Sharp Mower Blades = Healthy Grass

Keeping your mower blades sharp is the key to a healthy lawn so do yourself a favor and make sure your blades are sharp. How do you check? The most obvious way is to examine the blade itself. While you’re at it, check for any significant chips or dents. Inconsistencies like these end up tearing and damaging your grass instead of providing a nice clean cut. You can also look for unevenness in your yard. If you had to go over it several times to get spots you “missed” then your blades are probably dull. Want another way to check for dull blades? Don’t check the blades on the mower, check the blades of grass.

 

Image by Aaron Patton of Lawn Joule, Inc.

A – This is what a leaf blade should look like when you get done mowing. A clean cut across the top without any white tissue.

B – This blade of grass has been hacked at by a dull mower blade. You’ll notice a line of discoloration.

C – Starting to see a more defined white fiber top? It’s time to sharpen your mower blades.

D – There’s no way around this one, those blades are dull. Wiry fibrous tissue coming from the top of the grass indicates that those mower blades need sharpening ASAP.

 

If you have grass blades like the one labeled “A”, then you get an A+. If your grass blades look anything like B, C and D then you need to sharpen up. Dull blades don’t only make your lawn look bad or uneven, they can do a lot worse. When you’re hacking at your grass and pulling instead of cutting it effects the overall health of your grass. This can lead to discoloration, water loss, lawn disease, or even dead grass.

It’s recommended that you sharpen blades after 10 hours of mowing. Sharp mower blades leave your grass healthy and even, allowing the individual grass blades to recover more easily. This reduces the risk of parasites or diseases infiltrating your lawn.  Sharper blades also make for a quicker and easier mow, and less stress on your lawnmower’s engine. It’s really as simple as that; your lawn mower will last longer, your grass will look/feel better, and you’ll spend less time mowing. So what are you waiting for? Get to sharpening!

 

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Gardening Zones in the Valley

If you want a successful garden it all depends on where you live. Yes, you have to give your plants the right amount of attention, nutrients, water and love, but your geographical location is paramount to a bountiful harvest. The map below is how gardeners determine which plants are most likely to thrive in a particular area. The USDA Plant Hardiness Map sorts the entire United States into zones based on average temperature. As you can see, Virginia is made up of several different zones. This might explain why your friend is growing the best vegetables of his or her life while you’re having no luck. It isn’t because you lack a green thumb, it’s most likely because of your location.

 

 

Want a closer look? The USDA has an interactive map available that provides an in-depth view of the entire United States. Use it to find your road and to get a better understanding of how different some areas can be. Just enter your zip code or click on an area and zoom in. Roanoke is made up of four different zones; 6a, 6b, 7a and 7b.

To view the map click here.

Zones 6 and 7 are both pretty ideal for gardeners and both have a medium length growing season; Zone 6 is May 1st to November 1st and Zone 7 is April 15th to November 15th. Note: These are estimated dates based on the last and first frosts and it’s important to watch the weather before planting. Starting seeds indoors before the last frost date will give you a jump-start on the season. Knowing when to transplant those seeds outdoors is crucial for a good harvest and will vary depending on what you plan to grow. Below are planting schedules for common vegetables in both zones and as you can see they are very similar.

 

 

Above is the recommended planting schedule for Zone 6 and below is the recommended schedule for Zone 7. Location and time play equally  important roles in having a good gardening season. Know your zone, know when to plant, and nobody will have better vegetables than you!

 

Identify the Birds in Your Yard

The Audubon society has been the go-to organization for bird lovers and conservationists for over a century, and their website is no exception. Its gorgeous photos and team of talented writers never disappoint. They’ve compiled a list of the fifteen most common birds you might encounter in your backyard. Get to know the whole gang here or scroll down for three of our favorites.

 

 

The Blue Jay:

The Blue Jay is a personal favorite, but an undoubtedly beautiful bird in the eyes of anyone. Just look at those feathers! It can be seen flying around yards in most of the eastern states and can be identified not only by its colorful blue hues but by its loud calls; it’s one of the loudest jays (if not THE loudest). The Blue Jay is regarded as somewhat of a feeder bully and will try to scare the other birds away from food, although sometimes with mixed results.

 

 

European Starling:

If you walk outside there’s a good chance you’ll spot a European Starling as they tend to be everywhere. Introduced to the United States, these medium-sized birds can be identified by their spiky yellow tipped beak and their dark green and blue feathers that have an oily-appearance. They are usually seen traveling in huge flocks late in the year and have a squeaky almost metallic call.

 

 

House Sparrow:

If you don’t happen to spot a starling, then I’d bet money you’ll see a House Sparrow. The sparrow is about the most common bird you will see in any yard, any state. They thrive around humans, making their homes in hedges and foraging for food around sidewalks and parks. The sparrow likes to travel in packs and comes in a variety of colors; the most common have brown backs, gray chests, and a black patch covering the chin.

