Leaving Leaves Be


The end of the growing season is one of the most beautiful times of year in the northwest.  The sun typically sticks around for a while even as daytime air temperatures are cooling, resulting in foggy mornings and dewy spider webs.  As day length decreases, deciduous trees and shrubs begin pulling starches and sugars out of their leaves and store all of that energy in stems and roots for the next season.  As this occurs, chlorophyll production slows and the resulting oranges, reds, and yellows of the trace pigments and minerals that are left behind start to show.  Finally, the leaves fall to the ground where nature intends them to help create deeper, healthier soils as they decompose.

If we move the setting from a native forest to an urban landscape appearance safety concerns begin to impact the natural process.  Our landscape contractors come in to rake, blow, and vacuum leaves up, struggling against fall rains and a variety of tree species, some of which give their leaves up grudgingly over a long period of time. All of this is done to make our landscapes look manicured and free from “slip and fall” hazards.  This is a work-intensive process often resulting in increased waste, transportation, and fossil fuel usage. By removing the leaves we halt the natural decomposing cycle.

While removing leaves from hard surfaces such as sidewalks and parking lots will remain a critical part of effective risk reduction and property management, aesthetic expectations are evolving in regards to the rest of the landscape.  For evidence of this, type “leaf mulch” into your internet browser. It will result in pages of articles, research, and success stories encouraging you to simply leave leaves be! This is not just a homeowner trend, commercial and municipal property managers are finding greater acceptance for a different aesthetic from their tenants and communities who increasingly embrace sustainability.

Trees source mineral elements from the soil, some of which remain in leaves when they drop. Chief among these elements is carbon, which balances nitrogen in the soil and provides a food source to many different decomposers vital to the nutrient cycle.  As leaves break down they release a complex of acids, collectively called humic acid, that help form soil colloids, relieve compaction, and aid in moisture retention. Further, leaves as a mulch on the surface will insulate the soil, protecting tender plants from the cold and help suppress weed seed germination.

There are several ways to employ leaf mulch on a site in the fall. After leaves are blown off of hard surfaces a contractor can mow leaf-covered turf areas with a mulch mower, chopping leaves up and mixing them with grass clippings. This mixture will break down faster than leaves alone since the nitrogen in the grass clippings will excite microbial activity. As with regular mulch mowing, try to avoid leaving large clumps on the surface that can smother underlying grass.

In beds, whole leaves can often be left in less visible areas such as under and around large shrub, tree plantings, and in remote areas where aesthetics are not critical. In areas of higher visibility where this may not be acceptable, consider re-applying partially processed leaves that have been diced through a commercial leaf-vacuum. Another alternative may be on-site composting which can produce an even more refined product with the help of a contractor.

Whatever methods are employed regarding leaves this fall, stay focused on the idea of closing the loop of the nutrient cycle and keep leaves on site.







Enhancing Your Soil

soil in hand

Soil Building: How it Helps the Environment and Your Wallet

Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to get lost in the beauty of the landscape. The trees and forests that we admire so much are there thanks to rich soil that makes the shrubbery healthy and strong. So why do people have to work so hard and spend so much money on constructed landscape environments to achieve the same effect? It is because there is too much focus on the beauty of the plants and not enough on the foundation. Here are some tips on how to keep soil healthy and the landscape beautiful.

Shallow Development for Soil is an Issue

Since soil is the foundation for any site in landscaping, it is important to understand how to set it up to create a healthy landscape. Built environment usually has very shallow, biologically inactive, manufactured topsoil layered over compacted fill. The interface between these layers is distinct and prevents deep rooting and free drainage for water. These soils do not allow the water to be fully absorbed before saturating what is underneath, which is not optimal for plants trying to grow from that soil. To thrive, plants need equal amounts of air and water in their root zones. An excess of water can lead to asphyxiation of roots and increase the potential for compaction or erosion of soil structure.

