Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nobody ever told me that being a gardener was easy work, and certainly nobody told me it would be lucrative, but... geez. Sometimes I stop in the middle of what I'm doing and take a good look at myself, and wonder where my brain is.

Wednesday. Woof. I was so looking forward to that job, too, working at a new place with its charming little (I thought) native and shady garden. I was psyched because there were some neat little areas, some plants I wasn't totally familiar with, and the lady sounded so sweet on the phone. Turns out she had much more in mind that I bargained for, so I was only able to complete the smallest, most visible portion of the garden within the time frame I gave her. The ground was hard as a rock from lack of rain. If only I'd asked her to turn on some irrigation for that area the night before I came, I could have gotten twice as much accomplished. And, if I hadn't assumed that someone with a native garden would want to save all their matchstick weed, instead of having me pull it all out, I could have done a much better job of estimating.

Yes, pictures beforehand are a very good idea, but they don't always let you in to the customer's mind. Nobody to blame but myself, of course. Live and learn, and learn, and learn.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hey! You out there! Do you know what you're doing??

When people ask me for a low maintenance landscape, they can't have crape myrtles in mind. 'K, can't move on to other subjects 'til I get the crape myrtles off my mind.

If you plant one of these pretty babies where it will grow over your driveway or walkway, and you mind the mess, or, if you let someone design it that way for you, well, dang. What're you going to do?

For a lot of people, the solution is pull out the garden saw. Problem is, the more a plant is pruned, the more it grows.

Crape myrtle is one of the coolest small Southern trees. A lot of trouble, though, with the messy blooms, seed pods and all. Concrete and crape myrtles are not a good combination if you're looking for that low-maintenance yard, unless you don't mind a little mess.

Neat parallel stacks of crape myrtle trimmings have been sitting out for pick-up for a few weeks now, and everywhere I look to see how my neighbors are trimming their trees.

Uhm, why?

You people are killing me with the butchering of these trees.

Please, you don't do this to other trees. Why crapes?

Maybe it's their smooth, hard trunks you envy.

Seriously, I've had people asking me to prune their crapes ever since I've been in business. Different places, different decades, same request. I'll do it, and believe me, I take my time. The older a tree the more you have to look at it, every limb, every branch, all the twigs.

There is a right way to do it. The sooner you look over the tree and prune off limbs that are going to cross and rub against each other, the better. If you want the tree to grow thicker, cut the branches back a little to where the buds grow in a good direction. Cut the seed heads back after the flowers have fallen off in the summer if you want the tree to bloom again, or if the mess from the seeds bums you out. If some(idiot, excuse me)body has planted a beautiful specimen four feet from the corner of the house, branches growing towards the house will need to be pruned.

Why do you do it? I'll often ask a client this to help establish a line of dialog, to understand what they are trying to do with a landscape.
Many answers, but the bottom line is this: know the variety before you plant it. Choose for full-grown size and growth habit (ie upright or spreading) even before you choose the flower color. If you don't want to clean up behind them, don't plant them where this becomes a problem. (Like overhanging walks or drives.)

Geez. Get me off this subject, already.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

If They're Going To Hide The View Don't Plant Them There

Sometimes there is a bit of disconnect between what I think I'll be doing at a client's house, and what I actually find when I show up. Yesterday is a good example.

My Job of the Day was trimming a 'few' crape myrtles, which turning out to be ten trees.

I had a seven foot stepladder to work with.

The lady of the house wanted me to commit 'crape murder', cutting the trees halfway back to a height of ten to twelve feet.

Crape myrtle is a medium sized, spreading tree which drops leaves, blossoms and seed heads through most of the year. In the right location it is a gracious Southern belle. Ideally it has an open structure, with no crossing branches, and a nice, broad U shape in the crotch where the limb meets the trunk. The smoothy, sinewy limbs of a mature tree are sensual, and a thing of beauty if allowed to develop naturally. A tree in the right location should need no more pruning than to remove limbs that cross or grow inward, damaged limbs, and, to encourage fullness or encourage re-flowering, stems no larger than a pencil. Unfortunately, they are often planted so close to houses or driveways or sidewalks that the homeowner feels compelled to keep them tightly contained.

The photo on the left (if it doesn't show up sideways) shows a fairly upright growing tree, 20' tall, at least, with a multitude of branches. Whoever cut them back before didn't understand what they were trying to accomplish, and thick limbs cross other thick limbs, growing together in some places and rubbing badly in others. Limbs grow straight up at a sharp angle around the stubs of earlier cuts, creating a weak structure than could break easily under the weight of heavy, wet blooms. Many limbs grow inward toward the interior of the trees. One tree had inexplicably died half way back on most of the major trunks, and sprouts struggled to catch back up.

Clearly, they needed attention. But agreeing to murder them was going against everything I believe in and preach about as a gardener. Why, why why? Just because I need the work? The day before another client and I had decided to let her crapes go uncut. I had my orders, though, and didn't argue for the trees. Such is my crime.

