Do your homework before hiring landscape help!

(A guest post by Rich Guggenheim. You can see Rich’s bio at the end of this post.)

When it comes to shopping, my friends all know it takes me a long time to make a decision. I methodically research out what I want. Then I narrow it down to a few items. After I look over my choices carefully, I may go home to get on the internet and look at consumer reviews; I may go from store to store and check out prices. I look for quality and I look to make sure I am getting a product that is worth the money I am spending on it. I want to make sure my investment will last. Sometimes, my shopping experience will last hours, days, or in the case of a car or computer, it could be months.

My yard is no different. When I need yard work done, such as lawn aeration or tree trimming, I am insistent on high quality work. As a homeowner you are the first and the last line of defense when it comes to making sure that a quality job is done, and done correctly! Knowing what to expect in landscape maintenance and being armed with a small amount of knowledge as a consumer can play in your favor.

Always hire a certified professional to do your work. Would you seek medical advice from an individual who was not licensed to practice medicine? Of course not! Why then would you do it with your yard? I recommend that you check into the individual or company before hiring them. Do some homework. How have they been trained? Where is their certification from? Are they insured, licensed, and can they provide you documentation? Are they registered with the Better Business Bureau? If so, what is their rating? Drive around and check on some of their previous work. Is it the kind of quality you would want in your own yard? Ask for references. Ask questions! This is, after all, a job interview for the contractor. Just because they are the cheapest does not mean they should get the job, and just because they slap a business magnet on the side of their pick-up truck does not mean they know what they are doing!  In the following I will be talking with you about what to look for when hiring a contractor to do yard work and how certain procedures should be done. Armed with this knowledge, you will be better able to ensure the work done in your yard is of the quality you deserve for the money you pay.

Lawn aeration is perhaps one of the best things that you can do for your lawn. Done twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, core aeration combats soil compaction. Soil compaction is a problem in nearly 80% of all landscapes. In addition, aerating your lawn helps combat thatch accumulation and reduces the amount of water you need to apply to your lawn. The reason for this is because when your soil is compacted oxygen and water can’t penetrate into the soil. Fertilizer can’t get penetrate the soil either. As a result, roots are often shallow, and the lawn will need more frequent irrigation. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Core aeration removes small plugs, about 1-3 inches long from the soil. A single aeration using a machine with 1/2-inch diameter tines removes as much as 10 percent of the thatch if enough passes are made to achieve average 2-inch spacing between holes. Remember the key is 2-inch spacing. This may mean that multiple passes on the lawn are required. This small investment of an extra $10 will pay dividends in the end.

What do you do with the cores after you have had the lawn aerated? That really is a personal decision. Some people do not like the little plugs being left on their lawn, although there may be benefits to allowing them to disintegrate into the lawn again.

If you do decide to remove them, they are great for the compost bin. Other options may be to power rake the lawn after aeration, watering, or simply running a lawn mower over the lawn after you aerate (although this practice will cause the blades on your lawn mower to dull). Once you have aerated your lawn if you need to reseed, this is the optimum time to do it. The best part of reseeding now is there is no need to top dress the lawn, as the lawn seeds will have nice little holes in which to germinate!

Another type of aeration being marketed by many lawn care companies these days as a replacement for core aeration is liquid aeration. While different ingredients make up this popular lawn service, the main ingredients seem to be liquid humates (organic matter) and sodium lauryl sulfate (soap). These are nothing more than snake oil remedies and are no substitution for the real deal of removing the plugs from your lawn by core aerating. There is no scientific research which has shown chemical aeration to be effective. You may as well throw dirty dish water out on your lawn. (5)

The thing to remember from all of this is that you want to have your lawn aerated twice a year; in the spring, and again in the fall. The plugs removed should be 2-3 inches long, and on 2 inch centers, which may require multiple passes on your lawn.