Natural soils have biologically active flora and fauna that feed on forest litter and produce exudates and nutrients. These exudates and nutrients feed plant material and enhance healthy soil structure.  While manufactured soils are usually biologically inactive and thus require heavy amounts of plant-available nutrition from fertilizer. Landscapers use synthetic fertilizer because it can be engineered to release over a long period, which produces product and labor costs. However, synthetic fertilizers bypass the natural degradation process that feeds soil microorganisms and therefore do not promote their development. By skipping the degradation process, the soil microorganisms become severely dehydrated due to the salts and sulfur in the soil.

A Deeply Rooted Problem

It is best to address shallow soil issues during construction. Most municipalities are changing their building codes to enforce developers to remove, stockpile, and properly install biologically active native soils on new sites. This will develop deeper soil profiles to prevent interface problems. For more information on this building code, please see City of Seattle, Client Assistance Memo 531.

Since these standards are relatively new and are not universally applied to all jurisdictions, most are left with unnecessary long-term maintenance expenses. Wholesale renovation of existing landscapes afflicted by shallow soil issues can be successful, but costly. If the issue is left alone, most landscape contractors treat the symptoms of the problem (poor plant health, plant mortality, and drainage issues) perpetually. To prevent this, partner with the landscape contractor to treat the cause.

Addressing the Issue with the Landscape Contractor

If the landscape contractor is confused when asked for help in treating the cause of the soil problems, hire a more knowledgeable contractor. This may cost a bit more, but a strong partnership can add asset value, reduce risk on the property, and save money in the long term.

Shallow Soil Solutions

A soil core test or digging a small test hole can tell a lot about the location and severity of the topsoil-subsoil interface and their textural qualities. Shallow interfaces have “perched” water tables, which can be improved through aeration in combination with adding soil amendments (also known as topdressing). Aeration breads up compaction, increases rooting depth, and aids water infiltration. Topdressing after aeration allows for subtle changes in soil texture, an addition of organic content when necessary, and an introduction of soil flora and fauna. When aeration and topdressing become part of a regular maintenance regime, a significant impact will take place over time.

Sustainable maintenance practices that rely on organic fertilizer, pH management, prescriptive use of pesticides under an IPM program, and carefully managed irrigation practices can create a balance that resembles a natural system. When this happens, the landscape will require less supplemental fertilizer, water, and pesticide usage, which makes these strategies economically feasible and environmentally sound.

A New Green Ideal


Green landscaping can perhaps best be described by a holistic system in which all component parts are healthy and contribute to the whole environment.  Understanding what the component parts are and how they interact is at the heart of the sustainable movement.  Let’s take a look at a balanced, “green” system and discuss a few of the key features in order to understand the practical, social and economic aspects of the new green ideal.

Natural systems are inherently self sustaining where the total needs of plants, insects, animals etc. are met by the available food, water and air of their environment.  If the resources don’t exist for a particular species then that species will not exist there either.  In the case of plants, the natural soil supplies support,  nutrients, air and water to plant roots through a complex web that depends on soil structure, pore space for air and water and micro-organisms, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and others, collectively called soil biota, to digest raw inputs such as dead plant material and leaves.

As managers of constructed sites we typically work with landscapes made up of plants that would not normally exist in that environment given the commonly unhealthy soils, poor drainage, air pollution, reflected light and so on.    In response we have gotten very good at supplementing these unnatural systems with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers which prevent the eventual formation of natural systems.

Synthetic fertilizers don’t need to be decomposed by soil biota before a plant can use them and in fact synthetics often contain sulfur, salts and other petroleum distillates that kill or discourage soil biota.  They are akin to an intravenous feeding tube used on patients in a hospital in that the food no longer needs to be digested in the stomach to feed the body.  When used in perpetuity, the stomach, or soil, ceases to function and a whole host of other problems arise.  Soil structure breaks down, reducing pore space.  Plant roots, which require both air and water in equal measure, suffocate and rot and the plant dies.  Pesticides have a similar effect on soil health and can bring an added detriment to non-target, beneficial organisms as well.

