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 – ?!

This is how appreciated camellias bloom.

I seriously can not think of a title for this one. All that comes to mind is too objectionable. Writing about it will not be much easier.

It began with a few mature camellias that were in need of grooming a few months ago. They were sufficiently shabby that I did not mind pruning them at the wrong time. Ultimately, almost all of what was groomed out was necrotic anyway, so did not compromise bloom significantly. I was pleased that the eventual bloom would be better presented against a neater background.

Then, I was informed that several of the same camellias would need to be removed to facilitate the installation of a new sidewalk. That would have been useful information before I put such meticulous effort into grooming them. It was briefly annoying; but I did not fret long. I planned to recycle the camellias, and realized that I would have groomed them in the process anyway.

At the time, there was no rush. I thought that the camellias would get to bloom prior to relocation. In the meantime, someone else removed a rotting madrone stump nearby. I thinned and groomed a sloppy filbert into an impressively tailored specimen. Immediate relocation of the camellias was not yet a priority. We had not even identified the precise location of the sidewalk.

Then, there was another disappointment. The project was unexpectedly scheduled immediately after another nearby project that would be completed in only a few days. It would have been more expensive for the crew to leave after finishing the primary project, and then return for the secondary project. I might salvage the camellias, but I knew I could not salvage their bloom.

That is not the worst of it. After planning to relocate the five or so offending camellias on Wednesday or Thursday, I was informed on Tuesday morning that three had already been removed by the backhoe operator who had removed old concrete pavement from the other nearby project. By removed, I mean they got torn mercilessly from the ground and completely destroyed.

One of two relocated camellias demonstrates how mature the three that were needlessly destroyed were, although they were not so broad. That is a shovel handle in front.

No other excavation was done. Asphalt pavement and a curb that need to be removed remain intact. The unwanted ivy is just as unwanted and intact as it was before this weird incident, as if nothing happened. The craters where the camellias got gouged out are barely visible. The only other damage was the mutilation of my well groomed filbert, which was not even in the way.

It was as if the camellias were targeted. Two survived only because someone arrived on site to stop the backhoe operator from destroying them also. There was no regard for any associated subterranean infrastructure, such as an irrigation system and electrical landscape lighting. I suspect that the filbert was mangled just because it was too close to one of the targeted camellias.

I tried to conceal my anger as I frantically relocated the two surviving camellias, while the backhoe operator who so needlessly and blatantly destroyed the other three worked with the crew at the other project just a few yards away. I tried to convince myself that the incident was merely an honest mistake. I doubt that the backhoe operator intentionally targeted the camellias.

As I finished, and was calmly leaving the site, something happened that made me realize that perhaps some of my anger was not completely unfounded. I still do not believe that the backhoe operator was intentionally malicious. I realized instead that the backhoe operator, regardless of his intentions, should most certainly not be operating such potentially dangerous machinery.

From where the crew was taking a break, and the backhoe operator seemed to be enjoying a cigarette, a voluminous and aromatic cloud of marijuana smoke drifted to where I could smell it.

What these guys do prior to or after work is none of my business, as long as it does not compromise their safety or rationality. If someone wants to go off and use their so-called medication in private during the day, he should do so discretely and moderately. Someone who can generate such a voluminous cloud of smoke with no regard to what others think about it has a problem.

Someone took the initiative to destroy my formerly well tailored filbert, but not to remove the carcass. I could have left it to regenerate, but I do not want to look at it anymore.

Horridculture – That Blows!

P91218-1Blowers put the ‘blow’ in ‘mow, blow and go’. They really blow! The only power tool used by so-called ‘gardeners’ that is more detestable to the rest of us is the power hedge shears, and that claim is contestable. Some consider blowers to be worse because they are so obnoxiously noisy, and generate so much dust. Some municipalities have outlawed the use of the noisiest sorts.

The mess on the hood and windshield in the picture above was not actually caused by blowers. The picture below shows the bridge that was power washed above. Oops. I should have been suspicious that no one wanted that parking space. Anyway, this picture was just too funny to not share; . . . and I happen to lack pictures of the sorts of dusty messes that blowers can stir up.

