Attracting Pollinators in the Garden

You may have noticed how much pollen is in the air now that temperatures are warming and spring is in full bloom. If you suffer from spring allergies like I do, you’ve probably been dealing with a runny nose and eyes, fits of sneezes, and other unpleasant side effects of the burgeoning season. Indeed, pollen gets on a lot of people’s nerves. It can seem like an obstacle preventing us from enjoying spring to the fullest, but, ironically, spring needs pollen to thrive. More specifically, spring needs pollinators—animals such as bees and butterflies that carry pollen from one plant to another and aid in plant reproduction—to sustain all of its famous colorful blooms. Pollinators support the building blocks of all ecosystems, and they are essential to environmental health. Humans and animals alike need them to survive—the least us human gardeners can do is create pollinator-friendly gardens. So take an allergy pill, power through your sniffles, and consider these tips for attracting pollinators to your yard:

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Don’t “DIY” Your Hardscape

Now that endless tutorials and how-to guides are available online for free, DIY home improvement is more popular than it’s ever been. There are plenty of good reasons to go for a do-it-yourself kind of project, and the most pressing of those reasons is money. Many homeowners find their properties in dire need of hardscape upgrades, but they understandably don’t want to invest thousands of dollars into hiring a team of professionals. However, hardscapes are a lot more complicated than a garden bed or a lawn. When a professional undertakes a hardscape project, they consider a long list of factors before they even begin drafting a design. Building a successful hardscape feature requires a lot of skill, time, and labor. If you want your hardscape to last, it may ultimately be worth it to invest in a professional hardscaping team. Besides, a well-constructed hardscape can add significant value to your property, making it worth the initial splurge. Here are some more reasons to forego a DIY hardscape:

Hardscape

Maintain a Timeline and a Budget

Life happens. Homeowners are often busy with work, school, childcare, and other preoccupations that make it difficult to invest a lot of time into a big hardscaping project. DIY hardscapes often take much longer than homeowners anticipate after all of the planning and troubleshooting they require, and plenty of amateur hardscapers end up going way over the budget they originally intended. Professional crews, on the other hand, maintain a strict to-do list and can typically guarantee a reasonable timeline to a finished project. All the while, the homeowner is free to continue working, taking care of family issues, and attending to anything else that comes up. Further, professionals stick close to their estimates and are already aware of how much labor/materials cost. When you agree to pay $10,000 on a hardscaping project, that’s what you’re going to pay—full stop.

More Flexibility in Hardscape Design

Amateurs are perpetually limited by their skill level. Simply put, it takes many hours of intense training for professional hardscapers to get to the skill level that they’re at. Amateurs might have big plans for a hardscape design, like adding in water features or lights, but they’ll ultimately be limited by the kind of special expertise that electric/water features require. And any mistake made during a hardscape install can be debilitating to the overarching design. A property with a botched patio or fire pit is unappealing to most. So, unless you are confident in your own expertise, it’s safest to leave it up to the professionals.

Access to Industry Standard Materials

Professionals have ample access to the most durable and quality materials on the market, and most have deals with manufacturers that allow them to buy these materials at a discounted price. Amateurs are not often afforded the same discount, and, most of the time, they don’t have access to the same standard of materials, or adequate knowledge about which materials are best considering the possibility of erosion, wear and tear, and climate related damage. And materials are key—the right materials help distinguish a thorough job from a rushed one.

Safety First!

This one is too often overlooked. Professionals are trained in hardscaping safety standards: how best to lift heavy blocks; what kind of precautions should be taken before wiring a light; how to avoid utility lines; and how to minimize environmental impact. Amateurs can easily underestimate how dangerous building a hardscape can be. In turn, they might hurt themselves or cause expensive damage to their property. Remember, when you’re paying a team of professionals, you’re paying for their labor *and* their expertise—and expertise is priceless.

Throwback Gardening: Timeless Practices

In this day and age, new technologies are changing the way that people garden and digitizing plant science. There are cellphone apps that can instantly identify plants, help you plot, figure out your soil pH, and keep track of watering schedules for you. There are also highly sophisticated irrigation systems, mowers, and even planting pots on the market—but all of these newfangled gadgets are derivatives of what came before them. For many thousands of years, gardeners have been expanding on basic practices that are both timeless and amazingly effective. Here are some tried and true ancient gardening practices that still hold up today, smart phones be damned!