Instead, our efforts need to be focused on transitioning these challenging conditions to a more natural system.  This is often very challenging in urban environments since a wholesale renovation of the landscape, required to completely change the soil and plant species, is often too costly or impractical.  More practical methods such as mulching with organic products and compost, soil testing and incorporation of natural nutrient sources and compost tea applications to re-inoculate soils with biota require patience and a measure of tolerance for changes in the overall aesthetic.

Social tolerance is not a subject that should be taken lightly.  In fact, it’s often the primary reason people begin to think about going green in the first place as it becomes more and more taboo to use synthetic management techniques.  But Social norms can also be the fastest way to derail a transition to green management.  Traditional images of dark green grass, zero weeds and full, blooming plants define our ideal but they’re not necessarily realistic in an organic landscape, especially one in transition.  Your customers and tenants need to be adequately prepared to tolerate some weeds in the landscape, some plant material may suffer and die from insect or disease problems, bloom strength on shrubs may be reduced and turfgrasses will be a lighter shade of green.  If they understand this and understand that their previous ideal was not sustainable or healthy you will run into less opposition and frustration during your transition to the new green ideal.  Failure to do this may result in pressure to revert to dependency on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or force you to spend more money on labor and materials to overcome weeds and incorporate more organic nutrient sources.

A qualified horticultural consultant or high quality landscape maintenance contractor can help with the practical, social and economic aspects of transitioning your landscape to green and managing with organic principles.


Play Up Your Color

Seasonal color

A splash of seasonal color is an easy way to spruce up any landscape. Whether you install the plants yourself or hire a professional company, there are a few guidelines to follow for successful, long lasting flower displays.

There are several factors to consider when designing an annual garden bed or container beyond the color of the flowers, texture, and scale. Location, soil conditions, availability of a water source and the presence of slugs, rabbits and/or deer in the planting area determines the type of plants that could be planted there.

Location: Consider visibility when choosing a location. Containers at front entries, back decks, pools, and patios add a welcoming feel. While in-ground displays at entries and driveways guide the eye toward the building.

Is the area for the plants in the sun or shade? All plants bloom better when exposed to at least 4 hours of sunlight. A hot, dry, full sun area along the edge of pavement or in front of a south facing wall will quickly dry out the ground and plants. These sunny areas can still have plants, one just needs to be mindful of the plant selection.

Soil:  Without well-prepared soil, the plants will not thrive. All gardens benefit from the incorporation of organic matter to help improve soil texture, tilth, aeration, and drainage. The garden will need approximately 3-4 inches of organic matter tilled into the top 6-8 inches of soil.  The area should also be fertilized using a general all-purpose fertilizer such as 10-10-10, at a rate of 1 ½ – 2 pounds per 100 square feet of garden bed. After working all of the material into the bed, rake the area level and the soil is ready for plants.

Selecting plants: Consider sun or shade requirements, color combinations, and eventual height and width specifications of the desired plants. Tallest plants are usually best placed in the back of the display and stair-step down to the lowest in front. For further assistance on plant selection please refer to this guide to annuals.

Bedding plants are sold in a variety of ways. Whether it’s packs, individual 4” pots, or 1 gallon containers, make sure the foliage is bright green, not faded yellow or scorched bronze or brown. The sturdiest plants will be compact, with short stretches of stem between sets of leaves. A lanky, skinny plant is weaker and less desirable than a short, stocky one. The best way to judge root quality is to pop the plant out of its container and check to see how matted the roots have become. Ideal roots will have filled out the container without growing cramped.

Planting:  There is no rush to plant too soon. Most annuals prefer warm soils and stable temperatures to grow well. Summer annuals can be planted around Mother’s Day, while fall annuals are usually planted around mid-September while the soil is still warm enough for the pansies to get a good start before the cold weather moves in.

When ready to plant, water the plants while they are still in their containers. This helps keep the soil around the roots when they are lifted from their pots. If the roots are extremely compacted, loosen the roots slightly by breaking the soil ball apart.

