Maintenance Gardeners Often Need Help

Gardeners can rake leaves and mow lawns, but may not be qualified for some of the more specialized horticultural techniques.

Even some of the most avid of garden enthusiasts get some of the work in the garden done by maintenance gardeners. In many regards, even the common ‘mow-blow-&-go’ gardeners can be very helpful. As long as they are not expected to work with trees or shear anything (or everything), they can be remarkably efficient at the tedious and most demanding of tasks that are not much fun. For example, and as the job description implies, they can mow boring lawns and blow inert pavement. We can tend to our own meticulous chores, such as pruning roses and burying bulbs.

However, as professionals, gardeners must be as efficient with their time as possible, so rarely have the luxury of devoting the sort of attention to our gardens as those of us who enjoy gardening as a leisure activity. Consequently, they tend to be more generous with automated irrigation than they need to be. The immediate symptoms of insufficiency are more apparent than the symptoms of excess; so too much seems to be better than not enough. To make matters worse, the driest area of a lawn or bed is the limiting factor for automated irrigation, since everything else that gets watered along with the particular dry spot gets the same frequency and duration (volume) of irrigation.

At a time when many of us are already trying to use significantly less water, it is frustrating to notice any waste. In most gardens, lawn uses more water than everything else combined, but is also the part of the garden that many of us relinquish to maintenance gardeners who are not always there to notice waste. Regardless of any drought or water conservation, excessive irrigation is expensive and unhealthy to trees and many other plants.

Unfortunately, irrigation schedules can not be prescribed, but must be determined by direct experience with the lawn or landscape being irrigated. Even without rain, lawns and landscaped areas require less water through the (normally) cooler and shorter days of winter. The trick to rationing is to give the garden only as much as it needs to survive without allowing it to get too dry, which will undoubtedly cause some friction with any gardeners who may work with it.


Horridculture – Skipping Ahead

January 17 is as far as I have gotten with the backlog of articles from blogs that I follow. I am now two and a half weeks behind schedule. Articles are old news by the time I see them. I have been trying to catch up for weeks or maybe months, but have instead been getting farther behind. The video above is from the article I posted back then. There has been no rain since then.

The video also looks like what I feel I am doing to that backlog of article while I skip ahead to current articles beginning with February 5. Flushing them like this seems so negligent. I feel so obligated to read the articles of blogs that I follow. That is why I follow them. However, if I do not flush the backlog, articles that are current now will also be old news by the time I get them.

I have been reading some of these blogs so regularly that those who write them sometimes include notes to me within the contexts of their articles. Sometimes they comment on something that they think I would be particularly interested in. Sometimes they ask questions that they think I might know the answers to, or just ask for a bit of advice. Flushing all that is just wrong.

I have no choice. I have no time for it all. I write my brief gardening articles for more small newspapers than I can keep track of. I still work at a part-time and temporary job that involves maintenance of landscapes and small scale arboriculture because I can not bear to leave! I intend to eventually return to work at nursery production, but have been too overworked to do so.

Meanwhile, former clients and clients of former clients continue to contact me in need of services that I can no longer provide. I can find no one to refer them to for comparable services. All of the best arborists and horticulturists are retired, deceased or too busy (compensating for the lack of those of us who are retired or deceased) to accommodate more work. It is saddening.

On top of all that, I am supposed to be canning cedar trees and plugging sycamore cuttings for street trees in Los Angeles a few years from now . . . and maybe working in the garden?!?!


P90728Without prior notice, I was informed on Friday morning of a workday on Saturday morning at Felton Presbyterian Church. That was yesterday. Since there was no time to get other chores done in advance, I was an hour late. Considering that we only work for four hours between eight and noon, one hour is rather significant. I felt compelled to attend regardless. A few friends who are parishioners of Felton Presbyterian Church appreciate it.
The difficulty of not attending is that there are several other volunteers who do attend, and they all have very different ideas, or no idea at all, about how to accomplish what needs to be done in the landscape. It is amazing how much damage can be done with a few light duty power tools and too much undirected ambition. Even when I am there, it is difficult to convince the others that I know more about horticulture than all of them combined.
For the past several years, I had been pruning a flowering crabapple tree to renovate the branch structure that was mutilated by someone with loppers and power hedge shears. Yes, hedge shears. I had pruned the tree for clearance above a parking lot on one side, and a patio on the other, but with low branches in between to partly obscure the view of parked cars from the patio. Bloom was spectacular, and not compromised by the pruning.
Then I missed a workday. Even though the flowering crabapple tree did not need to be pruned at that time, someone lopped away the lower limbs indiscriminately, and then sheared the top! There were mutilated stubs all over the new exterior of the canopy. Much of the blooming stems for the following season were removed. It was very disappointing to see all of my effort wasted so pointlessly. Now, I need to start the whole process over.
However, when I got there today, a planter box below the crabapple tree was being dismantled and removed. I could not work in the area, so must return to start the process of renovating the crabapple tree. Realistically, it should be done while the tree is dormant in winter, even if it compromises bloom for the following spring somewhat. The tree is so gnarly and congested now that it is unlikely that anyone would notice a few less blossoms.
As frustrating as it can be, we actually get quite a bit done. These lily-of-the-Nile in the picture above were one of our projects many years ago. They were recycled from a garden in Aptos from which they needed to be removed. We split, groomed and plugged them. Most were promptly removed and discarded by someone else who did not realize that we had just installed them. But hey, at least these few survived and continue to bloom.

