Only the top section was showing the classic red twigs, which is why this shrub is planted. Normally the red twigs show really well in the winter landscape. Not this specimen.

Because there were some concerns about privacy on the patio, I knocked on the door to check with the owner. And she didn’t care: whatever I wanted to do was fine by her. Sadly, because I joke around a lot, my apprentice didn’t believe me when I relayed the owner’s message. There should be complete trust between the teacher and apprentice!

Old wood goes

Now that privacy issues didn’t matter, I got the apprentice to remove all of the mature wood which look gray or brown, not red. He used a hand saw and loppers to do this work.

Once the old wood was gone, all we had left were the young, red canes. And we should get more next season. Assuming the coming blast of cold doesn’t kill the shrub. (Disclaimer: another manager approved the work; I wouldn’t prune dogwoods with -17C temperatures coming later in the week.)

Before:

Mature dogwood with red twigs up top.

After:

Old wood is gone and my apprentice is smiling!

Training

I love working alongside apprentices in the field but, sadly, I don’t get to all of them. The hands-on work they do is priceless, plus I add extra knowledge when it applies. Then the rest depends on their own work and six weeks of study.

When they come back from school they are more knowledgeable and confident. And that makes me and every landscape boss extremely happy.

People love trees on YouTube

By | Training, Trees, Videos | No Comments

Closest thing to viral

People love watching tree videos on YouTube! I found that out recently through my humble YouTube channel: West Coast Landscape Pro. Normally I post short videos of my work and things I see in the landscape; and I’m lucky to get one hundred views. So, imagine my surprise when one of my tree posts hit 4.6 thousand views and generated seven subscribers. That’s like Christmas for my channel.

Don’t leave stubs

The message is clear: don’t leave stubs on trees. Make nice cuts at the branch collar. In the video, the branch collar is a clearly visible raised section between the branch and trunk. Just beware that not every tree shows clear branch collars.

When you leave stubs the tree can’t cover up the wound. Eventually, the stub dies and it can act as a vector for disease to enter the tree. Once it’s inside, it’s hard to save the tree.

Also, always use a sharp saw to do your tree pruning work. In the video I’m using a brand new Silky Big Boy hand saw and it’s super sharp. It’s so sharp, it puts a smile on my face. Thank you Japan.

Impact

Not only did I get 4.6 thousand views, I also got comments. So I did what you are supposed to do: I replied to all of them. One especially was interesting, showing how even one short video can have slight impact on people.

After watching the video, one viewer promised to treat trees better when she goes camping and scours the area for firewood. She can now make decent cuts that the tree can over time cover up. I can only imagine what really goes on around camp sites.

Clear upsell

You can support my channel by viewing and subscribing; and by purchasing merchandise through my companion website: redsealvas.com. I appreciate your support. Also, remember to leave your comments so we can all learn something.

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.

Delegate, don’t micro-manage

By | landscape maintenance, Training | No Comments

Easy delegation

Delegation can be super easy, if you do it right. In this blog post I obviously use a landscaping example, but it applies to other industries as well. The key is avoiding micro-management. But first, let’s consider my situation.

I had an open, leafy field and planted beds with a high-profile walkway running through it. Now, with the snow gone, it looked awful. It needed a quick blow but I had other, more pressing tasks to attend to. Backpack leaf blowing doesn’t have to be done by managers. We can easily delegate tasks like this.

The helper

Since I didn’t ask my helper for permission to talk about him, I will have to disguise it a little bit. If you read this, and think it’s about you, you’re mistaken. It’s just coincidence.

So, my helper isn’t a star on staff. He does his job at barely acceptable speeds, doesn’t stress and therefore, rarely looks like he’s out of breath. Think of him as a reliable drone. He shows up on time and does his job.

Knowing all this, I walked him over to my leafy park section and went over his task. Since the leaf pick-up afterwards would be up to him, we brought a tarp and a rake. Walking back and forth is inefficient so don’t do it.

I explained what I needed him to do: blow the entire area and make one or two piles for pick up. I also showed him the boundaries to avoid blowing neighbourhoods we don’t maintain.

Then, I let it go and walked away.