Set the plants at the same level or slightly lower than how they were in the container. Once in the soil, carefully firm the soil around the plants.

Watering: After planting the annuals, be sure to water them deeply. Deep watering is preferred over light watering because it promotes deep root systems. Automatic sprinkler systems are ideal, as they save time and money.

If the annuals are planted under trees or near large shrubs be aware that they pull large quantities of moisture from the surrounding soil. Therefore, annuals planted near or under them need more frequent watering than those not planted near large shrubbery.

Grooming & weeding:  Many annuals require ‘deadheading’ on a regular basis to allow the plant to produce more flowers. Remove the spent flowers before they go to seed and remove all weeds so they do not compete for space and nutrients in the bed.

Smart Irrigation Month

Smart Irrigation

Irrigation is critical for a healthy landscape. It allows the landscape to be healthy and maintain its natural beauty. However, when irrigation is not used properly it can waste a lot of money and resources.

By adopting different practices and switching to newer technology, one can save on money and water. “Water-wise” practices are beneficial for not only the landscaper, but for the whole community surrounding it. The Irrigation Association has deemed July Smart Irrigation Month to spread awareness on practices that save water.

The following are ten water saving tips adapted by the Irrigation Association to promote water-wise habits:

1. Change the watering schedule for weather and season

     Get to know the settings on the irrigation controller and adjust the watering schedule to best support the landscape. For example, there is no need to keep the irrigation on when it is raining outside. The grass, plants, and landscape will get plenty of water thanks to the rain.

2. Schedule each individual zone in the irrigation system

Scheduling refers to the type of sprinkler, sun or shade exposure, or the soil type in a specific area. The same watering schedule will not apply to all areas. For example, places with sun will need more water than places in the shade. By customizing each zone with its irrigation regime, money and water will be saved.

3. Have monthly system inspections

Leaks, broken or clogged heads, and other problems with the irrigation system can lead to wasting water. Check for these or hire a certified irrigation professional to regularly care for the irrigation system. Also, clean micro-irrigation filters when needed.

4. Adjust sprinkler heads

Fix any obstructions that prevent sprinklers from evenly distributing water. This also includes keeping water off pavement or structures. Having a sprinkler hit the drive way, street, or statue is a waste of money and resources.

5. Get a professional system audit

To make sure that areas are being watered evenly, hire a professional to conduct an irrigation audit and uniformity test. This is especially useful for areas that are under-watered or have brown spots. Check out Irrigation Association’s list of IA Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditors to find a professional today.

6. Install “smart” technology

New technology, such as climate or moisture sensor-based controllers, allows for headache free irrigation. These sensor-based controllers can evaluate weather or soil moisture conditions and automatically adjust the irrigation schedule to meet the specific needs of the landscape.         

7. Install a rain shutoff switch

In many states it is required by law to have these money-saving sensors. The sensors turn off the irrigation system in rainy weather and help to compensate for natural rainfall. As a bonus, the device is inexpensive can be retrofitted to almost any system.

8. Low volume drip irrigation for plant beds

Installing micro-irrigation for gardens, trees, and shrubs allows for small amounts of water to sufficiently quench the landscape’s thirst. Micro-irrigation is also known as trickle and includes micro spray jets, micro-sprinklers, and bubbler irrigation to irrigate slowly and minimize evaporation, runoff, and overspray.

9. Water at the right time

Good times to water include when the sun is low or down, winds are calm, and temperatures are cool. The optimal time to water is between the evening and early morning. Watering at these times reduces evaporation, which can result of 30% water loss when watering mid-day.

10Water only when needed

When watering, saturate the root zones and let the soil dry. Watering too much and too frequently results in shallow roots, weed growth, disease, and fungus. If uncertain when to water the plants, touch the soil and see if it is moist. If the soil still feels wet there is no need to water, but if it is dry it is time to water, just wait until the evening!