Tree pruning is something I take seriously. It is a science which should not be left to a novice and is far more than could be covered in one article. For me, spotting a bad tree pruning job is as easy as spotting a bad haircut. The only difference is a bad hair cut grows back and has no adverse side effects on your health. However, a pruning job can have enormous effects on the health of a tree, either for good, or for bad. When you hire an arborist, make sure they are ISA certified, licensed, and insured. To find an ISA certified arborist, visit their website.


The key points for a good pruning job really come back to structurally pruning the tree correctly when the tree is young. Improper or lack of pruning when the tree is young can greatly increase the likelihood of tree failure when the tree is older. Cuts on branches larger than 4 inches increase the possibility of decay and disease. If possible, prune trees when the branches are smaller than 4 inches in diameter.

When pruning trees, it is important to prune the branch back to the branch collar. Don’t leave stubs, or what I call “hangars” where you can hang your coat. Leaving these nubs will cause decay and disease to move into your tree.

The last key component to pruning is to always remove a smaller branch back to the parent branch, never the other way around. When you remove a parent branch, unless the wood is dead, you greatly increase the risk of beginning the downward spiral of death and decay in the tree. While this is great for less reputable tree-trimming companies who will have to come back year after year to remove an ever-increasing amount of dead wood from the canopy of the tree, it is hard on your pocketbook; more importantly, your tree’s life is shortened! By knowing some pruning basics, you can ensure that you are hiring a professional who knows what they are doing, and will extend the value and life of your landscape.

  1. Carrow, R. N., B. J. Johnson, and R. E. Bums. 1987. Thatch and quality of Tifway bermudagrass turf in relation to fertility and cultivation. Agronomy Journal, 79: 524-530.
  2. Dunn, J. H., D. D. Minner, B. F. Fresenburh, S. S. Bughrara, and C. H. Hohnstrater. 1995. Influence of core aerification, topdressing, and nitrogen on mat, roots, and quality of “Meyer” zoysiagrass. Agronomy Journal, 87: 891-894.
  3. Erusha, K. S., R. C. Shearman, and D. M. Bishop. 1989. Thatch prevention and control. Turfgrass Bulletin, 10(2): 10-11.
  4. Murray, J.J., & Juska, F.V. (1977). Effect of management practices on thatch accumulation, turf quality, and leaf spot damage in common Kentucky bluegrass [Poa pratensis]. Agronomy Journal,(3), 365-369.
  5. Lloyd M. Callahan, William L. Sanders, John M. Parham, Cynthia A. Harper, Lori D. Lester and Ellen R. McDonald.Cultural and chemical controls of thatch and their influence on rootzone nutrients in a bentgrass green.Crop Science, 1998 38: 1: 181-187. doi:10.2135/cropsci1998.0011183X003800010030x

————————————————————————————————————

Rich Guggenheim is a consumer horticulture educator with the University of Idaho in Canyon County and is the program director for the University of Idaho Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. Rich is also working on a Ph.D. in plant pathology. Rich has been an horticulture extension agent for Colorado State University, horticulturalist for Disney Parks, and is the host of the weekly “Avant Gardener” radio program in Boise. He can be reached at richg@uidaho.edu

When spring is delayed

Enjoying our first day above 55 F in quite a while here in mountains of Southwest Virginia. We’ve had far-below-average temperature and three significant snow events over the past four weeks.

Saturday, April 7, 2018 at our farm (Newport, VA).  Not making me want to garden.

For much of the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Midwest, spring has been very slow to arrive. The jet stream has been riding mighty low, and is taking another dive next week. For gardeners, this is frustrating (see above), though here in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b, we’re still well within the “last freeze” window.

For ornamental plant nurseries, greenhouses, and retailers/garden centers in these regions, this is darn close to devastating (the South has fared much better).  For growers and retailers, spring is the busiest time of the year – many see 70-80% of their annual sales between March and early June.  Of that amount, at least 50% of retail garden center sales will happen over the weekends.  IF it is nice.  Folks stay away in droves when the weather stinks. And this has repercussions down the supply chain.

Chris Beytes, the editor of GrowerTalks and GreenProfit (two highly subscribed-to publications within the greenhouse and garden center sector), has been keeping track of spring sales for years.