Horridculture – Lessons From Motivational Posters

P81010I work for the best. I do not intend to be too terribly pompous about it. I am just being honest.
This is not first time I have worked for the best. I have worked for at least three of the best arborists in the Santa Clara Valley, and two legendary horticulturists. I intend to eventually return to work for one of those legendary horticulturists back on the farm.
The main work I do now is part time and temporary. That means that I work less than four days each week, and will not be working there forever. I try to not think about leaving because it is saddening. I enjoy those whom I work for so much.
I work for only one other horticulturist, and one who is studying to be an arborist. Neither of them grow any significant quantity of nursery stock like I intend to spend the rest of my career doing. They maintain landscapes and facilities. The others of our elite group are very specialized professionals who work with everything else that is not relevant to horticulture. One is a carpenter. One is an electrician. One is a plumber; and so on. Although impeccably specialized, any one of us would do what he must to accomplish whatever needs to be done, even if it is beyond his respective specialty. Collectively, we are the ‘maintenance staff’.
How is this relevant to horticulture? I suppose it is not very relevant. However, everyone else on the maintenance staff respects what the other horticulturist, the other arborist, and I do. Anyone who needs vegetation pruned for clearance from a project contacts us to get it done properly. Anyone who sees obvious problems in the landscape informs us about them. Everyone on the maintenance staff respects everyone else and their respective professions.
To describe what makes the maintenance staff the best, I could use any combination of those inspirational words that are so ungraciously followed by an overly simplified dictionary definition on those insultingly inane motivational posters that so many other employers display prominently in the workplace. They are all relevant. However, we have nothing to prove.
Besides, this is not about the best. It is Wednesday, when I write within the context of my ‘Horridculture’ theme.
I have also worked for the worst. One of these worst was portrayed to be a very professional landscape maintenance company. We had a much larger staff, spread out over nine counties. We had a good variety of those motivational posters in our main office. Unfortunately, I did not realize when I went to work there, that those posters merely defined what we lacked.
Integrity – Dedication – Perseverance – Discipline – Teamwork – Excellence – Strength – Endurance – Accountability – We had none of that. I was the only horticulturist in the big staff of a big landscape maintenance company that simply did not care. I do not know how to describe it more accurately. We simply did not care. We were there to make a buck any way we could. We swindled, cheated and lied. I was only there as their token horticulturist and arborist, to help them get away with more of their illicit activity, and to make a good impression for their victims.
It is so backward. The big and seemingly reputable landscape maintenance company has less regard for horticulture than a maintenance staff who has other completely different priorities.

