Monday, April 16, 2012

Reader's Digest Indigestion

I have been an avid Reader's Digest for over decades. I have been blessed to have my mother-in-law give us a gift subscription to RD every year for the last ten years. With my limited time to leisurely read, RD is perfect to take with me to my bath at the end of the day, and then over the month, I am able to read RD page by page till the next one lands in my mailbox.

The RD’s new feature, “13 Things Your _________ Won’t Tell You” is one of my favorite reads in the magazine now. With a different career or industry featured each month, I have learned something and at times, been horrified by the other blatant and honest responses the various industries have submitted.
Being a horticulturist/landscape expert, I was professionally disappointed in May’s issue of “13 Things Your Landscaper Won’t Tell You.” While half of the responses were good insights and tips for readers; Number 4,5, and 11 either provided misinformation or only half of the facts. With the other numbered points – some of them great selling points for the benefits of hiring a landscaper - if a landscaper doesn’t tell their clients Number 1, 3, 6, 12, or 20, then the landscaper doesn’t have their clients’ best interests at heart and shouldn’t be hired.

What am I talking about?

#1: Ditch the mower bag. Clippings do add nitrogen to the soil and can reduce the need for fertilizing is true and important to remember, but that’s not the dirty little secret of landscape maintenance. The real fact is that landscape maintenance lawnmowers can be the reason that clients, with maintenance contracts each month, have weeds in their lawn.

Helpful tip: Big question to ask before hiring a potential landscape service: Do you blow, sterilize, or clean off your equipment after each lawn mowing and pruning?

Helpful tip: Leaving the grass clippings on the lawn and fertilizing during the summer contributes to your lawn getting thatch. Grass clippings decompose and add nitrogen to soil. Fertilize in spring and fall, then don’t bag the grass clippings in the summertime. If you need to green up your lawn in summer, use an iron-only product, not nitrogen.

Helpful tip: If you have a severe weed problem, bagging your lawn clippings will keep the weed seeds from going back into the soil to re-germinate again next season.
What #1 should have said: “The reason your weed-free lawn (before you hired me) now has weeds is that my crew doesn’t have time to clean their equipment off after each mowing so weed seeds are spread from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood.”
 #3: Don’t fill every inch of your space with plants and flowers. The real problem is that homeowners expect “instant landscapes” instead of waiting a short period for the plants to mature. Weeds aren’t an issue with filling every space – in fact – you’ll have less weeds because there will be more competition for water and nutrients from the ornamentals. Landscapers make their profit on installing more plants than is needed.
Helpful tip: Find out the mature size of the plant. Divide the mature width of the plant by half for installing on center and to determine the amount of plants needed for the size of the landscape bed.
What #3 should have said: Except for specimens and standard plants, you can take the estimated plants in your proposal and cut amount in half. Spaced appropriately you’ll have a more natural-looking, more water-conserving, low-maintenance, healthier landscape, within a year.
What #3 should have said: “Don’t ask me to overplant your landscape beds. By next year, you’ll be paying me more for pruning and chemical spraying that you didn’t want because of competition stress, insects and disease.”
#4: That “pretty”red mulch you love? This tip insinuates that red mulch is bad for the enviroment. Not all red dyed mulches have arsenic! The only mulches with arsenic in it are the CCA (chromate copper arsenate) wood mulches from plywood material. Not all red mulches are from CCA woods. In fact, the process of using CCA wood was made illegal in all states in 2003. Read the mulch bag label to find out where the wood in the mulch originated.

Helpful tip: Use organic mulches from virgin wood or trees from your own property or other locations that you know where they came from. If dyed with oxidized rust (harmless) or food coloring (think about your dog’s red food), they are safe. Look for any indoor or outdoor products you need with low VOC's. Wood mulch from recycled palettes, construction, or salvaged wood contains high percentage of arsenic even with food-safe dyes.

Worth knowing: Arsenic can be found naturally in rainfall and soils, or depending on location, also in major urban areas with history of agriculture and stormwater runoff.

What is CCA Wood?
CCA Treated Wood Poster 
CCA Research On Red Mulch
What #4 should have said: “If the mulch is the most colorful thing in your landscape, you need to rethink your landscape design.” Mulch should be the aesthetic framework to your landscape picture. It should coordinate with your home design and flower colors. There are landscape design situations where red mulch works, there are many more landscape designs that red mulch does not work.
#5: Hate bagging leaves? You don’t have to. This can be true with understory or tropical trees with small leaves. If the tree is a large oak, elm, sycamore, or other tree species, or you have multiple trees within a close proximity, or you fertilize your lawn frequently with nitrogen applications, then you need to bag those leaves. Year after year, leaf litter can accumulate and decompose, block sunlight, increase soil over important surface roots, increase elevation of yard to create unlevel areas higher than nearby sidewalks and driveways, and cause thatch.
What #5 should have said: Hate bagging leaves? Use your mulching mower and bagger or reverse your leaf blower to suck up leaves during autumn and winter. Use your own bagged leaves in your compost pile and later reuse as mulch or soil amendments for your landscape beds in spring and summer.
#6: Send a sample of your soil to a local agricultural agency to have it tested. Soil samples can be taken to your local agricultural agency but they will usually only test it onsite for pH. Soil analysis to test for nutrient content and fertilization recommendations must be shipped or taken to a professional or land grant university soil lab. There are no soil tests for nitrogen calculations. So you are testing for macro-nutrients of phosphorus, potassium, sulfer, and micro-nutrients that are important for plants to be able to absorb the other nutrients.