Jensen, NLS join Monarch Landscape Holdings

Monarch Landscape Holdings acquired two more West Coast landscape companies. The terms of the deals were not disclosed.

San Jose, Calif.-based Jensen Landscape and Woodinville, Wash.-based Northwest Landscape Services(NLS) are now part of the private equity-backed company that entered the market last May with the acquisition of Signature Landscape Services in Redmond, Wash.

Brian Helgoe (3) Brian Helgoe

“I’m honored that landscape firms the caliber of Jensen and NLS have chosen to be a part of Monarch because it validates the partnership we envisioned creating with our equity partner, One Rock Capital Partners,” said Brian Helgoe, CEO of Los Angeles-based Monarch. “Our success in attracting these landscape industry leaders is directly correlated to our platform being closely aligned with their customer-first service values, landscape-based workplace culture and collaborative team approach.”

Helgoe is a ValleyCrest (now BrightView) and McKinsey & Co. alum with more than 20 years of landscape industry experience.

Monarch’s companies have more than $80 million in annual revenue and 1,000-plus employees across four states, according to a news release.

Ultimately, the companies will join under one brand, although a time frame and unifying name are to-be-determined, Helgoe said.

Jensen, which had been employee-owned since 1994, ranked No. 32 on the 2015 LM150 list of the largest landscape companies with $40 million in 2014 revenue.

“We chose to be a part of Monarch because we recognized its leadership group is filled with experienced, front-line landscapers who share our vision and its a work atmosphere that understands and values landscape expertise,” said John Vlay, Jensen’s chairman, CEO and president, who will continue to operate the firm as executive vice president. “We know our customers will appreciate seeing the same people delivering the high level of service they’ve come to expect from Jensen at their properties.”

Jensen wasn’t for sale and wasn’t seeking investors, said Vlay, but a mutual acquaintance connected him with Helgoe more than a year ago.

Once Vlay and other Jensen leaders decided to pursue a sale, they brought on an independent trustee to represent the ESOP, which was the majority owner of the company. The reaction has been positive but there was some surprise, said Vlay of the deal that closed April 1.

“People were surprised because the company has been around for 47 years and run as basically a small, family business,” he said. “They said they didn’t realize we were for sale, and I told them we weren’t for sale. But I think it’s the next great chapter for Jensen and the employees.

“Everything (Helgoe) said connected with me,” Vlay said. “The thing I liked was he understood and was passionate about both maintenance and construction. Usually, people are one or the other.”

NLS, which became part of Monarch on Feb. 12, was owned by Tom DiMeco, Vaughn Weedman and Frank Corzine. DiMeco and Corzine have stayed on as members of the leadership team; Weedman retired.

“The foundation NLS, established as the largest landscape company in the Northwest, serves as a great launching point for our next growth phase under Monarch’s umbrella,” said DiMeco managing partner of NLS, who will assume the role of senior vice president at Monarch. “It is terrific to see our team being warmly welcomed into a family of companies that prides itself on being a great place for landscape professionals to work.”

Crews and managers from both firms are expected to remain in place. The Monarch approach when bringing together companies is to forego many changes initially as it carefully integrates people and practices, the release said.

Monarch said it intends to continue building its West Coast presence with additional partnerships with regional landscape firms with revenue between $10 million and $50 million.

Long-Term Landscape Management Planning

Lind Ave Renton (4)

For many properties the maintenance of landscaping, including associated water costs, is the largest expense in the budget.  Downward economic pressure over the past few years has forced many asset managers into low-bid contracts with a short-term mindset that, while an attractive option at the outset, costs more in the long run.  Conversely, a well-crafted Strategic Plan, created in partnership with a Professional Landscape Management company may identify long-term savings that can be much more significant while increasing asset value.

Landscape Management takes a long-term look at how your landscape will develop over a 5-10 year period and seeks to make adjustments or corrections along the way as a part of a philosophy or Strategic Plan. The consulting, design services and budget preparation involved in a good strategic plan represent real value and often come at no cost from a long-term minded service provider.  A low-bid contractor often can’t provide this value within contract because it requires staffing experienced, educated and certified professionals.