Creating an Edible Landscape

If you’re thinking of upgrading the plants around your property consider making them look “good enough to eat”; literally. Edible landscaping is a great way to add character to a property while also providing fresh fruits and herbs for your kitchen. You can achieve the look you want, while also creating multi-functional spaces. For example, strawberries make an excellent edging plant and also work as good groundcover. Not to mention they’re delicious and add a pop of color to any landscape; their little pops of strawberries, russet colored leaves in the fall, and those pretty white flowers during spring. If strawberries aren’t your thing, there are a plethora of other edible ideas to choose from. We highlight a few of our favorites below.

 

 

 

Grapevines:

Oh, the grapevine. Vines in general add so much character to an outdoor living area, and grapevines are by far my favorite form of “edible landscaping”. They are absolutely beautiful. Try growing two of these up and over an arbor to create a truly stunning walkway. You can also grow these up a wall by creating a wooden ladder feature or other means for the vine to latch onto. Grapevines grow incredibly fast and because of that they need some help finding which direction to grow. Be sure to lightly tie off the vines to your arbor or wall feature to ensure they keep growing in the right direction. The clusters of grapes are quite heavy on the vine so it’s important to help alleviate some of this weight to avoid drooping, bending, or breaking. When you aren’t harvesting the grapes, the leaves can be used to top salads or to serve as a plate decoration.

 


Chives:

Chives are not only good in a homemade potato soup or finely chopped and tossed in a salad; they are actually a pretty effective edging plant. Their playful long green foliage creates a great look when planted in rows around the perimeter of a home, and their ball-like purple flowers allow them to blend in with (and enhance) any flower bed. But chives don’t have to blend in with the crowd. They’re beautiful by themselves and are an excellent potted plant option. You’ll want to cut this perennial at the base, about an inch above the soil, when harvesting.

 

 

Blueberries and Raspberries

We briefly mentioned strawberries above, but blueberries and raspberries are also among our favorite forms of edible landscaping. They provide so many uses in the kitchen, from shakes to desserts, and are also good when freshly picked and eaten all by themselves. Berries are moderately shade-tolerant and will do just fine if tucked away close to the house or in the corner of a property. If you don’t want these plants out of sight, make them the focal point of your landscape. Both the blueberry and raspberry plant can function as decorative shrubs; plant them in a dense line to create a nice fruit-bearing hedge.

 

 

 

 

Air-Purifying Plants Approved by NASA

Of course we all like to enjoy the flowers and bask in the sun during the summer months but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just too hot outside (these past couple of days especially). But that doesn’t mean we have to be completely void of the plants and flowers. Air-condition lovers fear not, for there is a solution to have the best of both worlds; houseplants. That’s right, houseplants, but not just any old plant; I’m talking about air-purifying houseplants. Studies show that certain plants are effective at removing benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia from the air—chemicals that have been linked to health effects like headaches and eye irritation. And who did the study you ask? None other than NASA.

As technology increased, interest in space exploration increased, and a domino effect of tests followed. One of the obstacles that scientists tried to overcome was purifying the air in confined spaces. There is no “outdoors” in space; well there is but you go outdoors there and you’re dead… So to keep the air safe, and the people in the air safe, NASA begin experimenting with plants. After years of research they compiled a really eye-catching infographic; listing toxins that each plant actively filters out of the air, pictures, and the health benefits or risks of each toxin or plant, respectively. Pretty neat stuff. NASA suggests having at least one purifying plant per 100 square feet of home or office space. We spend the majority of our time indoors, and if you’re going to condition your air, why not purify it as well? Check out the infographic below and start equipping your indoor spaces today!

 

infographic by NASA.

Flood-Resistant Landscaping

In the past few weeks, a tropical disturbance that originated in the Gulf of Mexico has dropped many consecutive inches of rain on cities across the East Coast. As a result, hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and several people lost their lives. Here in Roanoke, massive flooding shut down roads, felled power lines, and swept cars off the street. Needless to say, water has immense destructive potential, and the exterior features of a home—landscapes and hardscapes—are often most vulnerable to damage. During this past flood, one of our client’s witnessed a waterfall of flood water and debris pour over a retaining wall we recently installed into her back yard. The retaining wall survived the onslaught (thanks to the outstanding craftsmanship of our crew) but the rest of her yard was, unfortunately, crippled.

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Why Use Battery-Powered Lawn Tools?

Battery-powered lawn tools are becoming more and more popular among homeowners nowadays, and for good reason; the technology has come a long way over the years. Not only have the tools become more efficient, the price gap between battery-powered and gas-powered equipment is significantly smaller. Where battery-powered equipment was once way overpriced and under-powered, advancements in technology have helped make battery-powered lawn tools more affordable and surprisingly powerful.