Horridculture – Ethics

P80324++Before I continue, I should mention that I have worked for some of the BEST horticultural professionals in the entire Universe! Seriously! I have worked for the single most excellent nurseryman EVER, and not one, but a FEW of the most excellent arborists EVER! YES, I am bragging! I can write about some of them another time.
I have also worked for some of the worst, including those who were involved with the maintenance of landscapes associated with various residential sites that were in the process of being renovated or demolished and redeveloped at the old Fort Ord. They engaged in more unethical activity at Fort Ord than I can write about in just a few articles. For now, I will just rant about one such incident.
Back in about 2007 or 2008, I was asked to go out to investigated a distressed ‘Marina’ madrone on Abrams Drive. The subject was easy to find because is was the only nearly dead tree within a remarkably uniform row of very healthy ‘Marina’ madrones. It had been too severely ravaged by a severe infestation of aphid to be salvaged. I prescribed removal and replacement with a new specimen of the same cultivar.
I was annoyed that the removal of this single tree would ruin the otherwise perfect uniformity and spacing of the row of trees that had been so well maintained for many years. I was even more annoyed that the people whom I worked with had not noticed that the tree was distressed before it succumbed to the aphid infestation. Aphid is not normally much of a problem for ‘Marina’ madron. It was obvious that the subject had been deteriorating for a few years before it finally succumbed, and would have exhibited very obvious symptoms of distress for at least the previous few months. Someone should have noticed a problem during that time. That is part of what the clients had been paying us significant amounts of money to do.
All that I could do was write my report to recommend removal of the subject so that the client could justify the expense.
The following week, on my way down Abrams Drive to investigate another problem, I noticed that the subject had not yet been removed. However, one of the trees next to it was missing. I stopped to investigate and found a stump with fresh sawdust. I called the project manager, but before I could ask about the missing tree, was informed that the subject had been removed. Well, one can guess what happened. The ‘tree crew’ removed the wrong specimen!
My report was very specific about the location of the subject, and cited the subject’s identification number. Now, even without that information, it should have been EXTREMELY obvious which tree needed to be removed. As I said earlier, I had no problem identifying it as the only nearly dead tree within a very uniform group of very healthy trees. Someone on the crew who removed it, or the project manager who was supposed to ‘manage’ the project, or ANYONE involved with this removal should have noticed that the wrong tree was getting cut down. Even if no one bothered to notice the dead tree that really needed to be cut down, someone . . . ANYONE of the so called ‘horticultural professionals’ should have wondered why such a remarkably healthy tree was being cut down.
So, the ‘tree crew’ returned and cut down the original subject, and actually did so with their second attempt.
Then the two trees needed to be replaced. It sounds simple enough. The problem was that these particular ‘professionals’ knew of only a few trees, and ‘Marina’ madrone was not one of them. They replaced the removed trees with the ubiquitous crape myrtle, which completely ruined the conformity of the otherwise uniform row of ‘Marina’ madrone.
The client was billed for it all.
They payed for the removal and replacement of a tree that they had already payed a significant amount of money for, to be maintained properly so that this sort of thing would not happen.
They payed for the removal and replacement of a tree for no justifiable reason . . . just because NO ONE involved could identify the difference between a healthy tree and a nearly dead tree.
In the end, the client payed a lot of money to get their formerly exemplary trees replaced with the wrong trees.

Shady – MSDS – (yes, another sequel)


As the Certified Pesticide Applicator working for the ‘landscape’ company that I wrote about earlier ( ), I assumed several responsibilities pertaining to the pesticides and other chemicals that the ‘landscape’ company used. Among other things, I needed to inventory all the chemicals, monitor their use, submit use reports to the Department of Agriculture for each of the nine counties in which we used these chemicals, and provide MSDS binders for all of the ‘landscape’ company offices and vehicles within their fleet.

MSDS is for ‘Material Safety Data Sheet’. They are actually several pages each. Each MSDS binder contained two copies of the MSDS for every chemical the ‘landscape’ company used, or even had on site, whether it was actually used or not. One MSDS was in American English. The other was in Mexican Spanish.

So every office and every facility and every vehicle in the fleet of the ‘landscape’ company was equipped with an MSDS binder. Every binder was equipped with two copies of the MSDS for every chemical even remotely associated with the ‘landscape’ company. That is a whole lot of MSDS!

It’s the law.

I was required to provide all of this literature in languages spoken by anyone and everyone in the workplace, for all vehicles and facilities. Okay, so we’re clear on all that.

However . . .

There is no law requiring those using chemicals to be literate.

I certainly do not expect everyone to be literate in American English. They do not need to be able to read or write it. That is why there were copies of all the literature in Mexican Spanish. I could translate field notes from those who wrote them in Mexican Spanish. That would not have been a problem.

The problem was that many of those using the chemicals could neither read nor write in ANY language! At first, I though we could improvise. I instructed the accounts managers to inform their technicians to merely write down basic information, like the identification number of a chemical being used, the volume of the chemical used, and so on. Most of it involved copying information from the label, and the location from the work order provided to the accounts managers. It sounded simple enough. Sadly, it was not. Copying such information was too much to expect from those handling these potentially dangerous and polluting chemicals. The literature in the MSDS binders that I had so dutifully printed and provided was merely used as napkins and toilet paper.

By the time I could no longer be affiliated with this particular ‘landscape’ company, I had no idea where all of the inventoried chemicals ended up or how they were applied.


P80310+++++Shady applies to more than trees. It applies to many of those who are hired to maintain trees and landscapes. In my career, I have worked for some of the best arborists, nurserymen and other horticulturists. In fact, some of my colleagues, particularly a landscape designer, two nurserymen and at least three arborists, happen to be legendary. I would say that I don’t mean to brag, but that would be inaccurate. I will write about some of them sometime. This here is not about them.

Sadly, I have had the misfortune to work with some really shady characters and businesses. They may seem to be more professional than the real professionals who take their professions very seriously, but it is all for show. I can tell you all about the brochures, and use all the buzz words, but it is all a lie. From sustainability and planting natives to save water, to diagnosing problems before they become serious, they are all lies. Their objective is to take money; as much money as possible, for as little effort as possible.