Walk your site and look for opportunities in irrigation, turfgrass, plant selection and placement, drainage and soil conditions and incorporation of sustainable practices.  There are serious cost savings opportunities in all of these areas.  If you need help interpreting any of these issues or suspect you may have other issues that need to be addressed seek the help of a qualified professional.

The benefits of mulch

Installing mulch in landscape beds serves several vital purposes. It protects the root systems of plant material from heat and cold damage, retains moisture and reduces watering needs. Mulch also adds valuable nutrients to the soil, reduces weed germination and creates clean, aesthetically pleasing beds areas which allow plants to stand out. Mulches are typically applied at a 1.5” – 2” depth. They can be installed by hand, or blown in. It is important to make sure mulches do not build up around the trunks of trees and shrubs as this can damage them. bark1

New mulch should be installed every one to three years depending on the needs of your site and budget considerations.

There are a few options for which type of mulch to use. A couple of the more common ones are Fertimulch and Bark. Fertimulch is a darker, finer particle and feeds the soil with nutrients as it decomposes. Bark is a larger and lighter brown or red particle, is typically less expensive and controls weeds a bit better than Fertimulch. Personal preference, budget and the needs of the site will help dictate which type is appropriate for your site.

Performing this service regularly will provide perhaps the single most noticeable difference in the look of a site, as well as providing the additional benefits listed above.


Irrigation is a HOT topic!


Irrigation is a hot topic!  Not only because its spring and the sun is out but also because today’s economy and sustainable mindset drives us to pay attention to budgets and the environment.  Your irrigation system may provide you with the opportunity to address both issues in one neat package.  Here are three tips to pay attention to this spring. 

Master Valve Insurance

Most irrigation systems don’t have a Master Valve which could cost you!  Master valves help insure you against excessive water bills by reducing water pressure during run time and stopping water from escaping during non-run time in the event of a main line break.  Main-lines are constantly under pressure and deliver water to control valves in the field which can be hundreds of feet away from your meter.  By installing a master valve near your meter you reduce the risk of financial loss due to failure at every glue joint, every run of pipe adjacent vehicle traffic, sign posts, etc.  Master valves can be installed on most systems with compatible, adjacent clocks for less than $800.

Consider “Smart” Technology

Climate or soil moisture sensor-based irrigation controllers evaluate weather or soil moisture conditions and then automatically adjust the irrigation schedule to meet the specific needs of your landscape.  This water saving technology goes several steps further than a rain sensor by measuring Evapotranspiration (ET) and rainfall and adjusting the amount of water that is applied every cycle saving you money. Studies have shown “smart” controllers save on average 30% over conventional controllers.


Turf Aeration

Promotes a lush, healthy and drought resistant lawn by relieving soil compaction and allowing fertilizers, water and oxygen better access to turf roots. The resultant increase in soil microbes helps break down thatch naturally.


Wet turf areas, mole holes and exposed roots all present hazards and reduced usability for lawns. Topdressing is a great service for these problem areas!  The process of applying organic soil, sand, or a mix of the two to the surface of turf helps firm up the ground for ease of use and reduction of rutting.

This is particularly effective when performed in conjunction with aeration as some of the soil mix falls into the aeration holes to help alter the soil structure. Some of the many benefits of topdressing are:

  • Helps control thatch
  • Provides nutrients
  • Helps the soil retain and release nutrients
  • Helps suppress disease-causing bacteria and fungi and insects
  • Improves the turf root system
  • Stimulates microbiological activity
  • Neutralizes the PH of the soil
  • Helps the soil structure in retaining water
  • Helps repair damages caused by winter or drought, insects
  • Improves poor turf density

Commercial Lanscaping Maintenance

Turf Aeration and Topdressing create greater sustainability in your landscape by promoting the reduction of fertilizer, pesticides and water use while actually improving the look of turf.