Growers and garden centers self-report a weekend rating on a scale of 1 (dreadful) to 10 (can’t keep product on the shelf, happily exhausted, planning vacation in Tahiti).  Not all states end up represented – either they’re too busy selling (Florida!) or too depressed to report (possibly Ohio!).

Here’s last week’s map (click for a link to Chris’s newsletter column)

Lots, lots of gray.

Closer to home: I took my Ornamental Plant Production and Marketing students on a field trip last Friday. We toodled up I-81 to visit a container nursery (woody plants) and a wholesale greenhouse focused on quality bedding plants and baskets for the independent garden center (IGC) market.

The greenhouse was absolutely packed to the gills with market-ready annuals, herbs, veggie transplants, and hanging baskets.

And it was eerily quiet.

A Friday afternoon in April, and the only folks in a wholesale greenhouse…were the owners. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.  There should be workers, carts, trucks, beeping, yelling, transplanters cranking, etc.

Weather over the previous weekend and early week had been spectacularly crappy. Because the garden centers across the region had not moved enough product to restock, there was no shipping. Because there was no shipping, there was no space freed up to put anything else.  Because there was no space, no transplanting could occur, and seedlings/liners were still in their trays.  Calls were probably being placed to the propagation greenhouses that grow the plugs/liners, asking them to hold off on shipping until the finishing grower could clear out the backlog of plug trays.  Plus perfect plants stay perfect only so long. Pesky things tend to grow/flop/get pests and pathogens.

I love for students to see the real-world hustle/bustle/insanity of spring that growers face each year. The act of growing plants is what sparks the interests of the students – but  understanding the supply chain and market behavior is just as important. We did get great tour – along with a  lot of fodder for class discussions.

Hopefully things will warm up; garden centers across the regions will be jam-packed, and all will be well. If this paralysis continues much longer, the window of opportunity will start closing.  It gets warm/hot, schools let out, folks go on vacation…and lose that got-to-garden feeling.

You can help repair this logjam (yes you can!). Regardless of the weather this weekend (because you’re a tough cookie/Garden Professors reader), get thee to your favorite garden center or retail greenhouse this weekend. And buy! Buy! Buyyyyy!

An idea worth stealing: Mesh pots for bulb collections

Last year I was in England, and a snowdrop obsessive there (aka, a Galanthophile) showed me this cool trick, using mesh pots to keep her vast collection of different varieties organized.

meshpot

She puts her bulbs in these pots (designed for use in hydroponic systems, I believe), and then sinks the entire pot down in the ground, so that the pot is invisible. The pot keeps the bulbs contained and easy to find so you can dig them up to divide or share even when dormant, and keeps different varieties growing next to each other from getting mixed up. But unlike a regular solid-sided pot, the open mesh allows roots and water to move freely so the bulbs grow just as easily and with as little care as if they were planted directly in the ground.

Corydalis turtschaninovii
Corydalis turtschaninovii

I’m not a snowdrop lover, they frankly bore me, but I have been getting more and more obsessed with bulbous corydalis, selections of C. solida and the amazing true blue Corydalis turtschaninovii. The tiny bulbs are impossible to find once they get dormant, and my collection is already beginning to get mixed up as the different varieties begin dividing and encroaching on each other… I’m going to start planting new editions in mesh pots to keep everything organized.

Joseph Tychonievich

The Handy Dandy Dibber

A dibber, also called a dibbler (the garden tool, not the small nocturnal marsupial),  has many uses in the garden and greenhouse.  It also offers the opportunity to announce your intentions of dibbing (or dibbling). I’m a huge fan.