Even their contracts were not considered to be sustainable. I once informed an operations manager that the oleanders that were planted below a sign were not the dwarf oleanders that they were supposed to be, and that in order to prevent them from obscuring the sign, they would need to be pruned and deprived of bloom. He was not concerned, and told me that we have no idea who will be taking care of the landscape by the time that happens.

Sure, they would plant garden varieties of native ceanothus, supposedly to save water, but then water them so much that they would rot and die. In fact, they would put so much water on lawns that many established trees would rot and die. They would then charge a lot of money to remove the dead trees, and then charge more money to plant new ones, even though they were responsible for killing the originals.

I was once instructed to go look at a ‘Marina’ madrone that was a street tree in what had been the old Fort Ord, where some of the old homes, buildings and landscapes were in the process of being salvaged or renovated. I was only informed that the tree was in bad condition. Upon arrival, I found the single madrone in a well matched row of others, on a curving street. I was quite annoyed that the tree was so distressed from severe aphid infestation that it could not be salvaged. The subject looked as if it had been healthy for many years, but only recently became infested with aphid within the previous two years. The other ‘horticultural professionals’ at the site should have noticed the problem before the tree had deteriorated as much as it had. Now, removing the tree was going to compromise the conformity of the evenly spaced and well matched row of street trees. I wrote the report prescribing removal.

I needed to visit the site for another problem a few weeks later, and when I drove by where the tree should have been removed, I noticed that it was still there, and very dead. Interestingly, a tree next to it was missing. That made me wonder. I radioed in, and was informed that the tree had been cut down. You can guess where this is going. They had cut down the wrong tree; a perfectly healthy ‘Marina’ madrone. Why didn’t the crew removing the healthy tree question the removal of such a healthy tree next to a dead tree? Who knows. I wrote another report prescribing the removal of the dead tree, which was removed the second time around.

The client was charged for the removal and replacement of BOTH trees, the dead tree, and the healthy tree that was removed by ‘mistake’! The replacement trees were large boxed trees that better matched those that were removed!

For those who do not know, madrones should be planted while young, and will rather efficiently grow to match the others. Boxed trees get too distressed from the transition to recover right away, and wait around for years before they resume growth. By the time a big boxed tree starts to grow, a smaller tree would have already gotten established and grown larger. Boxed madrones are really for those who want to charge more money than they could get for smaller trees that cost much less.

So, the landscape company charged a lot of money to maintain the landscape, so that trees would not die from negligence. Then, they charged not only for the removal and replacement of a tree that died as a result of their negligence, but also a tree that was killed by their stupidity. As if that were not enough, they charged for the the most expensive replacement trees available. They were shadier than the trees that they killed.

Median Landscapes

P80311Medians are nice on the widest of boulevards. They break up the expansiveness of otherwise contiguous lanes. They make a four lane boulevard seem more like a pair of two lane roadways. Berms and other obstacles within medians limit the potential for head on collisions with traffic from opposite sides of the medians. Trees shade and cool some of the pavement when the weather gets warm. Besides all that, medians that are modestly landscaped simply look nice.

Notice that I said ‘modestly’ landscaped. There really is no need to get carried away with landscapes in medians. No one is really looking too closely at them anyway. People are driving past them, and really should be paying more attention to the road ahead rather than what is blooming to the side. Even passengers who are not driving probably are not seeing much of what goes into median landscapes. Color in such landscapes is nice; but no one cares if the color is provided by plants that are expensive and consumptive to maintain, or plants that can more or less survive on their own. It other words, resources should not be wasted on medians. Expensive and consumptive public landscapes should be installed only in parks or other places where they can be seen and appreciated.

Then there are those who must perform the maintenance. It is not safe for them. It will of course be necessary for crews to go out to maintain medians sometimes, and sometimes they might need to block a lane to do what needs to be done; but they should be out there as little possible. They should not be out there deadheading roses, pruning wisteria or planting petunias. They certainly should not be mowing lawns that no one can use! High maintenance features, like formal hedges, fountains, espaliers, trellises, arbors and beds of seasonal annuals, have no business out in medians! Such features require too much attention from those who must interact with traffic to attend to the maintenance.

Turf uses too much water anyway. It is useful in parks and athletic fields, but should be limited to situations where it can actually be useful for something. It is not useful in medians.

Trees are perhaps the best features of median landscapes, but even they are often not well thought out. They should be proportionate to the roadways that the get installed into, and get high enough for adequate clearance above truck traffic. Vertical clearance is not important if small trees can fit between the curbs of wide medians, but such wide medians should probably be outfitted with larger and taller trees. Trees in medians should exhibit complaisant roots that are less likely to damage curbs and pavement.

Landscape design takes serious work; and there is a lot to consider when designing landscapes for medians.