 

Husqvarna Battery-powered tools

photo from Husqvarna.

They may be slightly pricier machines, and (depending on the scope of work) the extra batteries needed are an expensive up-front cost, but keep in mind when you purchase battery-powered tools you are making an investment. Unlike their gas powered counterparts, battery-powered tools require very little upkeep; there’s no routine engine maintenance and no additional costs for oil, filters, and fuel. The batteries will last several years and the tools themselves tend to be of higher quality. In the long run, battery-powered tools are the better value.

But value isn’t the only thing to consider when purchasing battery-powered tools, there are many other advantages. For one, they don’t produce emissions or harmful fumes, which is a great choice for those environmentally conscious home-owners. They are also much quieter when operating and produce less vibrations. This is good for your ears and for keeping your neighbors happy; hearing someone next door use the weed-eater for an hour is never a pleasant experience. The reduced vibrations also allow for more precision and overall easier handling.

As much as I want to encourage you to buy battery-powered tools, they aren’t for everyone and there are a few factors to consider. How often are you going to use your tools? Battery-powered tools are good for homeowners performing regular maintenance, but if you are only using these tools every other week then the gas-powered ones will suffice.  Another factor is the run time of a charged battery; each usually last for around 45 minutes to an hour. Unless you have purchased an excess of batteries (and chargers), this will be an issue to those with larger lawn care needs.

What projects will you be undertaking? Although battery-powered tools have come a long way in terms of power they still don’t pack the punch of a gas-powered engine. They are close, but as the battery loses power so too will the tool (to some extent); making those leaf-blowing days a bit less satisfying or successful. If you are planning on using your lawn tools often and for smaller projects, consider the variety of battery-powered options available. These tools aren’t only the future, they are the now, and they’re getting better and better every year.

Create an Indoor Herb Garden

An indoor herb garden is the perfect addition to any kitchen. Not only are the spices fresh, sustainable, and readily available, an herb garden will literally “spice” up any countertop or windowsill space if done right. They require very little maintenance, don’t take up too much space, and most herbs are ready to harvest in as little as 2-3 weeks. So what are you waiting for? Start an herb garden today!

 

photo by flickr user Nuwandalice.

Choose your Herbs

You can start your herbs straight from the seed or purchase small plants from a local nursery. Good choices for herbs include dill, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Another option is microgreens; small fast growing greens like arugula, cilantro, radish, and basil. These are a healthy addition to any meal, whether topped on a burger or mixed in a salad, and can be snipped within 2-3 weeks. Better Homes and Gardens has a great how-to on microgreen gardens here.

Pick your Containers

Get creative! An indoor herb garden is both practical and aesthetically pleasing if you pick the right containers. They will give your countertop some character or bring a dull windowsill to life. Use individual containers for each herb to ensure each has the right amount of nutrients it needs. Pick containers with drainage holes that will rest on waterproof saucers or one big waterproof platform. Choose a location that allows for at least 4 hours of sunlight a day or equip your indoor garden with grow lights. The indoor air can be dry so choose a moisture retentive potting soil and be sure to keep a spray bottle nearby; spritzing often.

 

photo by BHG.

Harvest and Enjoy!

Be sure to store harvested herbs in a cool place and in an air-tight container. If you happen to cut off a little too much, the excess will keep in the fridge for about a week. Most herbs take very little time to grow and an even shorter time to grow back. To restore nutrients in your soil be sure to add all-purpose plant fertilizer to each container once or twice a month. Now that you’ve learned some tips about indoor herb gardens it’s time to enjoy all the fresh herbs and spices!

Escape the Heat with Shade Trees

photo by Kat on flickr.

It’s that time of year again and the days are warming up! Although we’ve had a fair amount of rain in the past couple of weeks, there are easier ways to cool off. Try planting shade trees for a permanent solution to those hot summer days. Shade trees not only provide a retreat from the heat, they offer homeowners privacy and increase property value by up to 15%. Most want to go straight for the traditional Maple or Oak, but when choosing a tree there are a few factors to consider.

It’s no secret that larger trees with big bountiful leaves provide the most shade, but it comes at a cost. A temporary escape from the heat for us turns out to be a permanent life in the shadows for others. Plants and grass will have a hard time growing in an area void of sunlight. Consider mulching below the tree or choosing one with smaller leaves. These trees still provide shade while allowing filtered sunlight to the vegetation below. Another benefit of the smaller lighter leaves is their tendency to blow away in the fall. We’ve highlighted two of our favorites below.

 

photo by Geneva Wirth on flickr.

Thornless Honey Locust

The thornless honey locust is a fast growing tree most known for its small rounded leaflets. The leaves are a beautiful bright green during spring and summer and transform into a vibrant yellow in the fall. No need for a rake, those yellow leaves will fall off and shrivel up to almost nothing; carried away by the slightest breeze. The thornless honey locust grows 40 to 60 feet tall and wide with branches starting at 5 to 15 feet above the ground. When fully mature, the tree takes on a rounded or oval shape and tends to flatten out on top.