For example: just planted the last of my fall bulb purchases.  One of packs remaining was Allium unifolium, left over from installing our Allium field trials. (28 species and cultivars – woo! Beats doing research on soybeans or something.)  These little bulbs are about the size of nickel – even the smallest hand spade is overkill. I think I’ll just grab the dibber!

dibsandalliumHSFor the uninitiated, a dibber or dibbler is simply a very sturdy, pokey thing, with a nice ergonomic handle.  To use, simply scatter bulbs (never, ever in rows)…  scatterandpokePoke and plop. Went about 5″ to 6″ deep for these wee bulbs. Goes really fast once you’ve honed your dibbing skills.

holesAs a bulb-planting strategy, I like to leave them all uncovered until I’ve got the whole batch situated.  Then make like a squirrel and cover the bulbs!

doneVoila.  Done in 60 seconds! Though I’ll probably forget where I planted them within 60 minutes (which does make for a pleasant surprise come spring time – “Oh look! Alliums!”)

 

 

Just like it said on the seed package!

I believe I’ve spent approximately $1,000,000 on seeds over the years.  Plant and seed catalogs are usually addressed to “Gullible L. Scoggins.” I really suffer (on many levels) during the darkest days of winter; this makes me highly susceptible to seed catalogs filled with delicious descriptions and enhanced photos.

This spring, I sorted through my massive bin of partially used seed packets and ruthlessly (ruthlessly!!!) chucked everything dated prior to 2012 (like normal people do).  A large portion of the expired packets were for squash and zucchini. I love squash of every ilk – glossy dark zukes, gold crooknecks, pattypan-anything. Squash and tomatoes are summer incarnate.

My absolute favorite is the heirloom Italian variety Costata Romenesco with its dense, nutty flesh – it really tastes like something on its own.  The huge rambling vines put out relatively few fruit, so not the best for a compact garden.

But variety is the spice of life…so how to try several varieties and not end up with either a mountain of squash (as happened to me a while back) or a bunch of seeds left over?  California seed purveyor Renee’s Garden does a very cool thing – one pack of seeds with three (3!) varieties – the “Tricolor Mix”.  Brilliant! You get a gold-bar type (Golden Dawn), the dark green one that will go berserk (Raven), and a lovely pale gray-green Clarimore.

The zucchini trifecta from Renee's Garden seeds.  That's Costata Romanesco on the far left.
The zucchini trifecta from Renee’s Garden seeds. Plus Costata Romanesco on the far left.

The seeds are color-coded with just good ol’ food coloring, so you know what you’ve planted.  I got 100% germination (whoops) and a delightful variety and volume of zucchini.  And NO LEFTOVER SEEDS – so I will feel completely justified next February when ordering more. Hurrah!

Can Permaculture and Good Science Coexist

Several years ago I posted a four-part discussion about permaculture and my concerns with the blend of philosophy, science and pseudoscience that it contains. (Here are links to Parts 12, 3 and 4.) So I was pleased to be part of an Extension tour group that visited an established permaculture farm in the San Juan Islands earlier this spring. This gave me an opportunity to see whether there was any perceptible shift in the permaculture community towards practices based on applied plant and soil sciences. Specifically, I chose to look for invasive species identified as noxious weeds that many permaculturists cultivate rather than eradicate.

Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.
Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.

Our spring came early this year, and the islands were blindingly yellow with the Scots broom that runs rampant there (and throughout the West). This species is a Class B listed noxious weed in Washington State and has been mandated for control by San Juan County. So I was surprised and disappointed to see it and other related broom species not only present at this farm but used actively as nitrogen fixing species.

Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.
Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.

The practice here is to plant broom or some other nitrogen fixing species right next to a fruit tree as a “companion plant.” While the idea is logical, the choice of species is not. There are many other plants, including legumes and alders, which grow well in our area and would provide the same benefit.

Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).
Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).

There is nothing that can excuse the deliberate use of a listed noxious weed that’s mandated for control by local government. Permaculturists should endeavor to be good citizens and not infringe on the rights of their neighbors who don’t share their philosophy.

English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.
English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.