Where I lived in town, the so-called ‘gardeners’ who ‘maintained’ the apartment buildings on either side used blowers. There is a noise ordinance there, but we never bothered to enforce it. We did not want to interfere with what needed to be done. There was a lot of pavement, and we wanted it to be kept clean. We could not expect it all to be quietly swept like I swept mine.

To the north, the blowers were either off or on full-throttle. There was nothing in between. The cars in the carport collected all the dust that was stirred up. If the door to the washroom was left open, debris got blown in, and the pilot light for the only water heater in the building got blown out. Most of the debris got blown to the southeast corner, and under a fence into my yard.

The same happened to the south, but the water heater was less exposed, and there was much more debris. The largest valley oak around lived there, and dropped leaves for several months. I replaced the kickboard at the base of the fence in their northeast corner a few times, but it was just as regularly kicked out and removed so that debris could continue to be blown under!

In other neighborhoods, so-called ‘gardeners’ are notorious for blowing debris out into roads, where it gets dispersed by traffic. Even if they do not blow it away just to become a problem somewhere else, they are likely to blow too much of it into shrubbery, along with any mixed litter. It accumulates faster than it decomposes to benefit the soil and roots below. What a mess!P91218-2

Horridculture – Security Clearance

P90619A well designed landscape should be an asset, not a liability. It should beautify and enhance the function of outdoor space, while harmonizing with associated indoor spaces. In order to continually do so, even a very well designed landscape requires maintenance so that it does not become so overgrown that it becomes unsightly and obstructive.
Some landscapes require less maintenance than others. There happens to be very few that can be allowed to grow wild, but only because their components are allowed the space they need to do what they do naturally. It is not fair to incorporate plants merely because they are appealing, and then expect them to conform to unnatural constraints without some degree of intervention.
As an arborist, I often see trees that must be pruned for clearance from roofs, gutters, walls, windows, lighting, utility cables and roadways. It is normal for trees and large shrubbery to encroach into such features. Furthermore, it should not be much of a problem if such trees and shrubbery are maintained properly.
The landscape in the picture above contains several desirable plants that could, with a bit of effort, be maintained within the very limited space; New Zealand tea tree, Chinese wisteria, golden bamboo, Heavenly bamboo (Nandina), star jasmine, Spanish lavender, fleabane, oxalis and a small juniper. Some of these might not have been identified correctly, and there may be more in there, but it is impossible to distinguish from this picture.
The golden bamboo and Chinese wisteria are probably a bit excessive. However, there is a nice arbor above that would be ideal for the Chinese wisteria if someone would be willing to put the effort into pruning and containing it. It takes serious commitment to contain golden bamboo, but it is possible, and might perhaps be justifiable to retain a more tolerable quantity of its handsome form outside the window that it is in front of.
One of the most obvious problems with this landscape is that it is so crowded that the various components are barely indistinguishable from each other, and lack the space to perform as they would like to. This is about clearance though. As you can see, the collective plant material has been pruned only to maintain clearance from around the lower part of the doorway, and from the pavement of the parking lot. So much more is needed.
Anyone getting out of or into a car parked next to this landscape must duck under the New Zealand tea tree or Chinese wisteria. The upper part of the doorway is not much better. Vertical clearance needs to be restored and maintained. The New Zealand tea tree seems to have some serious potential anyway, and would likely be very appealing if pruned to expose the main trunk and limbs.
Furthermore, there are windows behind all that mess! Unless someone really wants privacy and dislikes curtains, those windows should be exposed to allow sunlight in. All this obscuring vegetation darkens and cools the interior, which increases reliance on electrical lighting and some sort of heating. Besides, it just looks trashy.
Not only does the vegetation inhibit sunlight coming into the building, but it also inhibits light coming out from the building. The lighting that is barely visible at the top of the pillars flanking the doorway is there to illuminate the parking lot at night. Another doorway outside the left margin of this picture, is for ATM machines, so is outfitted with security lighting, which is almost inoperative because of the lack of pruning for adequate clearance.

Falling Leaves Get Into Everything

51028thumbEven if they had been clean since they were emptied out last winter, gutters (eaves-troughs) near deciduous trees will eventually need to be cleaned again as they collect falling leaves through autumn. Leaves may continue to fall for several weeks, and will fall more abundantly as they get dislodged by rain.