Stupid, stupid me. Not only did I go against my principles, I did a poor job on the trees. The ladder was too short to be safe, and the extension chain saw I had in the truck was too heavy, I thought, to heft into those 20' trees. I struggled through the job with a set of loppers, and the resulting cuts had a sharp angle, not unlike spears, as a result of reaching up so high. The client started to fidget about how long it was taking, so I did not even do a proper job of thinning out the crossing limbs. The end result was okay, but nothing to be proud of.

If I had dropped by this house the day before to check out the trees first, or if I had taken photos of them when I was there the month before, I would have seen what I was in for and prepared accordingly. I would have had a bigger ladder.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Should've Known By The Smell Of The Chemical Aisle

As a gardener-who-gets-paid for it, I have more of an insider's view of the green industry. Yeah, I know, these days everybody's industry is green, or wants to be, but those of us who mow the grass and plant the trees and sell the chemicals and equipment coined the phrase a long time ago. When I chose this profession over others, my own creed was 'first, do no harm'. I figured gardening was as close to doing no harm as a girl could get. Ever since I've done my best to follow that line, learning as much as I can about what I do, and practicing the least harmful methods to get it done.

In my business you are plied with the easy way to the picture perfect landscape. Throw pre-emergent chemicals in a bed so you don't have to weed as much. Spray shrubs with growth hormones so you don't have to trim as often. Coat roses with powder so the insects and fungi don't leave holes and spots on them. Spray, drench, and dust your way to perfect tomatoes. Keep the lawn emerald green and critter free with weed and feed formulas. Study the picture perfect gardens in the popular magazines, and on the facing page a colorful, cheery ad from the appropriate chemical company will tell us that we, too, can control our mole crickets.

Industry trade magazines, PRO, for instance, or Lawn and Landscape, eventually make their way to even small business owners. They are chock full of really captivating ads, the kind I read from top to bottom. Slick, professional ads, some of the best I've ever seen. Well they should be, as much as the chemical companies they promote spend on them.

Eventually, though, you're forced to make a connection with the stuff they sell and the hazards they represent. Farm workers, exposed. Ground water, polluted. Entire populations of birds, gone. Eventually, the pictures ain't so pretty.

It isn't that I think chemicals are Inherently Bad. It's just that they are foisted upon a follow-the-leader public who is in a pissing contest with itself over Who Has The Greenest Lawn. Do you, by chance, use up the entire bag of weed-n-feed every time you apply it? Just for fun, raise your hand if you have either a half empty bottle of malathion or a half empty bag of Sevin dust on a shelf. If it's been there for more than two years, raise the other hand. Phew! That stinks! Wouldn't it be a nice start if products like that were packaged in single use amounts? That's one place I would opt for more packaging, instead of less.

Rare is the garden center employee who doesn't recommend a chemical solution for a perceived problem. My own clients have shelves that groan under the weight of garden chemicals which they have used once or twice, perhaps, and not always with a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish.

Cheery, aren't I? The chemical companies are a particular sore spot for me. On one hand what they are able to produce is technologically marvelous, and useful. On the other hand they have duped US homeowners into believing their products are necessary for life on earth.

Read the damn label, if you are hell bent on using that stuff, and do what the label says. Better yet, enjoy your garden as it is, bug-eaten leaves and all.

Another Play Day

This blogmania won't let me go.

I have GardenRant to thank for this. They've got it going on, and I learn alot by keeping up with their rants.

Thing is, though, I feel like they were my rants first! I mean, I covered a lot of the same ground when I was writing a column for a couple of local small town newspapers, things like plant blindness and the effects of garden chemicals on amphibians and bad mulch and the politics of small engines, and anything else that makes gardening less than the clean blissful euphoric chore it should be. I was supposed to be writing a gardening column, at least that's how I sold it to the editor, but let's face it, some gardening subjects are done to death. I mean, I dutifully covered crape murder, and the seven principles of xeriscape kept me going through the winter. But there is so much else to discuss!

For the record, I am a professional gardener, which means I get paid to do it, which is because mama and daddy wanted a professional something in the family, and gardening is a profession even if it's not medicine or law or teaching. If I were independently wealthy I would garden for free, but since I am a gardener I am not wealthy, so-o...

Hence the name of this blog. Since I
spend a good part of my time on my hands and knees, I am not without attitude. Usually, it's good. Digging and pulling and pruning is peaceful work, no one bothers me much, and I can get lost in a micro world of leaves and insects. Towards the end of summer, though, when the heat index is in the hundred 'teens every day, I do get my surly streaks. And having to stop for groceries after I've been soaked from sweat or rain is humbling. A sense of humor is most important when you're in a public place with dirty knees and fingernails. I keep wanting to design the perfect-for-me tee shirt that would say something like "pardon my dirt, i'm a gardener" or "stand back - gardeners stink" (not that I do, usually) on the back, so the person standing behind me in line will understand.

I've been wanting to write again, and don't always want to jump in to GardenRant's conversations, so maybe this is the best way to get it out of my system. Today is a clear, cold and windy winter day here in North Florida, and I have some free time on my hands. Here goes!