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Coffee in the Garden

Happy National Joe Day! For many of us, having a cup (or five) of joe is an essential part of our morning routines. Coffee helps allay drowsiness, grumpiness, and laziness; it calls us to action and fuels the fires of productivity. But, beyond its usefulness as a caffeinated beverage, coffee is also a valuable gardening resource. Gardeners have long been using coffee grounds as a component in compost, fertilizer, and mulch. Some even suggest that coffee grounds can deter pests like ants from damaging crops and flowers. If you have a lot of leftover coffee grounds and want to try putting them to use in the garden, here are some tips of where to start:

Coffee in the Garden

Photo by Sami Keinanen.

Coffee and Compost

In general, coffee grounds contain a healthy amount of nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium, plus small amounts of other nutrients than can benefit plant growth. Quality and nutrient density varies depending on the type of coffee, and so gardeners often chose to use high-quality, organic coffee for their plants rather than generic brands.

Incorporating coffee grounds into a fertilizer or compost pile is easy and normally requires little preparation. You can sprinkle clean grounds right on top of existing soil (and mix well) or on top of a compost pile. For composting purposes, coffee is considered a “green” component, meaning it must be balanced out with sufficient “brown” components, like dried leaves and wood scraps. Using coffee this way is widely regarded as safe and effective, and it is much more useful than throwing pounds of coffee grounds into the trash every week! For more on composting, see our how-to guide.

Coffee and Mulch

Inundating plants with large quantities of coffee grounds can do more harm than good. Coffee grounds are typically highly acidic and can cause mold outbreaks if used in excess. However, a light smattering of grounds mixed with other organic material can make a great base for mulch. Start by mixing a handful of coffee grounds into a bucket of compost or leaf mold, and then spread the mixture liberally over plant beds. The nutrient-rich coffee grounds should mix well with the other material, and provide a healthful covering for plants. If your plants are highly sensitive to acid, and you’re worried adding acidic coffee grounds to your soil might hurt them, consider mixing a cup of agricultural lime or hardwood ashes into your grinds before adding them to compost/leaf mold.

For gardeners whose soils are highly alkaline (low in acid), adding coffee grounds directly to the soil could help neutralize it without creating any adverse effects.

 

On this National Joe Day, give thanks to America’s favorite caffeinated beverage and the various ways it is used for our betterment—including in America’s gardens!

High Altitude Gardening and Landscaping

Though the Appalachian Mountains are not quite as formidable as the Rockies, their ancient ridges still boast impressive altitudes. The highest mountain in The Blue Ridge is the 6,683 feet tall Mount Mitchell, only some three hours south of Roanoke in North Carolina. Locally, the highest peak in Roanoke County is Poor Mountain, which towers over the valley at 3,928 feet. Nearby, there are even higher peaks—the tallest mountain in Virginia, Mount Rogers (5,729’), is about two hours south, near the state line.

In Roanoke and across The Blue Ridge, most people settle in the valley, but some chose to make their homes higher up—where changes in altitude drastically affect the climate. At high altitudes, average temperatures are colder, the air is thinner, the even the composition of the soil is markedly different. Thus, mountain gardening and landscaping require a special set of skills and know-how. For local landscapers, knowledge of mountain climates is essential to serving a customer base comprised of mountain-dwellers and valley folk alike.

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Early Spring Gardening Tips

It’s officially the first day of spring! Here in Roanoke, Virginia, the new season is already showing off some of its color. Tulips and winter jasmine are blooming in garden beds, and a few trees are producing bright green buds and curled flowers—sure signs that the landscape is coming back to life. Still, winter has no intention of letting go just yet. A formidable snowfall is in the forecast, and more winter weather is possible this weekend, despite the seasonably warm days we’ve been having the last few weeks. As the weather continues to inspire surprise and frustration, many of us are wondering when we’ll have the chance to work on our spring gardens. After the snow clears and the temperature rises, there will be plenty of prep to do for the long and fruitful season ahead. Here are some tips on where to start:

Early spring gardening tips

Photo by Florian Lehmuth.

Shaping Your Spring Garden

Before you start planting and reworking your garden, you should do a thorough clean-up. Winter weather likely knocked debris into your yard. Left alone, that debris could harbor unwelcome pests and plant diseases. Be sure to pick up rotted leaves, tree branches, and other kinds of clutter.