Too many fallen leaves clog gutters and downspouts. If too much debris is left in downspouts for too long, it rots and settles so that it can be very difficult to dislodge. If rainwater can not adequately drain through gutters and downspouts, it can only flow over the edges of gutters. The falling water can erode the ground below, and splatter mud onto nearby walls.

This may not seem like much of a problem, but the reason that gutters and downspouts drain rainwater to the ground gently is to keep the walls dry and clean. Damp walls are likely to rot, especially if water splatters into basement vents. This is why early American homes that lacked expensive gutters were often outfitted with dense ‘foundation’ shrubbery or perennials to soften the splatter.

Leaves that accumulate in the valleys of the roof (where perpendicular slopes meet) should also be removed. Debris can also collect on the upslope side of a chimney. Homes with room additions have more awkward spots to collect debris than unaltered homes. Flat roofs and parapet roofs are of course very likely to collect debris under trees, and may need to be raked more than once.

Vines should not be allowed to climb onto roofs. They can tear apart roofing material, collect debris, and promote rot. Likewise, limbs of trees and large shrubbery should not be allowed to touch roofs, gutters, or even walls. Their motion in the breeze is abrasive to shingles, gutters, paint and siding. They can literally grind off shingles and break terracotta tiles.

Tree limbs should also be kept clear of chimneys. Even during rainy weather, hot exhaust from a chimney can dry and ignite limbs that get too close. Pine, cypress, cedar, and palms with beards (accumulated dead fronds) are very combustible.


P71104Gardening is not for everyone. If you are reading this, you probably enjoy gardening. There are many more people who simply are not interested in it. Some tend to their own gardens in a basic manner just to keep their homes looking good. Most hire gardeners to maintain their landscapes for them.

I use the term ‘maintain’ very lightly. What they really do is keep the lawn from getting too deep, and other plants from getting too overgrown. Very few really care how they accomplish these basic requirements.

I could go into the detail about how they brag about saving water while wasting enough to drown trees, or how they shear everything within reach into nondescript . . . whatever they get shorn into, or how most problems that arborists encounter in their work are caused by gardeners. Instead, I am just gong to talk briefly about two examples of the lack of expertise or concern or both exhibited by gardeners who maintain the landscape at a small office building in my neighborhood.

There are a few healthy ‘Prairie Fire’ flowering crabapple trees in this landscape. A few years ago, they bloomed spectacularly! The following year, they were about to do the same thing. They were quite healthy, with plump buds that were swelling nicely as winter became spring. Just as the buds were about to pop, and the bright pink of the flowers within was becoming visible between the bud scales, the gardeners arrived and pollarded all the trees. Yes, they pruned away ALL of the blooming stems, cut them up, and disposed of them, leaving bare trunks and limbs. There was not bloom.

The trees recovered through the year, and produced plenty of stems to bloom the following spring. Again, the buds swelled at the end of winter, only to be completely removed when the trees were pollarded just before bloom. The trees were not even pollarded correctly. It was quite a hack job. This happens every year now. The trees never bloom.

A stone retaining wall below this landscape was well landscaped with rosemary hanging down from the top, and Boston ivy climbing up from below. The two will eventually be redundant to each other as the rosemary grows enough to cover the wall without the help of the Boston ivy, but for now, they work well together.

The Boston ivy was just beginning to show autumn color. It happens to be one of the few plants that colors reliably in our mild climate, with bright yellow, orange, red and burgundy. It would have been spectacular, but, like the budded stems of the flowering crabapples, all the Boston ivy was cut down to the ground. All the foliage that was just about to do what it does best was completely removed and disposed of.

There is certainly nothing wrong with exposing parts of the handsome stone wall. The rosemary still cascades from above to break up the expansiveness of the wall. The problem is the untimely removal of something that should have been an asset for the landscape, rather than just a liability. The Boston Ivy could have been cut back in winter, after displaying its spectacular autumn foliar color. Professionals should know how to accomplish this.

The property manager pays a lot of money for this sort of nonsense. Hey, we all know mistakes happen; but this is inexcusable. Seriously, people who know nothing about gardening could do better than these so called professionals.