 

WSDA noxious weed listings for species mentioned in this post:

Scots broom
French broom
Spanish broom
Yellow archangel
English holly

Five little lavenders…four years later

If you’ve been following us for a while, you might remember a post from August 2009 when I got cranky about a pot of lavenders with horrendous root systems.  I intervened with my Felcos and planted out the patients, hoping for the best.
Lavender #2 before root pruning

In July of 2010, I gave an update on their progress.  At that point, one of the lavenders had died but the other four were perking along. And now it’s time to show them in their floral glory:

Root washing is still controversial, as is corrective root pruning.  However, all five of these plants would have died had I not corrected the spiraling root systems.  Published and ongoing research at several places around the country continues to support the practice of bare-rooting and correcting root flaws of woody plants.

Is this a practice that the landscape industry will adopt?  Probably not on a large scale: it is time intensive and requires careful work.  But home gardeners can do this themselves and have done so successfully.

If you’re interested in more information on how to do this, you can download this fact sheet.  Until production nurseries change their practices to avoid these fatal root flaws, it will be up to home gardeners and a handful of landscapers to repair the damage.

A Real, Live, Learning Experience

What a crazy spring! But it finally, finally came here to the Blue Ridge Mountains (Linda Chalker-Scott refers to them “speed bumps”).

My Ornamental Plants Production & Marketing class has been at work since early February, growing plants and marketing them at the Hort Club Plant Sale as part of their lab experience.  Of course, they are completely at my mercy as to what they get to grow (bwuhh ha ha *evil hand wringing*).  And due to their professor being a complete plant dork, they wouldn’t know a potted mum if it hit them upside the head. Not that there’s anything wrong with mums.  But with so much fabulous stuff to choose from – they can just look that mum crop protocol up in a book if the need arises.  They do get to experience a few zonal geraniums, but that’s only because the University’s past-President buys 50 red ones from us every year.

So what do they grow? Fabulous goodies you could never, ever find at a garden center in SW Virginia.  Variegated Manihot esculenta. Dr. Cho’s newest Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ (gloss black with deep blue veins).  Awesome landscape begonias such as ‘Gryphon’ and ‘Santa Cruz Sunset’. Fun annuals like Torenia and Osteospermum. Fifty-two different things – fairly ambitious, considering there are only 11 students.  We fill a 40′ x 80′ house plus two “research” greenhouse sections that I commandeer the moment they come available.

My production students always start out the semester rather tentative, and then get more engaged as time goes on.  We do a 2.5 day field trip across the state to visit top greenhouses, nurseries, and garden centers in early April.  My gang comes home with a real appreciation of the hard work and long hours required to be successful; more important, perhaps, is their exposure to the tremendous passion and enthusiasm of the people in the business, many of who are alumni of our department.

SO…thirteen weeks later, we have greenhouses crammed full of really great plants,a bunch more ordered in from top area nurseries, an enthusiastic mob of customers with pent-up plant lust, and some very proud students.

And that’s the best part – the students get to/have to work with (gasp) the PUBLIC.  Very disconcerting for some of them. The Plant Sale Chair for the club, who is also in my class, is a terrific student but a bit shy.  Of course, he got the loudest customer of the day. She hollered  “Hey, boo boo! Tell me about this plant! Sez here you grew it!”  Ten shades of red later… I thought he was going to faint. But he did regain his composure and helped her with some other things.  He also made me promise to never, ever tell his classmates what she called him.

But you’re not in my class 😉


Here comes “boo boo” with his very nice Cissus discolor (Rex Begonia Vine).
Names withheld to protect the totally embarrassed.

Pocket parks and urban corridors

As you may know, I spent most of the last week in Charlotte, NC.  On my last night, I got to visit uptown and enjoy the pocket parks along Tryon Street.  Here’s one of them at the intersection of Tryon and Trade:

It has a lovely water feature – it was a warm day and the breeze from the fountain cooled the air off significantly.

A little further on was this plaza, featuring jasmine-covered “umbrellas”:

The umbrellas were actually sculptures – little works of art on their own:

The nicest things about the uptown area were the wide streets and equally wide sidewalks.  Lots of light could get through these urban corridors, supporting a canopy of willow oaks:

This is an urban area that not only invites pedestrians, but treats them to a botanical experience that unfortunately isn’t common in our cities. Hopefully this is the future of urban greenspaces…and not just a delightful anomaly.