You can now start planting fruit trees and shrubs, potatoes, and shade trees and vines. Cold-hardy plants like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, as well as plants started inside can now be transplanted outside into vegetable beds.

Early spring is a great time for pruning. You can prune flowering trees and shrubs like crepe myrtle and butterfly bush and cut back ornamental grasses. If you have a compost pile, now is a good time to turn the compost and prepare it for distribution.

There is a lot of garden planning that needs to be done in the early spring. On cold days, consider taking inventory of your garden tools and replacing any that need replaced. You can also start ordering summer fruit and vegetable seeds to be planted later in the season. And if you haven’t yet, order garden soil, mulch, and compost.

Broadleaf weeds like clover, dandelions, and chick weed run rampant in yards and gardens this time of year. Nip the problem in the bud and start controlling for these pesky infiltrators now, before they choke out your spring harvest. If pulling weeds, pull them at the root so they don’t regrow. If using a chemical solution, read environmental warning labels and be aware of the potential contamination risks that come with using herbicides.

The weather is likely to change considerably over the next couple of months, with gradually warmer days intermingling with cold, winter-like spells. To protect vulnerable young plants, consider keeping roots safe by putting a soil covering (ie. mulch) over your beds. Mulching beds can help keep root temperatures steady, even as ground temperatures fluctuate.

Unfortunately, March typically means it’s time to start mowing again. Ample moisture and warmer temperatures will bring the grass back to life in no time and, to keep it looking green and healthy, you have to trim it regularly. If you haven’t used your mower in months, it’s probably worth taking it for a test run to ensure it doesn’t need any pre-season maintenance.

The Landscaping Industry Needs Women Landscapers

A passion for gardening and landscaping knows no gender bias. Both men and women enjoy working in the yard, planning projects, and beautifying the natural features of their homes. However, the landscaping industry—and many other “Green” industries—have historically been dominated by men, both in management and on ground crews. Now, there is evidence to suggest that this norm is slowly but surely changing. An increasing number of women are joining green industries and involving themselves in every tier of landscape design and management. Some are bright-eyed young professionals with college degrees in subjects like horticulture and business; others are amateurs with a passion for gardening and design; and still more are career women with diverse job experiences. Wherever they come from, women entering male-dominated industries face unjust challenges. They may be paid less than male colleagues, harassed by coworkers, or discriminated against by other professionals and clients. Despite these obstacles, women landscapers contribute creativity, insight, expertise, communication skills, business savvy, and invaluable perspective to the jobs they do. Through and through, they have proved their worth. Our full support is long overdue.

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Managing Back Pain in The Garden

Spending time in the garden can be relaxing, therapeutic, and a great form of light-intensity exercise. But don’t let the “light” in light intensity fool you. Despite its slow pace, gardening is strenuous, and the amount of bending, reaching, and crouching it requires can cause back injuries. Elderly people and people with preexisting back conditions are most at risk of developing back pain when weeding, pruning, and planting; but even young and healthy gardeners can experience soreness and inflammation following a long day of working outdoors. It is important that all gardeners take the necessary steps to protect their backs from injury while they ready their plots for spring. The key to safe gardening practices is understanding what gardening tasks employ what muscles, and paying close attention to detail—a small change in posture or a simple pre-gardening stretch can make a huge world of difference. Here are some tips of managing the potential for back pain in the garden:

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Hiring Tips for Landscapers

Roanoke Landscapes is currently in the process of hiring for our spring busy season, meaning we are parsing through a mountain’s worth of applications, scheduling interviews, and making tough decisions about who to add to our team. We experience all of the hiring problems that are typical of the landscaping industry. Since we hire seasonal workers, we have trouble finding consistent, dedicated candidates that have strong employment and driving records. Seasonal employment opportunities attract plenty of folks who are somewhat wayward—maybe they’ve never worked in any industry for longer than a few months, or they have a poor driving record, or a lack of reliable references. We’ve had to ask ourselves: how can we attract seasonal employees who will show up on time, do good work, and grow as we grow? Because we value excellent work, we strive to give our workforce excellent incentives, and we streamline the hiring process so that only the top candidates are interviewed and, ultimately, offered the job. Here’s some tips we recommend:

Start with a Strong Job Posting

Many green industry job postings on sites like craigslist or indeed are woefully unspecific. They may not give a clear description of the job, the preferred qualifications, and the essential duties that must be fulfilled. Many also fail to mention paygrade and employee incentives; that is, what the company is prepared to offer the right candidate. Generally, the more specific the job posting, the more qualified candidates will apply. Serious candidates will also want to know about the kind of company they’re applying for. They’ll be curious about the paygrade, any benefits the company offers, and opportunities for training and advancement. Write a detailed, straightforward job posting that covers all these bases, and consider getting it translated into Spanish. Personally, Roanoke Landscapes has a large Spanish-speaking workforce, and it’s essential that Spanish speaking populations can keep up with our job postings.

Do a Team Interview

When a promising candidate comes in for an interview, consider having more than just one team member involved in the interview process. It’s essential that the business owner or hiring manager feels confident about the candidate, but it is equally as essential that the candidate can mesh well with other employees. Plus, each team member can offer a unique perspective on what the job actually requires, and they may be able to ask the candidate pointed questions that further refine the hiring process. This is why many landscaping companies will do an initial, one-on-one interview, and then invite especially qualified candidates back for a second group interview.

Offer Employee Incentives

There’s no better way to attract great employees than by being an employee-focused company. Simply put, good people like to work for businesses that care about their happiness and welfare, and they stay employed at businesses that give them ample opportunities for advancement. At Roanoke Landscapes, we attract and keep good employees by offering higher salaries than other area businesses, opportunities for continued education and paid training, paid time off and holidays, and health insurance packages. We also try to support our employees’ work/life balance by limiting weekend work and long-distance travel. In return, our employees produce award-winning work, and most stay employed at the company for years—a rare feat in the landscaping industry.

 

Without our employees, our company and the proud legacy we’ve created would cease to exist. So we care deeply about hiring the right people and giving them every incentive to continue working as a part of our team. The hiring process can be exhausting and fruitless, but, when done correctly, it serves as the backbone of our business—where we find the best employees, and where the best employees find us. It’s a process worth perfecting, and one that every landscaping company should approach thoughtfully.

Winter Gardening Projects for Kids

Gardening in the winter—especially when the weather takes a spring-like turn, like it has in many parts of The Southern United States today—is a great way to stay active during an otherwise sedentary season. If you have kids, you know that children are especially vulnerable to feeling “walled in” by cold, dreary weather. For them, working in the garden is an opportunity to expend energy, learn new skills, develop an appreciation for healthy food, and kick start their scientific aptitude. Even when there’s snow on the ground, there are still plenty of kid-friendly gardening chores and lessons that can be completed indoors. Here are a few ideas:

Child Gardening

Kids have always loved gardening!

Water Glass Projects

You can grow an impressive variety of plants and vegetables out of a simple water glass—no soil or fertilizer required! These projects are easy and the transparency of the water allows kids to see the way roots form and buds sprout in real time. You can grow an avocado by sticking four toothpicks around the edge of a seed and suspending it in a glass of water with the round end of the seed pointed down. Change the water every couple of days until roots start to fill the glass.

You can also grow sweet potato vines in glass of water. Suspend a sweet potato in a jar half-filled with water, so that the water hits the very top of the sweet potato. Refill the water every couple days, and eventually a vine will start to sprout.

Make Bird Feeders

Though not much grows this time of year, plenty of native birds are still around scouring winter landscapes for food. Native birds are an integral part of garden ecosystems—some act as essential pollinators and others eat harmful pests. Kids who are interested in learning more about what birds contribute to gardens can make simple bird feeders and hang them up around their yards. There are a number of designs that work well, but one of the most effective is also one of the simplest: roll a pine cone in peanut butter and bird seed, and then attach the end of the cone to a string and hang from a tree or shrub. Beware: birds love this treat, but so do other animals. These homemade feeders have even been known to attract bears!

Start Spring Gardens Indoors

Many gardeners start working on their spring gardens long before the vernal equinox. Planning a garden in advance can be an important lesson in time management and organization. Start by including your kids in the seed-choosing process. Let them look through seed catalogues and help them plan out which plants should go where. After you’ve bought the seeds, start them off in indoor containers kept under lamps or in a well-lit windowsill. Together, you and your kids can water the seeds and measure growth week by week, until it’s time to replant them in the ground come spring.