 

photo by sparkleice on flickr.

River Birch

The river birch is another relatively fast growing shade tree identified by its unique curling bark. When young the bark is a silvery white-gray and will slowly change to pink, reddish-brown or black over time. The leaves are a jagged green teardrop that turn yellow in the fall. In the winter and spring the river birch will produce flowers, and in the summer it produces cones. A mature river birch will typically be anywhere between 40 and 70 feet tall, although some grow up to 90 feet.

 

P.S.

Let’s not be selfish! These trees don’t have to exclusively provide shade to us, but they can provide for our homes as well. Some are reluctant to place trees close to their house, but with risk comes reward. Strategically placing trees around a home is a natural way to cool down our living spaces and saves on utilities; those with shaded homes cut down on air-conditioning costs by 50%. Use trees around the home to create a layer of privacy or to mask any unappealing views from sight. So what are you waiting for? Let your shade trees start spreading their roots today.

 

Get Your Child Gardening

photo by Chiot’s Run on flickr.

Gardening, quite literally, gives children the perfect platform to grow. They get to experience responsibility, a sense of ownership, and the excitement of seeing a tiny seed transform. Spending time in the garden is an opportunity to soak up the sun and a great introduction to the “magic” of nature; something our little ones will learn to know and love. Grow vegetables, plant flowers, plant trees, there’s really no limits. Let their curiosities run wild. Gardening with children is a win-win, you’re spending quality time together and also producing healthy homegrown vegetables or beautiful flowers to enhance a landscape. Here are a few tips to help you and the kiddos get started.

Give Them Their Own Space

Whether it’s a spot in the garden or their own separate bed, it’s essential to give kids their own space to grow. They can help you in the “adult” garden all they want, but be sure to dedicate an area that they can have all to their self; it’s crucial to a child’s development. This gives children a sense of responsibility and also sparks their creativity. It gives them the freedom to experiment. A separate gardening space teaches children independence and gives them that feeling of being a “big kid”. Repurpose an old sandbox or place a stake in a section of the garden. Be sure to clearly label their area and emphasize ownership!

Choose Plants that Grow Fast

This is a big one. Children want to see results! Checking their little garden each day is what makes gardening fun for kids; watching seeds sprout, flowers bloom, and new plants take shape. It’s important to have things happening in the garden otherwise kids become disinterested. If they are just starting out, make sure to plant vegetables or flowers that will sprout up quick. Sunflowers are a must for young gardeners; try planting one, or two so the first can have a friend. Sunflowers sprout within a week and grow to 2 feet tall in a month’s time. Radishes are another plant for quick results. Although not typically tasty to the younger ones, radishes have a very short growing season; after 20-30 days they are ready for harvest. Another good crop for children are potatoes. They’re an easy and “fail-proof” option as they tend to grow under almost any conditions. Red potatoes will mature faster than white and are ready to pull from the ground when the plant collapses. Try cherry tomatoes to offer some variety in preparation. Place 2’ stakes beside each seedling and let your children watch them climb to the top. The growing season is about 50-75 days and lightly tying the vines to the stakes will keep them headed upwards. Lastly, and certainly nonetheless essential, is the coveted pumpkin. A staple for any child’s garden, the pumpkin seed will sprout in a week and are ready to pick and carve in 80-120 days.

Help Out Behind the Scenes

Gardening is a big responsibility for our children and its okay to give them some help when they aren’t around. This will keep them interested, keep their plants healthy, and keep them happy to see their plants doing well. Tending to a garden is not always glorious and the last thing you want is for gardening to feel like a chore. Add some extra water or prune flowers and weeds where needed to ensure the garden maintains its “magic” factor and your kids remain engaged. If your seedlings are having trouble, consider changing up the soil or adding more compost or fertilizer. If all else fails, visit your local nursery and buy plants that have already sprouted. Take your young gardeners so they can see all the different varieties of plants and pick their favorites.

Mix Education with Fun

Watching plants grow and getting their little hands dirty is not only a fun experience for children but it also provides opportunity for education. Teaching kids how to be sustainable and grow their own food is something they can utilize for a lifetime. Experiment with different types of vegetables and flowers to see what really sparks their interest.  Use gardening as a stepping stone to other aspects of nature. Visit a local farmer’s market to see what others are growing, or even sell vegetables of your own. Take them on a hike and stop to see the wild flowers or plants. Do anything to get them excited about the outdoors. As for the slightly older kids, harvesting crops is a great time to educate them with aspects of cooking; a way for them to see out the entire process from seed to table. No matter which route you choose, get your children outside and start gardening today!