Worth knowing: Mulch does not change the pH of soils and soil pH will always revert back to its’ original state. Unless you want to continually have to amend soils to correct pH (not referring to vegetable gardens which need correct soil pH), it’s better to work with the pH you have and select plants that will thrive in that soil condition.
What #6 should have said: Soil pH affects the way plants absorb nutrients. Before I install a landscape or fertilize, ask me to take a pH test of your soil from a local County Extension office or agricultural agency to determine right plant selection for location and correct fertilization applications.
#11: Watch out for a gorgeous plant called purple loosestrife. This tip could be important where loosestrife is invasive and still legal to sell. But loosestrife is illegal or listed as invasive in 34 states. Invasive plants differ from region to region, state to state so naming one plant when there are hundreds of invasive species is not helpful.

Worth knowing: Exotic and native trees or grasses (like bamboo) with underground rhizome root systems can spread hundreds of feet, or more near water bodies.

Check out the Exotic Pest Plant Council’s website for your state to review a landscape proposal or the plants in your yard.
What #11 should have said: Ask me if any of the plants I have on my landscape proposal are invasive or will take over your yard. You dont want the new landscape species to take over your yard and become a high maintenance issue or an issue where you have to apologize for making a problem for your neighbors.
Here are some other “things” your landscaper won’t tell you:
  • "We’ll send the most knowledgeable person to sell you our services, but we’re going to have to send an uncertified, hourly paid, member of the crew to mow your lawn and trim your plants but they don’t know how to identify diseases or insect problems. "
  • Helpful tip: Hire only certified and licensed contractors with crews that are knowledgeable about pest identification. It would be better for you and your landscape if you could hire a landscape professional to come by your house once a month to inspect your property and tell you plants are healthy or find a pest problem before it becomes a major expense and you need expensive renovation.
  • "When I say something needs done – like routine pesticide spraying – I’m not going to tell you that there is no pest preventative out there and routine pesticide applications kill beneficial bugs that could help you easily manage your minor pest issues."
  • Helpful tip: Ask your landscaper if there's an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) control that will be effective for your pest problem.  Declining turf and plants should only be spot-treated after determination pests are still in landscape. Most pests appear and disappear quickly and there is no need to treat with chemicals. Make sure any damaged areas of turf are replaced quickly so that weeds do not germinate and take over.
  • "When you ask me to perform certain tasks, like ‘crape murder,’ you don’t believe me when I tell you that it doesn’t need to be done. Now your crape myrtle looks like a dead stick for months, grows out in ugly, long, branches, suckers more around the trunk, and if it blooms normally in June, now it will bloom months later, and you paid me to do it."
  • Helpful tip: Unless it’s a topiary or bonsai plant, there is no need to prune plants on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. Routine pruning causes die-back and increases stress of the plant. Crape myrtles only need selective pruning if necessary for air circulation, improper direction of limbs, or to cut off seed pods. If a crape myrtle is hitting your house, it’s in the wrong place. No need to hat-rack dormant crape myrtles at the end of January – we don’t hack off the top of other dormant trees like maples, sycamores, or elm trees in early spring, do we?
  • "I’m not going to tell you that the fertilizer we apply too often and around your lakefronts and common areas during the summertime increases the algae bloom in your lakes and retention ponds making the top of the lake scummy; because you then hire us to help clear the algae up by spraying expensive chemicals."
  • Helpful tip: Install native wetland plant species around lakes and retention ponds to absorb excessive fertilizer run-offs and reduce algae blooms. Then show landscaping companies where the 10’ – 15’ buffer zone around lakefront and retention pond area where no fertilizer is to be applied at all. Your lake will be healthier, less maintenance, more natural, and more abundant with birds and wildlife.
The rest of the Reader’s Digest article's "13 Things” your landscaper won’t tell you are either good design tips, proper planting practices, or benefits to the homeowner in dollar value or beauty for their landscape, so why wouldn’t they tell you? A true professional landscaper knows the latest information in best management practices, beneficial and environmental pest control, and how to create a beautiful, low-maintenance landscape for their clients, and they can be trusted.
Homeowners should know how to make sure they get a licensed landscaper who cares about the environment and knows his industry well. They should ask and check references on anyone they interview and remember, the lowest price doesn’t ensure quality – you will get what you pay for. My clients' trust is very important to me and while I don't do landscaping maintenance, I help HOA communities and private clients with their landscaping contracts, issues, and designs.
I sadly doubt that I will hear a response from Liz Vaccariello, the Readers Digest editor-in-chief. Once articles are printed, there’s rarely interest in rehashing content, especially if it’s incorrect. The last time I wrote to a company regarding horticultural misinformation, Snapple advertising agency showed a Chinese panda bear eating the lucky 'bamboo' plant out of the porcelain pot from the middle of the board room desk. It was supposed to be funny (and it was, sort of) except that lucky 'bamboo' that florists and nurseries sell in this country is not real bamboo at all, but poisonous dracaena sanderiana that, if fed to a panda at a zoo by an unknowing person, could hurt them. The marketing company for Snapple never thought to make sure that the "plot" was feasible or correct, and obviously, Snapple thought the marketing company knew what it was doing. Luckily, I didn't hear of any pandas being hurt and, of course, "Don't Feed The Animals" is posted everywhere at zoos.

The Reader’s Digest article "13 Things… series" is a little bit more important and should be reliable and fact-based. Homeowners and everyone who needs to hire a landscaping maintenance service across the country need to really know the facts so they can make good decisions on the lawn care. 

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