Don’t micro-manage

Avoid micro-management at all costs. Standing there and pointing to every leaf he missed wouldn’t make sense. Good or bad, the worker needs to do his work and learn from the feedback he gets. My worker isn’t a new landscaper; he has experience. But, sometimes, he gets treated like a new guy.

And to provide feedback, I had to go back later to check his work. And I’m happy to report, it was totally fine. Which is what I told him. The park was blown clean and the tarp was full of leaves, ready for pick-up by the road. Case closed.

All done!

Conclusion

Don’t be afraid to delegate tasks to others. When I show up on sites to help my foremen, they’re never shy about delegating the worst tasks to their manager.

Explain the task, show them the area, give them time parameters and walk away. Let it go. Trust them to do their job. If they mess it up, they will learn from it. If they do it well, they will appreciate the autonomy and extra fun. That’s why we have to give feedback.

Micro-management would just suck the life out of their work day. Avoid it.

Debris tarped up and positioned by the road for easy pick-up.

How to train a Turk

By | Strata Maintenance, Training | No Comments

Always training

I really enjoy training new landscapers. New immigrants are even more challenging because their English skills aren’t that great. Luckily, my new coworker from Turkey is an university-trained forestry engineer with decent English.

After the current Turkish leader survived a coup attempt some years ago, he cleaned-up and jailed many people, including my coworker’s sister. So my Turkish friend had to move to Canada to avoid problems, but his family stayed behind. Not seeing them must be a constant source of stress. Now, back to landscaping.

Landscape eye

Landscape eye is a critical skill you develop over time as you work in the landscape. Here my Turkish apprentice passed with flying colors by identifying the prickly bramble sticking out of a hydrangea. Then he removed it with his snips.

You must be able to spot blemishes in the landscape and correct them. Moving through the day like a robot doesn’t work. We must constantly scan the landscape to make sure it’s beautiful and healthy.

Plant ID

As a forestry engineer, my Turkish friend isn’t new to plant identification. Just our landscape plants are new to him. Here the prickly shrub looks like a holly (Ilex) but it’s actually Osmanthus.

Broken branches

I believe it was my Turkish friend who looked up first and spotted the broken branch. He couldn’t remember the full botanical name of the tree but he tried. It’s a sweetgum or Liquidambar styraciflua. We have lots of them in the landscape because they’re an excellent alternative to maples (Acer spp.)

Broken branch on a Sweetgum.

Learning by doing next to me is the best way to train new apprentices. So, I sent my Turkish helper back to the truck to get two pole pruners with a saw attachment. He was able to just reach the branch without a ladder.

When we got the branch safely on the ground, I had to remind my apprentice to remove the remaining stub. Not only is it ugly, it can also allow diseases to get into the tree. Later, when he tried to tell me about his burning arms, I knew what he meant. I’ve taken down enough tree branches to know it requires physical strength. An apprentices with burning arms is music to my ears.

Red Seal effect

Now, I know some people laugh at the idea of Red Seal effect. The effect of me training new hires to become great landscapers. Incredibly, I have my share of haters and I’ve made fun of them in a recent blog. Having haters is actually a great sign, so just ignore them and keep doing the same great work.

Simply put, it works. Apprentices spend the day working with me so we get to work and talk together. When I see mistakes, I correct them immediately; and I answer all questions to the best of my ability. I suspect my Turkish helper will never again walk away from a branch stub. He’ll remove it like a pro. Thanks to the Red Seal effect.

Are stake pounders dangerous?

By | Tools, Training, Trees | No Comments

Intimate knowledge

I got to know stake pounders intimately when I went through the Landscape Industry Certified program. Recall that stake pounders are metal pipes with handles, closed at one end. Just pop the end of your wooden stake in and start pounding it in.

One version of a stake pounder.

Station master

I had to do the planting and staking practical station test three times! Years later I can joke about it but at the time, failing meant waiting for six months until the next test day.

Note that the practical exams are now scored from video footage captured by your employer. The twice a year testing days are long gone. Visit the Canadian Landscape Nursery Association for details.

One of my fails resulted from not wearing ear protection. Ouch. I was so nervous and caught up in procedures and time limits, I didn’t even notice the pounding noise. Ear protection during staking is mandatory. It is loud.

The other critical issue is the height of the stake pounder. The rule is that it can’t ever reach over your head. Even if you have a hard hat. But this wasn’t a problem for me until I became a judge.

Vas arrives

When I became a landscape judge, the CNLA got me to judge the same planting and staking station. Sweet! I was ready for it but not for failing people. Some of the candidates went overboard, raising their stake pounders way too high.

I could see my judge-mentor watching and fuming from a distance. And at the time I thought she was a bit anal. I don’t anymore. She was right. I should have raised my red flag and send them packing.

Careful!

Last year I heard a nasty story that changed my mind. An experienced landscape company owner had managed to crack his skull with a stake pounder. He survived but he couldn’t work for a long time and who knows how the accident will affect his brain in the future.

Then today I heard about another landscaper breaking his neck with a stake pounder. Ouch.

If I ever meet my cute landscape judge mentor again, I will quietly apologize. Stake pounders are dangerous metal pipes that should never be raised above your head, even if you have a hard hat on.

Remnant pile of a remnant pile

By | Landscaping, Training | No Comments

Danger zone

I know from past bad experiences to avoid end of the day confrontations. That’s the danger zone where people are tired and ready to go home. They might also be wet from heavy rain or annoyed by their under-performing colleagues. It’s best to make some mental or paper notes and bail.

A few months ago I couldn’t hold my tongue at the end of the day. I was on site to help out and I, too, was ready to go home. My son had soccer practice as usual and I knew traffic would be bad.

Stand-up comedy

What I didn’t expect was to witness an experienced landscaper blow a remnant pile of some leaves and a few pebbles into yet another remnant pile for us to pick up. That must be the worst case of overtime ever. Pushing the entire crew past exit time over a few leaves and some pebbles is unacceptable.

So, I told the dude to stop playing around and blast the remnants out of sight. This could be into the nearby lawn or, better still, into neighboring shrubbery. That’s it. Aggressive, direct and no overtime.

If you catch yourself blowing a remnant pile of a remnant pile, something went wrong. Perhaps the original pile was just a standard pile.

This is how you do it

Let’s see how I put a remnant pile to bed quickly and aggressively.

Some dust, pebbles and leaves.

After picture, 30 seconds later.

Unless you have a broom handy and extra time, blast the remnants into your lawn or nearby shrubbery. Discreetly pushing the dust into a neighboring strata complex is best. Just do it quickly. No more piles.

The lesson

Remnant pile management seems obvious to some and mysterious to others. Blowing remnant piles into more piles is ridiculous. Because this is a family blog, I can’t use stronger language. But I did on site.

This is why staff training never really ends. I want my workers to be sharp and aggressive with small tasks like remnant piles.

A new course for lawn care newbies

By | Education, Lawn Care, Training | No Comments

Vas dares to dream

I’ve been training landscapers for many years now and I always wondered if I could make a bigger impact. So, when people struggled with basic plant identification, I put together a simple picture book to help them. It allowed me to test the Designrr software and, occasionally, I make a few dollars when the e-book sells on Amazon.

Now, lawn care is a bit trickier but since I was seeing the same mistakes over and over, it made sense to create an online course. That’s how the BC Landscape Academy was born in 2021. It’s been a fun learning experience and I’m working on other courses so it feels like a school. The second course will introduce landscapers to the most common tree species.

Students wanted

It’s not really a school without students but as the new mow season approaches, I’m hoping to get a few beta testers to test drive the course. And that includes Proper Landscaping Inc. I just have to convince the big boss James, in exchange for a huge discount.

The first course deals with the Top 5 lawn care mistakes. These mistakes happen over and over as new employees come to work at landscape companies. So, what if you could alert them to the worst five mistakes from day one? It would save costly training time in the field and could, potentially, save time and money. The well-trained newbie would know what mistakes to avoid and why. Which should make him an asset to his clients and company from day one.

I just think that the employers will have to attach some carrots to this project. Finish the course and get free snips. Or, finish the course and get a small raise.

Homeowners can benefit, too

Yes, the course is aimed at professional landscapers but homeowners will also benefit. The mistakes happen all the time. Why not check it out and get educated about proper lawn care. It’s not as simple as it appears. But the BC Landscape Academy is here to help you. Don’t repeat the same mistakes. Learn from others.

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.